Lessons from a Liar

By Erika Rizkallah

Have you ever heard the Bible story about Ananias and Sapphira? This couple carries the unfortunate legacy of being some of the most dishonest people in the New Testament.

Their story is told in Acts 5:1-11 — it’s a warning for the ages.

To fully understand it we must read the previous passages in Acts 4:32-37. The author tells about a special time in the early church. Jesus has ascended to Heaven and the persecution of his disciples has begun. The Holy Spirit settled on the believers who’d gathered together and formed a close-knit community.

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The Bible says: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. Acts 4:32.

The apostles boldly testified about Jesus’ resurrection and there were no needy people in the community. The generosity was so great that some individuals with land and property sold it off and gave it to the apostles to distribute to anyone with need. They practiced Christ’s command of brotherly love. One man who did this was Joseph, who they nicknamed Barnabus, which means Son of Encouragement.

This sounds Utopian, but there’s always a snake in the garden.

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Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostle’s feet. Acts 5:1-2

Peter knew something was up. He said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” (v.3,4)

When Ananias heard this he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. (v. 5)

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©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The story continues with Sapphira, who wasn’t there when the offering was made. She arrived three hours later and Peter questioned her, asking if they withheld any money. She lied and Peter said, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” (v. 9)

Then she dropped dead!

In hindsight, we could read this and wonder why they did the things they did. But we might also feel sympathetic — haven’t we been tempted to lie or hold out on God?

Did pride cause Ananias to lie? Greed? Maybe it was both. Or maybe he wanted to be like Joseph — maybe he wanted to be called a Barnabus. I know when I see a friend do something awesome, I want to be like her.

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What about Sapphira? Didn’t she have a clue that something might be wrong when her husband didn’t come home? Maybe she feared what he might do if she told the truth.

Either way it’s a sad story that hurt their loving community.

It’s also a reminder to us. We must continually check our hearts for evidence of greed and dishonesty. We must always remember that our enemy — the great serpent — lives to tempt us into grieving the Holy Spirit.

His goal is our destruction and the dissolution of Christianity.

 

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We must remember that like those in the early church, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and his grace is sufficient for us.

Heavenly Father, we praise you. We ask that you give us the courage and strength to rely on you for all our needs. We ask that you make us aware of any evil in our hearts and keep us from the temptations of the evil one. Above all, we seek your glory and not our own. Amen

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. John 4:24

 

 

Surviving seasons of sorrow and slobber.

By Erika Rizkallah

I thank God summer is over. Well, kind of. I live on the Southeastern coast and even though leaves are starting to fall and acorns litter the sidewalks, it can feel as hot as Hades.

From my windows I watch boats drift by with girls in bikinis dancing on the bow. I watch egrets stand as still as statues in the tall grasses at the water’s edge. I see fish jumping as they try to avoid the jaws of a gator who has no business being near my dock.

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I saw a lot out of my windows this summer but rarely got out of the house. Even though I can see the beach, I didn’t get a chance to spend even one day on it.

I know I sound like a baby . . . a little woe is me. But I don’t mean to. It’s simply that this summer season was hard.

So hard.

I watched the health of my loved ones deteriorate. I tried to provide comfort, safety and aid and I guess in that regard it was successful. We made it through but at times I questioned my own sanity.

And in the middle of it all, my husband ( bless his heart ) made a ridiculous decision. He brought home a puppy – a Rottweiler. Somehow he thought this would be a great thing, even though I’ve continually said, “Not one more thing that poops is allowed in this house!”

I told him I’d rather have a baby and he told me not to worry. I wasn’t going to have to care for this baby. No, he and my son would do it all. Yeah, right. He made it through a month before he realized he’d  made a big, messy, slobbery mistake.

Yet, in spite of all the chaos and sorrow, I watched God working out things for our good. It’s one of the promises I held onto through the tears, hospital visits and sleepless summer nights.

His plans are good. His ways are higher. His love heals our wounds.

I hope you know that friends. I pray you will cling to Our Father, keep your eyes on His son and understand that His grace is sufficient for us.

Here’s our promise . .  .

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

Finding family faith

By Erika Rizkallah

Almost every night after my family goes to sleep, I spend an hour or two working on genealogy. I’ve had an Ancestry.com account for several years.  It’s amazing to piece together what’s becoming a massive family tree. It’s thrilling to see their names. Among the common ones we have the standouts: Nimrod, Commander, Dilemma, Ransom and Content.

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I’ve found ancestors as far back as the 1500’s. Sometimes I’m just doing gritty research like digging through census records and wills. But often I stumble upon stories in books written decades later.

I didn’t grow up in a family of faith. My great-grandmother was a Christian and poured into me as much as she could through letters. Though she didn’t get to see the fruit of her labor in her lifetime, it did produce fruit. Both in my own family and the families I served as a children’s minister.

I think understanding where you come from is important work. In the Bible, we see name after name recorded for posterity. As I dig for my family members I discover a rich history of faith.

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My ancestors came over as colonists seeking religious freedom. Some of the men fought against “the savages” we now call Native Americans ( ironic). And sometimes they were killed or taken captive because they were peace loving pacifists. There’s a story  about a man named Robert, who lived alone on his farm in Maine . . .

“One time, just at night, he was cooking his supper when the Indians burst in upon him, and seizing him, said, ‘Now, Robert, quick you go to Canada.’ He answered, ‘Well, if I must, I must.’ He begged that he might cook and eat his supper, when he took up his line of march for that distant country.” Robert was taken multiple times to Canada but always managed to get home.

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I come from a long line of immigrants who fought in the Revolution as patriots – because they believed in America. They were hard working dreamers who knew this bountiful land offered them the opportunity to worship Christ on their terms. Many became leading citizens of their new country and established towns and community churches. The women, served at home, “keeping house,” caring for community members and fighting when necessary.

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I’m proud of my heritage. I’m amazed that I’ll get to meet my relatives in Heaven.

But whether your ancestors landed in Plymouth or sailed in at Ellis Island, the idea of worshiping freely is an integral part of the American dream. It’s worth fighting for.

I wonder what history will say about our generation of Christians. As Jesus said, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Your turn: Do you record the stories of the faithful in your family?

 

 

 

 

Picking proverbs for a push

By Erika Rizkallah

Each morning before I begin the day’s work in my home I pick a proverb to motivate me. Nurturing our nest requires loads of daily drudgery; I can’t do it all under my own power  (too boring).

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Bless our nest.

When I say I “pick” a proverb, I mean I open my Bible to the book of Proverbs, close my eyes and rummage through the pages. Then I point my finger and poke a verse. Whatever I land on is my daily inspiration to write at the top of my to-do list.

Sometimes they don’t make sense to my modern mind so I dig around, unearthing the hidden treasure. Yesterday my verse was A lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions. Proverbs 12:27

Because I’d dug up that one before I already knew it was about being wasteful. But you sure wouldn’t know  by looking at it! In the Old Testament, “diligent” means energetically or devotedly.

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So I pondered the meaning, trying to figure out how to make it work for me. Everything we have – all our possessions and the money to buy them – comes from the hand of God. Believers are called to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness and stewardship, caring for the gifts God gives.

Now there’s something I can focus on! Still, the verse didn’t come to life until later in the day.

Grocery shopping is drudgery to me but my husband loves it. I usually give him our list, but he was sick yesterday so I had to do it.

I was at the checkout counter with a full cart of necessities when I spied the magic words BUY ONE GET ONE FREE. It’s on that rack retailers position near the register to lure us with seasonal must-haves. And this was something I needed – a grill lighter. So I grabbed the only one left. I raced around checking the other racks but they were empty also.

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Oh well, one is all I really need, I thought. The proverb zipped through my mind and I wrestled while the cashier rung up the rest of my order . . .

It’s no big deal.  You don’t need two grill lighters. Just let it go.

But it’s $ 5.49! I’m throwing away money my husband works hard for.

Not really, you’re just passing up a BOGO. It’s just a trick to get you to buy more. Don’t fall for it; you’re in a hurry and there’s a line at customer service.

The lazy woman does not wait in line for a rain check, but the diligent woman . . .

Ugh.

In under three minutes I had my rain check. Incidentally, the silver-haired woman in line with me did the same thing with her BOGO. I bet she didn’t consider wrestling with her lazy spirit.

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Proverbs has much to offer us, so that’s my challenge for you. Poke a proverb for yourself and see if God uses it to teach you a little lesson. At the very least, you’ll gain instant wisdom from the ancient saints who went before us.

Follow your dreams or your mission?

By Erika Rizkallah

Follow your dreams.

In our individualistic culture we’re bombarded with the idea. All forms of media fill our heads with bucket lists and the notoriety of easy celebrity.

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I admit I’ve been fascinated with following my dreams since I was a kid. I was convinced I could be so many things: a model, a marine biologist an Egyptologist . . .

It didn’t matter I was too short and plain for modeling, or that I was afraid of fish and  hated sand. Those careers appealed to me. Then the reality that I lacked certain skills became obvious and I settled for the unglamorous job of working in human resources.

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Until recently I pursued some other dreams but chronic illness, aging and parenting issues edged them out, making them seem frivolous. I struggle with that – after all, aren’t we supposed to follow our dreams?

I wonder if it’s a modern construct. If it’s part of Paul’s warning about the last days, People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . . 3 Timothy 1-5

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So I looked to the Bible for wisdom. I found nothing about following dreams. I looked to Jesus’ life and wondered about his dreams. Was he content with his carpentry career?  Did he talk to his buddies about it?

Then it hit me. We were his dream of the future.

He focused ceaselessly on God’s purpose, not veering from his mission. Mark 1:21-39 offers a clue. He taught with authority in the Capernaum synagogue and dramatically drove a demon out of a man. Later he went to Peter’s house and found his mother-in-law suffering with a high fever. Jesus healed her and that evening the people brought him all the sick and demon-possessed. The Bible says, the whole town gathered at the door and Jesus healed many and drove out many demons.

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Early the next morning he left the house and went to pray in a solitary place. Peter and his friends found him saying, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. 

He was so focused on his mission that he left the comfort of Peter’s home and the certainty of local celebrity to spread God’s good news to others in the region.

We benefit as a result of his obedience and in turn, his dreams for us (and himself) came true. It seems to me that when we follow God’s purpose for our lives, somehow they intersect.

What about you? Do you find God’s purpose and your dreams are in sync? Please share and tell us how!

 

5 Benefits of Having a Clear Conscience

By Erika Rizkallah

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The other day I took my dog, Titan, for a walk on our dock. Generally he hates this because he’s a big chicken. He’s afraid of the dark and wind but he seemed eager this day. He pulled me up the ramp, through the gazebo and toward the water. So I went with it.

I thought, well you’re not such a fraidy cat after all. We walked a short while and he stopped;  I gazed at the water and took a few cleansing breaths of salty air. Then he started pulling me back toward the house. Ah, the wind! I thought.

When we got to the gazebo I saw something out of the corner of my eye and pulled on the leash. He stopped and stoically faced forward.

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“Titan!” I barked. He just looked at me.

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Then he turned forward again as if I couldn’t see him; he knows not to pick up bones.

He has a conscience . . . a guilty one.

Having a clear conscience is a gift of peace. The idea of having a clear conscience before God is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. Interchangeable words are “heart” and “mind.” According to the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis “. . . the words have a dominant metaphorical use in reference to the center of human psychical and spiritual life, to the entire inner life of a person.”

Here are five benefits of having a clear conscience straight from the Bible. For the full stories read the scripture references. Since it’s a longer than normal post I’d suggest pouring a cup of coffee and reading it as a mini study.

God keeps us from sinning against him – Read Genesis 20:1-18 – When Abraham was traveling in the region of the Negev he told people that his wife, Sarah, was his sister. One day Abimelech, the king of the land sent for Sarah and took her. Nice huh? But God came to him in a dream and told him she was married woman. Now Abimelech hadn’t touched her so he appealed to God and claimed his innocence. He said, “I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her.”

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We are freed from burdens – Read 1 Samuel 25 1-34 – While David (before he was king) hid in the desert from King Saul, he watched the flocks of a rich jerk named Nabal. At shearing time it was customary for the owner of the flocks to feed the shepherds protecting them. But Nabal refused and offended David, so he came tearing down the hills bent on revenge. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, was a smart lady and rode out to meet him with gifts of food and drink. She humbled herself, called him master and said, “When the Lord has done for my master every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him leader over Israel, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.” Abigail’s humility and quick thinking saved scores of lives that day.

The New Testament idea of conscience changes a bit as it’s influenced by Greek and Roman thought. As the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains, “The avoidance of a bad, accusing conscience is worth aspiring after, yet it is even more important to have a good conscience that confirms the correspondence of faith and life.” and “The Pastoral Letters lay great emphasis on a good conscience.” In short, it’s a rule of conduct applying to us today.

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Our conscience confirms our duty before God – Read Acts 22:1-23:11 – The Apostle Paul gave his testimony about Christ before a hostile crowd in Jerusalem. Things got so violent that the Romans arrested him and the next day he was brought before the Sanhedrin to find out why he was being accused by the Jews. The Bible says, Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” He was struck by those next to him for saying this and another violent dispute broke out. He was then taken away by force at the order of the Roman commander, but this time for his safety. But listen to this amazing sentence: The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome. The Lord himself stood by Paul that night!

We have knowledge of right and wrong – Read Romans 13:1 – Like Jiminy Cricket in the Pinocchio story says, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” Paul preached a lot about doing the right thing. In his letter to the Romans he wrote about submitting to the authorities, how it was the right thing to do (even though the Romans were known for their brutality). He writes, Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

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We have love – Read 1 Timothy 1:1-5 – When Paul went into Macedonia, he urged Timothy to stay in Ephesus to take care of men teaching false doctrines. It was Timothy’s job to command them to stop and instead do God’s work. Paul wrote, The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. The combination of a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith produces love.

I know when my conscience is clear I feel at peace with God, but it requires vigilance on my part. Right now, I’m working on some things that need cleaning up in my own life. How about you? Which of the five benefits applies to you right now?

 

 

Called to struggle

By Erika Rizkallah

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12

Out of the darkness comes light. Do you believe this?

Whenever a mass killing streams across news headlines I try not to spend too much time in front of the television. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of a natural disaster or at the hands of a psychopath.

It’s too painful and I tend to absorb the energy of those who’ve suffered and lost.

However, the Orlando attack resonated with me; it could have been me in that bar. I don’t go to bars now (because I’m sober) but a long time ago, I frequented gay bars in my old hometown. It was the best place for a young woman to dance the night away without being hit on by sloshed and groping men.

Last night I forced myself to listen to the many survivor stories and I can’t get two of them out of my head.

The first was about a guy who’d made it out unharmed. On the way, he found a man who’d been shot three times – one was a life-threatening shot in the back. He helped him to a waiting police car for transport to the hospital. The officer had him shove his shirt in the bullet wound and instructed him to bear hug the guy all the way to the hospital. It was a human tourniquet and would help keep him from bleeding to death. Bloody and hugging the injured man, the good Samaritan said, “Can I pray for you?” He then cried out to God on the man’s behalf and comforted him, telling him everything would be alright.

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He silently begged God that his words would be true. His prayer was answered.

The next story was told by a man hiding in a bathroom stall with others when the shooter came in. He says they begged him not to shoot. The killer laughed and sprayed bullets. The survivor told the reporter the laughter sounded satisfied. It was a laugh unlike any he’d ever heard before.

He then went on to say, “It sounded like it came from another world.”

I don’t doubt it. The Bible clearly states that our world is increasingly evil. Because of this, we’re called to struggle.

We are called to strenuously resist our own evil inclinations and fight against the forces of darkness. We’re called to struggle in prayer.

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Prayer is our weapon. Faith is our shield. His word is our sword.

Today will you pick up your weapons and fight with me?

 

Home Sweet Home

I started packing up our house for renovation in late October and now – six months later – it’s almost finished. I moved back in two weeks ago and have been buried under boxes ever since.

Sometimes we’re placed in situations that make normal rhythms of life grind to a halt. Everything gets tossed into a box and packed away until the time is right for bringing it out again. And when we do, it feels like Christmas. Or a little like the Christmases my brother and I used to enjoy.

When we learned that Santa’s gifts really came from our parents, we’d search for their (really lame) hiding places. When we found them we’d slowly peel back the tape and take a quick peek under the wrapping paper to see if we got what we wanted. Later, of course we’d have to act surprised.

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Gifting myself with some HomeGoods goodies

This is what unboxing a home is like. Although I’d labeled the boxes well, I’m sometimes surprised to find what’s in them. And after months of cooking in a microwave and washing my dishes in the basement bathtub, I find I don’t need (or want) as many things as I have. So now . . . more sorting and donating. Pure drudgery.

But it’s worth it.

Our house was almost completely updated and I feel like a bride setting up her new home after the wedding. So exciting! Through this process God brought us some unexpected gifts – treasures hidden in the heavens: our family grew closer, our patience and resolve got stronger and our gratitude is overflowing.

On the other hand, sacrificing my writing time to create a homelike environment in the midst of chaos is something I hope I never have to do again. For me, writing is like coming home. It’s comforting, nourishes my soul and gives me a chance to sit down.

So glad to be back. So glad to be home!

 

Faith and impatience: A new view of Sarah

Once a year (usually in early fall) I read the Bible straight through. I try to  finish before the year is over, but since I’m behind in everything I got started late. Even still, each time I do this I understand more about Christianity and the history from which it springs.

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Have you ever read something in the Bible that changes the way you think about what you’ve been taught? I sure hope so! The Bible acts as a truth detective and is filled with events and stories of people. It provides us life changing examples of what it means to be faithful to God.

One such story is about Abraham and his wife, Sarah. Abraham was known as the father of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims. His narratives are woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. Before God changed their names they were known as Abram and Sarai. God told him he would be the “father of many nations.”

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Because Sarai couldn’t have children, she gave Abram to her servant, Hagar, and they had a son, Ishmael. Later, when she was 90 and Abram was 100, Sarai gave birth to Isaac who superseded Ishmael as the legitimate son. There’s a story about Sarai and Hagar fighting – with Abraham stuck between them – and you can find it in Genesis 21:1-20.

Because I like to switch up translations and versions, this year I decided to use the Archaeological Study Bible. In it I discovered something new – something that changed my thinking about what I’d been taught by well meaning church leaders.

While Abraham is held up as a model of faithfulness for believing God’s promise about a son being born to him, Sarah is often not. She’s portrayed as less faithful because in her impatience, she initiated the arrangement with Hagar and “gave her” to Abraham in order to build a family through her. Not only that, when the original promise was made, she laughed.

What woman wouldn’t? After all, her womb was dead to begin with and trust me, there are physical signs and stages an older woman endures that assured her of this fact.

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After waiting ten years for that promise to materialize she took matters into her own hands, so to speak. Abraham was a willing partner in this scheme but still – if only she’d been faithful like him . . .

But this is what I learned about the Mesopotamian culture they were living in at the time: “Laws from ancient Mesopotamia provide various interesting parallels to the Genesis stories. In particular, numerous regulations illustrate the marriage and inheritance issues found in the accounts of the patriarchs. For example: Just as Sarai procured an heir for Abram through her maid (Ge 16; cf. ch 30), the Sumerian laws of Ur-Nammu … allowed a husband to take a concubine after waiting in vain for his primary wife to bear children. As in Sarai’s case, the primary wife might even have initiated the arrangement.”

It goes on to explain inheritance and disinheritance rights which Abraham eventually used after divine intervention (Gen 21:8-13).

So was Sarai really impatient and unbelieving or was she simply availing herself of the cultural laws and traditions in which she lived? After all, her husband didn’t disagree to the use of a young Egyptian maidservant. On this point, I’ve frequently heard, “and what man would?” (insert guffaw).

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I highlight this story as an example for us today. In order to be truly informed, we need to read and teach the Bible in context of the time and place in which the characters lived. Then maybe we won’t be so quick to misjudge and characterize people from our modern (and still male dominated) viewpoints.

Your Turn: I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in this matter. Does this change your previously held views of Sarai?