A strong sense of justice runs through the narrative of the book of Genesis. Punishment for sins committed in the Garden of Eden and at the Tower of Babel is decisive. Later, various acts of the patriarchs have consequences that reverberate forward for years into the future.
For example, Jacob poses as his brother Esau to deceive Isaac. Seven years after that, Laban tricks Jacob by having one daughter pose as the other on his wedding night. In the following generation the sons of Jacob, led by Judah, sell their brother Joseph into slavery. They, in turn, purposely mislead their father by sending Joseph's unique coat to Jacob with the message, "This we have found; please identify whether it is your son's robe or not." Years later Judah receives his signet and staff from his daughter-in-law Tamar, whom he had misled, along with the message, "Please identify whose these are."
Such examples illustrate the idea of measure for measure; a principle taught throughout the Bible. In Num 32:23 Moses cautions, "And be sure your sin will find you out." Paul concurs, "God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap" (Gal 6:7). Jesus teaches that we will be forgiven and judged as we forgive and judge others (Matt 6:14; 7:2).
Eager to affirm the justice of God, ancient readers of Genesis proposed detailed cause-and-effect explanations for the events chronicled there, often going well beyond anything suggested in the biblical text. Consider these explanations as to why Rachel dies in childbirth. One tradition blames the vow made by Jacob in Gen 31:32, or the fact that Rachel had taken her father's household gods (Gen 31:19). According to another tradition, Rachel dies because the Promised Land cannot tolerate the presence of two sisters married to the same man, in violation of Lev 18:18.
Forced speculations like these remind us that the measure for measure principle itself has limitations. As the Teacher in Qohelet points out, many things happen by "time and chance" (Eccl 9:11-12). Jesus likewise observes that those who suffer misfortune are not necessarily "worse sinners" than others who do not (Luke 13:1-5).(1)
Genesis 15:13 is one such verse that seems difficult to explain in measure for measure terms. God had just reaffirmed his promise that Abram would have many descendants who would possess the Promised Land. Abram, who is childless, trusts God and is counted righteous for his faith (v. 6). Then God declares, "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years."
Rabbinic interpreters were puzzled by this statement, wondering what Abram might have done to bring affliction upon his descendants.(2) They made numerous suggestions. One blames Abram for leaving the land and taking refuge in Egypt during a famine. Another finds fault with Abram seeking assurance that he would inherit the land.
A third criticizes him for later making a treaty with Abimelech of Gerar. According to this proposal, when Abram seals the agreement with a gift of seven lambs, God responds, "You gave him seven sheep; by your life, I will withhold joy from your offspring for seven generations" (Genesis Rabbah 54).
A fourth suggestion indicts Abram for pressing his 318 men into military service to rescue his nephew Lot, arguing that these men should have been left alone to engage in Torah study. Finally, a fifth proposal censures Abram for passing up an opportunity to take control of Sodom after he rescues Lot and recovers the city's stolen property. The idea here is that he should have used his influence in the region to institute moral reforms and save Sodom from the destruction it would later suffer.
All of these examples illustrate the danger of pushing a biblical principle beyond biblical context, which can lead to non-biblical conclusions. A more helpful way forward is to see the servitude of Israel in the broader framework of God's plan to bless all nations through the descendants of Abraham. From this perspective Israel's years of affliction set the stage for their dramatic deliverance, giving the world a powerful witness of God's greatness and righteous character. The children of Abraham suffer not as a punishment, but to serve a higher purpose.
Rather than being an instance of measure for measure, Genesis 15:13-17 illustrates another important biblical principle. Often when God calls people to his service, their mission involves sacrifice and suffering. Israel's calling as servant of God culminates in the high-calling of the Suffering Servant, who "bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors" (Isa 53:12). For the prophet Isaiah, this theme features prominently in chapters 42-53, passages often referenced by Messiah Jesus and his disciples (see Matt 8:17; 12:18-21; Luke 2:32; 22:37; John 12:38; Acts 8:32; 13:47).
When Jesus explained to his followers that he would be put to death even though he had done no wrong (Mark 8:31-33), he prepared them for the trials they would endure, saying, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it” (vv. 34-35).
Peter, one of those that heard the Master's words and witnessed the Master's deeds, reflected carefully and commented on them to the flocks that he was leading. His observations powerfully convey the heart of the Father to all of us who are, and all of us who will suffer without explanation,
"When you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:20-21).
(1) These are verses worth keeping in mind when we are tempted to find specific reasons for hurricanes and other disasters.
(2) In the Babylonian Talmud this issue is discussed in tractate Nedarim 32a.
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