When God doesn’t play fair

I recently gave a lecture on “families in the Bible,” surveying the story arc that runs from Abram to Joseph.  It’s my way of questioning the strategy of looking to find biblical principles for family life by ransacking actual family stories from Scripture.  True, there are real moments of faith, obedience, vision, and courage in these tales.  Yet one can’t deny the jealousy, rivalry, violence, and deception that can be found there too.  Viewed over the long haul of multiple generations, this is one messed up family.

And part of the problem is that God seems to turn a blind eye, right from the beginning.  In Genesis 12, we’re introduced to Abram (later, Abraham), with neither fanfare nor character references.  This is simply the man God chooses to receive the promise of incredible blessing.  All we see of his character is that when God says go, he goes.  There is a hint here of what God will reckon as righteousness later in the story.

But in his first real lines in the drama, Abram comes across as a coward who is willing to sacrifice his wife’s safety and dignity for selfish reasons.  He and his wife Sarai (later, Sarah) are forced by famine to go into Egypt.  He’s afraid that the Egyptians will kill him to procure his beautiful wife for Pharoah.  So he tells her to say that he’s her brother–not to keep her out of Pharaoh’s clutches, but to save his own skin.  And the deception works.  Pharaoh takes Sarai into his harem, and lavishes gifts on what he thinks is her brother.  That might be great for Abram, but not so much for Sarai.

Where is God is all this?  Inflicting diseases on Pharaoh’s household.  Nowhere do we read about God pulling Abram aside and chastising him for his self-serving and deceptive behavior.  Quite the contrary–he leaves Egypt an even wealthier man than before, and without a scratch on him.

If that were not enough, we get a repeat performance in chapter 20, when Abraham pulls the same stunt again with Abimelech, king of Gerar.  After Abimelech takes Sarah into his palace, God makes every woman in his household sterile (vss. 17-18), then visits him in a dream and declares, “You are as good as dead” (vs. 3).  Abimelech rightly protests his innocence, and God replies, “I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. …Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.  But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die” (vss. 6-7).

Abimelech gives Abraham a massive gift to cover an offense of which even God had declared him innocent.  Only then does Abraham pray, and only then does God heal Abimelech’s household.  Nowhere does God scold Abraham.  Indeed, the very next verse reads: “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.  Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him” (21:1-2).

Or what of Jacob, who conspires with his mother to defraud his own father?  You know the story.  In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant on a mission–to get a wife for his son Isaac from among their own people.  The servant prays fervently for God to reveal the right woman to him, and God answers the prayer with the beautiful Rebekah.  Read by itself, chapter 24 would be a stirring romantic tale.

But it doesn’t end there.  Three chapters later, Isaac is old and nearly blind.  He and Rebekah have twin sons, Jacob and Esau.  Esau, the eldest, is Isaac’s favorite, but Rebekah favors Jacob.  The latter two overhear Isaac promising Esau a special blessing, if only Esau will bag some wild game and make his favorite stew.  While Esau is out, Rebekah takes advantage of her husband’s blindness to steal the coveted blessing for Jacob.  She disguises Jacob to feel and smell like Esau, prepares the stew using goats from their flock, and sends Jacob in to get his father’s blessing.

Isaac seems suspicious; the one thing Jacob couldn’t disguise was his voice, and there was nothing wrong with his father’s ears.  Isaac also wondered aloud, “How did you find it so quickly my son?” (vs. 20).  Could Esau really have hunted and dressed the game and cooked the food in so short a time?  Jacob, always a quick thinker, responded with a jaw-dropping, nearly blasphemous lie: “The Lord your God gave me success” (vs. 20).

And moments later, Jacob walked out with the blessing.

It just doesn’t seem fair.

One of the students in the class commented to me later that seen this way, the story really ticked her off.  (Actually, she used a somewhat more colorful phrase than that.)  “Then what’s the point of trying so hard to be good?” she asked.

If these stories offend us, we should ask the same question.  And we need to have an answer we can believe.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls these stories “inscrutable.”  What he is referring to is the unfathomable truth that God makes a promise and sticks to it.  It’s certainly not because his people are so remarkably virtuous that they deserve it; indeed, he keeps his promise in spite of their disobedience.

But would we really want it any other way?  What would happen if our place in God’s purposes depended on our ability to keep to the straight and narrow, instead of on God’s gracious and patient choice?  The moral failures of Abraham and his descendants show that they are a lot like us, in turn cowardly, conniving, selfish, and deceitful.  They don’t deserve the blessing.  Neither do we.  But they and we have it anyway, by the sheer grace of God, and only by that grace.

There’s a part of us–a part of me–that wants a more reliable correlation between good behavior and heavenly reward.  And as I said before, there are some real moments of faith and obedience in these stories.  But we need to understand these rightly too.  When Scripture tells us that “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6), that’s not a reward for good behavior, that’s grace.

Of course, our faith and obedience please God, and express the kind of life we are meant to live in Christ.  But disobedient or obedient, faithless or faithful, we are kept in God’s story only by his gracious will.  One hopes that, understanding the miracle of that kind of grace, we would desire faithfulness out of sheer gratitude for the gift.

So it’s a good thing that God doesn’t always play fair.  If that weren’t so, we would have been kicked off the playground a long, long time ago.