As we study Scripture and hear its exposition, it becomes clear that not only are there sins of commission, there are also sins of omission. The Christian community has long recognized this truth; as the Book of Common Prayer says in its General Confession, “... forgive us for what we have done and what we have left undone.” Even secular law courts recognized this danger by requiring witnesses to swear that they will “tell the whole truth...”
The story in Genesis 17 and 18 of the Lord’s telling first Abraham and then Sarah that they would have a son in their old age is one of the places in Scripture where a “sin of omission” is often committed. Many times a preacher/teacher on this passage will comment only upon Sarah’s laughter of unbelief that such a miracle could occur (Gen. 18:12). Often this story will be presented as an example of lack of faith and doubt that God could perform such a feat, and Sarah is often shamed and taken to task in the process of the teaching.
However, rarely does one hear a preacher/teacher mention that just before Sarah had her “doubt problems” Abraham not only doubted the very idea, but be actually “fell on his face and laughed” (Gen. 17:17). Lest there be any misunderstanding about just what Abraham was laughing at, the verse reads;
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (NASV)
Many in the conservative, evangelical community make much of the concept of patriarchal headship and how important it is for a husband to be an example for his wife and family to follow. Is it any wonder then, in a patriarchal society such as Abraham’s, that Sarah very naturally followed the example of her already disbelieving husband and so then herself laughed at the idea? In showing his unbelief that God could perform such a “unnatural” feat as making an elderly couple have a child, Abraham was a very poor spiritual role model for his wife.
One teaching on this passage which was presented in a well-known monthly study guide in March 1995 concluded its thorough (albeit condescendingly benevolent) chastisement of Sarah by saying that even though Sarah had thus stumbled, God graciously kept his promise in spite of her disbelief.
Why did the editors of this respected publication do as so many other trained biblical scholars do: ignore Abraham’ s lack of faith in Genesis 17 while finding such fault with Sarah’s similar weakness in Genesis 18? Acknowledging the scholarship and sincerity of the majority of these students of God’s Word, I can only believe that such omissions are brought about by a subconscious block in approaching Scripture. All people — even dedicated exegetes—at times see only what they have been programmed to see by past teaching and preconceived beliefs.
As much as we try to do “exegesis” (arriving at the clear meaning of a text) we all sometimes do “eisegesis” instead (reading into the text what is not there). We bring hidden (even to ourselves) biases to our studies which skew our research and conclusions. As a conservative, evangelical feminist, I am sensitive to such lopsided presentations when they are biased toward males. It is my prayer that God will develop in me, as well as in my sister Bible students, an equal sensitivity to any opposite biases that may contaminate and lessen the worth of our own study of Scripture.
May God open all our eyes so that we see sins of “omission” as readily as we do those of “commission,” especially as we study and teach the Word of God. May He also give us compassion toward, and the desire to forgive, those who still are bound by those slender, nearly invisible chains of bias that keep them from seeing the whole of Scripture. And may we all pray that the day will soon come when we all will cease “seeing through a glass darkly” (I Cor. 13:12).