Why did Abraham send all his sons away from Isaac?

Q. Why did Abraham send all his sons away from Isaac?

The book of Genesis tells us that after Sarah died, “Abraham married another wife, named Keturah.” She bore him six sons. The book goes on to explain that “Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.” The plural word “concubines” refers both to Keturah and to Hagar, another wife of Abraham who was the mother of Ishmael.

So the reason why Abraham sent the other sons away seems to be that he wanted to make sure that Isaac indeed inherited his estate. He may have been concerned that after his death, the six sons of Keturah, whose mother would likely still have been living (since Keturah seems to have been younger than Abraham), might have banded together against Isaac, the son of a different mother who had died, to try to claim the inheritance for themselves.

The case of Jephthah presents a comparable, even though slightly different, example. He was the eldest son of a man named Gilead, though his mother was a prostitute. The book of Judges relates, “Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. ‘You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,’ they said, ‘because you are the son of another woman.'” Abraham may have been concerned that the same kind of thing would happen to Isaac, and so he sent the other sons to live in another place.

The Bible does not say whether Keturah’s sons actually would have tried to get the inheritance away from Isaac. It does not say whether Abraham sending them away was a good or a bad thing. So we have to come to some conclusion about that ourselves. In this post, “Who was Abraham’s second wife, Hagar or Keturah?” I say that Hagar (along with her son Ishmael) “is one of the figures in the Bible who is treated worst by the people who were supposed to be following and obeying God.” We might similarly wonder whether it was right for Abraham to remarry after Sarah’s death but then treat his second wife’s sons so unfavorably compared with his first wife’s son. We would probably not think that was suitable if someone did it today. So beyond the question of why Abraham sent the other sons away, we have the question of whether that was a proper thing for him to do. And we must come to some conclusion about that by reflecting on all the principles that the Bible teaches us.

Who was Solomon’s first wife?

Q. I am wondering who Solomon’s first wife was. The book of Kings describes how Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh after making an alliance with Egypt. But the Song of Solomon speaks of his love for the Shulammite.

The Bible does not actually tell us who Solomon’s first wife was. The first woman it describes Solomon marrying was indeed the daughter of Pharaoh, as you say. But that does not necessarily mean she was his first wife.

I think a good case can be made for the argument that his first wife actually was Abishag the Shunammite, presumably the same woman who is called by the similar name Shulammite in the Song of Solomon. This beautiful woman had kept the aging King David warm in his bed when he could no longer stay warm himself, but the Bible is very specific that David did not have sexual relations with her and he was not married to her. This meant that David’s son and successor could marry her. (The Law of Moses forbade a man to marry a woman who had been his father’s wife.)

Solomon’s older half-brother Adonijah, who had tried unsuccessfully to seize the throne for himself even though Solomon was David’s announced choice as successor, recognized that marrying Abishag might still give him some claim to the throne. So he asked Solomon if he could do that. Solomon realized what Adonijah was up to and that it was a violation of Adonijah’s oath not to keep pursuing the throne. Solomon had warned him that he would be put to death if he did that, and when Adonijah make this request, Solomon had him executed.

The Bible says nothing about Abishag after that, but reading between the lines, it makes good sense to think that Solomon then married her himself. As Adonijah had realized, being married to the last woman who had been something like a wife to King David, without actually being his wife, would strengthen his claim to be David’s successor.

But if so, was that all there was to it? Probably not, if Abishag the Shunammite is also the Shulammite of the Song of Solomon. If Solomon was indeed writing about her in that great love poem, then the two of them had much more than a marriage of convenience. It would have been a true love match.

We do need to acknowledge that Solomon later did marry other wives, including Pharaoh’s daughter and the daughters of the kings of many other surrounding nations, for alliance purposes. Ultimately these foreign wives led him to worship idols, and God punished him by taking away most of the kingdom from his successors. So when it came to marriage, unfortunately Solomon did not make very good choices in the end. But we can at least hope that he made a good choice in the beginning, and that for some time he experienced what God intended marriage to be.

What did Isaiah mean when he said, “I saw the Lord”?

Q. What did Isaiah mean when he said, “In the year King Uzaiah died, I saw the Lord“?

Here is what I say about that in my study guide to the book of Isaiah. You can read the guide online or download it at this link.

Even though the account in which Isaiah has a vision of the Lord in the temple does not come right at the beginning of the book of Isaiah, it actually relates the earliest event recorded in the book: Isaiah’s call from God to be a prophet.

This episode in Isaiah’s life took place about six years before Israel and Aram invaded Judah. King Uzziah had ruled the country for fifty-two years. During his reign it had been prosperous, stable, and secure. Now this great king was being succeeded by his son Jotham, who had been his co-regent for the previous ten years. Jotham would only reign another five or six years himself before dying and leaving the people in the untested hands of his twenty-year-old son Ahaz. Meanwhile, the Assyrian empire was growing in strength and size and threatening the entire region. So along with the whole nation of Judah, a young man named Isaiah was facing an uncertain and fearful future as he went into Jerusalem’s temple one day to try to find hope and reassurance by worshiping God.

As the Scriptures say, Isaiah has a remarkable vision in the temple that reveals that Israel’s true king, the Lord Almighty, the God who has called the people into a special relationship with himself, is established on his throne above the whole world. Whatever earthly kings and their armies might attempt, it is God who ultimately determines the destinies of nations. Isaiah will never forget this vital truth throughout his career, as he continually calls the people to trust in their God rather than in the strategies they might devise or the alliances they might form.

But this glimpse of God’s power and presence also leads Isaiah to an awful realization about himself. The seraphs (a special kind of angel) proclaim that the Lord is “holy, holy, holy,” and that the whole earth is full of his glory. This means that every living being is continually confronted with the reality of God’s purity and radiance. In response, Isaiah can only acknowledge that he is “unclean.” Within the ceremonial life of the nation’s covenant with the Lord, this means that he is impaired, polluted, defective, and so unfit to be used in any way connected with God.

Isaiah describes himself specifically as “a man of unclean lips.” Interpreters have different ideas about why he chooses this particular part of the body (rather than, for example, his heart or mind) to represent his spiritual state. It may be because the lips express, and thus make evident, a person’s innermost thoughts and intentions. Or Isaiah may be saying that he can tell he isn’t pure because his lips, unlike those of the seraphs, aren’t continually praising God for his holiness and glory.

Because God wants Isaiah to be available for his service, one of the seraphs flies to him with a live coal from the altar (where sacrifices for sin were offered) and touches his lips with it. The seraph announces, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Isaiah has admitted his need for cleansing and forgiveness, and these are applied to the very place he used to symbolize that need.

Who was Abraham’s second wife, Hagar or Keturah?

Q. Abraham took a second wife. Jewish traditions say she was Hagar. Most accounts say he married Keturah after Sarah’s death. Can you share what you know on this topic?

The book of Genesis relates how God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child of their own. But instead, as the customs of the time permitted, Sarah gave her female servant Hagar to Abraham as a concubine or secondary wife. Abraham and Hagar had a son named Ishmael.

Later God’s promise came true and Abraham and Sarah did have a child of their own named Isaac. Sarah wanted to make sure that Isaac would have the rights of the firstborn and be the heir, so she got Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. It seems that this involved Abraham divorcing Hagar.

It must be acknowledged that Hagar is one of the figures in the Bible who is treated worst by the people who were supposed to be following and obeying God. But God provided for Hagar and Ishmael, and in response, Hagar gave God the name El-Roi, meaning The God Who Sees. Hagar recognized that God was aware of her situation and caring for her. And so Hagar is also the only figure in the Bible, as far as I know, who gave God a name. God himself revealed all of his other names.

Genesis also tells us that after Sarah died, Abraham married another woman, named Keturah. The two of them had six sons. But Abraham sent them to live in other places so that Isaac would be his undisputed heir.

So the woman Abraham married after the death of his first wife was Keturah. She was his second wife in that sense. However, while Sarah was still alive, Abraham was married to Hagar as his concubine. So in another sense, she may be considered his second wife.


What is the difference between a birthright and a blessing?

Q. Esau gave up his birthright and then Jacob stole his blessing. What is the difference between the birthright and the blessing?

A birthright is the right that a person has, through the circumstances of their birth, to assume the leadership of their family in the next generation. In many cultures this right belongs initially to the firstborn child, whether a son or a daughter. In patriarchal cultures, it belongs to the firstborn son, and in matriarchal cultures, it belongs to the firstborn daughter.

However, this right is not automatic. A person can forfeit it. We see this happen in the Bible in the case of Jacob’s sons. This was a patriarchal culture, and so the firstborn son, Reuben, would have had the birthright. But Reuben forfeited that right through his own wrongdoing. He had sexual relations with one of his father’s concubines, and as a result, his father took this right away from him. He gave it instead to his brother Joseph.

Joseph was actually his eleventh son, but he had already assumed leadership in his generation by rescuing the whole family from famine, and he had proven his godly character. As the official record in the book of Chronicles says about Reuben, “He was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father’s marriage bed, his rights as firstborn were given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel; so he could not be listed in the genealogical record in accordance with his birthright.”

Since the birthright is not automatic, the leader of the family in the previous generation needs to confer it officially on a person. They do this before they die in the form of a blessing. So a blessing is the official confirmation of a birthright.

To use Jacob’s sons as an example once again, in his dying words to his sons, Jacob disqualifies Reuben and blesses Joseph. About Reuben he says, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength… but you will not have the preeminence” (that is, the birthright). About Joseph he says:

Your father’s blessings are greater
    than the blessings of the ancient mountains,
    than the bounty of the age-old hills.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
    on the brow of the prince among his brothers.

So in this blessing, Jacob confers the birthright on Joseph, making him the leader in his generation, after taking that right away from Reuben.

In Jacob’s own generation, his brother Esau was the firstborn, but Esau himself gave away his birthright. (He actually sold it to Jacob for bowl of stew! That is why the Bible says that he “despised” his birthright, meaning that he thought very little of it.) But even though there was this arrangement between Esau and Jacob for Jacob to have the birthright, which of them would ultimately get it was not official until their father Isaac conferred it on one or the other of them through his blessing. And so Jacob later tricked his father into giving it to him.

When Esau found out about this, he said, “This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” I hope that this post has helped explained the difference between those two things and how they are related.

Darkness, light, and water in the Genesis creation account

Q. First I will like to say that discovering this site has been very refreshing to my faith, big thanks to you and your team on this good work.
Over the past months I have been reading through my Bible from Genesis all the way down to Revelation, which i have not done in a while. I realized that some of the questions i had as a young believer when doing the same still had not been answered. While these questions do not challenge my faith as they once used to, I still feel a deep intellectual curiosity and I do feel there is something to be gained, even spiritually, from knowing more. So here are the first few couple things I would like to get more insight into:

(1) When was darkness created ? In Gen. 1:1-4 we see darkness mentioned in v. 2, before the creation of light, and again in v. 4, when God separates the light (day) he had created from the darkness. God was and is before all things, including darkness. So what exactly is darkness, and at what point did it come into being? To merely say it is the absence of light does not satisfy me at all.

(2) How was there light before the sun was created? In Genesis 1 we see light created on the first day and the sun and stars created later on the fourth day. To me, even from a purely observational point of view, it seems much too obvious an experiential fact to miss that the sun gives out the light we see. IMO one does not need science to come to this conclusion, just seeing. Perhaps there is a different way of understanding light as it is seen in Genesis 1 that i am not aware of.

(3) In Gen. 1:6-8 we see the sky (vault) created to separate the waters into two. Consequently in verse 9 we see the “waters below” gathered to form the “seas.” Presently, based on scientific discovery, we know that what we have above the sky is “outer space.” So what became of the “waters above”? Are the waters above outer space? (Verse 2 gives a picture of darkness and water existing together, which to me supports this view.) If so, why would the waters above (outer space) and the waters below (seas) differ so much in make when logically they should not. Also, is it possible that darkness and water are somehow equated to each other? And in another line of thinking, did the waters above become “clouds,” since clouds are kind of floating water bodies?

A. Thank you very much for your appreciative words. I’m glad that this blog is an encouragement to your faith. I commend you for reading all the way through the Bible again, and for asking questions about it. I agree with you that there is much to be gained by asking questions and learning from them, even when we do not feel that our very faith is at stake in the answer. I call this blog Good Question on the premise that “there’s no such thing as a bad question.”

In terms of the specific matters you asked about, several other readers of this blog have asked about similar things. So let me start by referring you to the thoughts I have shared in response to them. If you find that these posts address many of your concerns, but not all of them, you can always ask a follow-up question in the comment section of those posts or this one.

Regarding question (1), however, I actually do not have a separate post about darkness on this blog. That is because, simply stated, I do think that darkness simply is the absence of light in the Genesis account. It is not a positive entity that came into existence at one point.

But regarding question (2), please see this post: How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

And regarding question (3), please see this post: Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

In that post you will also find a link to a chapter about the Genesis creation account in an online version of the book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation that I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey, the curator of paleontology at a museum here in the United States. I think that this chapter will offer some broad answers to your questions, including some thoughts about question (1). In fact, you might find the whole book to be of interest. It begins here.

Keep reading the Bible, and keep thinking about it and pursuing the questions that raises!

Where did John the Baptist get the idea of water baptism, and why was Jesus baptized?

Q. Where did John the Baptist get the idea of water baptism? I see it mentioned in the O.T. regarding leprosy, but don’t see in the O.T. water baptism for repentance. Also, why did Jesus agree to John’s baptism? Just to set an example? But that would make it seem that He too was in need of repentance, wouldn’t it? Which of course is not the case.

Biblical scholars generally agree that the roots of water baptism are in the requirement in the Law of Moses that people bathe with water to return to a state of ceremonial cleanness after some uncleanness infraction. This applied not only in the case of skin diseases such as leprosy, as you noted, but also in a wider variety of matters, such as eating certain kinds of unclean food and even taking the scapegoat out into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement. Since being ceremonially clean meant being able to participate in good standing in the worship of God, it was a natural development for John to apply the practice of washing to a more profound sense of being “clean,” that of being genuinely repentant for one’s sins.

As for why Jesus wanted to be baptized even though he had no sins to repent of, we need to realize that John’s baptism was not an end in itself. It was a means to an end. John’s message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John didn’t want people to repent and be baptized just because they were sinful. He wanted them to do that because God was breaking into the world in a new way, and he wanted people to be able to join in what God was doing.

So, in effect, John was saying, “Anyone who wants to be part of what God is doing, come and be baptized.” The implicit assumption in the case of most people was that this would involve forsaking sins and having a new orientation in life. But for someone like Jesus, who already had the right orientation—he always wanted to be doing what his Heavenly Father was doing—and who had no sins to repent of, it was still appropriate for him to make the public gesture that John was calling for.

I think that is why Jesus told John to go ahead and baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness.” John was saying, “If you want to be part of the new thing that God is doing, come and be baptized.” By being baptized, Jesus was saying, “Yes, I want to be part of the new thing that God is doing!” He didn’t need to have sins to repent of in order to make that public declaration.

Why do the heroes of the faith have to wait for us before being made perfect?

Q. What does this statement in the book of Hebrews mean? “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us, so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

This is the conclusion to the section in the book of Hebrews that is sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith.” The author describes how  people whose stories we know from the Old Testament trusted in God by faith and lived on earth as if “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” As a result, the author says, “God is not ashamed to be called their God,” and “he has prepared a city for them.”

The author describes this “city” in the next chapter. He calls it “Mount Zion, “the city of the living God,” and “the heavenly Jerusalem.” There, he says, there are “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” This is the home of “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” It is ruled by “God, the Judge of all,” and we are commended to him by “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.” And there, the author says, are “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”

So perhaps, in one sense, these great heroes of the faith already have been made perfect, in the heavenly city. But the Bible, in its final book, the book of Revelation, also portrays this heavenly city coming down to earth so that “God’s dwelling place will be among people.” This has clearly not happened yet. It will be marvelous when it does. Those who lived on earth as if they were longing for a heavenly home will find that they can live in that heavenly home right on earth, as God brings heaven and earth together as all things come obediently under his rule.

So why has this marvelous thing not happened yet? God is waiting for even more people to live faithfully like the ones the author describes so that they can be part of it too. This is meant to be a great encouragement to us who are reading these words in the Bible and admiring the lives of these faithful people of the past. Knowing that God doesn’t want this to happen without us, we should be all the more eager to be part of it ourselves. That is why the author of Hebrews says, between the words you are asking about and the description of the heavenly city, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus is the ultimate example of faith and obedience. And the other heroes of the faith are “witnesses” to us of what a faithful life looks like, and “witnesses” of our own lives as they cheer us on from heaven.

Think of it this way. It’s as if you were invited to a party, and right up to the last minute you weren’t sure whether you were going to go, but then you heard that the hosts had said that they really wanted you to come so much that they weren’t going to start without you. You would certainly feel very welcome and valued, and this would be a great incentive to get to the party. That’s what the author of Hebrews is saying in these words.

Why couldn’t Jesus’ disciples understand the Parable of the Sower?

Q. You say in your comments about the Parable of the Sower that people with the heart for Jesus will hear the parable and understand. The disciples, I would think, had a heart for Jesus, yet they asked Jesus to explain the parables. So why were their ears not open to understanding the meaning of the parables?

The disciples needed to get a start somewhere. They needed to know that the stories Jesus was telling in his teaching had a meaning deeper than the surface-level meaning. The point of the Parable of the Sower wasn’t just that farmers should be careful where they sowed their seed, because it wouldn’t grow well in some places. Jesus was really talking about his own message and how people would respond differently to it based on the state of their hearts.

Significantly, when the disciples ask Jesus to explain this parable, he responds, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” In other words, this parable is a key to all the other ones. It is a parable about parables. It has been called a “meta-parable.” Once Jesus explained its meaning to the disciples, then they realized that they would need to try to understand the deeper meaning of such stories.

This took time. The disciples needed to learn how to recognize these meanings. And Jesus took the time to teach them. Mark says at the end of the section in which he relates the Parable of the Sower and other parables, “[Jesus] did not say anything to [the crowds] without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”

It was precisely because the disciples’ hearts were open to Jesus that they were able to benefit from this instruction. If their hearts had been hard, the stories would have remained just stories to them, with no meaning deeper than what was on the surface.

For his part, Matthew records in his gospel this interesting exchange between Jesus and his disciples, similarly at the end of a section in which he relates Jesus telling many parables:

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
“Yes,” they replied.
He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

This shows that the disciples were catching on to the meaning of the parables, and, as Jesus notes, as a result, they were understanding how the new things that he was bringing fit in with what God had been doing all along.

This would not have been possible if their hearts had not been open to Jesus. That was a necessary condition, but we see that it was not a sufficient one. Jesus also had to get them started on how to understand the parables using their open hearts. We can be grateful that the gospels record Jesus’ explanations of several of his parables so that we can have the same benefit ourselves. We just need to make sure that our hearts are open, too.

What does Isaiah mean about the Suffering Servant receiving a “portion” and “spoils”?

Q. What do these lines in Isaiah mean: “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong?”

The specific meaning of those lines is that this person will get a share in the plunder from a battle. The “great” and “strong” are the victorious warriors, and the “portion” and “spoils” are the plunder that the victors divide up among themselves.

There is a paradox, however. Those two lines are paired with the two lines that follow:

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.

So somehow, even though this person died in the battle, and seems to have done something wrong, he will still get the rewards of the victory. How can that be?

Those four lines continue a paradoxical theme in one of the passages where Isaiah talks about the “Suffering Servant.” In that passage, the servant suffers to the point of death for the sake of others, but then seems to live again: “he was cut off from the land of the living,” but “he will see his offspring and prolong his days.” “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.”

Christians who read this passage see in it a prediction of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They believe that Jesus not only suffered for the sins of the world, he was considered a sinner so that he could represent guilty humanity. “He poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.” But because he gave his life to become the Savior of the world, in a supreme example of sacrificial love, as the Bible says elsewhere, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

In other words, God gave Jesus the rewards of victory, because even though his death seemed to be a loss and a defeat, it was really the culmination of all of God’s work to bring salvation to the world. “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong.”