Noah

There is a figure in human history that the Qur’an calls a prophet and the Bible calls a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), but he could also be described as a carpenter, sailor, manager of a floating zoo or as a wine grower. You may have already guessed that this person was Noah, called Nûh by Muslims and mentioned over a hundred times in the Qur’an. Actually, versions of his story have been preserved in the traditions of at least 270 different peoples on all continents of the world. The biblical account is contained in chapters 6-9 of the book of Genesis. Let’s review his story to draw lessons from it which apply to us today.

His Story

“When the Lord saw that man’s wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every scheme his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time, the Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. Then the Lord said, ‘I will wipe off from the face of the earth mankind, whom I created, together with the animals, creatures that crawl, and birds of the sky—for I regret that I made them.’ Noah, however, found favor in the sight of the Lord. These are the family records of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among his contemporaries; Noah walked with God. And Noah fathered three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with wickedness. God saw how corrupt the earth was, for every creature had corrupted its way on the earth. Then God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to every creature, for the earth is filled with wickedness because of them; therefore I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside. This is how you are to make it: The ark will be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. You are to make a roof, finishing the sides of the ark to within 18 inches of the roof. You are to put a door in the side of the ark. Make it with lower, middle, and upper decks.

‘Understand that I am bringing a flood—floodwaters on the earth to destroy every creature under heaven with the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will die. But I will establish My covenant with you, and you will enter the ark with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. You are also to bring into the ark two of all the living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of everything—from the birds according to their kinds, from the livestock according to their kinds, and from the animals that crawl on the ground according to their kinds—will come to you so that you can keep them alive. Take with you every kind of food that is eaten; gather it as food for you and for them.’ And Noah did this. He did everything that God had commanded him.” (Genesis 6:5-22)

During the years that Noah spent constructing the ark, God showed patience toward people (1 Peter 3:20), and Noah preached and tried to warn them and lead them to repentance (2 Peter 2:5). But finally the day came when God said to Noah:

“‘Enter the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before Me in this generation. You are to take with you seven pairs, a male and its female, of all the clean animals, and two of the animals that are not clean… (Genesis 7:1,2). Seven days from now I will make it rain on the earth…’ (Genesis 7:4) And Noah did everything that the Lord commanded him (Genesis 7:5). The seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the sources of the watery depths burst open, the floodgates of the sky were opened, and the rain fell on the earth 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:11,12). The flood continued for 40 days on the earth; the waters increased and lifted up the ark so that it rose above the earth. The waters surged and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. Then the waters surged even higher on the earth, and all the high mountains under the whole sky were covered. The mountains were covered as the waters surged above them more than 20 feet. Every creature perished—those that crawl on the earth, birds, livestock, wildlife, and those that swarm on the earth, as well as all mankind (Genesis 7:17-21). Everything with the breath of the spirit of life in its nostrils—everything on dry land died… Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark (Genesis 7:22,23b). The ark came to rest in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat.

The waters continued to recede until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were visible. After 40 days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made, and he sent out a raven. It went back and forth until the waters had dried up from the earth (Genesis 8:4-7). So Noah waited seven more days and sent out the dove from the ark again. When the dove came to him at evening, there was a plucked olive leaf in her beak. So Noah knew that the water on the earth’s surface had gone down.” (Genesis 8:10,11).

After a total of a year and ten days in the ark, Noah and his family went out along with all the animals. Noah built an altar that he consecrated to the Lord. From the large animals and the birds, he took an animal of every kind that was considered pure and offered them to the Lord on the altar as a sacrifice completely consumed by the fire. The Lord smelled the pleasant aroma of the sacrifice and said, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, even though man’s inclination is evil from his youth. And I will never again strike down every living thing as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night will not cease” (Genesis 8:20-22). God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). “I confirm My covenant with you that never again will every creature be wiped out by the waters of a flood; there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between Me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all future generations: I have placed My bow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth” (Genesis 9:12,13).

Lessons on God

The narrative that we have just followed teaches us fundamental truths about God and his relations with people. We see, for example, God’s reactions in regard to our sins. First, God was saddened, grieved in His heart when He considered the rebellion and disobedience of man, his wickedness toward his fellow man, his lack of respect and gratitude toward his Creator. God hopes for better things on our part. He knows that we are capable of doing better. And He is disappointed by our behavior. But there is also justified anger and the readiness to punish iniquity. In the second epistle of Peter, the author reminds us of several sinners whom God punished in the past, including the generation of Noah. Then he says that if God did not save all these people, we can be sure that God knows “to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9).

It is true that we do not always see the guilty punished according to their crimes; some enjoy good things all their lives without ever expressing a regret for their wrongdoing. But the God of the universe is not indifferent to the unrighteousness of men, and He demonstrated this in a dramatic way with the flood. It is true that God promised not to destroy the world by another worldwide flood, but His word tells us that “the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7)

But just as this story reminds us of God’s severity, it also shows us His kindness. Peter tells us that God “patiently waited in the days of Noah while an ark was being prepared” (1 Peter 3:20). Why did He wait? “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

We also see the goodness and mercy of God in the fact that he furnished a way to escape the judgment. Through Noah, he warned people of the flood that was coming and He provided the ark, a way for them to be saved from death. Today also, God warns us of the danger awaiting the sinner. He warns us by means of the Gospel. Similarly, He offers a way of salvation, which is Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ. To quote the apostle Peter again, “His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” (1 Peter 1:3).

The Traits of Noah that We Must Imitate

Besides the principles that concern God and His interactions with people, we see in the story of Noah characteristics of a faith that pleases God—a faith that we must imitate. According to Hebrews 11:1, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV). Faith is accepting a testimony based on confidence in the source of that testimony. I have not seen Jesus in person, but I am certain that he lived on this earth and that he is the savior of the world when I consider the number of witnesses in secular history and even more in the sacred writing.

Do you realize that Noah had never seen rain, much less a worldwide flood? Today we talk about changes in the earth’s climate, but the climate of the planet was very different in Noah’s time compared to what we know now. According to Genesis 2:5,6, “the Lord God had not made it rain on the land… but water would come out of the ground and water the entire surface of the land.” So Noah had never seen rain, but since he trusted God, who had told him that He would destroy the world in a flood, Noah acted accordingly.

Hebrews 11:7 says, “By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family.” Notice that faith caused him to obey. There are many people who claim to have faith in God, but a faith that is not strong enough to be shown in obedience is useless. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

But faith always meets obstacles. Satan is always trying to weaken or suffocate it. It is generally difficult to be in the minority. We wonder if we can really be right when everyone else seems to think the opposite of what we believe. But the masses are rarely right when it comes to God. Jesus said in Matthew 7:13,14, “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.”

We can easily imagine the difficulties that Noah must have encountered—the contempt and mockery of all those who surrounded him and who surely thought that only a fool would build a huge boat far from the sea. And why had he done it? Because he believed that a great rain was going to flood the entire world—even though neither Noah nor anyone else had ever seen rain! Noah would already have not been looked upon kindly because he did not participate in the wickedness of his generation. Peter reminded Christians that pagans “are surprised that you don’t plunge with them into the same flood of wild living—and they slander you” (1 Peter 4:4). And when Noah told the others that the flood would come because of their sin and wickedness, they may have added anger and threats to mere mockery. Despite all this, Noah kept his faith in what God had said.

Conclusion

Yes, there are many things that we can learn from the story of Noah. But one of the most important is that we must take seriously the warnings about the Day of Judgment, and we must prepare.

Jesus, in speaking of his return to judge the world, said in Luke 17:26,27, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man: People went on eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the day Noah boarded the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.” Don’t let the concerns and activities of this life distract you from preparing for the last day. God will judge sin—that is absolutely certain. He is now offering His grace to those who believe. But just like the people of former times who could not be saved once Noah and his family entered the ark and God shut the door, in the same way it will be too late to obtain forgiveness when we see Jesus coming from Heaven with his holy angels to judge the world. As the apostle Peter said in Acts 2:40, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation!”

Abraham

Abraham, or Ibrahim to Muslims, is called “father” by more people than any other man. The Jews refer to Avraham avinu, Abraham our father, because they are his descendants in a physical sense by his son Isaac. Arabs are also descendants of Abraham by his son Ishmael. Not only Arabs but other Muslims also consider him “the father of the prophets.” The New Testament calls Christians “the seed” or “posterity” of Abraham (Galatians 3:29), who is called “the father of all who believe,” and we speak of the need to “follow in the footsteps of the faith our father Abraham had…” (Romans 4:12,13).

So why are so many people today proud to call themselves the sons—whether physical or spiritual—of this man who lived about 4,000 years ago? The explanation is found in the quality of his faith in God. Consider three key events in his life where this faith was evident.

His Call by God

The first was his call by God. Abraham lived in Mesopotamia, the region found between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and which now belongs to Iraq. According to Joshua 24:2, Terah, Abraham’s father, was, like his neighbors, an idolater. The God of the universe asked Abraham to make a complete break with this environment. We read in Genesis 12:1-5:

“The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you… and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated, and the people he had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan.”

It would probably have been difficult to leave one’s country, one’s friends and one’s relatives forever. But Hebrews 11:8 stresses a detail which shows the need for a great confidence in God to obey such an order: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went out to a place he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he was going.” Besides, there was no easy way of keeping in touch with members of the family who stayed behind—no mail or telephone or rapid transportation to return for visits from time to time. Abraham would never again set foot in his home country.

This is important because God took this time to carry out His promise to give him a country of his own. Hebrews 11 continues:

“By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with [his son] Isaac and [his grandson] Jacob, co-heirs of the same promise… These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:9, 13-16)

Already in the life of Abraham, we see an example which is easily applicable to ourselves. Through the Gospel, God also calls us to leave this world to seek a better homeland that He has promised us. For us, it is not necessarily a question of leaving a geographical place. It is rather a question of transferring our loyalties, changing our habits and values, of making a break with the world and the sin with which it is filled. Listen to these biblical passages:

“Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s sanctuary have with idols? For we are the sanctuary of the living God, as God said: ‘I will dwell among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people. Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord; do not touch any unclean thing, and I will welcome you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be sons and daughters to Me, says the Lord Almighty.’ Therefore, dear friends, since we have such promises, let us cleanse ourselves from every impurity of the flesh and spirit, completing our sanctification in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1).

“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)

The promised land of the Christian is not found in the Middle East, in Palestine—it is in heaven. And to enter into possession of this heavenly country, we must detach ourselves in a way from this world down here. We are still in the world, of course, and called to be lights in the world, but we must see ourselves now as strangers. Our homeland and property are also somewhere else. Like Abraham, we cannot see these things physically with our eyes. We see them by faith. We accept the testimony of God. Being convinced of His faithfulness in all that He has promised, we can make a break with this world of sin. In this way, we walk in the steps of faith of our father, Abraham.

The Promise of a Son

After having left his country, Abraham continued to show his confidence in God. This was in connection with another promise of God. In Genesis 15:1-6, we read:

“After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward will be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what can You give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ Abram continued, ‘Look, You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.’ Now the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then He said to him, ‘Your offspring will be that numerous.’ Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.”

Remember that Abraham was already 75 years old when God called him. He had never had a child and his wife, Sarah, who was 65 years old, was barren (Genesis 11:30). Yet, time went on and Abraham could not help but wonder how God would carry out His promise to make of him a great nation. But when God made his promise even more explicit, Abraham trusted Him. Even after this very direct promise, God made Abraham and his wife, Sarah, wait until they were 100 and 90 years old, respectively.

Nevertheless the patriarch did not abandon his faith in God. After 25 years of waiting, Abraham received what God had promised him. His wife Sarah, barren since her youth and now 90 years old, gave birth to his son, Isaac. Here is how the apostle Paul described the situation in Romans 4:18-22:

“Abraham believed and hoped, even when there was no reason for hoping, and so became ‘the father of many nations.’… He was then almost 100 years old; but his faith did not weaken when he thought of his body, which was already practically dead, or of the fact that Sarah could not have children. His faith did not leave him, and he did not doubt God’s promise; his faith filled him with power, and he gave praise to God. He was absolutely sure that God would be able to do what he had promised. That is why Abraham, through faith, ‘was accepted as righteous by God’.”

This idea is not easy for some people to accept, but it is fundamental: man is not morally just before God through his own righteousness, by his own good works. Abraham was a sinner, just as we are. The Bible doesn’t hide his weaknesses. He was a fallible man, just as we all are, and he was able to be saved only by the grace and mercy of God. When the Lord considered the life of Abraham, He did not see righteousness or moral perfection. But He saw sincere faith and obedience, a faith that was shown to be active and living from the day that God gave him the order to leave Mesopotamia. So the Bible tells us more than once, “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). On the basis of Abraham’s faith and looking ahead to the sacrifice for sin that would be made by Jesus Christ, God counted Abraham as a righteous man.

Again we can apply Abraham’s example to our own lives. As we’ve seen, Abraham was not fooled by appearances (his age, his physical condition, the time that had passed since God had made the promise of a child, Sarah’s sterility, etc.). He did not doubt in his heart. Now, in general, people accept the Word of God only as far as they find it to be reasonable, in keeping with their experiences and conceptions. When it comes to material needs, they have trouble giving generously, in spite of God’s promises to bless the one who gives a lot with a good heart, because they can’t see in advance how God will manage to compensate them.

When it comes to spiritual things, many do not want to obey the simple commands of God, such as the instruction to be baptized. They don’t see logically how forgiveness of sins would be related to allowing oneself to be immersed in water. Instead of accepting God’s words, they doubt and dispute. They need to consider and imitate the faith of Abraham, the father of believers.

The Order to Sacrifice His Son

The most difficult proof of Abraham’s faith was shown some years later. When the son he had been promised and waited so long for had grown, God said to Abraham, “Take your son… your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (Genesis 22:2). Imagine the thoughts that would cross your mind if you had been in Abraham’s place. “How could God ask me to do such a thing? It’s cruel. This doesn’t make sense. Why would He give me a child just to tell me to kill him? It would have been better to not give him to me. I love this child more than anything else. It’s too much to ask. How can God fulfill the other promises he made to me if I kill the one by whom those promises were to be fulfilled? How can I worship such a God?” But the Bible does not tell us much about Abraham’s thoughts on this occasion. The text says simply:

“So Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his young men and his son Isaac. He split wood for a burnt offering and set out to go to the place God had told him about… When they arrived at the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ He replied, ‘Here I am.’ Then He said, ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from Me.’ Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son.” (Genesis 22:3, 9-13)

Abraham completely submitted himself to God. He did not allow himself to doubt the faithfulness and love of God. He obeyed Him promptly, even though he could not know the reason for the command. According to Hebrews 11:19, Abraham had this confidence in God: “He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead, and as an illustration, he received him back.” What about us? God doesn’t ask us to cut the throat of a child or sacrifice him on an altar. But can we agree to lose what is very dear to us in order to be faithful to God? Would we be willing die ourselves rather than deny Him? Are we confident that God will do what He promised in His word and that He loves us, no matter what tests we endure?

Conclusion

As Jesus said, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did” (John 8:39). God’s blessing promised to the descendants of Abraham—a spiritual blessing which consists of eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ—is for those who are true children of Abraham, those who show an active and obedient faith. Is Abraham your spiritual father?

Ishmael

In our last study, we spoke of that great man of faith, Abraham. Time did not allow us to look at all the many details of events in his life, but in studying another person in the Bible and the Qur’an we will at the same time have another look at Abraham. This other person is Ishmael, Abraham’s first son.

For Muslims, the existence of this first son suggests that there is an error in the biblical account of the order that God gives to Abraham to sacrifice his son. You see, according to the Bible, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (Genesis 22:2). Now Isaac has an older brother who alone, before Isaac came into the world, could have been an “only son” of the patriarch Abraham. Ishmael was the ancestor of the Arabs. When Muslims observe the feast of Tabaski, they commemorate the sacrifice, not of Isaac but of Ishmael.

The biblical book of Genesis was written by the prophet Moses more than two thousand years before the birth of Muhammad. Since Moses was much closer in time to the actual events, it would seem he was in a better position to know Abraham’s history. But if there is a contradiction in his writings, would we not say that someone may have changed the text and that the version which we have is corrupted? Or is there an explanation that makes it possible to understand why Isaac, who had an older brother, was called by God “the only son” of Abraham?

His Birth

In speaking of Abraham, we saw that he one day said to God, “You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.” The Lord responded to him that it would not be his servant but: “…one who comes from your own body will be your heir” (Genesis 15:3,4). He simply had to be patient and wait until God fulfilled his promise. Unfortunately, at some point Abraham listened to the suggestion of his wife, Sarai (Sarah), who apparently thought that it was necessary for them to help God in doing what He had promised. We read from the first verse in Genesis 16:

“Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, ‘Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.’ And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan ten years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant.” (Genesis 16:1-4)

This suggestion by Sarai may seem strange to us, but archaeologists have recovered writings from the time and country of origin of Abraham and Sarah which describe this custom allowing a barren woman to give to her husband a servant who might bear children in the name of the legitimate wife. (This is the same custom that the two wives of Jacob followed some time later.)

But things did not happen as Sarah had wanted. The Bible says:

“When she [Hagar] realized that she was pregnant, she treated her mistress with contempt. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘You are responsible for my suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and ever since she saw that she was pregnant, she has treated me with contempt. May the Lord judge between me and you.’ Abram replied to Sarai, ‘Here, your slave is in your hands; do whatever you want with her.’ Then Sarai mistreated her so much that she ran away from her.” (Genesis 16:4-6)

Again, the story may seem a little strange to us. Isn’t Sarah unfair in accusing her husband? Actually, according to the law of that time, the handmaid became the responsibility of the husband, who was therefore supposed to correct her lack of respect toward Sarah. As with most polygamists, Abraham surely must have had conflicting emotions—love for the wife of his youth but also tenderness toward one who was carrying his child in her womb. We see that the disadvantages of polygamy showed themselves quickly in Abraham’s home.

Let us continue with the story in Genesis. Hagar had fled into the desert:

“The Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. He said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She replied, ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.’ Then the Angel of the Lord said to her, ‘You must go back to your mistress and submit to her mistreatment.’ The Angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will greatly multiply your offspring, and they will be too many to count.’ Then the Angel of the Lord said to her: ‘You have conceived and will have a son. You will name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your cry of affliction. This man will be like a wild donkey.’” (Genesis 16:7-12)

As we will see, the child carried by Hagar was not the one of which God had spoken to Abram. Nevertheless, God cared about Hagar and promised that her son would become the father of a great people. In saying that he would be a wild donkey, God consoled Hagar. This is because the wild donkey is an animal which keeps its independence, which is not controlled by men. Hagar was a slave and oppressed by her mistress, but this would not be her son’s fate. So Hagar returned to Abraham and Sarah and had a baby boy. Abram was 86 years old when Hagar gave him this son.

The Birth of the Promised Son

Thirteen years later, the Lord appeared to Abram and renewed his promise, saying:

“‘As for Me, My covenant is with you: you will become the father of many nations… I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations… To you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan… As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai, for Sarah will be her name. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will produce nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’

Abraham fell facedown. Then he laughed and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? Can Sarah, a ninety-year-old woman, give birth?’ So Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael were acceptable to You!’

But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father twelve tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.’” (Genesis 17:4, 6-8, 15-21).

We see here that God was not against Ishmael, but he was not the child that God had promised and he was not part of the plan that God had to bless the world through a descendant of Abraham. According to God’s promise, Sarah would become pregnant and bring into the world a son, Isaac. When the child had grown old enough to be weaned, there was a celebration. On this occasion, Sarah saw Ishmael teasing his little half-brother. So she told Abraham:

“‘Drive out this slave with her son, for the son of this slave will not be a coheir with my son Isaac!’ Now this was a very difficult thing for Abraham because of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be concerned about the boy and your slave. Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her, because your offspring will be traced through Isaac. But I will also make a nation of the slave’s son because he is your offspring.’” (Genesis 21:10-13).

The next day, Abraham sent away Hagar and Ishmael. This did not mean that Abraham would not see Ishmael again until his death. According to Genesis 25, when Abraham died, he left all his belongings to Isaac but he had previously provided Ishmael with gifts. The Bible also specifies that Isaac and Ismael both buried their father, but that Ismael and his descendants settled away from the other descendants of Abraham, outside the Promised Land.

Considering all this history, we see why God called Isaac “an only son” of Abraham. He was the only child of Sarah—the legal wife, the only child that God had promised, the only heir of Abraham, and the only who was part of the agreement God had with his servant. So the word translated as “only” means “the only one of its kind” which correctly describes Isaac.

An Allegory

In the epistle to the Galatians, a book in the New Testament, the apostle Paul uses Ishmael’s story to illustrate the difference between the old covenant which God made with the people of Israel during the time of Moses, and the new covenant under which we live today. The Christians in the province of Galatia, as it happened, were listening to Jewish false teachers who persuaded some of them to be circumcised and to obey the regulations of the Jewish law given to Moses at Mount Sinai. During Paul’s time, the capital of those who followed this Mosaic Law was the city of Jerusalem, where the temple was located. At this time, there were followers of the Mosaic Law who were persecuting Christians and trying to prevent the preaching of the Gospel. So Paul wrote this:

“Tell me, those of you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and the other by a free woman. But the one by the slave was born according to the impulse of the flesh, while the one by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things are illustrations, for the women represent the two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery—this is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother… Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as then the child born according to the flesh persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so also now. But what does the Scripture say? Drive out the slave and her son, for the son of the slave will never be a coheir with the son of the free woman. Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” (Galatians 4:21-26, 28-31)

Paul follows his idea by urging his readers not to return to the old law. In Christ, they were free of this “slavery” to the Jewish law with its ceremonies, its numerous rules about food, its holy days, its animal sacrifices every day, etc. He goes so far as to say, “You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). This lesson is still useful in our time, for there are many who believe in Jesus but justify their religious practices by appealing to the old Jewish Law—whether it is the use of instrumental music or dancing in the worship of God, the existence of a class of priests within the people of God, the requirement of paying the tithe or keeping the Sabbath, or the ban on eating certain meats. He tells them that the inheritance of God is for those who are “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).

Born According to the Promise

Ishmael is not at all presented in the Bible as a man who is unrighteous or unworthy. He was simply not the child that God had promised to Abraham… not the son who would receive the father’s inheritance or be the ancestor of Jesus, the one by whom God intended to offer His blessing to the whole world.

Like Ishmael and Isaac, we don’t choose the role we play in the plans of God, the One who is all-powerful and sovereign. But today God offers us the possibility of becoming “heirs according to the promise”, sons and daughters of Abraham, and heirs of eternal blessings. By what means? By faith and baptism, obedience to the gospel. Let’s conclude with these words from Galatians 3:26-29:

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.”

Lot

The Qur’an contains numerous references to Lot (or Lut in Arabic), as he is considered to be one of the prophets. The Bible never uses the word “prophet” in speaking of him, but it does present him as a righteous man, living among an extremely evil people—sexually perverse and in rebellion against God. In fact, Lot is especially remembered for the dramatic way in which God saved him when divine punishment came on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In spite of Lot’s righteousness and the salvation that God granted him, there is a tragic side to his story.

Lot Becomes a Resident of Sodom

Let us begin with an explanation of the way in which Lot came to live in Sodom. Previously we spoke of Abraham, whom God called, telling him to leave Mesopotamia to go to the land of Canaan. According to Genesis 12, Abraham took with him not only his wife Sarah but also his nephew Lot, the son of his brother Haran who had died. After some time in Canaan, a problem arose for Abraham. According to Genesis 13:5-13:

“Now Lot, who was traveling with Abram, also had flocks, herds, and tents. But the land was unable to support them as long as they stayed together, for they had so many possessions that they could not stay together, and there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites were living in the land. Then Abram said to Lot, ‘Please, let’s not have quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, since we are relatives. Isn’t the whole land before you? Separate from me: if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.’ Lot looked out and saw that the entire Jordan Valley as far as Zoar was well watered everywhere like the Lord’s garden and the land of Egypt. This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose the entire Jordan Valley for himself. Then Lot journeyed eastward, and they separated from each other. Abram lived in the land of Canaan, but Lot lived in the cities of the valley and set up his tent near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning greatly against the Lord.”

This episode highlights the generosity and nobility of soul of the patriarch Abraham who allowed his nephew to choose first the territory that he wanted to take for his herds. As for Lot, one wouldn’t say that he sinned in the choice that he made. It seemed logical to choose an area that could best support his herds. All the same he showed a kind of selfishness. In addition, he did not take into account the spiritual danger of an environment where, as the text says, “the men… were evil, sinning greatly against the Lord.” In deciding to live near Sodom, Lot planted a seed that would later produce very bitter fruit.

In the following chapters, it is written that Lot lived in Sodom. He was no longer near Sodom nor encamped next to the city. He was now one of the inhabitants of the city. So when a foreign army attacked the city and took property and many prisoners, Lot and his family were found among the captives. When Abraham learned this news, he gathered 300 of his servants plus those of three chiefs with whom he was allied. They pursued the enemy army which was retreated to its own country, attacked them and recovered the booty as well as Lot, the women and other prisoners.

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

In chapter 19, we find that Lot is still living in a house in the city of Sodom, when God sent angels to verify the wickedness of its citizens and to bring punishment.

“Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground. And he said, ‘Here now, my lords, please turn in to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way.’ And they said, ‘No, but we will spend the night in the open square.’ But he insisted strongly; so they turned in to him and entered his house. Then he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.’

So Lot went out to them through the doorway, shut the door behind him, and said, ‘Please, my brethren, do not do so wickedly! See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you wish; only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof.’ And they said, ‘Stand back!’ Then they said, ‘This one came in to stay here, and he keeps acting as a judge; now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ So they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near to break down the door. But the men reached out their hands and pulled Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they became weary trying to find the door.” (Genesis 19:1-11)

(Before moving farther, let’s point out that this story is one of many biblical passages that show God’s attitude toward homosexual practices—He firmly condemns them. Many western societies and so-called Christians support homosexuality and certain churches go so far as naming leaders who openly practice this abominable sin. Don’t draw the conclusion that this is the position of true Christianity, or that the Bible approves this immorality. These are people who completely turn away from the true teaching of the Word of God.)

To return to the story of Lot, the angels afterward told Lot to take his family outside of the city because God had sent them to destroy it. Lot went to warn the husbands of his daughters but they didn’t believe what he told them. As Lot was hesitating “the men took hold of his hand, his wife’s hand, and the hands of his two daughters, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. So it came to pass, when they had brought them outside, that he said, ‘Escape for your life! Do not look behind you nor stay anywhere in the plain. Escape to the mountains, lest you be destroyed’” (Genesis 19:16,17). When they had left, “then the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens. So He overthrew those cities, all the plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But his wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:24-26).

Why did Lot’s wife look back at the city which had fallen under such severe judgment from God? Perhaps she was thinking of the loss of her house, their business, friends and lifestyle that would be no more. But this look back cost her her life. How dangerous it is to allow our hearts to be attached to this sinful world! When God takes pity on us and offers us eternal life, we should accept it with gratitude and never look back, sighing for the temporary enjoyments and pleasures offered by this world. These things would risk leading us back into condemnation.

The Origin of the Moabites and Ammonites

The rest of the story of Lot is also sad. Having fled into the mountains, Lot and the two daughters who remained to him took refuge in a cave. The Bible says:

“Now the firstborn said to the younger, ‘Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to come in to us as is the custom of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the lineage of our father.’ So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. It happened on the next day that the firstborn said to the younger, ‘Indeed I lay with my father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve the lineage of our father.’ Then they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father. The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites to this day. And the younger, she also bore a son and called his name Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the people of Ammon to this day.” (Genesis 19:31-38)

Is it necessary to say that the years in Sodom had taught Lot’s daughters this gross immorality? They probably would not have committed incest in other circumstances, but it is obvious that they had not taken to heart the lesson that they had witnessed about God’s anger against immorality. They considered that the end would justify the means… that the desire to give an heir to their father justified the sin of incest. Unfortunately, the end does not justify sinful means.

The part of the story of Lot that we have just seen is not mentioned in the Qur’an, and some Muslims find it to be a scandalous lie. Here is the reaction of one of them:

“Islam violently condemns the sordid portrait of the prophet Lot made by the Bible. All of this story was invented by Jewish theologians with the intent of eliminating any noble descent outside their own, that is to say the descendants of Jacob. This grants them a privileged position which accords to them alone a promised land.”

But this criticism of the Bible is not right. (1) First, we can see that the Bible does not in any way hide the unworthy actions of the notable ancestors of the Jews: Jacob used deception toward his father to steal the blessing that would have been granted to his brother. The fathers of the ten Israelite tribes, out of mere jealousy, sold their own brother into slavery. Levi, the father of the Jewish priesthood, massacred the men of an entire city for a crime committed by one young man. Judah, the ancestor of all the Jewish kings, fathered twins by his daughter-in-law. Among the ancestors of Jesus was one of those twins, a pagan prostitute named Rahab, the woman Bathsheba with whom David committed adultery and several kings the Bible accuses of idolatry. It was not out of racism or nationalism that the authors of the Bible told the truth about the origins of the Moabites and Ammonites. Otherwise they would have hidden all these nasty details of their own history.

(2) Next, we can observe that the Bible writers are not seeking a position that would give to them alone the right to a promised land. On the contrary, when the Israelites left Egypt and God led them toward the country that He had promised to their ancestors, the Lord clearly recognized the rights of the Moabites and Ammonites to their own territories. According to Deuteronomy 2:9, the Lord said, “Show no hostility toward Moab, and do not provoke them to battle, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” Similarly in verse 19, “When you get close to the Ammonites, don’t show any hostility to them or fight with them, for I will not give you any of the Ammonites’ land as a possession; I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”

Lot’s Good Qualities

Finally, we can see that the story concerning the shameful act of Lot’s daughters does not constitute condemnation of Lot himself. The Bible affirms that Lot, whose daughters made him drink, was not aware of their incestuous acts. No, Lot was a righteous man. Here is the description of him that we find in 2 Peter 2:7,8: “…and if He rescued righteous Lot, distressed by the unrestrained behavior of the immoral (for as he lived among them, that righteous man tormented himself day by day with the lawless deeds he saw and heard).” Besides it’s certain that Lot is given to us as an example to follow in Hebrews 13:2: “Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it.”

There is no reason to damage Lot’s good reputation. Nevertheless, let us learn from the error he committed in settling down near Sodom, and let us be wary of the dangerous influence of this world corrupted by sin.

Isaac

Among the great people of the Bible and the Qur’an, the name of Isaac (or Ishâq among Arabs) is certainly well-known. But most of the time, the name simply appears in an expression like “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” We know that Isaac is associated with these two more famous men, but what do you know about Isaac himself besides the fact that he was the son of Abraham and the father of Jacob?

You probably know that he was born in accordance with a promise of God to his father Abraham and his mother Sarah, when they were both very advanced in age. But what good or bad did he do in his life? Can you describe his character, his way of acting or reacting?

Subject to God and to His Father

The first biblical narrative that reveals to us something of Isaac’s character is found in Genesis 22, and this is probably the best-known event of his life. We have already talked about it in connection to Abraham and also in connection to Ishmael. It concerns the day when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son. According to the Bible:

“After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he answered. ‘Take your son,’ He said, ‘your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.’ So Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his young men and his son Isaac. He split wood for a burnt offering and set out to go to the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. In his hand he took the fire and the sacrificial knife, and the two of them walked on together. Then Isaac spoke to his father Abraham and said, ‘My father.’ And he replied, ‘Here I am, my son.’ Isaac said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered, ‘God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ Then the two of them walked on together.

When they arrived at the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ He replied, ‘Here I am.’ Then He said, ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from Me.’” (Genesis 22:1-12).

We have already considered the story from the point of view of Abraham, but it is useful to look closer at this son who almost died. Some think that he was already between 16 and 25 years old. The Bible does not mention his age, but we see that he was old enough to carry the wood while climbing the slopes of a mountain which was apparently too steep for the donkey. He was surely strong enough and quick enough to not be trapped by an old man of more than a hundred years—his father Abraham. He must have understood that it would be himself who would be offered. Obviously, this young man voluntarily submitted to his father who tried to obey God’s command. So we see in this young man a faith and submission that amaze us. This is exactly what stands out from the version of this event presented in the Qur’an.

In Surah 37 – Saffat, from aya 100, Abraham said, “Lord, grant me a righteous son.” Allah answers in the first person plural:

“We gave him the good news that he would have a patient, forbearing son. And when he reached the age when he could work with him, he [Abraham] said, ‘O my son, I have seen in a dream that I am sacrificing you. So tell me what you think of it!’ He replied, ‘O my father, do as you are commanded; and God willing, you will find me steadfast.’ When they had both submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on his face, We called out to him, ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled the dream.’ It is thus indeed that We reward those who do good—that surely was a manifest trial —We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, and left him thus to be succeeded by a group [of followers] among later generations: ‘Peace and salutation to Abraham!’ That is how We recompense the righteous: truly, he was one of Our faithful servants. We gave Abraham the good news of Isaac—a prophet and a righteous man—and blessed him and Isaac too”

As you see, Abraham’s son is as remarkable as his father in this story, being so ready to accept the will of the Creator.

We have already remarked in this series of lessons that when Muslims observe the feast of Tabaski, they commemorate the sacrifice, not of Isaac but of Ishmael. But have you noticed that the Qur’an does not specify the name of the young man at the beginning of the account? The name of Isaac doesn’t appear until verse 112 and we don’t really know if verse 101 refers to him or the older son, Ishmael. It is successors to Muhammad who specify in their comments that the narrative concerns Ishmael and who introduce his name in certain translations. It is true that the majority of current commentators make Ishmael the son who was offered for sacrifice, but certain Muslim commentators in times past used to speak of Isaac instead.

According to Surah 11 – Houd, God had promised the birth of Jacob at the same time that He promised the birth of Isaac. It is sometimes argued that God would not order the sacrifice of Isaac whose offspring had already been announced. But according to Genesis 16:10 and 17:20, God had also announced in advance the posterity of Ishmael. If one is willing to admit it, neither the Qur’an nor Muhammad contradict the Bible on this point. It was Muhammad’s successors who apparently gave an interpretation of the Koranic text which puts it in conflict with the Torah.

But let us get on with our study of the patriarch Isaac.

Husband of One Wife

In Genesis 24, we find that after the death of his wife Sarah, Abraham wanted to find a wife for Isaac. He did not want to give his son a pagan wife from the land of Canaan where he lived. He engaged the oldest of his servants to return to his relatives in upper Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. Guided by the hand of God, the servant found the one that God had apparently designated for Isaac. She was named Rebecca. After a very long journey, the caravan of Abraham’s servant returned with the young woman. The Bible says:

“In the early evening Isaac went out to walk in the field, and looking up he saw camels coming. Rebecca looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she got down from her camel and asked the servant, ‘Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?’ The servant answered, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. Then the servant told Isaac everything he had done. And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah and took Rebecca to be his wife. Isaac loved her, and he was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:63-67)

This small glimpse already shows us Isaac as a sensitive man, still regretting the loss of his mother four years after her death. The text shows us a spiritual man who finds time to be alone and meditate. It also shows us a man who would be a devoted husband. Isaac loved Rebecca, and she was the only woman he loved throughout his life. His father Abraham had had as wives Hagar and later Keturah. Isaac’s sons each had four wives. But Isaac was married to only one, and he remained faithful to her all his life—and this despite the fact that Rebecca was barren through the first twenty years of their marriage!

Man of Peace

The following chapter gives us another view of Isaac’s character, and what we see there agrees well with what we have already observed about him:

“Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundred times what was sown. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich and kept getting richer until he was very wealthy. He had flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, and many slaves, and the Philistines were envious of him. The Philistines stopped up all the wells that his father’s slaves had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with dirt. And Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Leave us, for you are much too powerful for us.’ So Isaac left there, camped in the Valley of Gerar, and lived there. Isaac reopened the water wells that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and that the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died. He gave them the same names his father had given them. Then Isaac’s slaves dug in the valley and found a well of spring water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen and said, ‘The water is ours!’ So he named the well Esek [Quarrel] because they quarreled with him. Then they dug another well and quarreled over that one also, so he named it Sitnah [Hostility]. He moved from there and dug another, and they did not quarrel over it. He named it Rehoboth [Open Spaces] and said, ‘For now the Lord has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land.’” (Genesis 26:12-22)

We easily understand that in an arid land, nothing is more precious than water, so it can become a subject of conflict. When we are in the right in a quarrel and when we also know ourselves to be stronger than our adversary, it is difficult to allow ourselves to be victims of injustice. The text clearly says that the neighbors of Isaac considered him to be very strong—he would have been able to have his way. He would have been able to use intimidation or strength to enforce his rights to the water from the wells which his servants had dug. But Isaac was a man of peace—a man who preferred to withdraw peacefully rather than resort to violence. He put his fate in God’s hands, knowing that evil men could not prevent God from blessing him.

In this situation, Isaac demonstrated the attitude and behavior that Jesus and his apostles taught Christians. Listen to the words of the apostle Peter:

“For it brings favor if, mindful of God’s will, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if you sin and are punished, and you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God. For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps. He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth; when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:19-23)

Conclusion

Isaac was not like Jesus, a man without sin. Time does not permit us to examine passages in which faults in his character can be seen. But altogether, this is a man worth imitating. In fact, in a world where everyone wants to save his own skin, we should think about a young man who was not willing to kill but was willing to allow himself to be killed if this was the will of God. In a world where women are treated like objects simply for the pleasure of men… in a world where women and men prefer sexual freedom and easy divorce… it is refreshing to think about a man who loved one woman his whole life. And in a world where everyone is ready to do anything to protect their personal interests, we need to learn to model the behavior of a man who knew how to bear injustice and put judgment in God’s hands.

Jacob

When people write history, they sometimes show favoritism to their heroes. They exaggerate their virtues, or they are silent about the faults of their ancestors, their former leaders or their prophets. In the Bible, we find that the narratives about great men, even men of God, show us not only their strong points but also the weaknesses of these men. As the word of God tells us in several places, “God doesn’t show favoritism,” or “there is no favoritism with God” (Acts 10:34, Rom. 2:11, Eph. 6:9, etc.). This objectivity of the Bible is seen clearly in the story of the person who is the subject of today’s study—Jacob, the father of the people of Israel.

Jacob, or Ya’qub, is mentioned several times in the Qur’an, but most of the details concerning him relate to his son, Joseph. To know the story of the life of Jacob before Joseph was sold in Egypt, it is necessary to consult the Bible. But as we have just suggested, there is no need to doubt the truthfulness of the story simply because it was written and preserved for the Jews. It is very evident that the Jews have not modified or whitewashed the story of Jacob to protect the reputation of their ancestor. On the contrary, the biblical narrative presents a man whom God chose and used in spite of serious defects.

The story of Jacob is found primarily in chapters 25–35 in the book of Genesis. Obviously we cannot look at all these details in this study. We will try to touch on certain key events.

Birth—Purchase of the Birthright

Here is the story of the birth of Jacob:

“These are the family records of Isaac son of Abraham. Abraham fathered Isaac. Isaac was 40 years old when he took as his wife Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan-aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was childless. The Lord heard his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. But the children inside her struggled with each other, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb; two people will come from you and be separated. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’

When her time came to give birth, there were indeed twins in her womb. The first one came out red-looking, covered with hair like a fur coat, and they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out grasping Esau’s heel with his hand. So he was named Jacob. Isaac was 60 years old when they were born.

When the boys grew up, Esau became an expert hunter, an outdoorsman, but Jacob was a quiet man who stayed at home. Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for wild game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field exhausted. He said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, because I’m exhausted.’ That is why he was also named Edom. Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ ‘Look,’ said Esau, ‘I’m about to die, so what good is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to Jacob and sold his birthright to him. Then Jacob gave bread and lentil stew to Esau; he ate, drank, got up, and went away. So Esau despised his birthright.” (Genesis 25:19-34)

Certainly, everyone in this story had his share of blame. Esau, known by Muslims by the name Al Eis, was wrong to despise the heritage of his fathers, Isaac and Abraham, for this heritage was not only material, but also spiritual. God had promised to bless the whole world through the descendants of these men, but Esau didn’t hesitate to sacrifice for a simple meal his privileged place in this family lineage. It is a foolish trade—to sell oneself for the pleasure of a moment, a pleasure that satisfies for just a brief time. Much later, the Bible cites Esau as an example not to be followed, when it says, “And make sure that there isn’t any immoral or irreverent person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for one meal.” (Hebrews 12:16)

But Jacob also acted badly. Finding Esau in a moment of weakness, he exploited his brother’s hunger for his own gain. He was lacking in brotherly love and treated him in a way he would not have wanted to be treated. But the unworthy behavior of these brothers did not stop there.

Deception of His Father

The narrative continues in Genesis 27, where we see that Isaac, being old and practically blind, calls his son Esau and tells him to go hunting. He says to him, “Look, I am old and do not know the day of my death. Take your hunting gear, your quiver and bow, and go out in the field to hunt some game for me. Then make me a delicious meal that I love and bring it to me to eat, so that I can bless you before I die.” Now Rebekah was listening to what Isaac said to his son Esau” (Genesis 27:2-5).

Rebekah called Jacob and told him what she had heard. She suggested making a good meal for Isaac, putting some of Esau’s clothes on Jacob, sending Jacob in to Isaac with the meal before Esau returned and leading Isaac to believe that he was Esau already returned to receive the blessing. Jacob was afraid to accept his mother’s proposition. He said, “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a man with smooth skin. Suppose my father touches me. Then I will be revealed to him as a deceiver and bring a curse rather than a blessing on myself” (Genesis 27:11,12). But with the skin of the goats whose meat she had just cooked, Rebekah covered Jacob’s arms and the smooth parts of his neck. She and her son pulled it off, and Isaac took Jacob to be his first son.

It isn’t clear if Isaac knew that Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob, but he certainly knew about the word the Lord had given to Rebekah concerning both sons before their birth. Nevertheless, Isaac preferred his favorite son and tried to get around the prophecy with his paternal blessing. According to the custom of the time, this blessing, validated by a ceremonial meal, was the way the father officially accorded the birthright to a son. Isaac blessed Jacob with the dew, agricultural abundance, and dominion over other nations and over his brothers (the Edomites, that is the descendants of his brother Esau). For Esau, Isaac predicted a more desert country, violence and conflict, and subjection to Israel.

Flight to Laban and Vision of the Ladder

The consequences of this deliberate deception were unfortunate. When Esau returned from the fields and learned what had happened, his heart was filled with bitterness and he cried out loudly.

“Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. And Esau determined in his heart: ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’ When the words of her older son Esau were reported to Rebekah, she summoned her younger son Jacob and said to him, ‘Listen, your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. So now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him for a few days until your brother’s anger subsides— until your brother’s rage turns away from you and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will send for you and bring you back from there. Why should I lose you both in one day?’” (Genesis 27:41-45)

Jacob followed his mother’s advice and left Beer Sheba where the family lived and arrived at a place that would be called Bethel, some kilometers north of what would become Jerusalem.

“He reached a certain place and spent the night there because the sun had set. He took one of the stones from the place, put it there at his head, and lay down in that place. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground with its top reaching heaven, and God’s angels were going up and down on it. Yahweh was standing there before him, saying, ‘I am Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your offspring the land that you are now sleeping on. Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out toward the west, the east, the north, and the south. All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Look, I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’” (Genesis 28:11-15)

Jacob was very impressed by this dream and by the place where it took place, to which he gave the name Bethel or “house of God.” He set up a monument there and made a vow of faithfulness to God, promising to give back a tenth of all that God would give to him. The exact meaning of what Jacob had seen is not explained, but it seems to represent the continual intervention (or providence) of God by means of His messengers, the angels, in what takes place among men upon the earth. If God said to Jacob that He would not abandon him, it means that He would accompany him and send him help when he needed it. Jacob began to understand that the God of his fathers is not limited to a single place, but that He is truly God of all the earth.

Deceived by Laban

In spite of God’s help, Jacob faced trials where he went. He found his uncle Laban and was warmly welcomed. Having fallen in love with Rachel, Laban’s daughter, Jacob proposed to his uncle that he work for him for seven years in a place of a dowry to be able to marry Rachel. Laban accepted this proposal and at the end of seven years, they had the wedding feast. But the next morning, Jacob discovered that he had spent the night with Leah, Laban’s older daughter and not the one that Jacob loved and for whom he had served Laban. Laban defended his trickery by saying simply that it was not their custom to give the younger sister in marriage before the older one. Jacob was forced to work another seven years as a shepherd for Laban to have Rachel. In all, he spent 20 years with Laban, and his relationship with his father-in-law was not good. When he was leaving to go back home, he said to his uncle:

I’ve been with you these 20 years. Your ewes and female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams from your flock. I did not bring you any of the flock torn by wild beasts; I myself bore the loss. You demanded payment from me for what was stolen by day or by night. There I was—the heat consumed me by day and the frost by night, and sleep fled from my eyes. For 20 years I have worked in your household—14 years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks—and you have changed my wages 10 times! If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, certainly now you would have sent me off empty-handed.” (Genesis 31:38-42)

Let us add that during this time of Jacob’s exile, his mother Rebekah died.

Conclusion

We began by stating that the Bible reveals the faults as well as the virtues of the people of which it speaks. Now let us return to the episode when Jacob stole his father’s blessing. It’s important to not draw a lesson from this story that God would not want us to draw. Instead of thinking that Jacob sowed evil (the lie) and reaped good (his father’s blessing), we should remember the trouble he endured: 1) Jacob and his mother never saw one another again after the separation that was caused by their deception. 2) Jacob, who had tricked his father, was tricked himself by his father-in-law Laban. For those who know the rest of the story, they will recall that Jacob was deceived even more cruelly by his own sons, who sold their little brother Joseph as a slave and made their father believe that he had been torn by wild animals. 3) Finally, Jacob, who as son of an extremely powerful sheik had been a man of power and influence, was forced to work very hard as a servant for twenty years. He reaped a lot of misfortune for his sin.

And why did Rebekah and Jacob commit this sin? They knew that God had announced before the birth of Esau and Jacob that the descendants of the second son would be more blessed than those of the first. God had a plan for the children of Jacob, a people who He had already chosen for a specific purpose. The problem was that Rebekah and Jacob believed they had to help God fulfill His own promise.

In addition, they thought the ends justified the means and that all means were good if they obtained what they sought. But the Almighty doesn’t need us to do wrong so that He can bring about what He has planned. Let us always trust Him and stay in the path of righteousness and integrity.

Joseph (Part 1)

The twelfth Surah, which bears the name of Yusuf (referred to as Joseph in English Bibles), is one of the longest in the Qur’an. He is considered the most noble of men, and his story one of the most beautiful. The student of the Bible might say the same thing about him. Our last study dealt with the story of Jacob, and we emphasized that the Bible, not showing favoritism, revealed more than one fault committed by Jacob, even though he was a worshiper of the one true God. The account of his son Joseph presents a man who, from his youth up, acted with integrity.

His Father’s Favorite

Jacob had two wives who were sisters, Leah and Rachel, plus two concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah, his wives’ servants. As we have seen, Jacob loved Rachel and had proposed to her father Laban that he would work for him for seven years to have Rachel’s hand in marriage. Laban accepted the proposition, but at the last minute he tricked Jacob and gave him Rachel’s older sister. Subsequently, Jacob was made to serve his father-in-law an additional seven years to have the one that he desired.

So Leah was not loved but she gave six sons and a daughter to Jacob. Since Rachel was barren, she gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob to have children for him in her place. (This was the same custom that Sarah followed when she proposed to her husband Abraham that he have a child with her servant Hagar.) Bilhah had two sons with Jacob. Then Leah gave him her servant, who also gave him two more sons.

Finally God had pity on Rachel and allowed her to become pregnant by Jacob. The child who was born, for whom the favorite wife had waited so long, was named Joseph. Among the twelve children, he was the most loved by his father, who did not hide his favoritism. Some years later, Rachel had another son, Benjamin, but she died while giving birth. The story of Joseph begins in Genesis 37 when he was 17 years old:

“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children… He made him a tunic of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.

Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.’ And his brothers said to him, ‘Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, ‘Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.’ So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, ‘What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?’ And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” (Genesis 37:3-11)

Joseph Sold by His Brothers

The story continues like this:

“Then his brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ So he said to him, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said to him, ‘Please go and see if it is well with your brothers and well with the flocks, and bring back word to me.’ … So Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.

Now when they saw him afar off, even before he came near them, they conspired against him to kill him. Then they said to one another, ‘Look, this dreamer is coming! Come therefore, let us now kill him and cast him into some pit; and we shall say, “Some wild beast has devoured him.” We shall see what will become of his dreams!’ …

So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat a meal. Then they lifted their eyes and looked, and there was a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead with their camels, bearing spices, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry them down to Egypt. So Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.’ And his brothers listened. … So the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt…

So they took Joseph’s tunic, killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the tunic in the blood. Then they sent the tunic of many colors, and they brought it to their father and said, ‘We have found this. Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not?’ And he recognized it and said, ‘It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him. Without doubt Joseph is torn to pieces.’ Then Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his waist, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, ‘For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.” (Genesis 37:12-35)

Joseph in Potiphar’s House

We find Joseph again in Genesis 39, where we read:

“Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand. So Joseph found favor in his sight, and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority. So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field. Thus he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not concern himself with anything but the food which he ate.

Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast longing eyes on Joseph, and she said, ‘Lie with me.’ But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’

As she spoke to Joseph day after day, he did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her. But it happened about this time, when Joseph went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house was inside, that she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. And so it was, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and fled outside, that she called to the men of her house and spoke to them, saying, ‘See, he has brought in to us a Hebrew to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And it happened, when he heard that I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me, and fled and went outside.’

So she kept his garment with her until his master came home. Then she spoke to him with words like these, saying, ‘The Hebrew servant whom you brought to us came in to me to mock me; so it happened, as I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me and fled outside.’ So it was, when his master heard the words which his wife spoke to him, saying, ‘Your servant did to me after this manner,’ that his anger was aroused. Then Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined.” (Genesis 39:1-20)

Lessons to Be Learned

We have much more to see in the life of Joseph. For the moment, we see him as the victim of great injustices. But God will turn all the evil to good to bless not only Joseph, but all his family. The rest of this story will give us the background for some of the most important events in the history of the Jewish people. But first let’s pause to draw some spiritual lessons from what we’ve just seen.

Joseph’s brothers didn’t exactly tell their father, Jacob, that Joseph was dead. The only direct lie that they told was to say that they had “found” Joseph’s coat. Then they said: “Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not?” Jacob recognized it and cried: “It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him. Without doubt Joseph is torn to pieces.” Jacob’s sons were definitely guilty. Leviticus 19:11 says, “You must not steal. You must not act deceptively or lie to one another.” They didn’t use lies but they certainly used deception with their father.

Even religious people too often justify themselves when they decide to lie, and even more so when it comes to persuading someone to believe something that is false without speaking an actual lie. Let’s be painfully honest with ourselves. The Bible says that it is impossible for God to lie, and He doesn’t want his servants to lie either.

Let us bring out the fact that Joseph had not died, but the feelings of sadness in Jacob’s heart were as intense as they would have been if his son had really been torn by wild animals. A lie which someone believes is able to produce emotions that are just as strong as those that would have been produced by truth. Some people tell themselves that they are saved, that they have God’s favor or that their religion is good because of the way they feel in their heart. A woman once said, “I would not trade the feeling I have in my heart for a stack of Bibles as tall as I am.” She meant that even if the Bible taught that she had not followed God’s will for salvation, she would still be convinced of her salvation because of her feelings about it. It is a dangerous error to reason this way. The example of Jacob, who believed a lie, shows this clearly. It is not our emotional reaction to a message—whether it is a reaction of joy or sadness or anger—that determines if the message is true or not.

Let’s add some remarks concerning the integrity of Joseph when his master’s wife wanted to have sexual relations with him. Joseph did not want in any way to betray the confidence Potiphar had placed in him. This is an attitude that everyone should imitate, and not only in matters of sexual purity. Whether we are employees, government workers, authorities elected by the people or even people to whom the church has entrusted responsibilities, we must always strive to deserve the trust others place in us.

Joseph recognized that adultery was a sin against his master, but above all he saw that it was a sin against God. He said to the woman, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” Actually, all sin is a rebellion against His law, a lack of gratitude toward Him, negligence in regard to a duty ordained by Him. As King David said to God, after committing adultery with Bathsheba, “Against You—You alone—I have sinned and done this evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4). Let’s not take lightly the idea of sin, especially our own sins, which sometimes seem—to us at least—to be less serious than the sins of others. To sin against your fellow man is also to disobey your Creator.

Joseph (Part 2)

During our last lesson, we followed the first part of the story of Joseph, also called Yusuf, one of the most noble people in the Bible or the Qur’an. We saw Joseph, at the age of 17, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and taken to Egypt. Far from the father who loved him and who now believed him to be dead (torn to pieces by wild animals), Joseph was re-sold and became the servant of Potiphar, who was head of Pharaoh’s guards.

Due to his intelligence, his integrity and God’s favor, Joseph prospered in the house of his master, who had complete confidence in him and made him manager of all his affairs. But when Joseph refused the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife, she falsely accused him of trying to rape her. Her furious husband had Joseph locked in the prison where prisoners of the king were detained. So the young man endured a grave injustice for having wanted to keep his behavior honorable toward his master and toward his God. But despite the misfortunes of the moment, he was not abandoned. On the contrary, God watches over him and little by little carries out a great plan. Joseph had no way of knowing how important that plan was.

So let’s resume the reading of the narrative in Genesis 39:21–40:15.

Joseph in Prison

“Now Joseph was there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it. The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper…

Then the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison, had a dream, both of them, each man’s dream in one night and each man’s dream with its own interpretation. And Joseph came in to them in the morning and looked at them, and saw that they were sad. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, ‘Why do you look so sad today?’ And they said to him, ‘We each have had a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.’ So Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please.’

Then the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, ‘Behold, in my dream a vine was before me, and in the vine were three branches; it was as though it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and its clusters brought forth ripe grapes. Then Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.’ And Joseph said to him, ‘This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days. Now within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your place, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand according to the former manner, when you were his butler. But remember me when it is well with you, and please show kindness to me; make mention of me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and also I have done nothing here that they should put me into the dungeon.’” (Genesis 39.21b–40:15)

When the king’s baker saw that the other had received a favorable interpretation of his dream, he explained his own dream to Joseph. Joseph gave him the explanation but the news was not good. The baker would be hung from a tree, and birds would eat his flesh. Three days later, as Joseph had said, Pharaoh restored the cupbearer to his duties, and he hung the baker. However the cupbearer forgot Joseph and did not talk about his case to Pharaoh.

Joseph Freed and Raised to a Position of Dignity

Two years later, Pharaoh himself had a dream in which he saw seven beautiful, fat cows coming out of the river. They were followed by seven lean cows, who ate the first cows. However, one would not have believed that the skinny cows had eaten the fat ones, for they remained as skinny as before. Then he had another dream which was similar to the first. This time Pharaoh saw seven beautiful ears of wheat, which grew on the same stalk. Then seven more ears sprouted, stunted and dried out by the desert wind. The stunted ears gobbled up the beautiful, full ones.

As soon as it was daylight, the worried Pharaoh called all the magicians and wise men of Egypt. He told them his dreams, but no one could tell them their meaning. This is when the cupbearer remembered Joseph, who had interpreted his dream when he was in prison, and he told the king about this.

“Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and they brought him quickly out of the dungeon; and he shaved, changed his clothing, and came to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that you can understand a dream, to interpret it.’ So Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, ‘It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.’”

After listening to Pharaoh tell what he had seen in his dreams, Joseph told him:

“‘The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do: The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads are seven years; the dreams are one. And the seven thin and ugly cows which came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty heads blighted by the east wind are seven years of famine. God has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do. Indeed seven years of great plenty will come throughout all the land of Egypt; but after them seven years of famine will arise, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine will deplete the land…

‘Now therefore, let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, to collect one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven plentiful years. And let them gather all the food of those good years that are coming, and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities. Then that food shall be as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which shall be in the land of Egypt, that the land may not perish during the famine.’

So the advice was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of all his servants. And Pharaoh said to his servants, ‘Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom is the Spirit of God?’ Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you.’ And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring off his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand; and he clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. And he had him ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ …

Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went throughout all the land of Egypt. Now in the seven plentiful years the ground brought forth abundantly. So he gathered up all the food of the seven years which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities… Joseph gathered very much grain, as the sand of the sea, until he stopped counting, for it was immeasurable…

Then the seven years of plenty which were in the land of Egypt ended, and the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said… So when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Then Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, do.’ The famine was over all the face of the earth, and Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians… So all countries came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine was severe in all lands.” (Genesis 41:14-57)

Joseph Reunited with His Family

So here is what will be the opportunity for Joseph to be reunited with his family. The famine weighed heavily on the land of Canaan where we find his father and brothers. When Jacob learned that there was food in Egypt, he sent his ten older sons there to buy some. He did not want to risk the life of his last son, Benjamin (or Benyaameen among Muslims), so he did not allow him to go with his brothers.

When the ten brothers arrived to buy grain, Joseph was present and recognized them. It is evident that Joseph had changed more than his brothers. He was still an adolescent when they sold him and he was now at least 37 years old. He was dressed and shaved in the manner of the Egyptians. He spoke the Egyptian language and, of course, he occupied a position of great authority and that would have been totally unexpected.

When they came and bowed before him with their faces to the ground, Joseph remembered the dreams he had had about them but he did not make himself known to them. Instead, he was going to use the situation to test them and see if their hearts were as hard as they had been before. Time will not permit us to tell this interesting part of Joseph’s story today. So we will make it the subject of our next study. But before finishing this one, let us highlight certain ideas concerning an element of Joseph’s story that we saw repeatedly today. It is about dreams.

The Question of Dreams

The story of Joseph includes three pairs of dreams: the two dreams of Joseph where he saw first the sheaves of wheat and then the sun, moon and stars bowing down to him; then the two dreams that Joseph interpreted in prison, those of the cupbearer and baker; and finally, the two dreams of Pharaoh—where he saw seven fat cows devoured by seven gaunt ones and the seven full ears of grain swallowed by the seven withered ears. Joseph told Pharaoh clearly that it was God who had revealed through these dream what would happen. As for Joseph’s dreams, his brothers had thought selling him into slavery would certainly prevent them from coming true, but those dreams were, in fact, divine predictions. God was still behind those dreams.

But what can be said of the dreams that you and I have? Should we attach importance to them? It is good to point out first of all that even in the time of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon or Jesus, most dreams were not inspired by God. The Old Testament tells us in Ecclesiastes 5:3, “For a dream comes through much activity…” When we have many worries… when we have a lot going on during the day, we very often continue to think about these things in our sleep. Only these thoughts take other forms in our dreams. These are not messages from God.

Secondly, we can suppose that if God or his angels have the ability to communicate with a man in his sleep, evil spiritual beings—that is, Satan and his demons—could have the same ability. But Satan and his allies are liars, and we should not listen to what they say. Several Bible passages speak of “deceitful” dreams and advise us to keep a certain amount of distrust toward our own dreams, and more so toward the dreams other people claim to have had. For example, God said in Jeremiah 14:14, “These prophets are prophesying a lie in My name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a false vision, worthless divination, the deceit of their own minds.”

Finally let us realize that any dream to which we want to attach a spiritual importance must be subjected to the test of scripture. If a dream is not in harmony with the truth and the will of God as revealed in the Bible, it must be rejected. Consider the advice of Paul in Galatians 1:8: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him!” Should an angel appear to you in person or in a dream, it doesn’t matter. Once his words deviate from the gospel of Jesus, the Injeel so often referred to by Muhammad in the Qur’an, you must not listen to this angel.

There is one more very interesting part of the story of Joseph that we have not seen yet. So keep reading to learn the rest of Joseph’s story.

Joseph (Part 3)

In our series of lessons about people in the Bible who also appear in the Qur’an, we take a last look at the very interesting story of Joseph, or Yusuf, the favorite son of the patriarch Jacob. The ten older brothers of Joseph, jealous of the fact that he was so obviously more loved by their father, sold him as a slave to merchants in a caravan headed for Egypt. The merchants, in turn, sold him to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, a man named Potiphar.

Things went well for the young man until Potiphar’s wife began to lust for him. When he refused to sleep with her, she accused him of trying to rape her. and her husband threw Joseph in prison. But God never abandoned his servant and not only got him out of prison but lifted him up to a position of authority over all the country of Egypt. In fact, only Pharaoh himself was more powerful than Joseph.

Joseph first administered a levy on the crops all over the country during seven years of abundance and then supervised the distribution of the reserves during the following seven years of famine. As the famine extended well beyond the borders of Egypt, Joseph’s family still in Canaan were also affected by it and his father sent the oldest ten sons to Egypt to buy food.

Joseph Tests His Brothers

When his brothers come to buy grain, Joseph is present and recognizes them. But his brothers never suspect that their little brother is before them. When they come to bow before him, their faces to the ground, Joseph remembers the dreams he had about them; but he does not make himself known to them.

He speaks harshly to his brothers and accuses them of being foreign spies. They protest in vain that they are simply brothers, sons of the same father, come to buy food. They tell him that they were twelve brothers but the youngest has stayed with their father and another is no more. Joseph acts as though he doesn’t believe them. He puts them all in prison for three days, after which he proposes that one of them remain in prison while the others take the grain to their families. Then they would have to return with the youngest brother as proof that they were telling the truth. The brothers accept the proposition but with very heavy hearts. Among themselves, they say, “Obviously, we are being punished for what we did to our brother. We saw his deep distress when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this trouble has come to us” (Genesis 42:21).

Joseph had Simeon chained before their eyes and sent them off with their bags of grain. But without the brothers’ knowledge, Joseph had each one’s money put in his bag. When they got back to their father Jacob, the nine brothers explained everything to him, including the condition that the “governor of the country” had set: “Bring back your youngest brother to me, and I will know that you are not spies but honest men. I will then give your brother back to you, and you can trade in the country” (Genesis 42:34).

When Jacob heard this statement, he categorically refused. He had already lost Joseph, the first son of Rachel, his favorite wife. Now he had lost Simeon, and they were talking to him about taking Benjamin, Rachel’s other son, to this unpredictable Egyptian. He said, “My son will not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If anything happens to him on your journey, you will bring my gray hairs down to Sheol in sorrow” (Genesis 42:38).

But the famine continued to weigh on the country of Canaan, and Jacob was forced to change his mind. He sent Benjamin to Egypt with the other brothers and asked God to have pity on them. To their great surprise, Joseph received them very well and prepared a good meal for them.

With a great deal of effort, he hid the emotion he felt in seeing his little brother. This was necessary to complete his plan to test his brothers and learn if they had really changed. He wanted to know if they would try to save their little brother and spare their father an unbearable grief, or if they would act in regard to Benjamin, Jacob’s new favorite, as they had treated Joseph himself twenty years earlier. So after the meal, he gave this order to his steward: “Fill the men’s bags with as much food as they can carry, and put each one’s money at the top of his bag. Put my cup, the silver one, at the top of the youngest one’s bag, along with his grain money” (Genesis 44:1,2).

“At morning light, the men were sent off with their donkeys. They had not gone very far from the city when Joseph said to his steward, ‘Get up. Pursue the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, “Why have you repaid evil for good? Isn’t this the cup that my master drinks from and uses for divination?”’…

When he overtook them, he said these words to them. They said to him, ‘Why does my lord say these things? Your servants could not possibly do such a thing. We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the money we found at the top of our bags. How could we steal gold and silver from your master’s house? If any of us is found to have it, he must die, and we also will become my lord’s slaves.’ The steward replied, ‘What you have said is right, but only the one who is found to have it will be my slave, and the rest of you will be blameless.’ So each one quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. The steward searched, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest, and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. Then they tore their clothes, and each one loaded his donkey and returned to the city.

When Judah and his brothers reached Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell to the ground before him. ‘What is this you have done?’ Joseph said to them. ‘Didn’t you know that a man like me could uncover the truth by divination?’ ‘What can we say to my lord?’ Judah replied. ‘How can we plead? How can we justify ourselves? God has exposed your servants’ iniquity. We are now my lord’s slaves—both we and the one in whose possession the cup was found.’ Then Joseph said, ‘I swear that I will not do this. The man in whose possession the cup was found will be my slave. The rest of you can go in peace to your father.’” (Genesis 44:3-17)

Judah and His Brothers Pass the Test

But Judah approached Joseph and spoke to him of the love their father had for his youngest son, the one who was born in his old age. Judah told him:

“If I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us—his life is wrapped up with the boy’s life—when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die. Then your servants will have brought the gray hairs of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow. Your servant became accountable to my father for the boy, saying, ‘If I do not return him to you, I will always bear the guilt for sinning against you, my father.’ Now please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave, in place of the boy. Let him go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see the grief that would overwhelm my father.” (Genesis 44:30-34)

So we see that Judah, the brother who had suggested they sell Joseph to the merchants, had totally changed (and the other brothers had probably changed as much). Before, Judah had been without pity for his young brother or for his father. Now he shows a real concern for his father. He accepts simply and without any sign of jealousy the fact that his father loves Benjamin more deeply than the others, and he shows great courage and love in proposing that he become a slave in order to save his father and his brother. He cannot bear the idea of seeing the pain his father would experience if he lost Benjamin.

Joseph Is Recognized

The narrative continues:

“Joseph could no longer keep his composure in front of all his attendants, so he called out, ‘Send everyone away from me!’ No one was with him when he revealed his identity to his brothers… Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Please, come near me,’ and they came near. ‘I am Joseph, your brother,’ he said, ‘the one you sold into Egypt. And now don’t be worried or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there will be five more years without plowing or harvesting. God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.’” (Genesis 45:1-7)

He tells them to go get Jacob and all the family and come settle in Egypt. He will supply all their needs. When Pharaoh learned that Joseph’s parents were there, he too insisted they settle in his country. So after a separation of more than twenty years, Joseph saw his father again, and Jacob’s descendants ended up in Egypt, enjoying the security, abundance and favor of the Egyptian king and people.

Conclusion

The story of this great man of God teaches us several important lessons. Joseph was the victim of great injustice in his life but he never showed bitterness, neither against God nor others. Despite the great evil that his brothers inflicted on him, it is clear that he forgave them. Many of us have been subjected to insignificant wrongs in comparison to what Joseph experienced, which we have trouble forgiving. This man gives us an example, not only of justice, but also of kindness and forgiveness.

We also see that the purity and integrity of Joseph did not allow him to avoid suffering. Just people should not expect to immediately receive the reward of their righteousness. It is necessary to be patient and remain faithful until the moment fixed by God. Not only that, but the suffering of the righteous is sometimes part of God’s plan to save a multitude of people, some of whom are less deserving than the one who suffers. This was the case with Joseph. It was the case in a much deeper sense for Jesus. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

Finally, we see clearly in the life of Joseph the providence of God. The Lord had been at work in all the trials of Joseph to save his family. Joseph told his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” We must understand that God is able to do similar things in our lives. We must not be discouraged when we encounter difficulties, obstacles and suffering. The Christian has this formal promise in the Bible in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.”

Moses (Part 1)

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, shows us several people who also appear in the Qur’an, the holy book of the Muslims. We have already examined the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Lot, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Through Joseph, God delivered Jacob and all his family from the seven years of famine that struck the world during that time. Considering the service that Joseph had rendered to Pharaoh and all the Egyptian people, his family was enthusiastically welcomed in Egypt.

The second book of the Bible, Exodus, takes up this story some generations later and explains how the situation of the descendants of Jacob (sometimes called Israelites and sometimes called Hebrews) had changed. The central person in this part of the biblical story is a man who, once again, appears often in the pages of the Qur’an. This man is Moses, whom the Muslims call Musa. These are the conditions that prevailed at that time:

“But the Israelites were fruitful, increased rapidly, multiplied, and became extremely numerous so that the land was filled with them. A new king, who had not known Joseph, came to power in Egypt. He said to his people,  ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and powerful than we are. Let us deal shrewdly with them; otherwise they will multiply further, and if war breaks out, they may join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country.’ So the Egyptians assigned taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor… But the more they oppressed them, the more they multiplied and spread so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. They worked the Israelites ruthlessly.” (Exodus 1:7-13)

Then Pharaoh, king of Egypt, gave the order to all his people to throw into the Nile River every newborn Hebrew boy and only leave alive the girls.

First Forty Years of Moses’ Life

At this time the wife of an Israelite named Amram gave birth to a baby boy that she managed to hide for three months.

“But when she could no longer hide him, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with asphalt and pitch. She placed the child in it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. Then his sister stood at a distance in order to see what would happen to him. Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe at the Nile while her servant girls walked along the riverbank. Seeing the basket among the reeds, she sent her slave girl to get it. When she opened it, she saw the child—a little boy, crying. She felt sorry for him and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrew boys.’

Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Should I go and call a woman from the Hebrews to nurse the boy for you?’

‘Go,’ Pharaoh’s daughter told her. So the girl went and called the boy’s mother. Then Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the boy and nursed him. When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, ‘Because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.'” (Exodus 2:3-10)

This is how Moses, knowing his Israelite origins, grew up in the court of the Egyptian king. He benefited from a life of privilege and a superior education in one of the greatest civilizations of the time. The Bible says in Acts 7:22, “So Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his speech and actions.”

Second Forty Years of Moses’ Life

Moses was forty years old when his life went through a radical change. We resume our reading in Exodus 2:

“Years later, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his own people and observed their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. Looking all around and seeing no one, he struck the Egyptian dead and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, ‘Why are you attacking your neighbor?’ ‘Who made you a leader and judge over us?’ the man replied. ‘Are you planning to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses became afraid and thought: What I did is certainly known. When Pharaoh heard about this, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in the land of Midian.” (Exodus 2:11-15)

Moses settled down there and made a new life for himself. He married a young woman named Zipporah with whom he had two children. For forty years, he led the simple life of a shepherd, far from the center of power and luxury where he had grown up.

Moses Receives a Mission from the Lord

It is when Moses reached the age of 80 that everything changed for the second time in his life. God had now prepared him for a very important task. The story continues in Exodus 3:

“Moses was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Then the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush. As Moses looked, he saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed. So Moses thought: I must go over and look at this remarkable sight… When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from the bush.” (Exodus 3:1-4)

He told him that He had seen how His people were being mistreated in Egypt. He had heard the cries of the Israelites under the blows of their oppressors, and He knew their suffering. So He had come to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them to a beautiful and vast country He had promised to their ancestors. He concluded by telling Moses, “Therefore, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh so that you may lead My people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).

Forty years earlier, Moses had believed that he could be a liberator of his people (Acts 7:25). But when God called him, Moses began making excuses. He said, “I can’t.” But God said that He would be with him. Moses was sure that the Israelites would not believe that God had sent him, but God gave him the ability to do miraculous signs to convince them. Moses said that he was not an orator and would have too much trouble expressing himself. God reminded him that He Himself had created the mouth of man and He could make Moses capable of saying what was necessary. But Moses answered:

“Please, Lord, send someone else. Then the Lord became angry with Moses and told him, “Isn’t Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, he is on his way now to meet you… He will speak to the people for you. He will be your spokesman…” (Exodus 4:13-16).

Moses and Aaron returned to Egypt and went to find Pharaoh to speak to him on God’s behalf to tell him to let the Israelites go. The king of Egypt answered, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey Him by letting Israel go? I do not know anything about Yahweh, and besides, I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). He also accused Moses and Aaron of causing the Israelites to neglect their work. He ordered the overseers to increase their workload so they would be too busy to think about God.

The Ten Plagues

And so the Lord let loose a series of ten plagues to strike Egypt and its king. God told Moses to order Aaron to hold out his rod over the river. When he did, all the fresh water in Egypt was transformed into blood. But the magicians of the royal court of Egypt managed to create the same miracle and Pharaoh hardened his heart to not listen to Moses. Then Moses told Aaron to stretch out his arm and point his rod toward the rivers, canals and ponds. The frogs came out of them and covered the country. But then the magicians did the same. Nevertheless Pharaoh was forced to ask Moses to remove the frogs, after which he would let the Israelites go. But when the Lord made the frogs die and Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he persisted in refusing to let the people go.

The Lord then told Moses to command Aaron to stretch forth his rod and strike the dust of the ground and transform it into lice. (Some translate the Hebrew word as “gnat”.) This time the magicians were not able to produce the same effect and they told Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” However Pharaoh obstinately refused to give in to God’s demand.

So the succession of plagues continued. God sent upon the Egyptians biting flies (4); a severe, deadly epidemic on their livestock (5); festering boils on the king, the people and their animals (6); the worst thunderstorm ever seen in Egypt with hail that destroyed harvests, broke trees and struck people and animals that had not taken shelter (7); a terrible invasion of grasshoppers that covered the ground to the point that it could not be seen, devouring everything left by the hail until there was no greenery left in the country (8). After that, darkness covered Egypt for three days; darkness so deep it could be touched and no one dared to leave his home (9). Despite all these misfortunes sent by God over a period of several months, the king would not submit to the will of God.

The Passover

The Lord then spoke to Moses, giving specific instructions for the Israelites before He sent the last plague on the Egyptians:

“Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they must each select an animal of the flock according to their fathers’ households, one animal per household… You must have an unblemished animal, a year-old male; you may take it from either the sheep or the goats. You are to keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembly of the community of Israel will slaughter the animals at twilight. They must take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses where they eat them. They are to eat the meat that night; they should eat it, roasted over the fire along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or cooked in boiling water, but only roasted over fire—its head as well as its legs and inner organs. Do not let any of it remain until morning; you must burn up any part of it that does remain before morning. Here is how you must eat it: you must be dressed for travel, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You are to eat it in a hurry; it is the Lord’s Passover.

“I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both man and beast… The blood on the houses where you are staying will be a distinguishing mark for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

“This day is to be a memorial for you, and you must celebrate it as a festival to the Lord. You are to celebrate it throughout your generations as a permanent statute.” (Exodus 12:3-14)

This annual feast is called the Passover. It is a day when Jews remember the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery.

The Israelites obeyed the instructions, and God did as He had promised. He put to death all the first-born in Egypt—the eldest son of Pharaoh as well as the eldest son of the captive in prison and the first-born of the livestock. In the middle of the night, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and told them to leave his country quickly. He had finally had enough and gave in to God’s demand. This is how God, through his servant Moses, gave the Israelites a great deliverance.

This miracle has a lot of meaning to Christians, who see their past lives in sin as a kind of slavery. The blood of the lambs sacrificed by the Israelites, thanks to which God spared them when He struck the first-born, reminds them of the blood of Jesus Christ, who, in John 1:29, is called “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Moses, the great liberator of the Israelites, reminds us of Jesus, the great liberator of all people.

Conclusion

But God had not finished using Moses. For forty years, this great man will be at the head of the Israelites, leading them and talking to them on God’s behalf. We will see more of the story of Moses in our next lesson.