They never came home for the holidays. Abe and Sara. Never called or wrote on birthdays, anniversaries. Never made any of the family reunions. So naturally they got talked about—and not in the nicest of ways. Every now and then we’d hear something. A caravan passing through would have word. They had boys—two boys: Ish and Isaac. Obviously they were family—no denying that, but they weren’t us—weren’t ever us—were always “them.”
I guess you have to go all the way back to my Great Grand-Daddy, name of Terah, who left the old homestead in Ur. It was hard times back then, and there are those that say that’s why, but the story’s told—well, actually it’s not. The one detail that’s known is that Great Grand-Daddy’s youngest boy, my Great-Uncle Haran died in his daddy’s presence. And that was that. He left. His boy died and he up and left. Took Abe, his oldest, and Abe’s wife, Sara and Haran’s son, Lot. I’ve always thought there had to be so much more to it than that, but no one tells that story. At least no one’s told it to me. Not even Grand-Nana Milcah. And any family stories I know, she’s the one who told them to me.
Now my grand-daddy, Grandy, name of Nahor, Abe’s younger brother, Haran’s older brother, the middle boy, Milcah’s husband—stayed put in Ur on the homestead. I’ve never been too clear about whether he chose to stay or wasn’t invited to go. “This is our place,” Grand-Nana Milcah said he said. And there’s some pride in that. But I don’t know what all else there is in that. And he ended up leaving Ur too. Ended up following those he hadn’t gone with—or hadn’t been invited to go with. Another story no one tells me.
But there was evidently enough hurt—enough anger that after leaving the homestead in Ur—after traveling hundreds of miles, when Grandy got to where he started hearing stories of Terah and Abe and Sara, when he heard that they had founded, and lived in the middle of a town called Haran, he just stopped. Stopped and started the town of Nahor, on the same east to west trade route as Haran, but a ways away. Don’t you get the sense of untold stories looming behind the particular details? Doesn’t that drive you crazy? Drives me crazy!
Now by the time Grandy and Grand-Nana got as near to Haran as they got, Abe and Sara and Lot had already left. And boy was that a story—about God calling them—telling them to get up and go. About God making promises to them about land and family and blessing. Never mind that it would seem to have left Great Grand Terah in a bad spot—with no one to take care of him in his older years, but all he ever said about it, Grand-Nana said, was, “This comes from God. I can’t speak good or bad of it.” There was some sense that when God calls, normal responsibilities—even the normal ordering into right and wrong all gets displaced. Grandy was more upset about it than Great-Grand Terah, feeling not only like it had been left up to him to take care of his daddy, but also that he hadn’t been given a choice—that as the second son, it wasn’t his responsibility but had been foisted off on him anyway. He was kind of bitter about that—and about the fact that his daddy wouldn’t ever leave Haran—wouldn’t move to Nahor. Of course stubbornness runs in the family, and Grandy commuted from Nahor to take care of his daddy till the day he died—and as my Great Uncle Haran died in my Great Grand-Daddy’s presence, so my Great Grand-Daddy died in the heart of the town named after his youngest boy.
I tell you, you’re sure born into it, aren’t you? Into stories started long before you. Born into old hurts, fights and resentments. And you don’t know how they connect into stories—stories no one will tell you. I grew up with a lot of fascinating details I always thought should be part of a great story, but they somehow always remained unconnected—just details. Grandy didn’t talk much at all and when he did, it wasn’t about him. My daddy Bethuel didn’t add anything. Both of them were sun-baked, dry, hard working men who worked all day, came home, ate, went to sleep.
Even Grand-Nana wouldn’t connect the dots. and when she got to feeling like I was asking too many questions, she’d just haul out the maps. She knew that always distracted me. I loved those maps. Grand-Nana would unwrap them, spread them out and we would look at all the places we’d been—the routes we’d taken from here to there. And I would make up stories. “This is our story,” I would pronounce. And she would smile and say, “Well, that’s as good a story as any!”
As good a story as any. Which is to say no story’s better—no more real—than any other. It’s what I always wondered about Abe and Sara. Because it seemed like they had the better story. No more interesting details—most of the same places we looked at on our maps, but a story to go along with the places on the maps. A story that connected all the details about why they left and where they went. It’s not so much that I felt my story was unfinished. I’m thinking we should always feel that. But rather that it always felt incomplete. That’s different. All the details yearning for some sense of bigger and more.
Grandy died. Grand-Nana died. Left me all her maps. Dad never left Nahor—his dad or the town named after his dad. And life unfolded day by day through the months and the years until the evening I went out to draw water at the well and saw the stranger with the ten camels. He asked for a drink and I offered him one. Then I watered all ten of his camels. That’s a lot of work, by the way, with some stranger watching you. But when I was finished, he gave me a gold nose ring and gold bracelets, and asked whose daughter I was and if there might be room at our house for him and his camels for the night. I told him who I was (Becca, daughter of Bethuel, son of Milcah and Nahor himself the son of Terah), and he bowed his head and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master.” Well, I stared at him for a minute then took off running to tell Mom. Just left the man standing there at the well looking after me with his camels. But here were more details. Details about them! And maybe someone who could connect those details in a story—their story—their story with me in it!
My brother, Laban, was mighty interested in the gold jewelry. That was Laban. “And you just left him by the well?” he asked in horror and took off running. Came back with Eli and his ten camels. Got them settled in. Brought Eli into the house. Offered him supper. But he had his story to tell. And tell it he did.
About how Abe had sent him back to the land of his kin to find his son a wife. About how the God who had long ago called Abe and Sara—who had promised them offspring and land and blessing sent an angel with him. And about how he himself had prayed by the well and I had appeared. Laban, of course, heard that Abe was greatly blessed—had become wealthy with flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. That was all Laban needed to hear. I heard something else. I heard the story I’d always wanted to hear—the story alluded to throughout my life. And I wanted this God in my life. This unpredictably wild God who grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go. This God who calls and whose presence then evidently goes with you—manifest in steadfast love. Would not such an-ever presence make of my living a wonder-filled story?
Sure I had questions, but not questions about whether to go. Questions about this story. Was this the God just of Abraham? Was this story about God’s steadfast love for Uncle Abe? As Eli told us his story, while it was obvious that Abe still valued kinship, it was more like it was Abe’s story—their story. But was it my story?
Dad had come in from the fields by then and he and Laban both said, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good.” Dad with resignation. Laban with his eye still on the jewelry! That was our history. That was our experience with this God—who told great uncle Abe to scoot and he did. Dad left. Went to bed. Uninterested. Uninvolved. And Eli hauled out more gold jewelry and silver and garments for me. And he gave Mom and Laban nice stuff too.
Eli was ready to go. Mom and Laban asked me, “Will you go with this man?” I didn’t have to think about it. I’d been thinking about it all my life. “I will,” I said. So I received the blessing of my mother and my brother and left the place of my family and my living heading south with Eli and his camels. Our first night on the road, Eli gave me a map. I don’t know how he knew! Maybe that angel! I unfurled it every night. He would look at it with me and say Uncle Abe and Aunt Sara had been here and there. But when I asked Eli about them, he always just said, “That’s not my story to tell.” Well who’s going to tell it to me? Anyone?
The whole way from Ur to Nahor, my family had followed the fertile arc. Blessed land, Grand-Nana called it. Now, every night, looking at my map, I noted our progress. We left the fertile lands I grew up in for the rocks and the sand of the Judean hills and the desert. We headed into the great Negeb—further and further into the wilderness. Interesting to leave “blessed land” following the God story. Then at the end of one day of travel, I saw him. Walking alone in the field at the time of the evening breeze—such as it was that far down south! The field was on the outermost edge of the oasis and he cut quite a figure silhouetted against the setting sun. Somehow so very—so terribly alone.
I slipped off my camel to put it between me and this lone man in the field. His solitariness touched me in ways I couldn’t explain. I asked who that was and Eli confirmed it was Isaac. I put on my veil as much to hide the intensity of my curiosity and desire as for propriety’s sake while Eli told him all that had transpired.
He took me into his mother’s tent. That’s how he named it for me. His mother’s tent. His mother who had died. Still grieving, poor boy. The next day, well, let’s just say I don’t think he was thinking about his mother! Isaac loved me, you see, and found comfort in me.
Only later would I come to find out this spring in the wilderness where we met was where God met Hagar pregnant with Isaac’s older brother, Ish. Later, when Isaac started to tell me his stories of family and of God. Like me, he struggled with details unresolved in a larger story. Like me, he was removed from a sense of coherence. I even heard the terror-full story. He lived with such great sadness. With a fear he could never shake. I would sometimes think I had more incomprehensible details than I ever wanted.
Like his Mom—like Sara, I could not get pregnant. And as much as I had wanted this story, I wanted it to be my story, not just someone else’s—not their story with me in it but my story. But here I was barren. And so Isaac prayed. First time he ever spoke to God—his Dad’s God. First time he ever placed himself in that story. Can you fathom how huge that was? And it came to pass I was pregnant. Unlike Sara I was still young, but I was miserable. I felt torn apart. “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” Is any story worth this pain? So I went to inquire of the Lord. and God said to me—get that? God said to me! “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” and I felt all the more torn apart. One son shall serve another? The elder shall serve the younger? That didn’t sound good. And yet this was the will of God? And I wondered if this would therefore just happen or if I would have to make it happen? Because it wouldn’t—wouldn’t just happen, would it? Older brothers don’t serve younger brothers.
Folks say Isaac loved Esau and I loved Jacob. I know. But that’s making a story out of details—not locating details within their story. If you try and understand details in light of a smaller story than the one they belong to, you won’t understand anything. It’s true Isaac loved Esau and I loved Jacob, but I didn’t love Jacob any more than I loved Esau. God picked Jacob. God. Not me. I hurt to bring both of those boys into the world and I loved them both.
Now. Knowing what I knew of God and what I knew of my boys, I knew Jacob was more suited to this God—more suited to walk through life with God. He was stronger. Oh, not physically. But he had a better sense of what was important. And, well, he was willing to cut corners. It’s back to that displacing of the ordinary categories of right and wrong, right? I mean, is it right to buy your brother’s birthright? No. But Jacob knew it was important. And Esau, God love him, didn’t.
And life unfolded day by day through the months and through the years. Came a time of famine and God came to Isaac (God came to Isaac!) saying not to go down to Egypt. Abe and Sara had gone down to Egypt when famine hit in their time. As similar as our stories were turning out to be, they weren’t the same. But as important as God telling us not to do what Abe and Sara did, more important was God telling Isaac, “I will be with you and bless you” promising that our descendants would get the land. Promising that all the nations of earth would be blessed through our offspring. It was Abe and Sara’s promise, now ours. And God said it was because Abe obeyed God’s voice and Isaac was never real sure how to feel about God approving of Abe obeying God’s voice. But all the details we had struggled with were all of sudden claimed in a bigger story—the biggest story. The story of God and steadfast love and love being worked out through the ages. Maybe part of the whole thing is that this is a story bigger than our ability to make sense of it. And we have to decide if we’re going to be a part of something we can’t make sense of. As the story begun continues.
So important that the story becomes our story. So important that as much as the story seems so familiar, it’s still uniquely ours. But it’s also the old story. So when we didn’t go to Egypt like Abe and Sara did—when we went where God told us to go, lo if we didn’t end up in a place where Abe and Sara had been. Lo if we didn’t encounter some of the same people. Old King Abimelech was still king of the Philistines. And lo if Isaac didn’t tell that old rascal I was his sister, just as Abe had told him Sara was his. You’d think meeting members of our family, this king would be leery of strangers with beautiful sisters!
But you can see how built into the story through the years is the idea that it’s okay to deceive. I don’t know how you throw God into people’s living and thinking, and have the ordinary categories changed, I don’t know how you spin that out into specifics. But evidently, at least as evidenced in both Abe and Sara and Isaac and me, when you don’t have power and encounter power, it’s okay to deceive. Trust God but help yourself.
The lie of our relationship was revealed because Isaac never could keep his eyes or his hands off me! He was fondling me when the king spied our p.d.a. (public display of affection). My husband loved me remember? That never changed.
We prospered—had as much to do with love and p.d.a.—with blessing each other as it did with flocks and herds. And we were here and we were there. My maps were falling apart. But lo if we didn’t end up in, of all places, Beersheba. Abe and Sara’s old place. It took us such a long time to feel comfortable enough with our story to live where they lived theirs—for Isaac to be able to say, “God has made a place for us.” And God appeared to Isaac again repeating the promise—the blessing. Reconfirming the story.
Esau continued to justify God having picked Jacob. He married two Hittite girls who made life bitter for us. Again, it was Esau disregarding the story—the story I had so wanted to be a part of that he evidently didn’t care about being a part of. God picked the right boy.
And life unfolded day by day through the months and through the years, and we were old. Came the day, Isaac, not sure how much longer he had to live, called in Esau, called in his first-born, to offer him his blessing. Tradition. And he told Esau to go hunt and prepare a savory stew just the way he liked it. Well, mindful of God’s words to me when the boys were still in my womb, I called Jacob and told him what was about to happen. I told him to go get a couple of choice kids from the flocks and I would prepare a savory stew just the way my love liked it. Who do you think taught Esau to make it just that way?
Jacob wasn’t too certain about this. Honestly, I don’t know how much of it was feeling bad about tricking his dad and how much of it was worrying about being caught and being cursed instead of blessed. I said, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my word.” Now’s not the time to worry about right and wrong. We have the story to continue. Jacob was already in a pickle not being the first-born. What if he didn’t get his father’s blessing? Maybe God would have worked things out. But if you don’t get your father’s blessing, there’s only so much that can be done.
So I’ve got this reputation. Of having favored one boy. Because I worked on his behalf at the perceived expense of my other son. But I lost both boys. All because I thought I was doing what God wanted me to—needed me to. Is it okay to lie? Do you sometimes have to deceive? If it’s okay to lie about me being a wife out of fear, surely it’s okay in the pursuit of what you think is right and just and God’s will? This was never about favoritism, but about trying to take this God I married into seriously. That gets you into a mess. That’s my story. It’s still unfinished. It’s not pretty. Some of the details remain incomprehensible to me. But it’s complete.
And I told Isaac I was weary of my life because of the Hittite women. “If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women such as these Esau married, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?” I asked. So Isaac called Jacob and sent him up north. And Esau overheard Isaac blessing Jacob again. Esau heard his daddy praying to God to pass along Abe’s blessing to Jacob—praying that this story would continue through Jacob. Not everyone remembers that. Yes, there was some trickery the first time. But Isaac blessed Jacob again, and told him not to marry a Canaanite woman, but to go up to the region of Haran and find a kinswoman to marry. A helpmate. Someone with whom to share the journey. Someone with whom to live the story. So, having overheard all this, having gathered that Isaac didn’t like Canaanite women, what did Esau do but go out and marry another Canaanite girl?
Course she was actually a kinswoman too. Jacob married the daughter of his uncle, Laban. So did Esau! Married the daughter of his uncle Ishmael, son of Abe and Hagar, whom God met where I met Isaac. This story’s too big for any of us! We run into details that suggest the story’s bigger than we can wrap our heads around. That all the separating we do into us and them doesn’t fit the fullness of the story.
Sometimes I note, we trace our family line back to Noah’s son Shem. If you look at Shem’s brother’s line, you find Canaan and his descendants the Canaanites including the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites. Also in that line was the great warrior Nimrod who built Babel and Niniveh in Assyria. Egypt was one of Canaan’s brothers, and the Philistines came out of Egypt’s line. Turns out all our enemies are part of the family.
Sometimes I wonder, what if we resisted the urge to trust God but help ourselves? What if we trusted the story to unfold as it should rather than feeling the need to get it to unfold the way we think it should. The way we think it needs help? I so wanted this story. But then when I lived it, did I not trust it?
This may not be your story, but I’ll tell it to you anyway. It’s the one I always wanted to hear and I hated it when people wouldn’t tell it to me. It’s a sometimes ugly, sometimes terrible story with plenty of incomprehensible details. I can’t say if that’s always because people didn’t trust the story and tried to get it to work out however they thought it should. I can’t say if it’s always because people lived a smaller story than they said they believed. I can say it’s about love. I can say it’s about presence and blessing. And I can say having longed for a story big enough to grow into, I never found a better one.