Have a scriptural question? Write to Ben Witherington III at columnists@staff.Beliefnet.com.

In this column, Ben Witherington answers questions about the Bible and:

Hagar and Abraham
Biblical timekeeping
Lies and deception
Honoring parents

Abraham is the father of the Jews and Christianity. Why would God coordinate his relationship with Hagar prior to Isaac and have an illegitimate son Ishmael, father of Muhammad if Islam is wrong? Remember God sent an angel to help Hagar when she was lost? --BusinesMn9

In the first place, there is no evidence that God arranged the relationship between Abraham and Hagar. That was brought about by human actions based on a lack of trust in God's original promises to Abraham and Sarah. God's mercy on Hagar tells us a lot about God's character, but the union between Abraham and Hagar unfortunately tells us only about human infidelity.

Acts 2:15 speaks of the third hour. What time is this? --elaine

It depends on whether a particular biblical writer is reckoning time as the Greco-Roman world did, or as the Jewish world did. In the text you are referring to, the time is 9 a.m., which means Luke is reckoning time from sunrise to sunrise, as was common in the Greco-Roman world.

When Jesus was encountered the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (John 4:1-15), she said, "are you greater than our father Jacob?" If Jesus was a Jew, and she a Samaritan, then what was Jacob? I thought he was a Jew as well. -- cent

The term Jew comes from the term Judean, which in turn refers to one of the two southern tribes of God's chosen people. It came in due course to refer to all Galilean and Judean Jews. The Samaritans were, by Jesus' day, a separate ethnic group with their own religious identity and holy place. They were, however, also descendents of Jacob, just as Judean and Galilean Jews were. It would be anachronistic to call Jacob a Jew, when in fact the twelve tribes did not exist in his day. Indeed they were established by his twelve sons.

Both the Old and New Testaments agree that lying or deceit is sinful. However, there are some verses in which it appears that God allows a lie or even condones it. In Exodus 1:17-22, the midwives deceive Pharaoh, and so God showed kindness to them even rewarding them with families. In 1 Samuel 16:1-3, God tells Samuel to deceive Saul. Samuel may offer the sacrifice but it deceives Saul by a lie or a possible half truth. .The hardest one of all is John 7:1-10. Jesus gives his brothers the impression that he is not going, but then later goes secretly. Did Jesus deceive his brothers, or is something missing in the translation? --loseramigo

Actually the case of John 7 is the easiest to explain, so we will focus on it. Throughout the fourth gospel, Jesus can only act if the father gives him the go-ahead to do so. He does not respond to human prompting or cajoling, especially when people are motivated by unhelpful ideas. Jesus was not trying to deceive his brothers at all. He simply was not going to go anywhere based on mere human prompting and without the father's direction.

Do angels exist as they did in the New Testament, or did Christ's coming take their place? -- tcrook

Christ's coming did not displace the angels, as should be made quite clear from the various references to angels in Paul's letters, in Acts, and in Revelation.

Are there any acceptable exceptions to the commandment "honor thy mother and father" ? If your parents have always been abusive (mentally, physically and/or emotionally), does God still want you to honor them? I'm not a child, I'm a 52-year-old mother who is still being abused (more mentally and emotionally now) by my mother. Emotional blackmail and guilt tossing are the methods of abuse at the present and I'm truly struggling with how to best handle this. I've always tried to be the best daughter I possibly can under the circumstances... --Gael

It is clear that you have struggled hard and long to try and honor your mother, but if she is indeed as manipulative and unwell spiritually as you suggest, the best way you could honor her is to stop allowing her to have control over you. You are a grown woman, and honoring your mother has nothing to do with allowing yourself to be abused. You have a choice about how you will respond to her actions.

There are, in any case, much higher priorities in life than honoring parents, such as following Jesus--and remembering, for example, how he called even the man who wanted to bury his father to omit that act of honoring parents and come and follow him. Your first allegiance must be to the Lord and to your immediate family. It appears it is time for you to exercise some tough love with your mother, otherwise she will just continue to try and run your life.

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