Beyond "Measure for Measure"


by Doug Ward

A strong sense of justice runs through the narrative of the book of Genesis. Sins committed in the Garden of Eden and at the Tower of Babel are punished decisively. Later the actions of the patriarchs have consequences that tend to reverberate forward for years into the future.


For example, Jacob poses as his brother Esau to deceive Isaac (Gen 27). Seven years after that, Jacob himself is deceived on his wedding night (Gen 29). In the following generation the sons of Jacob, led by Judah, sell their brother Joseph into slavery. They in turn deceive their father, sending Joseph's special coat to Jacob with the message, "This we have found; please identify whether it is your son's robe or not" (Gen 37:32). Later Judah receives his signet and staff from Tamar with the message, "Please identify whose these are ..." (Gen 38:25).


Such examples illustrate the idea of "measure for measure," a principle taught throughout the Bible. Moses cautions in Num 32:23, "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).


What Did They Do Wrong?

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. To explain why Rachel dies in childbirth, for instance, 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 speculation, Rachel dies because the Promised Land cannot tolerate the presence of two sisters married to the same man, in violation of Lev 18:18.


Speculations like these remind us that not all events are governed by the measure for measure principle. As 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


One verse that seems especially difficult to explain in measure for measure terms is Gen 15:13. In Gen 15 God reaffirms 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 a number of suggestions. One is to blame Abram for leaving the land and taking refuge in Egypt during a famine (Gen 12). Another criticizes Abram's desire for assurance that he would inherit the land (Gen 15:8). A third faults him for later making a treaty with Abimelech of Gerar (Gen 21:21-33). 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 blames Abram for pressing his 318 men into military service to rescue his nephew Lot (Gen 14:14), arguing that these men should have been left alone to engage in Torah study. Finally, a fifth proposal criticizes Abram for passing up an opportunity to take control of Sodom after he rescues Lot and recovers the city's stolen property. This proposal argues that he might have used his influence in the region to institute moral reforms and save Sodom from the destruction it would later suffer.


Seeing the Big Picture

The various scenarios that consider Israel's affliction in Egypt a punishment for Abram's sins are admittedly creative, but they are also totally unconvincing. The complaint that Abram's men are deprived of an opportunity for Torah study is anachronistic, reflecting the concerns of sages in Babylon two thousand years later rather than the realities of Abram's time. We can imagine that if he had not tried to rescue Lot, then he would have been blamed for his inaction. Notice also that the third proposal above faults Abram for getting too involved in local politics, while the fifth one asserts that he should have become more involved in regional affairs. One senses that this is a "no win" situation for Abram, since the goal is to find fault with him somehow.


It is more helpful to view the servitude of Israel from the broader perspective of God's plan to bless all nations through the descendants of Abram. 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 Abram suffer not as a punishment, but to serve a higher purpose.


Rather than being an example of measure for measure, Genesis 15:13-17 illustrates another key biblical principle: When God calls people to his service, their mission generally involves sacrifice and suffering. Israel's calling as servant of God culminates in the mission of the Suffering Servant, who "bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors" (Isa 53:12). This is a major theme of Isa 42-53, a key section of scripture for Jesus and his disciples (Matt 8:17; 12:18-21; Luke 2:32; 22:37; John 12:38; Acts 8:32; 13:47).


When Jesus explained to his disciples 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 disciples, later wrote, "But if 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). These words continue to apply to followers of Jesus today.


1These are verses worth keeping in mind when we are tempted to find specific reasons for hurricanes and other disasters.


2In the Babylonian Talmud this issue is discussed in tractate Nedarim 32a.

Issue 32


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On 23 Oct 2017, 12:07.