Fox Byte 5775 #5: Chayei Sarah (Life of Sarah)
J.R.R. Tolkien’s works had secured for him a lasting place among the giants of English literature long before Peter Jackson ever brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Middle Earth, with its Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, and Wizards, serves as the backdrop for a profound tale about our humanness – what it means, and what we would like it to mean. We would like to see ourselves, for example, as high and noble, like the Elves or the Men of Gondor. Tolkien expresses this nobility in many subplots, not the least being the saga of the Stewards of Gondor. We learn about them from Faramir, son of Denethor, the current Steward:
We of my house are not of the line of [King] Elendil, though the blood of Númenor is in us. For we reckon back our line to Mardil, the good steward, who ruled in the king’s stead when he went away to war. And that was King Eärnur, last of the line of Anárion, and childless, and he came never back. And the stewards have governed the city since that day, though it was many generations of Men ago. (The Two Towers, Book IV, “The Window On the West”)
Faramir relates how his older brother, Boromir, could not understand why his father had not claimed the throne. He had asked, “How many hundreds of years needs it to make a steward a king, if the king returns not?” To this his father replied, “Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty . . . In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice.”
It is here that we must question Tolkien’s grasp on reality. He describes a degree of nobility and selfless honor that transcends generations. It is remarkable for one person to lay aside his or her own interests to guard a place of higher power, wealth, and prestige for someone else. How could such selflessness be passed down from one generation to the next, knowing that at some point the supreme authority would have to be handed over to someone else?
And yet that is exactly what our God expects His people to do.
We have an example in Eliezer of Damascus, the steward of Abraham’s household. He was the man in line to inherit all of Abraham’s wealth had Abraham died without an heir. But God had other plans. There was only one heir: Isaac, the son of promise. Although Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael was older, God indicated that Isaac, the son of Sarah, Abraham’s lawful wife, would inherit not only Abraham’s wealth and property, but also all of the promises and blessings that God intended to bestow on the family line. It was up to Abraham to safeguard that inheritance and pass it on to the next generation. Of course, he required much help to complete that task. First, he had to make sure Isaac had an heir, and to do that he had to find a wife for his son. Not any wife would do. God had already explained that he would bring judgment on the people of Canaan, so Abraham could not have his son marry any of the women of the land lest his inheritance be dissipated and lost. Therefore he needed to find a bride for Isaac from among his own kin. And, strangely enough, he turned to Eliezer for help:
Now Abraham was old, advanced in age; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in every way. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Please place your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but you will go to my country and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” The servant said to him, “Suppose the woman is not willing to follow me to this land; should I take your son back to the land from where you came?” Then Abraham said to him, “Beware that you do not take my son back there! The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and who swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath; only do not take my son back there.” So the servant placed his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and swore to him concerning this matter. (Genesis 24:1-9 NASB)
Abraham’s trust in Eliezer testifies to the strength of the man’s character. As the story unfolds, we see that Eliezer has no motivation other than ensuring the continuity of his master’s legacy. He could have made a name and a house for himself, but instead he expended every effort to find Rebekah, the perfect mate for his master’s son. Why? There may be many answers to that question, but one of them is that Eliezer had pinned his identity on Abraham, and therefore his future could be secure only by making sure that the House of Abraham continued. As long as it did, Eliezer and his descendants would have a place to live and serve, and would enjoy the many blessings of their privileged status as trusted servants of the family and nation God Himself had chosen to bless the entire earth.
Yet that was not the end of Abraham’s work in securing Isaac’s inheritance. He lived another four decades after the death of his beloved Sarah, and no doubt the loneliness he felt after her passing led him to take other wives. We may not know exactly why he did this, but we can recognize the same problem he saw: the children by those women would be a just as much a threat to Isaac’s inheritance as had been Ishmael. The Scripture tells us what Abraham did about that:
Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore to him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan became the father of Sheba and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Asshurim and Letushim and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah and Epher and Hanoch and Abida and Eldaah. All these were the sons of Keturah. Now Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac; but to the sons of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the east. These are all the years of Abraham’s life that he lived, one hundred and seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people. Then his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased from the sons of Heth; there Abraham was buried with Sarah his wife. It came about after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac; and Isaac lived by Beer-lahai-roi. (Genesis 25:1-11 NASB)
Abraham was right to recognize his other sons and give them gifts worthy of their status. However, they could not be permitted to remain in the land lest they contest the promises passed on to Isaac. And so Abraham sent them away to establish names and houses of their own. Yet that was not the end of the story. Isaac’s descendants had to deal with the descendants of his half-brothers later. The sons of Midian, in particular, proved contentious, conspiring during the time of Moses with Balaam and King Balak of Moab to entice Israel into evil, and later oppressing the tribes of Israel in the Promised Land until God raised up Gideon to defeat them.
There are plenty of people and spiritual entities out there who relish the opportunity to help us spend our inheritance, or cheat us out of it. Scripture provides another example in the story of Solomon’s coronation as the heir of King David (I Kings 1:1-37). David specified that Solomon would be his heir, but when he was very old his son Adonijah conspired with some of David’s trusted leaders to have himself proclaimed king. David had no idea this was happening until Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, and Nathan the prophet came to him with the news. Then, with David’s consent, they anointed Solomon as king, instantly ending Adonijah’s attempt to usurp the throne.
Perhaps what we should understand from this is that our inheritance as children of the Most High God is ours to keep, or to lose. Proclaiming our allegiance to YHVH is only the first step. Some people of Yeshua’s time thought that their status in the Kingdom of Heaven was secure simply because they could claim Abraham as their ancestor. The Prophet John the Baptist explained the uncomfortable truth to them:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:7-12 NASB)
In truth, God has raised up children to Abraham from the very stones. That is the purpose of Messiah: to make a way for all people to be reconciled to YHVH and become part of His family of Israel. Yet to do this, we must be like Eliezer of Damascus. We must lay down everything that defines us and let Him remake us with His identity. Is that not what Yeshua explained to Nicodemus when He said we must be born again? And is this not the purpose of the Holy Spirit in writing the Law of God on our very hearts so that we may live out our love for Him by performing His Commandments? Yeshua said something about this as well:
Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first. (Matthew 19:27-30 NASB)