Three plus four indeed.

Three Plus Four: Between Natural And Supernatural

By Julia BlumJuly 28, 20227 comments

We continue our “three plus four” series, and this is my second post on Abraham. Today, with the help of Hebrew, we will see some additional insights into this amazing character. As we all know, Abraham was a man of faith, following God unquestioningly – and in this sense, many things in his life were supernatural, clearly marked by God’s direct intervention. On the other hand, the Bible never embellishes its characters, never presents them as some spiritual superheroes – and since Abraham was a regular human, we learn a lot from the biblical stories about his struggle between natural and supernatural.  Today, we are going to see in Hebrew some examples of this struggle (of course, completely lost in translation).

Minor Change, Major Impact  

A very peculiar detail about Abram is his natural name. The original name “Abram,” אַבְרָם (avram), is composed of two words: av and ram; together they mean something like “exalted father”. The irony of this name is lost on those who don’t know Hebrew: we all know that to be a father was the deepest desire of Abram’s heart – and yet, for a very long time, he could not become a father at all!

Let us open Genesis 15. Here  we witness one of the most dramatic conversations in the whole of Scripture: the Lord bringing Abram out of his tent and telling him, as He points to the glorious sky: “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them…. So shall your descendants be.”[1] The gorgeous night and the shining stars are a uniquely impressive scene, indeed; and yet, he had already heard a very similar promise: “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.”[2] Certainly, the shining stars are a much more picturesque image than the dust of the earth; however, the essence of the promise had not changed between then and now: Abram knew that he was destined to become a great nation. He knew he was to have many successors; he had known it for a long time already. But a question had arisen that had begun to plague him at some point: Who would those successors be if he didn’t have any children?

The entire conversation in Genesis 15 is amazing. That night, for the first time ever, Abram expressed his pain to the Lord. For the first time ever, he complained. We do not know whether it was a decision consciously made in advance that made him say these words or the fact that he just could not hold back his pain and disappointment. All we know is that when God tells Abram: “Your reward is exceedingly great,” instead of humble, meek gratitude, we actually hear a resentful complaint: “Lord God, what will you give me? I am going childless.” This is how the English translation reads. In Hebrew, however, it is even worse: “Anohi oleh ariri!” The word ariri (when spelled with the letter ayin) means “childless, lonely, abandoned.” But this word also sounds so close to the word “cursing” (ariri spelled with the letter alef), that the bitterness of this statement is truly overwhelming: I am cursed by being childless and You are talking about reward?! “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.”[3]

Moreover, Abraham repeats this complaint twice, as if to make certain that his pain and disappointment are clearly conveyed to the Lord. Thus, the third verse of chapter 15 merely reiterates the second, with the same resentful and almost angry attitude: “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir.”[4]

And now, the conversation becomes truly groundbreaking, because here Abram learns, for the first time ever, that not only does his obedience matter to God, but his pain does as well. There is no greater revelation of God’s love than to realize that when you cry, He cries also. I believe that this was just such a moment for Abraham, because even now, after his painfully bitter speech, instead of the expected rebuke and reproach, he hears these wonderful words: “One who will come from your own body shall be your heir.”[5]

Probably, at this point, Abram is starting to sob. He has been waiting for so long, both encouraged and humiliated by his natural name. “Exalted father”? He is 85 years old and still childless. Can it still happen that he will have a child of his own, after all? Not just a multitude of descendants in some vague future, but his own child, from his own body; his own child, whom he will be able to hold with his own hands.  Can it be that he will become the “exalted father”, after all?

Then we read that Abraham was 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abraham.[6] Can you imagine the feelings of an 86-year old man who has been childless his whole life, who has dreamt of a son for a very long time, and finally, a son is born to him?! How blessed and how fulfilled he must have felt holding in his hands this living proof of God’s faithfulness to His promises! Remember, even though we know that Ishmael was not the son of the promise, Abraham did not know it. For thirteen years, from the moment he was born, Abraham saw Ishmael as his spiritual and physical heir and was absolutely content with this heir.  He loved his son dearly, he enjoyed every single moment with him, and during those joyful years, somehow a “small” fact seems to have skipped his attention: God wasn’t speaking to him anymore!

Only in Genesis 17, after thirteen years of silence, does God appear to Abram again. We find several crucial changes here. The incredible promise—that Abram would have another son besides Ishmael—comes in verse 16. Before that, God announces to Abram that He will make a covenant with him and his descendants forever and changes his name: No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham[7]. The change seems very minor: God is changing his name by inserting only one letter ה into his natural name – but the meaning of this change is huge. It signifies the transition from natural to supernatural.

God is saying: “your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”[8] Thus, the new name,אַבְרָהָם  (avraham), reflects God’s supernatural  plan and promise: “a father of many nations ,אַב־הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם,  (av hamon goyim). Now, that Abram has actually become a real, natural father, God is revealing to him His plan that goes far beyond his natural fatherhood: Abraham is to become a supernatural Father.

Guest or Guests?

Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre…[9] 

According to Jewish commentaries, just a few days had passed between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance before Abraham’s tent in Chapter 18. Abraham wasn’t even completely recovered from his circumcision at the end of chapter 17. If we read this text in Hebrew we do find something amazing and unexpected here – something that reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his previous encounter with God in Chapter 17. The well-known beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” is followed by the conversation of Abraham with his guests. The very first word of Abraham’s speech here is “Adonai” (אדוני) – and there is controversy over whether Adonai here should be read as a sacred singular word, “My Lord”, or as a regular plural word, “lords”. It sounds as if Abraham himself was not sure exactly who he saw; as if the Torah reflects Abraham’s initial uncertainty over whether the visitors were natural or supernatural, human or divine—whether they were mere men, or represented God.

In the following verses, the Hebrew sentences are couched alternatively in singular and plural: in verse 3, there are only singular forms, while verses 4 and 5 use the plural. Abraham is saying: “do not pass on” in singular, and then “wash your feet”, and “refresh your hearts” in plural. I believe that here, right after Chapter 17, with its breaking news, this interplay between singular and plural comes as an expression of Abraham’s hesitation and inner struggle between natural and supernatural—whether he could and wanted to believe the supernatural promise of Chapter 17.  This hesitation, this inner struggle, is completely lost in translation.

[1] Gen. 15:5

[2] Gen. 13:16

[3] Gen. 15:2

[4] Gen. 15:3

[5] Gen. 15:4

[6] Gen. 16:16

[7] Gen. 17:5

[8] Gen.17:5

[9] Gen. 18:1

Three plus four, indeed.

Three Plus Four: Isaac

By Julia BlumAugust 15, 2022No comments

We continue our “THREE PLUS FOUR” series, and we are still in the “three” part: the Fathers. Last time, we spoke about Abraham; today, we will speak about Isaac. I remind you that my task here is not to draw a full biblical portrait – especially now, when the posts are being published once in a month – but just to share with you the details and insights that might not be known by a Christian reader: they are either based on the meaning of the original Hebrew words, or taken from Jewish tradition.

HOW OLD WAS ISAAC?

When we read Genesis 22, we imagine a mountain, and the father and the boy going up together Thanks to the simple phrase ַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו – “and the two of them walked on together” – we get a glimpse of an extraordinary unity. While Abraham knew only too well the reason for going up this mountain, the son knew nothing and was clearly perplexed, all the time understanding less and less what was really happening and “where the lamb for burnt offering” was. Nevertheless, he continued to follow his father in perfect obedience and perfect trust.

In Christian tradition, Isaac is always depicted as a child or teenager – and his obedience is perceived as a child’s obedience to his father. However, was Isaac indeed a boy, obediently following his father? While nothing in the text indicates Isaac’s age, some suggestions can be made based on the text of the Torah – and these suggestions might really surprise you.

In Jewish tradition, Sarah’s death in Genesis 23 is juxtaposed to the event of Genesis 22: when Sarah heard that “her son was prepared for slaughter and was almost slaughtered, her soul flew out of her and she died.”[1] Sarah died at the age of 127, which means that Isaac was 37 when he was led to Mount Moriah—not a child, as is perceived in Christian tradition. Obviously, it was a huge trauma for him: many years later Jacob would refer to his father’s God as the “Fear of Isaac”[2] (פַ֤חַד יִצְחָק֙), a hint at the experience on Mount Moriah. Yet, Isaac’s obedience to his father’s will, his free consent and selfless readiness to be sacrificed, all becomes much more profound when we think of him as a strong grown man, willingly following his elderly and obviously weaker father.

WHERE DID ISAAC GO?

This story, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, contains, among other enigmas, one more mystery that our sages have long pointed out. After all that happened on Mount Moriah—after the raised knife was stopped by the voice from heaven—Genesis 22:19 states: Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba. Isaac isn’t mentioned there at all. Where did he disappear to? What happened to him after the Aqedah?

This question has triggered numerous discourses and speculations, which are laid out in a wide variety of works by our sages and rabbis. Where did Isaac go? The Scriptures inform us only about Abraham’s return. Isaac vanishes, and does not reappear until Genesis 24, right before his meeting with Rebekah.

Genesis 24:62 states that Isaac came from the way of Beer Lahai Roi. If you don’t know Hebrew, this name means nothing. In Hebrew, however, it has a profound meaning: The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me!  The message of this name is that, while Isaac had vanished from the scene, he never vanished from God’s sight. Though his parents could not see him, and though he disappears from the pages of the Torah, God still saw him and knew everything about him – just as He sees you and me: The One Who Sees Me Lives.

PRAYING HUSBAND

There is a verse in Genesis 25, which invariably touches my heart: Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer …[3] There are several details, especially in Hebrew, that make this verse very special. We know that Isaac is the only patriarch who remained monogamous his whole life: does this verse provide us an insight into the very close and intimate relationship of this couple?

Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren for a time, yet we don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of Abraham praying for Sarah. It was even worse with Jacob: when Rachel complained about her barrenness, Jacob became angry and said, “Am I in the place of God”?[4] Thus, Isaac was indeed the only one who “pleaded with the LORD” on behalf of his barren wife: Now Isaac pleaded with the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his plea[5]

Amazingly, the phraseוַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיהוה  (vaye’etar yztchak ladonai) – “Isaac pleaded with the LORD”, and the phrase וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יהוה  (vaye’ater lo Adonai) – “the LORD responded to his plea”, use the same Hebrew root. However, this whole dynamic between Isaac’s plea and the Lord’s answer is completely lost in translation, as both phrases are translated with totally different verbs. I believe that for many husbands and wives, this dynamic, this commitment to plead until the Lord responds to the plea might be truly eye-opening. Therefore, it is very important not to miss insights such as these, found in the Hebrew text.

WHY DID ISAAC LOVE ESAU?

While Scripture tells us about the parental favoritism in Isaac and Rebekah’s family, remarkably, we don’t find any judgment or explanation of this situation. The Torah doesn’t justify, doesn’t excuse, doesn’t provide any comment at all – it simply states the facts:Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob [6]– and we are left to wonder why. Why did this parental favoritism happen, and how did it start?

We must remember that, unlike his parents, Isaac was “sabra” – he was born in the Land, he had stayed in the Land his whole life, moreover, he worked the land! He was the first farmer in his family: he sowed, and reaped, and became extremely blessed in that: “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold; and the Lord blessed him.”[7] So, we know that Isaac worked the land and reaped an abundant harvest from his fields.

Now, pay close attention: While most English translations call Esau “a man of the outdoors”, the Hebrew text calls him “a man of a field”. That’s probably why Isaac loved Esau – they were both men of the fields: “Oh, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed.”[8] The field is a symbol of the one who loves the land and nature, and Isaac and Esau probably spent a lot of time together outdoors, in the fields. I believe this is how their special bond was developed: however, we would not understand it, unless we know that, in the original Hebrew text, Esau is called “a man of a field”.

[1] Gen. Rabbah 58:5

[2] Gen. 31:42

[3] Gen. 25:21

[4] Gen. 30:2

[5] Gen. 25:21

[6] Gen. 25:28

[7] Gen. 26:12

[8] Gen. 27:27

Anointing of the Priests

When the priests of ancient Israel were prepared for sacrificial duty, they were anointed with oil and furnished with priestly garments. A turban and oil were placed on the priest’s head, the ephod and breastplate were draped over his shoulders, and blood went on his right thumbs and big toes. Pouring oil on the head was common practice (e.g., 1 Sam 10:1; Ps 23:5; Eccl 9:8), but thumbs and toes may seem like odd additions to the ritual. The rationale behind this practice reveals the relationship between the priests and the atoning work that they performed for their people.

In the description of clerical consecration, Exodus states, “You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on [the priest’s] head (ראשׁ; rosh) and anoint him” (29:7). After being dressed in the sacred garments, ram’s blood was to be placed on the “right ear (אזן; ozen)… and on the thumb (בהן; bohen) of their right hands, and on the big toe (בהן; bohen) of their right feet” (29:20; cf. Lev 8:23-24). Readers might assume that these actions have to do with the priests listening to God or walking in the commandments. However, the real rationale is related to the place of priestly sacrifice.

The altar of Israel (as with other altars in the ancient Near East) was constructed with four “horns” (קרנות; qaronot) on each of its four corners: “You shall make horns for it (קרנתיו; qarnotav) on its four corners, and its horns shall be of one piece with it” (Exodus 27:2). Just as the priests’ extremities (ears, toes, thumbs) were anointed with blood, so were the horns of the altar: “You shall take part of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar (קרנת המזבח; qarnot ha’mizbeach) with your finger, and the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar” (Exodus 29:12; cf. Lev 8:15; 9:9). The priest and the altar receive the same treatment, which conveys the idea that the priest himself was a kind of living, breathing altar. Scripture reveals the inextricable relationship between priest and altar: Israel’s priests were the intercessors for their people—without them, no sacrifices could be made on the altar. Likewise, without the altar, the priests would have no place to offer sacrifices. By being anointed with blood in the same way, both the priest and the altar were purged of sin and prepared for the work of sacrificial atonement.

On Abraham

Three Plus Four

By Julia Blum July 21, 20226 comments

The Puzzling Title

My dear readers, as probably most of you know by now, I love series. I am starting a new series today, and I bet the title of this series will intrigue you. I will explain in a second why I chose this name. However, first I need to tell you something.

You all know the expression: I have good news and bad news. This is exactly my case today. The bad news is that this blog is switching to “a post per month” format (instead of one post per week, as it has been all these years). I suppose it would be disappointing news for many readers, and it was very disappointing news for me as well – but the decision is not mine, so I am just letting you all know. The good news is that I hope and have reasons to believe that it would be just a temporary step, and that at some point the blog will go back, to “a post per week” format.  Let’s hope and pray that it will happen soon!

Now, why “Three plus Four”? Years ago, I was invited for the Passover Meal (Seder) to one of the most religious homes I had ever been by then. If you have ever been to the real Seder, you have probably experienced that moment when the ritual part is over and the starving guests can finally start eating – only this time the  hosts found out that there was another Passover song that they forgot to sing. “Echad Mi Yodea” is a very long cumulative song where each verse is built on the previous verses and therefore, each verse is longer than the previous one. The song has 13 verses, and demonstrates how every number can and should relate to God: “Five are the books of the Torah;…  two are the tablets of the covenant; One is our God, in heaven and on earth”.  There are numbers three and four, of course; can you guess what they correspond to? “Three are the Fathers”, and “Four are the Mothers”. That’s right, the Jewish people have three fathers and four mothers – and this is the reason why I called my new series: “Three plus Four”, Originally, I planned to dwell for a while on these biblical characters, dedicating several articles to each one of them. It doesn’t seem like an option anymore, since the articles will be separated by the whole month.  However, I am still intending to proceed with this series, just instead of detailed research of each character I will publish an article with some Hebrew insights into this character, We will start with Abraham, of course. He is the first father. I am lucky to have still two posts before the end of this month, so there will be two articles on Abraham – and one on everyone else.

Abram and Melchizedek

I have no doubt that most of my readers have been students of the Bible for a long time, and know their Bible very well. Most of you probably think you know all there is to know about Abraham. Yet, there are stories in the Torah that when read in Hebrew (or at least, with some Hebrew understanding), seem almost unrecognizable! Today, I will share with one of such stories – and I hope that it will enrich your understanding of Abraham.

Our story happens in Genesis 14, but in order to understand the events of this chapter, we need to start earlier.  At the end of Genesis 11, we read that Haran, Abram’s brother, died an untimely death, leaving his son Lot an orphan. Was Lot a sweet little boy, a bitter teenager, or a completely grown young man with his own family when his father passed away? Was it at this time of mourning and grief that Lot formed this special relationship with his uncle Abram? Had Abram become almost a father to his fatherless nephew? Had Lot become almost a son to his childless uncle? We don’t know all the answers; but we do know that in Genesis 12, when Abram departed for Canaan in full obedience to God’s call, he was ready to leave behind everything and everybody. And took only his very own with him – and his nephew Lot belonged to this group of Abram’s “very own”: So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him… Then Abram took Sarah his wife and Lot his brother’s son…[1]

In chapter 13, once Abram is back from Egypt, uncle and nephew part company. Genesis 13:6 describes the moment where they part: Now the land was not able to support them that they might dwell together.[2] True, we read that their possessions were so big that they could not dwell together, but somehow the reader gets the feeling that there was more to this conflict than just sharing the land. I think, Abram, exhausted by their endless fights, finally gave up and said with a heavy heart to his “almost son”: “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren…. Please separate from me…”[3]

Very soon, Lot finds himself in trouble. The trouble happens in the next chapter when the neighboring kings made war with… (the) king of Sodom and also took Lot, …  and departed.[4] The Scripture doesn’t tell us how Abraham feels when he hears that his nephew is taken captive; instead, we learn that he chased the culprits as far as Dan in the north, nearly 300 kilometers from Sodom; that he crushed the enemies at Hobah, north of Damascus; that he freed his nephew and recovered Lot’s possessions; and that he did all this with 318 of his servants (who served as soldiers in this battle, but clearly were not trained to be soldiers). An angry bear protecting her cub is capable of anything, and it seems that Abram’s deeds that we witness here belong to this same category.

As far as we know, Abraham was a very peaceful man. We don’t see him involved in battles like David. In fact, this is the only time we read about him going to war. This says a lot about him, because it wasn’t even his war; he definitely could have stayed at home. Instead, he gets up and runs 300 kilometers to rescue Lot. He wins the battle and brings back Lot, and all the captives and their possessions.  It must have been a triumphant return indeed! The rescued captives were full of joy; Abram himself was extremely thankful to God for this miraculous victory; and who then meets him, in this victorious moment?

Here, at the end of chapter 14, our story begins.  A Christian reader knows this episode as “Abram and Melchizedek” (many English Bibles even insert this title before verses 18-20 of Genesis 14) – but in fact here, in the Valley of Shaveh (“ethat is, the King’s Valley”[5]),   not one,  but  two kings approach Abram:  Bera, king of Sodom, greets him in verse 17, and then Melchizedek, King of Salem, brings out bread and wine and blesses  him in verses 18-20.

17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him.

18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High
Not one, but two kings are here – but for some reason, this fact, along with the whole dramatic tension of the entire situation, is usually overlooked. Why do these two kings, representing completely different values, appear together?

This story gains so much more clarity when read in Hebrew, where the very meanings of the Hebrew words and names illuminate us as to what is actually going on here.  The meeting takes place at the Valley of Shaveh, and the Hebrew rootשוה   (shaveh)  has two main meanings: equal  or worth.  Moreover, in Hebrew we have an expression: to reach the Valley of Shaveh,להגיע לעמק שווה  – which means “to reach a compromise”. The two kings approach Abram simultaneously because this is a test that Abram has to pass. Their offers might seem almost equal, but Abram had to choose “the worthy one”.  The name “Melchizedek” is a transliteration of the Hebrew מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶֿק  (malki-tzedek), “my king is righteousness”. The name Bera:    בֶּ-רַע means “with evil” or “in evil. Thus, the Hebrew makes it apparent that it is here, at this Valley, that Abram had to choose between righteousness and evil; it is here, in this valley, that Abraham was tested and tempted to compromise his principles, his integrity – his faith.  While Melchizedek blesses Abram and God Most High, ensuring that Abram knows that it was God who “delivered your foes into your hands”[6] , the king of Sodom offers him a subtle temptation. Thankfully, Abram recognizes the truth and the authority of Melchizedek, and refuses Bera’s temptation – and thus passes yet another test of faith.

[1] Gen. 12:4-5

[2] Genesis 13:6

[3] Genesis 13:8

[4] Gen.  14:2,12

[5] Gen. 14:17

[6] Gen.14:20

On Abraham

Three Plus Four: Between Natural And Supernatural

We continue our “three plus four” series, and this is my second post on Abraham. Today, with the help of Hebrew, we will see some additional insights into this amazing character. As we all know, Abraham was a man of faith, following God unquestioningly – and in this sense, many things in his life were supernatural, clearly marked by God’s direct intervention. On the other hand, the Bible never embellishes its characters, never presents them as some spiritual superheroes – and since Abraham was a regular human, we learn a lot from the biblical stories about his struggle between natural and supernatural.  Today, we are going to see in Hebrew some examples of this struggle (of course, completely lost in translation).

Minor Change, Major Impact  

A very peculiar detail about Abram is his natural name. The original name “Abram,” אַבְרָם (avram), is composed of two words: av and ram; together they mean something like “exalted father”. The irony of this name is lost on those who don’t know Hebrew: we all know that to be a father was the deepest desire of Abram’s heart – and yet, for a very long time, he could not become a father at all!

Let us open Genesis 15. Here  we witness one of the most dramatic conversations in the whole of Scripture: the Lord bringing Abram out of his tent and telling him, as He points to the glorious sky: “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them…. So shall your descendants be.”[1] The gorgeous night and the shining stars are a uniquely impressive scene, indeed; and yet, he had already heard a very similar promise: “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.”[2] Certainly, the shining stars are a much more picturesque image than the dust of the earth; however, the essence of the promise had not changed between then and now: Abram knew that he was destined to become a great nation. He knew he was to have many successors; he had known it for a long time already. But a question had arisen that had begun to plague him at some point: Who would those successors be if he didn’t have any children?

The entire conversation in Genesis 15 is amazing. That night, for the first time ever, Abram expressed his pain to the Lord. For the first time ever, he complained. We do not know whether it was a decision consciously made in advance that made him say these words or the fact that he just could not hold back his pain and disappointment. All we know is that when God tells Abram: “Your reward is exceedingly great,” instead of humble, meek gratitude, we actually hear a resentful complaint: “Lord God, what will you give me? I am going childless.” This is how the English translation reads. In Hebrew, however, it is even worse: “Anohi oleh ariri!” The word ariri (when spelled with the letter ayin) means “childless, lonely, abandoned.” But this word also sounds so close to the word “cursing” (ariri spelled with the letter alef), that the bitterness of this statement is truly overwhelming: I am cursed by being childless and You are talking about reward?! “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.”[3]

Moreover, Abraham repeats this complaint twice, as if to make certain that his pain and disappointment are clearly conveyed to the Lord. Thus, the third verse of chapter 15 merely reiterates the second, with the same resentful and almost angry attitude: “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir.”[4]

And now, the conversation becomes truly groundbreaking, because here Abram learns, for the first time ever, that not only does his obedience matter to God, but his pain does as well. There is no greater revelation of God’s love than to realize that when you cry, He cries also. I believe that this was just such a moment for Abraham, because even now, after his painfully bitter speech, instead of the expected rebuke and reproach, he hears these wonderful words: “One who will come from your own body shall be your heir.”[5]

Probably, at this point, Abram is starting to sob. He has been waiting for so long, both encouraged and humiliated by his natural name. “Exalted father”? He is 85 years old and still childless. Can it still happen that he will have a child of his own, after all? Not just a multitude of descendants in some vague future, but his own child, from his own body; his own child, whom he will be able to hold with his own hands.  Can it be that he will become the “exalted father”, after all?

Then we read that Abraham was 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abraham.[6] Can you imagine the feelings of an 86-year old man who has been childless his whole life, who has dreamt of a son for a very long time, and finally, a son is born to him?! How blessed and how fulfilled he must have felt holding in his hands this living proof of God’s faithfulness to His promises! Remember, even though we know that Ishmael was not the son of the promise, Abraham did not know it. For thirteen years, from the moment he was born, Abraham saw Ishmael as his spiritual and physical heir and was absolutely content with this heir.  He loved his son dearly, he enjoyed every single moment with him, and during those joyful years, somehow a “small” fact seems to have skipped his attention: God wasn’t speaking to him anymore!

Only in Genesis 17, after thirteen years of silence, does God appear to Abram again. We find several crucial changes here. The incredible promise—that Abram would have another son besides Ishmael—comes in verse 16. Before that, God announces to Abram that He will make a covenant with him and his descendants forever and changes his name: No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham[7]. The change seems very minor: God is changing his name by inserting only one letter ה into his natural name – but the meaning of this change is huge. It signifies the transition from natural to supernatural.

God is saying: “your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”[8] Thus, the new name,אַבְרָהָם  (avraham), reflects God’s supernatural  plan and promise: “a father of many nations ,אַב־הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם,  (av hamon goyim). Now, that Abram has actually become a real, natural father, God is revealing to him His plan that goes far beyond his natural fatherhood: Abraham is to become a supernatural Father.

Guest or Guests?

Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre…[9] 

According to Jewish commentaries, just a few days had passed between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance before Abraham’s tent in Chapter 18. Abraham wasn’t even completely recovered from his circumcision at the end of chapter 17. If we read this text in Hebrew we do find something amazing and unexpected here – something that reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his previous encounter with God in Chapter 17. The well-known beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” is followed by the conversation of Abraham with his guests. The very first word of Abraham’s speech here is “Adonai” (אדוני) – and there is controversy over whether Adonai here should be read as a sacred singular word, “My Lord”, or as a regular plural word, “lords”. It sounds as if Abraham himself was not sure exactly who he saw; as if the Torah reflects Abraham’s initial uncertainty over whether the visitors were natural or supernatural, human or divine—whether they were mere men, or represented God.

In the following verses, the Hebrew sentences are couched alternatively in singular and plural: in verse 3, there are only singular forms, while verses 4 and 5 use the plural. Abraham is saying: “do not pass on” in singular, and then “wash your feet”, and “refresh your hearts” in plural. I believe that here, right after Chapter 17, with its breaking news, this interplay between singular and plural comes as an expression of Abraham’s hesitation and inner struggle between natural and supernatural—whether he could and wanted to believe the supernatural promise of Chapter 17.  This hesitation, this inner struggle, is completely lost in translation.

[1] Gen. 15:5

[2] Gen. 13:16

[3] Gen. 15:2

[4] Gen. 15:3

[5] Gen. 15:4

[6] Gen. 16:16

[7] Gen. 17:5

[8] Gen.17:5

[9] Gen. 18:1

Which title is right?

For most Bible readers, Jesus’ status as the “Son of God” describes his divinity. Conversely, when Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” the title seems to denote his humanity. Yet, it’s usually the other way around: “son of God” is a phrase for a human being, and “son of man” describes divinity.

On the surface, it would seem to make sense that “son of God” would be a moniker that marks one’s affinity to God or divine status. For instance, when Peter says of Yeshua, “You are the Messiah (Χριστὸς; Christos), the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), one would expect that Peter refers to his divinity. But these titles do not denote divinity in Israel’s Scriptures. The Hebrew term “Messiah” (משׁיח; Mashiach), or “Christ” in Greek, means “anointed one,” and this same language appears in the Psalms to describe the earthly Davidic king who is also called God’s son. The psalmist says that the nations set themselves “against the Lord and against his anointed one (משׁיחו; mashicho)” (Ps 2:2), and this anointed king responds, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my son (בני; beni); today I have begotten you” (2:7). Thus, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah and Son of God, he is making a declaration about Jesus’ royal status as David’s descendant.

The same reference to royalty holds for God’s description of Solomon. While it will be David who has a son, the Lord assumes fatherhood over the earthly king, saying, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son (בני; beni)” (2 Samuel 7:14). Elsewhere in the Bible, sonship under God doesn’t include any insinuation of divinity. For instance, Exodus describes the entire people of Israel as the son of God when the Lord tells Moses, “Israel is my firstborn son (בני בכרי; beni bekhori)” (Exod 4:22). To give an example from the Gospels, Luke’s genealogy ends a long list of fathers and their sons with “Adam [son] of God” (Lk 3:38), but the evangelist does not imply that Adam was divine. Instead, “son of God” is a title for individuals who have a close relationship with God, but who are not deific themselves.

On the other hand, “son of man” (or “son of humanity”) sounds like it should describe a terrestrial human being. After all, God calls the earthly Ezekiel “son of man” (בן אדם; ben adam) almost a hundred times (e.g., Ezek 2:1-8; 3:1-25), so shouldn’t Jesus’ self-application of “son of man” mean the same thing? But Ezekiel is written in Hebrew, and Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. While the two languages are related, “son of man” means something very different in the Aramaic text of Daniel than it does in the Hebrew Ezekiel. In a night vision, Daniel sees “one like a son of man” (בר אנשׁ; bar enash) approaching the heavenly throne on the clouds and receiving divine “dominion and glory” from God (Dan 7:13-14). In Aramaic, “son of man” denotes divinity. This why the high priest charges Yeshua with blasphemy when Jesus says, “You will see the Son of Man (υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου; huiòn tou anthrópou) seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). It was not blasphemous for someone to assert that he was the “Messiah” or “son of the Blessed,” as the priest puts it (Mk 14:61)—he knew these terms were used of mortal men in their Scriptures—but for Jesus to equate himself with Daniel’s divine “son of man” was a step too far.

To modern Bible readers, it may seem paradoxical that “son of man” denoted divinity and “son of God” meant a mortal. Jesus is both “Son of God” and “Son of Man”—human and divine—but the meaning of these titles isn’t necessarily self-evident today. In the ancient biblical world, things are not always what they seem! Luckily, a look into Scripture’s Jewish languages and contexts can illuminate its original intent.  

Two dimensional linear thinking….as opposed to ?

Isaac And Ishmael: The Paradigm Shift

By Julia BlumMay 19, 2022No comments

In order to read Paul’s allegory in the way it has been read for centuries by the Church, some beliefs had to be presupposed: First, Ishmael was just a byproduct on the way to Isaac, and only Isaac was essential in God’s plan; secondly, the Sinai Covenant (and Old Testament) was just a byproduct on the way to the New Covenant, and only the New Covenant was essential in God’s plan. In this scenario, Galatians 4 can really be read as an allegory of bad and good—as an equation where the byproducts all point only to the final, essential parts. This two-dimensional, linear, reading sees only two parallel lines in Paul’s text: the Ishmael–Isaac line and the Sinai Covenant/New Covenant line, where the latter and better parts replace the former “imperfect” ones. Sadly, many traditional Christian commentators throughout history have read these verses in precisely such a way, using this allegory as a “biblical” means of rejecting the importance of the Sinai covenant, Torah, and Israel.

Yet, we can’t ignore Paul’s text, even though it is not an easy one. We need to understand exactly what Paul meant by it and not be discouraged or misled by traditional Christian interpretation. Yes, it has been read and interpreted wrongly for centuries, but there are many verses in Scripture that have been read and interpreted wrongly for centuries, and we cannot ignore them or fear them simply because of this centuries-long misinterpretation. It is time to restore the original interpretation—it is time for a paradigm shift.

Personally, I believe there is much more to this passage than a simple two-dimensional allegory, as the Church has commonly viewed it. Let’s turn to an analogy from geometry: try placing a three-dimensional figure on a flat surface – lumpy and bulging, it will never be able to shed the additional dimension. Of course, this analogy is limited: it’s impossible to compare a revelation from the living God to a lifeless geometric figure. Yet, it gives us a glimpse of this ‘additional’ dimension which is always present when comparing the revelations of God with the logic of men. It gives us a sense of the multi-dimensional character of God’s truths, which can only be confined to the flat and two-dimensional plane of our understanding in such a way that renders them devoid of their original volume.

I think this has been the main problem with this text all along: Although all Scripture undoubtedly has additional ‘dimensions’ beyond our human reading and comprehension, some especially significant and prophetic pieces just refuse to fit into two-dimensional human interpretation, and therefore cannot be understood without revelation. Paul’s allegory is one such text. That is why we need to approach it with awe and humility—seeking to restore the original dimensions, volume, and meaning that the Lord intended to be there in the first place.

It’s like seeing a hologram instead of drawing. First, you are absolutely overwhelmed with this additional dimension, this unexpected and surprising depth in something that you expected to see as flat and two-dimensional. Then, gradually you begin to distinguish the details that you never knew were there. And if, instead of a flat linear comparison between the sons and the covenants—where “the better son” replaces the first one, and “the better covenant” replaces the old one—we begin to perceive a multi-dimensional piece of God’s revelation, we have to be very careful in order not to devoid it of its original volume, and in order to distinguish the details!

Paul opens his text with the statement: “Abraham had two sons.”  We have every reason to believe that this statement is extremely important to him—and to God. Once again, we need a paradigm shift here. There are two columns in this allegory. Therefore, we need to see a dual pattern in this text, which is completely different from the traditional parallel linear reading we just spoke about (where “the better son” replaces the first one, and “the better covenant” replaces the old one). Imagine a family tree with two lines coming down from the father: The different sons have different families, and each should be presented as a separate branch of this tree. In no family tree would one son replace the other. The same is true here: Abraham’s two sons have two completely different families and destinies, and the family tree, with its two branches, reflects this—but it still has to have two branches, not one!

Yes, Abraham had two sons, therefore, God’s plan cannot include only one. The prophetic picture would not be complete if there were only one son. Any picture of God’s plan for humanity is one-sided and incomplete if Ishmael and his descendants are not part of the picture. The same is true of the covenants: They both belong in the picture of God’s plan, just as both sons belong in Abraham’s family tree. We cannot see it if we read Paul’s text as just a  linear and progressive comparison.  However, once we restore the original meaning and the original volume, once we change the paradigm, and once we see a hologram and not a drawing, we can recognize that both sons are there, and both covenants are also there.

Indeed, we must be very clear regarding the objective of Paul’s allegory: He is trying to explain to his readers (mostly Gentiles, but also some Jewish believers) the relationship between the two covenants, not the relationship between Sarah and Hagar or Isaac and Ishmael. The personages from Genesis are just symbols for Paul. They are the constants in the equation he is building; the unknown in this equation is the relationship between the covenants.  However, today we were able to establish the fact that Paul’s allegory has two columns:  just as Abraham had two sons, and one does not replace the other, the same is true of the covenants—there are two covenants, but the latter does not replace the former.  Next time, we will try to answer some difficult questions raised by this text: for example, why and how does Hagar symbolize the Sinai Covenant? And, are there any hints in the Hagar/Ishmael story that allude to Paul’s allegory?