(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.
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.