(Or at least bigger than *I* thought, but that’s not as good a title.)
I’m working on Untwisting Scriptures #5, “Suffering, Death (to Self), and Life.”
In preparation for that, I’m studying all the uses in the New Testament of the Greek words that indicate some form of suffering. Which brought me to the Greek word dioko (Strong number G1377), which is translated “persecute.”
I thought this one would be straightforward and I wouldn’t find much. God forgive me for my assumptions.
Anybody ready for a Bible study? Cause buckle up and here we go.
What “persecution” means in the New Testament
Many New Testament Scriptures make very clear that in its negative sense, the Greek word translated “persecution” (literally “chasing after,” Strong’s number G1377) indicates being “chased after” in order to be actively abused: to be stoned, beaten, and even crucified. (It can also mean “chased after” in order to be passively abused: to be cast out into utter isolation from all interaction with the people the Christians had always known as their people.)
But having examined all uses of this word in the New Testament, I’d like to zero in on just one of them. One fascinating use of this word is in Galatians 4:29, when Paul was in the middle of describing the differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
Hang with me. We’re diving in.
“Persecution” in Galatians 4
The book of Galatians is all about helping the New Covenant people of God stand firm in the New Covenant in spite of the pressures and even persecutions they experienced from the Jews—and more specifically, the Judaizers (Jews who claimed to be Christians but thought one needed to be a Jew, even a proselytized Jew, in order to be a Christian). Paul had very strong—very strong—censure against these false teachers.
In Galatians 4:29, Paul compared this situation to the way Ishmael persecuted Isaac, back in Genesis.
But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh [Ishmael] persecuted [G1377] him who was born according to the Spirit [Isaac], so also it is now.
The fully developed allegory in Chapter 4 is fascinating and worthy of a beautiful chart of comparisons and conclusions, but I’m reining myself in and staying focused on the persecution.
What did that “persecute” refer to, back in Genesis? It’s time to cross reference.
Persecution in Genesis 21
Genesis 21:8-9 says,
And the child [Isaac] grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw [Ishmael] the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.”
That’s all it says about that.
That was it? Ishmael was laughing? That was what Paul called “persecution”?
But it must have been something really bad. Because in verse 10, Sarah’s reaction to Ishmael’s “laughing” was to plead with Abraham in verse 10, “Cast out the bondwoman and her son.”
(And God told Abraham to do what Sarah said, and Paul’s argument in Galatians hinges on that decision.)
At the time of weaning in those days, Isaac would have been around 2 or 3. Ishmael would have been around 15 or 16. This sets the stage.
The Hebrew word translated “laughing” there (the word that matches with Paul’s word translated “persecution”) is used a few other places to mean different things. I’m walking through some important stuff here, so keep hanging with me.
Four meanings for that Hebrew word (number 4 will surprise you)
At least it did me.
I found four meanings for the Hebrew word translated “laughing,” what Ishmael did to Isaac. Two of them would fit with this idea of “persecution.”
1. It can mean the laughter of amazement and incredulity.
When God told Abraham he and Sarah were going to have a son in their great old age (100 and 90 years old, respectively), Genesis 17:17 says Abraham laughed. He continued the conversation with God, acknowledging his incredulity by asking God to allow Ishmael to be the appointed one. (Sarah laughed in a similar way, but she didn’t want to acknowledge it.)
When Isaac was born, Sarah named him “laughter,” saying in Genesis 21:6-7 that others would also laugh in amazement and incredulity at the miracle she had experienced.
2. It can mean the laughter of derision and mockery.
When Lot tried to get his future sons-in-law to believe the word of God and escape Sodom, Genesis 19:14 tells us they thought he was “jesting” or “mocking.” This kind of jesting or mocking would be blasphemy, mockery of God, which perhaps the future sons-in-law were familiar with.
Judges 16:25, when the Philistines brought Samson in, also uses the word, which may also indicate making Samson the butt of their crude, rude jokes.
This is what I was always taught Ishmael was doing. Mocking Isaac for being little, calling him names, laughing in ridicule of the ways of a toddler, basically being a reviler, a verbal bully.
Perhaps that’s all it is, and Galatians 4:29 is indicating that being verbally bullied is a form of “persecution.” (This in itself is significant, because how many times have we been told that verbal bullying isn’t real abuse and certainly isn’t persecution?)
3. It can mean sexual interaction.
The context of Genesis 26:8, which uses this word, indicates that whatever Isaac was doing with his wife, it was of such a nature that those who saw it clearly knew that they were married.
In Exodus 32:6, the Israelites “worshiped” the golden calf, engaging in the ways of the heathen. The King James Version, which I grew up with, says they “sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (same Hebrew word). I may have thought as a child that this simply indicated innocent fun, but by the time I was a teenager, I knew it included wanton sexual interaction, like the heathen.
4. It can mean sexual abuse.
This is the piece I didn’t put into place until I was doing this study.
Genesis 39 tells the story of Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction of Joseph and then her accusation of him afterwards. When she accused Joseph of trying to rape her, she used the same word when she said (Genesis 39:14b-18),
“See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.”
All she was accusing him of was laughing at her? Clearly not. She was accusing him of attempted sexual assault.
Considering this meaning for the word, we might then consider that Judges 16:25, which I put in category 2 above, and Exodus 32:6, which I put in category 3 above, might actually fit in category 4. After all, the Philistine “mockery” of Samson may well have included sexual assault, and the sexual activity of the Israelites around the golden calf most likely included sexual assault.
The implications in the case of Ishmael
This is all I ever thought Ishmael’s persecution of Isaac was (at least this artist got the age difference right, unlike most):
As many of us are well aware, being a bully, as Ishmael clearly was, often includes sexual abuse.
Dr. Craig Keener of Asbury Theological Seminary (the school that has been the locus of several revivals) has also considered the possibility that Ishmael’s persecution of Isaac included sexual abuse. However, he dismisses the possibility of actual assault with the words, “Physical molestation is highly unlikely at a public feast.”
With all due respect to Dr. Keener, my eyebrows raised at that sentence. After all, I know of many accounts of sexual assault at public events, as adults are milling around, eating and drinking, engaging in conversation and such with each other. In fact, abusers delight in this thrill of “getting away with it” in public when no one seems to see or care, knowing that the victim will feel even more helpless, isolated, invisible, and hopeless.
If we consider that Sarah may have seen Ishmael committing sexual abuse against Isaac, suddenly this offers a new perspective on her strong reaction: “Send the bondwoman and her son away.”
[H]e who was born according to the flesh [Ishmael] persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit [Isaac].
Armed with this understanding, I can now say that the “persecution” Paul refers to in Galatians 4:29 definitely includes derision and mockery, reviling, verbal abuse, which in itself is significant. I believe there is a strong possibility that it may also include sexual assault of the innocents.
Why is it important to see persecution from this new perspective?
The implications for those of us in the New Covenant
In my study of suffering in the Bible, I was leaning toward thinking that the persecution of the New Testament was always direct persecution for the faith, in the sense that we usually understand it.
But now I know that Isaac was persecuted, but he was not persecuted for his faith. He was just a toddler and had no idea what was going on. Rather, he was persecuted because of his innocence, his vulnerability, and primarily because of the promise he represented.
How many bullies have I heard of in the church of Jesus Christ—even up to the skilled “pastor” pedophile-traffickers? Seems by now like numbers beyond counting. And how they have preyed upon the vulnerable, the innocent, the helpless—even the children of promise, the ones who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.
When the bullies do these things, they show themselves to be sons of their father the devil. Of these wicked ones—who were in fact religious leaders—Jesus said (John 8:43-45),
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
Your will is to do your father’s desires, Jesus said of these wicked ones. Obviously, their father’s desires would include harming—yes, persecuting—the most helpless, the most vulnerable.
Is there a difference between, on the one hand, Christians suffering at the hands of wicked ones for our love for Jesus and our work for the kingdom of God and, on the other hand, Christians suffering simply because we happen to be in the pathway of bullies?
Perhaps, but from this Bible study I believe that difference isn’t very great.
What Jesus promises about this in the Beatitudes
I believe that all the Beatitudes, heralding as they do the New Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, can well be seen this way:
“Blessed are you,” Jesus said in Matthew 5, “[even] when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account [that is, because they are of their father the devil and you are my child].”
“Rejoice and be glad [in spite of this], because [you remember that] your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you [showing their lineage, in case you forgot it from the previous verse].”
Blessed are you, my friend, when you are persecuted for the sake of righteousness—and yes, that includes the abuse you have suffered, even if it wasn’t directly “because you are a Christian” (because the abusers often claim Christianity too, you know).
Blessed are you in spite of that persecution (not because of it), because yours is the kingdom of heaven (in contrast to them, who are of their father the devil).
Isaac wasn’t blessed because he was persecuted by Ishmael. He was blessed with his inheritance in Abraham in spite of that persecution.
The New Testament believers that Paul wrote to in Galatians weren’t blessed because they were persecuted by the Jews and the Judaizers. They were blessed with their inheritance in Christ in spite of it.
And so with you. When you, as a son or daughter of God through the Lord Jesus Christ (or as an innocent child) are persecuted (bullied) by those who would rather serve their flesh (e.g., Gal 6:12) than the true Lord God Most High—or those who resent your relationship with the Lord or those who hate having their authority challenged—remember that in spite of this persecution you are blessed. Because you have a real relationship with that God through the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a child of promise in His family.
And nothing, not even the persecution of assault, can take that away.
 Dr. Craig Keener, “What did Ishmael do wrong to Isaac?—Genesis 21:9,” April 17, 2017.
 I first learned this perspective of viewing the Beatitudes from David Takle of Kingdom Formation Ministries, in his sermon “Blessed Are the Spiritually Impoverished.”
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.
I recently heard another presentation (from Katie Souza, on the nature of soul wounds) that included speculation about the nature of Issac’s treatment at the hands of Ishmael; she did mention some degree of sexual abuse or molestation as a possibility, which I’d never heard anyone else acknowledge before.
The way Sarah approached this–“Make them leave!”– fits much better with a situation like that, as opposed to some teasing or ridicule. I feel any decent mother would have responded the same.
On a broader note, I’m really, really thankful you’re addressing this subject of suffering. I know people on both ends of the spectrum, who claim that they should be exempt from all forms of suffering because of their position in Christ, and others who are of the mind they will lose their position in Christ if they do not cooperate with suffering.
In the context of a living, thriving relationship with the Lord, the issue of suffering seems simple, but for those who need clarification, it comes across as rather nuanced, and your presentation will go a long way towards clearing out the distortions that have been formed in this particular area.
Thank you! I can’t speak to suffering from a personal perspective, as many very capable people have, but I do want to speak from the perspective of a student of the Scriptures and those who have been harmed, so I pray what I have to say will be helpful.
This is fantastic!! What amazing treasures there are in the word when we dig like this, eh? I will NEVER see this story about Sarah the same again. It has always been taught that she was jealous and sent them away. Now I see there is more to the story…
It made so much sense in context, yes.
Even harassment and humiliation of any sort done by one old enough to know better and to an innocent child is abhorrent enough to warrant a decisive “this cannot, will not happen again!” response.
And sexual abuse would definitely require a very strong and severe consequence!!
..I can’t believe I never asked more questions about the way this story has been told from pulpits…
It really did shine some light for me as well.
I am just so grateful for your work, Rebecca. So grateful for your mind that stays the course and cuts through the baloney to get at what the Scriptures are really saying. There is so much simplistic, formulaic teaching in “church” culture that really doesn’t make sense if you actually examine it, including the idea that we get persecuted for *being* believers, as if it’s personal. So that then we can claim self-righteous victimhood. But that is not the way of Jesus.
I believe you’re right, that, generally speaking, we’re not targeted for being believers, but for being in the way of others’ unhealthy (evil) ambitions. We are targets of their envy. And we’re targeted in all sorts of sly, crafty, dismissive, damaging, demeaning, corrupting, and exploitative ways. We are “made sport of”: toyed with, objectified, mocked, used, not taken seriously as valued creatures of God. Satan desires to master us through this mistreatment, but we must cling to the Truth of our salvation in Christ.
Yes, you put that so well, Bonnie. Thank you.
Wow, this is really interesting. I never thought of those words indicating sexual abuse. Although it does happen in family systems where there’s other kinds of abuse/bullying.
In the NT, when it says, “Blessed are you when you face various trials and persecutions…” (James 1, I think), I always thought that verses like that were referring to Christians who were actually suffering for an account of their faith. I never thought to apply that to my own personal trials such as mental health struggles and depression, or grief/personal problems, because, after all, that’s probably my own fault and my own lack of faith, right? Looking back, I wish I had trusted God more during those times.
The teaching of David Takle made a lot of sense to me there regarding that “when”–that it means more like “even when.” You are blessed *in spite of* the various trials and persecutions, because you are a beloved child of God.
No matter what the reason for our various troubles (and sometimes we can do something about them and sometimes we can’t), if we have a relationship with the Father through the Son, we are greatly blessed.
Excellent insight! Far to often, I’ve heard persecution described as simply because you believe in Jesus. Not many people want to expound upon the many ways this persecution presents itself.
I had thought that too–because on a fairly superficial reading of the New Testament, that seems to be the consistent meaning. It’s with a little deeper digging that we uncover something more.
This is a wonderful study Rebecca! It is refreshing and comforting to see it written that sometimes persecution is done simply because of one’s innocence and trust. You also clearly point out the great divide between those who are God’s children, and those who are not! Always love your posts.
Thank you so much, Deb. This study was encouraging to me as well.
Thanks for your ideas. I offer this for your consideration. One of the ways Jews said there were “in,” that is, they had a part in the age to come was to say “Abraham is our father.” Paul is saying, in effect, “That is not enough, who is your mother, is it Hagar or Sarah?” Since the already known answer would be Sarah (and Isaac), he upends the argument by claiming that spiritually it is Hagar (and Ismael) if they act as Judaizers. Jesus also had something to say about those that claim, “Abraham is our father.” and I think Paul is saying similar things here. Thoughts?
Oh goodness, this is part of all the OTHER things I could have talked about in Galatians, when I was trying to keep myself focused on the persecution. Good thoughts!
Thinking out loud here…
The connection between sex outside of marriage and idolatry is strong in scripture. I don’t know the full extent of why that is, but one reason I suspect is the unifying effect of sex disconnects you two from others at the same time. Following God and being bonded in love with Him through the Holy Spirit is likewise unifying between you and God, and simultaneously disconnecting from all other things. Idolatry, conversely, connects you to an idol and disconnects you from God.
There’s also the loss of purity aspect. Those kept from idolatry in scripture are called virgins, which usually refers to sexual purity. If what happened with Isaac and Ishmael was of a sexual abuse nature, which certainly makes the most sense with Sarah’s reaction, then it’s interesting that Paul makes a parallel between the ”persecution” they were facing from the Judaizers with an attempt to steal their “virginity.” Those trying to lead them astray were leading them to a false gospel (Gal 1:6), away from the true Gospel and true God, and that act is what Paul likens to (at the very least, attempted) sexual abuse.
Fascinating thoughts, thank you!
The fact that Ishmael had done something sexual & evil to Issac was something known to me for a long time.
This blog post takes the scripture to the depths that it needs to be taken! It makes more sense out of what Paul wrote as well as clarifying evil that has been done to many trusting & innocent persons.
Your readers and the comments they have made show they are deep thinkers, too.
Another thing that is sticking in my mind is the GREAT mercy of God after Hagar & Ishmael were cast out. But that is another deep study topic.
Thank you, Rebecca. And all who have posted comments so far.
Thank you so much, Dolla. I knew it was important, but hadn’t thought it through the way I did this week.
My first reaction is to want to reject this idea. Then I thought of what culture was surrounding Abraham – and thus Ishmael as he was growing up. The Bible seems to indicate that the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah was around the time Ishmael was 13 or 14. It’s not too hard to imagine this culture could have impacted Ishmael’s thinking, making this scenario/interpretation plausible, whether it was verbal or physical.
Yes, and whatever it was, it was bad. And good thought about the timeline and Sodom connection. I hadn’t considered that at all.
Blessed despite persecutors, not because of… what a clear word!