Category Archives: Genesis

God’s Restraining Grace

“Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.  But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, ‘Behold you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.’  Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, ‘Lord, will you slay a nation, even though blameless?  Did he not himself say to me, “She is my sister”?  And she herself said, “He is my brother.”  In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.’  Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her'” (Gen 20.2-6).

Though credited with righteousness for his great faith, Abraham did not always live up to the hype.  He was frankly a sneaky man with a trophy wife (Gen 12.11).  Having received the promise of a great heritage despite Sarah’s infertility (Gen 12.1-3), Abraham meandered down to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan.  He knew that Pharaoh would take a shine to (then) Sarai because men always did.  And what Pharaoh wanted Pharaoh got.  So, Abraham was resigned that he would lose his wife to Pharaoh.  However, if he could convince Pharaoh she was his sister then he could at least save his own head (Gen 12.12).  He sold out his wife to Pharaoh’s harem “so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Gen 12.13).  Mighty Abraham and his great faith didn’t believe God would keep him alive.  He thought he would live on account of “Sister” Sarai rather than Yahweh.

God proved himself able to manage Abraham’s well-being all the same.  He plagued Pharaoh’s house until he returned Sarai to her rightful place (Gen 12.17-20).  God has a habit of punishing those who try to own what is given only to his people (cf. Exod 7-12; 1 Sam 4-5).  Oh, to be a fly on Abraham’s donkey on that long journey back to Bethel (Gen 13)!  “So, honey, how was your stay at Pharaoh’s place?  Were the other gals in the harem nice?  You know I did what I did for us.”

Abraham hauls his estate into Gerar, where he was sure King Abimelech would take a shine to (now) Sarah (Gen 20).  By this time, Abraham had received further revelation that he would have a son by Sarah (Gen 17-18).  Therefore, he could not die until he and Sarah had a son together.  Nevertheless, Abraham invoked Operation She’s-My-Sister again (something that v13 indicates was a regular scheme).  Abimelech fell for it and Abraham slept alone; alive, but alone.

God did not visit Abimelech via plagues this time but a fearful dream.  Return Sarah or else you’re a dead man.  (Oh, how we need men in churches who will declare the same to one another who flirt with disastrous sin!)  Abimelech pled ignorance.  He did, of course, take her on good faith she was Abraham’s sister and there was not DNA test available.  God conceded the point but didn’t let Abimelech assume he was taking the high road.  The only reason Abimelech didn’t touch Sarah was because God restrained him.

Even when Abraham’s scheme was uncovered he still tried to weasel his way out of a loophole.  Instead of owning up to and repenting from his selfish deception, he admitted that Sarah was actually his half-sister and was therefore not technically lying (Gen 20.12-13).  Uh-huh.  And Abraham even had the gall to justify his deception by assuming there was no fear of God in Gerar (v11) and therefore no decorum or respect for a wife’s husband.  Doesn’t sound like there was much fear of God in Abraham!  Abimelech was the one who feared God enough to make it right.

Yet, God struck all Abimelech’s women barren for his “innocent” treachery until Abraham prayed for God’s mercy (vv17-18).  Seems like just the opposite would’ve been more just.  Yet, God will have his man often despite that man!  He is carrying out a sovereign plan that goes through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, no matter what.  Thankfully, come Genesis 22 Abraham would not try to weasel out of any more impossible situations but would trust God to make good on his promise.

But enough about rascally Abraham.

What would we do were it not for God restraining our sin?  Were God to visit us in our dreams, every night he could say, “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her.”  How can we deny that God often “overrules” our free will to restrain us from doing what we freely want to do?  Abimelech took Sarah because he wanted to have sex with her, but he didn’t.  Was it because Abimelech was an upstanding citizen who wanted only to protect Sarah?  No!  God orchestrated whatever means in order to keep her from touching her.  In so doing, he protected the one-flesh union with Abraham (though Abraham hadn’t!) and the promise of her first son being the promised son.

We should readily confess our sin and thank God for his forgiveness freely given in Christ to all those who believe.  But, oh, how must we thank him for keeping us from sinning against him!  Let us not assume that we avoided sin because we’re that strong or spiritually-minded.  We sin because we want to and we would sin far more were it not for God’s restraining grace.  So listen to your dreams tonight to see if God says:

  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I disconnected your modem before you could click on that blinking site.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I ordained that last-minute phone call so that you did not hear what was said about you in the breakroom.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I had you shop in the same aisle as your enemy so that you would be forced to consider love and make peace.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I delayed your tax refund so that you would not blow it on a silly gadget that was only on sale this week.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I afflicted your daughter with an illness so that you would not assume you could live prayerlessly.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I zapped your satellite so you wouldn’t be tempted to stay home from another Sunday gathering.”

We glory in what Abraham teaches us about justifying faith.  Let us not forget Abimelech, who is a case study in God’s restraining grace.  Sweet dreams.


Arpachshad: God’s Lucky 7?

As my Bible-reading plan rolls through Genesis this time each year, I am repeatedly overawed at the detail of God’s providence.  There are often new details that confuse me and force some important questions, but one thing remains constant. God has ordained every detail of history to serve his appointed ends; namely, the eternal display of his grace to his people through Jesus Christ.

Either God has gotten lucky for ten thousand years (or ten katrillion, which only strengthens my point), reacting perfectly to all human behavior so that Jesus happened on the scene in the nick of time and the church holds on by the skin of her teeth.  Or, God has orchestrated all of human history – favoring one person rather than another, allowing this event and not that one, preserving one life and not the ten next to it – to prove he alone is God and will get all glory for the salvation of any one man.

This year a certain phrase garnered my attention as I labored through Genesis 11: “and he had other sons and daughters.” By my count, that phrase is used eight times in vv10-25 (it was used nine times in Gen 5.4-30).  Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.  Genesis 11.10-30 concerns itself only with Shem’s lineage beginning with his son Arpachshad on its way to Abram.  But if Shem “had other sons and daughters” then why is Arpachshad singled out?  Why not any one of Shem’s other sons?

Arpachshad and I have something in common: we both welcomed children at 35.  He had Shelah at 35, but over the next 403 years “he had other sons and daughters.”  But they’re lost to history and only Shelah has been immortalized in the biblical witness.  And so goes Shem’s line, getting more and more specific until the spotlight shines on one man: Shem’s great-you-do-the-math-grandson Abram.  All along the way everyone was having “other sons and daughters.”

In a stroke of literary brilliance, the author (Moses?) stops us dead in our tracks.  He’s ended each generational iteration with “and he had other sons and daughters.”  When he gets to Terah, he mentions Terah’s three (not one) sons: Abram, Nahor II and Haran (v26).  Haran died (v27), thus ending that line, leaving Abram and Nahor to continue whatever God started with Shem and Arpachshad.  Abram married Sarai and Nahor Milcah (v29).

Verse 29 leaves us hanging in suspense.  Which son will enjoy being “begat” and which one swept into the “other sons and daughters” category?  In v30 we read with amazement: “Sarai was barren; she had no child.”  In a chapter carried along by the rhythm of fertility, each stanza ending with the refrain “and he had other sons and daughters,” the song ends abruptly with this crescendo of barrenness.  If Shem was a movie, it was a short one.

Naturally, in light of this minor detail, we should expect v31 to begin “So Nahor became the father of Uz” but we don’t hear that until Genesis 22.20.  No, whatever God is doing through the line of Shem will go through Abram, husband of Barren Sarah; not Nahor, husband of fertile Milcah.  Nahor fades from the scene and the next twelve chapters are, as we say, history.

Did God get lucky that Shem had a son, and every son thereafter had a son until Abram went and married that barren woman?  If God were merely reacting to history then he should’ve chosen Nahor, who did have a fertile wife and did bear a son.  Why insist on “interfering” with the seeming natural order of things by imposing himself on an impossible situation?  How many details must “fall into place” so that an Arpachshad could be born?

It must be that God has sovereignly ordained the most minute details of history – even which son will inherit his favor – to serve his good and wise purposes.  Otherwise, every generation was a roll of the cosmic dice.  Why favor Seth and not Cain?  Why Shem and not Japheth?  Why Abram and not Nahor?  Why Isaac and not Ishmael?  Why Jacob (the liar) and not Esau?  Why Joseph and not one of his 11 other better-suited brothers?  Why little David and not one of his strapping brothers?  There were always other sons and daughters to use who were just as, if not more, fit for God’s purposes!

And on and on until we read of a teenage virgin who is pregnant.  And we thought a post-menopausal Barren Sarah becoming pregnant was something!

And in the end we must ask ourselves, “Why me and not him?  Why him and not her?”  Dear sister, why do you love Christ and not your younger brother who grew up in the same house?  Dear brother, why do you believe the gospel and not your older sister who sat beside you in the same pew every Sunday?  Dear friend, why would God use you in his kingdom and not your neighbor who gives twice as much to charity?  Among all the better people in the world, who have done far less to offend God, why would God favor you and not them?  Why did God adopt you rather than the hundred other spiritual orphans next door?  Why should my salvation possibly happen?

Are we not left to answer, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom 9.16).

All the genealogies of Scripture are of a piece of this one lineage: Our Heavenly Father’s only begotten Son.  And this Son has many brothers and sisters “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1.13).  And this Son’s bride is not barren, but fertile, to beget God’s many sons and daughters into his kingdom through his gospel (Mt 16.18).

As the gospel’s aroma wafts through heaven and the stench of hell reaches our nostrils (Rev 19.3), we will spend eternity confessing “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2.8-9).  Dead sinners can take no more credit for their eternal life than post-menopausal barren women and teenage virgins can for their pregnancies.  And so goes the romance of sovereign grace.