I’ll be honest, I can’t help being more than slightly disturbed when I read Genesis 16-19. The appalling treatment of the slavegirl Hagar (16:1-6); the disturbing story of Sodom when Lot tries to give a ravenous crowd of men his virgin daughters to “do to them as you please” (19:1-11), the creepy story of Lot’s daughters getting him drunk so they could become pregnant by him (19:30-38). Let’s just say there are nicer parts of the Bible.

First things first: reading the story of Sodom I wonder how anyone could take the story of Sodom as a blanket comment on homosexuality. The crowd of men that surround Lot’s house and demand to “know” the angels are attackers, not seducers. Yes, their attack may have a sexual element but it’s still an attack. Rape is the ‘abomination’ here, whoever it is done to. And that Lot offers his two daughters in the men’s place doesn’t necessarily imply that it would be better if the rape was heterosexual! Perhaps it implies that Lot himself has been corrupted by this place or if not that he protected them because they were guests (19:8) or even because they were angels (19:1). How this story can be equated with a loving monogamous homosexual relationship is beyond me. Just needed to get that off my chest.

Now, onto to the good stuff. What has made an impression on me more than the disturbing treatment of women and angels in these chapters is the way Abraham (given his name in chapter 17), Sarah (likewise) and Lot all communicate with God.

When told that they will still have a son, despite being 100 and 90 years old respectively, Abraham and Sarah both laugh at God. In fact,  “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). I can imagine him rolling about on the floor; “O, Lord, that’s a good one!”. He manages to get  away with it though. Not so with Sarah, she’s told off (18:9-15). I love how she tries to hide it too, telling God she didn’t laugh, to which he replies “Oh yes, you did laugh.” It’s like a pantomime.

Do you ever laugh at God? Laugh at the possibility of the impossible? Laugh at the idea of your wildest dreams coming true?

It’s nice to see in Genesis that incredulity is not only an aspect of faith in the cynical 21st century, but has always been there. Comforting to think that even the mother and father of a great nation didn’t quite believe their calling.

How about negotiating with God? Ever try your hand at that? Abraham and Lot do. I especially like the scene of Abraham trying to talk God down from destroying Sodom (18:22-33). At first he asks confidently if a Just God will destroy a city if there are even just 50 righteous people live there? God agree to spare Sodom if there are 50 righteous people. Then Abraham sees he’s on to something, tries his luck, and talks God down to 10 righteous people, each time asking with more polite reverence “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more…” Haggling with God? I didn’t know that was allowed. Lot negotiates too. When fleeing he is told not to stop anywhere in the Plain but he says “can’t I just go to that little city over there? It’s only a little one!” (perhaps not in those exact words).  And God let’s him!

So what’s that about? How much is negotiable? Is prayer negotiation? When do we argue with God and when do we just do what we’re told?

I like this God who listens to the appeals of his people, who will be reasoned with. It’s a bit anthropomorphic maybe, but there’s something quite appealing about a God that you can laugh with/at and talk to. Hagar certainly knew this in the desert when she fled from her harsh treatment (16:7-15). Although she is sent back (perhaps she could have negotiated a little better there) she is promised that it will not be in vain. And she calls God El-roi which probably means God of seeing or God who sees.

In all these stories God is almost tangibly present, there to be laughed at, scared of, reasoned with and, of course welcomed (18-1-8). He is not far off executing his plan with clinical precision but close, a guest as well as a God.

I long for a relationship with God like this. Most of the time I don’t have it but these chapters, odd and disturbing bits aside, inspire me to think of God as involved in my life. And quite right too. God is present, involved, accessible. We just need to be open to negotiation.

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In Genesis 12-15 we meet Abram, or the artist-soon-to-be know-as-Abraham as I like to call him, and his entourage. This is the man from whom God will make a great nation, the one whose descendents will be as numerous as the stars.

Seriously? This guy?

I have heard a lot about Abraham being obedient to God and confident in his promises even when there’s little hope. I’m sure it’s all true. But I’ve never really had good relationship with his stories. Today when I was reading the second story we are given about him, 12:10-20, I actually let out a little gasp despite being on a rather crowded bus. Now, I must have read this story several times before but it is still pretty shocking to me.

There’s a famine so Abram goes down into Egypt with his wife Sarai (soon-to-be Sarah). She is really beautiful and he knows the Egyptian men will desire her. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect from their lustful ways” he says… oh no, sorry what he actually does is gets her to pretend she’s his sister so that the Egyptians won’t kill him. Nice. Then of course he lets her be taken into Pharoah’s house (if you know what I mean) and laps up the brother’s benefits; sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, you name it…

Seriously? This guy??

Yes, this is the guy, dodgy marital values and ill-gotten riches don’t seem to deter God from his choice, and that makes me uncomfortable. This is just one example of many in the stories that follow of women being treated like chattel and there being no overt criticism of this treatment in the text. Sure, God does send a plague on Pharoah and put a stop do to the utterly degrading situation, but there’s no punishment for Abram. Sarai is voiceless in all this, used for her looks and sex appeal and later focussed on for ability, or inability to bear a child. This text seems so stuck in the time it was written, in a time when women were often named among property and only valued in terms of their sexual and reproductive functions.

But what would I rather? That there was a miraculous gender-equality in a story originating thousands of years ago about the firstof the patriarchs?? Well, yes that is what I’d rather, but it’s not what’s here. The Bible is timeless text in some ways, but not in others. Rejecting it because of that seems to throw the baby out with the bath water.

So is there much here for a 21st century woman? Although I find it hard to look past these injustices to a great theme, Abram’s willingness to follow God does indeed shine out from these pages. And would it really be better if he were perfect? God doesn’t call us based on our perfection. If He did then the Bible would have a lot fewer characters. And the Church would have a lot fewer members. If He did then I would certainly be off the list.

So I will try to get my relationship with the artist-soon-to-be-known-as-Abraham back on track. Not by ignoring his imperfections, nor by embracing them, but by accepting them. There are no perfect protagonists in Bible, if there were then there would be little space for us to imagine ourselves as among those God has called. He calls murderers and adulterers and persecutors (Moses, David, Paul) and makes them into imperfect servants. In doing so he shows us that there is no one He can’t use. And that’s some pretty good news.