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B'resheet/Genesis 18:11 And Avraham and Sarah were old, advancing in years; the manner of women had ceased to be for Sarah.
You have to try to picture the scene in order to appreciate this text. Avraham has been visited by three men while he sits at the door of his tent in the desert. He rushes to offer them hospitality and, while they are eating, they ask after Sarah, his wife. Replying that she is in the tent, Avraham is startled to hear one of his guests say, "I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!" (B'resheet 18:10, JPS). Sarah, who has been straining to hear the conversation, is unable to stop herself from laughing out loud and is challenged over her disbelief, beforeHaShem repeats His promise: "I will return to you at the time next year, and Sarah shall have a son" (v. 14, JPS), the men depart and the story moves on to the narrative leading up to the destruction of Sodom. In between is sandwiched our text, giving some reason for Sarah's disbelief and Avraham's unvoiced but no doubt felt surprise.
Avraham and Sarah are described in two ways. The first, , is just one word: a masculine plural adjective1 from the root , "to be or to grow old" (Davidson), also used as a noun to refer to elders or chiefs of tribes. Though Avraham was certainly that as well, the head or chief of his household - a significant number of people, herds and flocks - the presence of Sarah makes it unlikely it has that meaning here as a woman would not have been considered a head or chief in those days. The second way of describing them is a participle clause: the participle is the Qal mp participle from the root , "to come or enter"; is the plural form of the noun , a day, with a definite article 'the' and the preposition 'in/on' as a prefix; so literally, "ones coming in the days".Nachmanides provides an explanation of this phrase: "In his youthful days a man is called 'standing in days', and they are referred to as 'his days' because they belong to him, as in the verse 'I will let you enjoy the full count of your days' (Shemot 23:26, JPS). But when he gets old and has lived longer than most people in his generation, it is said of him that he is ba bayamiym, because it is as if he came into another land, travelling from and arriving in a city each and every day."
The Torah tells us that "Avraham was one hundred years old when his son Yitz'khak was born" (B'resheet 21:5, NASB); Sarah was ninety as Avraham himself confirmed during his own laugh at HaShem's promise when he was first told in the previous chapter: "Avraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, 'Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?'" (17:17, JPS). The text speaks, in its usual down-to-earth and forthright manner, of what would otherwise be an indelicate subject - Sarah's post-menopausal condition - not to embarrass Sarah, but as Sarah herself had said, to underline the age of the couple. Nahum Sarna explains, "Mention of this fact is intended to indicate that the emergence of the people of Israel is an extraordinary event. Its life and destiny are under G-d's special guidance and are not subject to what seem to be the ordinary norms of history." This is all about the greatness of the miracle.
The question of whether HaShem can work miracles - that is, step outside, subvert or suspend the normal laws of nature - is frequently addressed in the Scriptures. Perhaps this is because the heroes (and sometimes villains too) of the Bible seem to forget quite easily just who G-d is, or perhaps it is because in the pressure of the moment, mankind is usually quite tightly focussed on what we can do to sort out the situation and doesn't naturally think of turning to G-d. In this particular case, it is HaShem Himself who has to ask Avraham and Sarah, "Is anything too wondrous for the L-RD?" (B'resheet 18:14, JPS). Even Moshe later has to be challenged when he expresses doubt that HaShem can provide enough meat for a month for a nation of over 600,000 men: "And the L-RD said to Moses, 'Is the L-RD's hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not'" (B'Midbar 11:23, ESV). Jeremiah links G-d's abilities to the creation, "Ah, L-rd G-D! It is You who have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for You" (Jeremiah 32:17, ESV). If G-d could do that, then why not this? Just because people cannot imagine something being done, that doesn't mean that G-d is limited by their expectations: "Thus says the L-RD of hosts: If it is marvelous in the sight of the remnant of this people in those days, should it also be marvelous in my sight, declares the L-RD of hosts?" (Zechariah 8:6, ESV).
At the start of the gospel story, Mary - who might not live in the twenty-first century but knew enough about human reproduction to ask, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34, ESV) - is told by the angel who brought the news of her forthcoming pregnancy that "nothing will be impossible with G-d" (v. 37, ESV). When the disciples have heard Yeshua comparing the chances of a camel getting through the eye of a needle more favourably than a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven, and not unnaturally asked who can possibly be saved, Yeshua tells them that, "With man this is impossible, but with G-d all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26, ESV). Notice that Yeshua says 'possible' and not 'probable'; just because G-d can do miracles, doesn't mean that He will do so every day or on demand. On the other hand, just because miracles are not commonplace doesn't mean that G-d has somehow lost the knack or has forgotten how to do them!
So here's the question for us today: do we believe G-d when He speaks to us? Do we really believe that He can and will work through our circumstances? Or do we disbelieve, possibly laughing, and discard His promises and word? I chose the words in the question carefully, because it is not difficult to wriggle out of the question while actually being in disbelief. The first way is to ask a second question when things don't happen as we would like or expect: did G-d really speak to you? If He didn't speak, if He never promised you a miracle, then of course you didn't get one. Why on earth expect G-d to do something supernatural when He hasn't told you that He will? There are subsequent questions that follow on from that about how and when G-d spoke to you, how you can be sure of exactly what He said and whether you understood correctly what He was saying - or even imagined the whole thing! Nevertheless, there are lots of people who are absolutely adamant that G-d spoke to them and gave them a guarantee or a promise about something or the other, and they refuse to budge; they are absolutely holding out for G-d to come through with the goods. Some of them have been waiting many years; some eventually received what they sought, others are still waiting, but all affirm that G-d spoke to them - in different ways: through prophecy, in prayer, reading the Bible, using other people - but they heard and now they have and are persisting in holding G-d to His word.
The second wriggle is to separate 'can' and 'will'. It is easy to say that we believe G-d 'can' do anything, while remaining unconvinced that He 'will' do it today or in any given set of circumstances including for us. This allows people to read about Lazarus and the other people that Yeshua raised from the dead and affirm that He definitely can do that, while doubting - if not denying - that He will actually do it today or for them if they ask. This is a faithless faith; it says that the Bible is absolutely true and trustworthy, that everything really happened exactly as written, including the crucifixion and the resurrection, but that G-d's day-to-day operational methods have changed and He just doesn't do that sort of thing any more. Not now, not in our modern world, where we have doctors, antibiotics and nuclear energy. Follow that argument through to its logical conclusion and you'll end up believing that G-d has simply gone away on holiday and left us to manage on our own until He gets back, if He ever does but that won't be for a long time. Happily, the third world is full of testimony to the contrary: that G-d is very much alive and present among His people who call out to Him in faith; that, to borrow Yeshua's words, "the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Matthew 11:5, ESV). Even in the west and the developed world there is a growing testimony that some of these things are seen on a more frequent basis.
We have to get real in our relationship with G-d and be prepared to take risks in faith and expect to see miracles and works of power as G-d re-arranges the world to glorify His name and His Son, Yeshua. The alternative - the death of faith and the loss of our world - is simply unthinkable!
1. - Although both Avraham and Sarah are being described, the adjective is given in masculine plural following the universal rule in languages in those days: if the whole group is male, or if there is even one male among a group of women, the masculine gender is used for the whole group. For the female gender endings to be used, the entire group must be exclusively female.
Further Study: Matthew 14:25-33; Ephesians 3:20-21; Philippians 4:13
Application: Do you believe and act on what G-d says, expecting Him to prove faithful to His word, or do you hedge and doubt, allowing reason and fear to block what G-d wants to do in your life?
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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