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

I would like to remind you, dear friendsthat we offer wonderful courses and invite you to study together the Hebrew Scriptures or the  Jewish Background of the New Testament.  As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information.  Also, excerpts from my books are included in many articles on this blog,  so if you like the article, you might enjoy also the books, you can get them here.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (8 comments)

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  1. Patricia Schekahn

    Dear Julia,
    I hope you and your family and colleagues are well during these times of conflict and tension in Israel, which you must live with constantly, much more than we do in many parts of Europe. But we know and feel that we are already part of these changing processes that are taking place globally and that no one can escape.
    Thank you for the wonderful spiritual food that flows from Jerusalem, so that we may return to the right understanding if we welcome it.

    I believe the answer is: From Jerusalem to Rome – from Rome to Jerusalem.

    Above all, a response is needed! From Rome to Jerusalem! In many dimensions.

    Let us hope for the best

    God bless and protect you all.
    Patricia Schekahn

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much, Patricia! I agree, I also think that “from Rome to Jerusalem” would be the right answer, in many senses. I hope, more and more Christians would understand it. We will see how it all unfolds.

  2. Patricia Schekahn

    Dear Julia,
    Thank you so much for the wonderful illumination of the life of Abraham. It is so amazing and heart-touching. You have the wonderful gift of opening the heart’s door for God’s message to take up residence. When I read it, my heart leaps because it reminds me of the soul’s struggle for truth and faith.
    It moves something, even strengthens the inner faith that becomes close at hand.
    It is wonderful that we are allowed to share this and have a common language. That is not self-evident! It is a gift of grace from God.
    I think it breaks down what Gladys poignantly formulated about church history.
    Abraham’s hope was overwhelmingly fulfilled. Yes, he even saw the days of the Messiah coming and rejoiced ⌊Johannes 8,56⌋. If we may belong to the house of the Messiah and contend for it, we are part of Abraham’s hope. It is wonderful and encouraging what you uncover for us.
    Thank you, Julia. God bless you and your family.

    P.S.: Last year I bought Medjoul dates from Israel in the supermarket. They are particularly large and delicious.
    Instead of discarding the beautiful seeds, I put them in soil in a bowl. After the winter, to my delight, the first cotyledons appeared. A few weeks later and with much sunlight, the little plants grew bigger and bigger. The roots were already coming out at the bottom! I wanted to divide the plants and take them out of the bowl and saw they had formed very long, strong roots. They had grown solid into each other in a circle and 12 long date leaves stuck out at the top. It looked like a crown. I was very touched as I realized it. Now each plant has its own pot and looks a little bit different from the other. It was a reminder to think about Israel and the twelve tribes.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Patricia- and wow, what a beautiful story about the dates! Thank you for sharing, I was very much blessed and encouraged by this story. (I even put in the soil some date seeds, very curious to see what will happen). Blessings!

      1. Patricia Schekahn

        That’s great Julia. Thank you very much. Hope they will germinate and grow well
        to your delight.
        P.S.: By the way- all 12 plants are growing a bit different and have 3 long leaves now. But one of the plants is growing stronger, and its third palm leave is longer than those of the others 11 plants. God’s wonderful design to thank and praise him.

        .

  3. Gladys Fox

    Thanks Dear Julia ,
    I’m glad that you pointed out Abraham’s feelings . In my 80 years of life I have learned that when my heart gets broken as it has many times goodness can always follow . It hurts me to know that so many Christians have been mislead by what they are taught . I can’t help but believe that the Church in Rome and the Church of England deliberately altered some of the Bible in order for the Church to have a greater control over the people .
    I can’t help but believe that God’s heart is broken as well because He wants to be loved more that feared .
    It is my prayer that you go on bringing God’s light to us in whatever way you can .May God watch over you and those you love .

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, dear Gladys. Please, remember: this blog continues to exist, even in a new format. Every month, I will publish a new post here. So stay tuned, I still hope to hear from you on these pages!

  4. Nick Edwards

    Thanks Julia for this teaching accentuating the tension between natural and supernatural. This is surely our struggle also. I am reminded of the Christian definition of a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. I think Paul saw Jesus of Nazareth as a “sacrament” of Jesus Christ. Maybe all of creation that we see is a sacrament representing a Spiritual Source.
    Thanks,
    Nick