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.” 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 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. 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.” 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…
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.