The Birth of Isaac – Held on Sunday, November 18, 2012

Gen. 21: 01 – 08 – Birth of Isaac


Not wanting to be labor the point, in summary two weeks ago I offered as an example of our church’s failure to deal adequately with the scientific revolution the biological understandings underpinning the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  I believe that its biological assumptions were mistaken and not in concert with contemporary biological science.  One of the group’s members felt that as the group’s leader I have the responsibility to make clear that my position is not that of the church. 

As I prepared to share this with the group, I realized first that the position I expressed was not really my own but rather the thought of Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J. whom I think to be one of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the 20th century.  If anyone is interested in reading a one page letter of Fr. Lonergan that succinctly expresses his position do the following:

  1. Log on to the the LRI website (
  2. Click on “Resources” (right-hand end of green sequence at top of screen).
  3. Scroll down till you find “Lonergan Studies Newsletter.”
  4. On second-last line of page, you’ll see where to click for “an online full-text version of all current and past editions of the Lonergan Studies Newsletter.”
  5. Locate the March, 1990, edition; go to pp. 6-8; and you’ll be in business.

Furthermore, if anyone is interested in reading again a brief account of who Fr. Lonergan is written by Msgr. Liddy, The Mystery of Bernard Lonergan,


As always I urge you to read the notes on USCCB website

Setting the story of the birth of Isaac in the context of the passages immediately surrounding is itself valuable.  There are four stories: Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech, the Birth of Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham and Abimelech.  A cursory glance shows that the birth of Isaac is enclosed in stories that focus on individuals who are not members of the chosen Israelite community.  Over time the universality of Yahweh will become ever more evident as the biblical world develops.  For Christians, this universality is captured eloquently by Paul in Gal. 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ.”

Our Questions

For the sake of completeness I will include in our blog the basic questions that guide us in hearing the passages we study each week.

  1. First who are the characters and what role does each play? To the extent that we can identify
    1. a.      what the characters say and do, or
    2. b.      don’t say and do but we would expect them to do so, and
    3. c.      finally when they enter into the passage and leave it

We can more easily and more accurately know what their role is from the point of view of the author and / or the editor of the passage.

  1. The “when” question is quite complicated and again for the sake of completeness; there is
    1. a.      The “when” within the story / passage itself,
    2. b.      The “when” of the editor, and most importantly,
    3. c.      The “when” of our life at the time we are actually reading / studying the passage.   
  2. What is the plot, the point of the passage?
  3. Finally, because each passage is at one and the same time the word of human beings and the Word of God, there is revealed the values that are part and parcel of the human beings in their time and place and there is the values revealed by God for the believer.  Our final question is to discern which values in the passage are attractive to us, we are drawn to and which are we repulsed by, inclined to reject?  The more difficult task, if we do identify these two responses in us of the values revealed, which are of God and we are being challenged to embrace and which are not of God and we are being challenged to correct and develop.

My Refrain

Before we read though, let’s quiet ourselves, remember whatever we can from the background, our questions and, most importantly, pay attention to what happens inside of us as we read.

Reading of the passage

Discussion Gen. 21:01 – 8 – Birth of Isaac

The first thing that caught Mark’s attention is how Abraham was the focus of the birth of Isaac, especially Sarah’s remark, “I have borne him a son in his old age.” The patriarchal culture of the day is almost ever present in these passages. Mark’s observation allowed us to ask the question, is this an expression of a merely cultural value of the times, or is it a value for all times?  In other words, is a patriarchal society the norm that these passages in the bible are evidence of? However we answer the question, the important points would be first to know our rationale and to be open to the reasoning of others who may differ.

The topic moved from a discussion of patriarchal and matriarchal to one of equality.  What does it mean to be equal?  I know that equality cannot be rooted in skill sets, talents, etc.  In those ways we are not equal; there is a range of strength, intelligence; some are more graceful, melodic voice, etc. So in what way are we equal?  Isn’t equality the overriding argument in our marriage debate today as a growing number of states approve same sex marriages?  We really didn’t get into this issue but I see the issue as an extension of the conversation, how do we discern what is part of the culture of  the bible and what is of divine revelation?  And how do we discern?

At the heart of the passage, though, was the meaning of the opening sentence, “The Lord took note of Sarah so he had said he would; he did for her as he had promised.”  We live by promise and the story is a story of the Lord, Yahweh, being faithful to his promise; a promise despite the story’s account of overwhelming human odds against even the possibility of it being fulfilled.  Cathy recalled in her notes somewhere that twenty-five years passed between the promise and its fulfillment. [The twenty-five years later lead to a discussion of the meaning of numbers in the scripture which I need to bracket for the time being.]  The ebb and flow of emotions, the extraordinary challenge to believe, to trust, with the time span between promise announced and promise fulfilled.  This is the very stuff that life is made of.  The early Christians had to move through the disappointed times when the expected imminent return of the Lord did not occur. So God’s promise, delay, how to read the signs of the times are topics to reflect on, share with others. 

As always more occurred than I can write.  Another lively discussion time that happened all too quickly.

Your comments, observations, questions are welcomed.  See “comment” link below.

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