Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Missing Backstop

It was I who kept you from sinning against me.”

Francis Thompson famously referred to the “Hound of Heaven”, his metaphor for a God whose hand is so relentlessly upon the affairs of a person’s life that the divine influence can be neither evaded nor ignored.

There have been times when I too had a very strong impression God was personally on my case, and that all my efforts to circumvent or evade his will were doomed to end in utter futility. At other times, his impact on my choices and the circumstances around them, if present at all, has been incredibly subtle. Absent evidence of God’s direct involvement, to ascribe any specific decisions I have made in this life to the influence of providence would be, I think, quite presumptuous.

But one never knows whether it will be this way or that. One certainly cannot predict it. Occasionally, we observe God backstopping the human conscience and bailing his followers out of situations in which sin seemed inevitable; other times his absence is notable from the disasters that ensue.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

The line quoted above comes from Genesis 20, where Abraham journeys to Gerar. Apparently having learned nothing from a similar sojourn in Egypt in chapter 12, the patriarch fears for his life in the court of a foreign monarch, and denies his relationship to his wife who, despite her age, remains a viable marriage prospect for a king.

(This is actually not unrealistic. The average lifespan of the patriarchs was 167, making Sarah’s 90 years roughly the equivalent of a 45-year-old today: past child-bearing, but no senior citizen. More significantly though, Sarah also had great standing by virtue of being the “sister” of an unbelievably rich and powerful man whose servants and household constituted a small army. In those days, marrying into other powerful families was the way alliances were forged. So even if Sarah was “old” by some standards, her status amplified the beauty that remained.)

So Abimelech king of Gerar takes Sarah into his harem, and in doing so unknowingly invites the judgment of God upon his household. Finally, God himself warns Abimelech in a dream that he is as good as dead so long as Sarah remains his. Abimelech replies that he did not know Sarah was married, and God responds, “I know.”

And that’s where our quote comes in. Sometimes God acts directly to prevent men from sinning. The word used in Hebrew there is literally “restrained”, “held back”.

That’s an interesting idea to bat around. David too was conscious of God’s active restraint in his own life. He used similar language about his inclination to murder wicked Nabal, which he refrained from doing only because of Nabal’s wife. He said, “The Lord has kept back his servant from wrongdoing.” Then in Psalm 19, he prays, “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!”

Not a Puppet Show

I note that David recognized the need to ask for this sort of heavenly assistance. Apparently he did not expect God to unilaterally overrule every inclination men have toward evil without being asked for help. And that’s probably a good thing. A world in which men were never free to sin would certainly be a nicer place to live in one or two respects, void of any cause for criticism, debt or judgment … but equally, entirely free of reasons for praise, credit or mercy.

It would be a puppet show. That ain’t the way God works. His acts of prevention, then, are comparatively rare occurrences, restricted to the major events of history and to the moments in which his children have specifically cried out to him for his help. “Lead us not into temptation,” we pray … or else beware when we don’t. We have not, James says, because we do not ask.

In Abraham’s case, we don’t need to inquire whether it was prayer or a major historical event that caused God to step in and keep Abimelech from bedding another man’s wife. Abraham was obviously not, like David, actively seeking the aid of God in his dealings either with Pharaoh or Abimelech, though he certainly would have been better off doing so in both cases. If he had been inquiring into the mind of God, it is fairly probable he would not have been in Gerar in the first place, let alone reduced to disowning his own wife in what was, for Abraham, a relatively rare act of cowardice.

A Very Special Case

So, if it wasn’t prayer, what did prompt God to step in and restrain the king of Gerar? Adulteries have happened all through history, Bible history very much included. Why prevent this particular adultery?

Well, bear in mind that God had made Abraham a promise, and that promise was quite specific. Initially, it was simply that he would make of Abraham a great nation and a blessing to all the families of the earth, but even this most general version of God’s pledge had obvious implications. Great nations require ancestors and unbroken lines of descent. They can’t exist without them. A childless progenitor is an oxymoron. Abraham recognized this was the fundamental difficulty in God’s program, because when God speaks to him for a fourth time in chapter 15 in a vision (there is an appearance at Moreh in chapter 12 and some sort of direct communication in chapter 13), the first words out of his mouth were “I continue childless.” He expected to leave all his worldly goods to some distant relative in Syria.

So God’s promise becomes more specific: “What will come out of your own loins will be your heir.” That was all well and good for Abraham, but God’s promise did not specifically include Sarah. Not yet. So when Sarah gave her servant Hagar to her husband in the very next chapter saying, “It may be that I shall obtain children by her,” it may have been less an act of unbelief than an indication that Sarah took God just a little too literally, drawing conclusions where none need be drawn.

Getting More Specific

When God next appears to Abraham at the ripe old age of 99, he graciously and explicitly includes Sarah in the promise: “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Now there is no question about it: Sarah is to be the mother of the nation, and God repeats this crucial fact for good measure. He even says when this will happen: “this time next year”.

A sixth time God appears to Abraham, and this time Sarah is listening in. It’s not long after the previous iteration of the promise, because the words “this time next year” still apply. Again, Sarah’s improbable involvement is mentioned: “Sarah your wife shall have a son.”

The next thing that happens is that God destroys the cities of the valley, and Abraham decides it might be better to put some distance between himself and the smoking hole in the ground that used to be Sodom. Off he goes to Gerar with God’s promise of an heir ringing in his ears.

Impending Disaster in Gerar

It is at this point that Satan steps in once again and tries to prevent the realization of God’s purposes. The writer of Genesis does not tell us this, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to infer that the enemy was aware of God’s dealings with his servant and eagerly looking for ways to minimize the impact of the Abrahamic covenant on his domain. After all, Satan is the “god of this world”, and disinclined to cede control of it to anyone, especially his Creator.

So Satan tempts the soon-to-be-patriarch to cowardice and draws the wandering eyes of Abimelech to Sarah. What happens to God’s promise if “this time next year” Sarah is carrying Abimelech’s child rather than Abraham’s? (One very possible translation of Abimelech’s name is “father of the king”, an irony not lost on readers of Genesis today.) Even if Sarah does not conceive by Abimelech, how would anyone know the child is indeed Abraham’s ... or, more importantly, that God had kept his promises?

What a muddle, and what a potential disaster. Furthermore, what a perfectly good reason for God to step in and prevent Abimelech from acting on his desires. So God says, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me.” Not just the sin of adultery, but the crime of acting, if only inadvertently, against the repeatedly expressed divine purpose in the world, a plan that had as its end game the redemption of our entire lost human race.

Whew! Problem averted, and we can be thankful for that.

When the Backstop Goes Missing

What we should not draw from this remarkable episode in Genesis is any mistaken confidence that God can be expected to interject himself into our experiences in the same miraculous way if we willingly and deliberately subject ourselves to temptation. God cannot and should not be expected to backstop the human conscience he has graciously equipped to warn us of impending disaster, nor should he reasonably be expected to providentially overrule the necessity for his children to pay close attention to the promptings of his Holy Spirit in our hearts. One reason the Holy Spirit was given was to help us consistently and voluntarily prefer good over evil, not simply have good things happen to us despite our awful choices. If God were to endlessly keep me from having to live with the consequences of my bad behavior, I would never grow up.

Would you?

In short, if you decide to go to Gerar and disclaim your wife, that’s on you, not God. He’s awfully gracious, and you might just get a miraculous bailout too. Just don’t count on it.

Absent the prayers of his saints, in the ordinary course of things, God does not gratuitously insert himself into history or into the events of our lives. If we doubt that, the state of the world around us should provide ample evidence.

Photo courtesy Sjbmxer [CC BY-SA 4.0]


  1. Nice perspective (I have arrived at similar conclusions). But I have heard it also expressed as if it were not for Evil then we would also not know what Good is. You are of course touching on the most common sore spot people have concerning their belief that there might be a God since what you interpret as freedom to act or not to act on such me belief, will be interpreted as simply proof that there is no God because of his perceived absence and lack of initiative noticeable to the individual and society. In other words, people actually expect (and perhaps want) a little more arm twisting? At the same time one can be assured that if there was more of that people would then resent it. As it turns out God is actually discoverable (and found) in your life if you have ever gotten to a point where you actually need someone with his qualifications and are therefore willing to let him in.

    1. Like everybody, I've been mysteriously bailed out of my own errors a couple of times in ways that I can only (quietly) attribute to divine intervention. The difficulty is, as you say, that these cannot be stringently proven to the satisfaction of the general public. In the absence of scriptural evidence that God can always be counted on to backstop us against the consequences our own deliberate choices, I suspect caution is the wisest choice. As Moses put it, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." (Deut. 6:16)