Tuesday, July 29, 2008

“Father Abra[ha]m Had Many Sons”

Genesis 12.1–15.21:

Of course, the title of this post is a bit premature; at this point “Father Abra[ha]m” hasn’t had any sons. But here we read that YHWH has provided for Abram’s descendents by giving his promise. In fact, it is the element of promise — or covenant — that interests me most in these four chapters, though perhaps I am driven more by my own prejudices here than by the text itself. I’d like to make a couple points about covenant here and see where they might lead.
  1. 1. I had learned years ago that God’s calling of Abram in Genesis 12 and his promises in 12.1–3 is reaffirmed in Genesis 15. I had expected, then, to read two accounts of God’s covenant with Abram sandwiching some narrative about Abram’s high-maintenance nephew, Lot. And while the link between chapters 12 and 15 is undeniable, I eventually found my anticipated reading strategy for these chapters inadequate and incomplete.

  2. 2. As I read Genesis 12–15, I see three iterations (not two) of the Abrahamic promises: Gen. 12.1–3; 13.14–18; 15.1–21. The 13.14–18 text strikes me as especially important, given that a major component of the Abrahamic covenant is the land (especially here), and this text comes immediately after Abram has ceded to Lot his choice of the land. Of course, there is some tension between the narrative’s perspective and that of the storyteller and his/her audience. Inside the story Lot has chosen the choicest and most fertile land; the narrator and audience, however, know this area to be barren and inhospitable (cf. 13.10, 13).

  3. 3. Of course, centuries later, Paul of Tarsus would focus his attention on the promise of blessing to and through Abram (and his descendents) to the “families of the earth” (12.3). I would like to ask, however, if the narrator of Genesis maneuvers to focus the reader’s attention on this very element. Here’s what I’m thinking.

    • (a) First, there is the promise, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12.2–3). For Paul, this text would be refracted through his story of Jesus, “Abraham’s seed” (cf. Gal. 3). But here even in Genesis 12, the element of blessing is emphasized by virtue of being redundantly narrated. The reiterations of God’s covenant with Abram in chapters 13 and 15 don’t mention the element of blessing; they affirm the promises of land and seed.

    • (b) Second, I notice that the story after the first account of the covenant doesn’t begin well. After being blessed in order to bless the rest of the families of the earth, Abram moves on to Egypt and lies to the Pharaoh about his relationship with his wife, Sarai. The result is well-known: “The Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (12.17). Pharaoh restores Abram’s wife to him and sends them away in order to ameliorate the curse. Here we find the covenant unfulfilled, especially in light of Pharaoh’s favorable treatment of Abram (12.16).

    • (c) Third, after the restatement of the promise in 13.14–18 (which is perhaps more significant given the failure of the covenant in 12.10–20), the story begins to change course. In Genesis 14 we read of the war of the five kings against the four, a war that results in Lot’s capture and (presumably) enslavement. When Abram gets word of what’s happened, he takes action and rescues Lot as well as the people and possessions of the five defeated kings. In terms of the narrative, I wonder if this is intended as the first fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Of course, the promise is given again in chapter 15, and the promise in all three iterations demands a future-oriented perspective. The Abrahamic promise cannot be kept during Abram’s life. But here we find the five kings “being blessed” by Abram and his “trained men” (14.14). What is more, within the Genesis narrative itself, Lot is the ancestor of Moab and Ammon (cf. Gen. 19.30–38), Israel’s neighbors and rivals later in history. But here’s the point: In Genesis 14 Moab and Ammon, present in their ancestor Lot’s loins, are blessed by Abram. Of course, this doesn’t result in the “cleansing” of Lot’s descendents, either as characters in the narrative or nations in Israel’s historical consciousness. But we wouldn’t expect it to; rather, the election of Abram and, through him, the blessing of “all the families of the earth” create tension in Israel’s theology and international policy. This tension is rooted in Genesis itself, from the very beginning of the promise.

  4. 4. Maybe I’m reading too much into the text here. But either way, the contrast between Egypt’s experiences with Abram, on the one hand, and the peoples of and around Sodom and Gomorrah — including Lot — on the other is certainly striking. And in the midst of this striking contrast we find the enigmatic figure Melchizedek [מלכי־צדק; malki-ṣedeq; “my king is righteousness”]. Remember that the similarly enigmatic Enoch, who was said to “walk with God” and of whom it was said “then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen. 5.24), became a vehicle for later Jewish speculation about heavenly realms and apocalyptic visions. Melchizedek, too, became a canvas upon which later theological visions could be vividly portrayed (cf. Psa. 110; 11QMelch [11Q13]; Heb. 5–7). Insofar as Melchizedek is a Jew, he is an honorary Jew (i.e., he is not a descendent of Abram). But I think the we mis-hear the narrator if we neglect the connection between Gen. 12.2–3 (God’s promise to bless Abram and those who bless him) and 14.19–20: “He [Melchizedek] blessed him [Abram] and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’”

  5. 5. In this vein, I have to think that Abram’s refusal of the king of Sodom (Gen. 14.17, 21–24) is specifically not blessing, in either direction. Abram maintains his role as the superior to the king of Sodom, neither under his authority nor in need of his provision. Again, contrast: Abram receives bread and wine — table fellowship — from Melchizedek and in turn gives him one-tenth of everything; the king of Sodom, on the other hand, received rescue and safety from Abram and was selective about what to give Abram. Abram refuses the wicked king’s (cf. again 13.13) gesture and retains his honor (and blessing?).

  6. 6. This retention of honor (and blessing?) results in the re-affirmation, again, of the covenant between Abram and the Lord. And despite Abram’s failure to believe the promise of 12.2 and 13.16 and his complaint against God, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave, born in my house is to be my heir” (15.2–3), God once again persists in his dealings with those he calls his people: “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir. Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be” (15.4–5). The promise restated, regiven, reaffirmed. And finally, on the third try, Abra[ha]m “believed the Lord,” finally trusted in the promise of God, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15.6). Of course, this belief was not without its problems, as the subsequent scenes of the story will illustrate. Abram hasn’t arrived at anything like respectable faith, but he is moving in the right direction. “And the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Moving in the right direction, after all, is all that God had expected of Abram in the first place (cf. 12.1).

Abram’s faith is paradigmatic for the rest of Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the entire Bible precisely because his faith is incomplete, unfinished. This is explicitly captured in the litany of Hebrews 11, but even in passages such as 1 Chron. 29, where David dedicates the Temple offering and describes Abraham’s descendents as “aliens and transients” (29.10–19, esp. v. 15), Abraham’s promise has still not found its final expression. In Abraham, like in Genesis as a whole, we find the beginnings of a story that continues even in our own time. Abraham’s story does not simply anticipate our story; it is our story, including all its imperfections, failures, potentials, and moments of breath-taking faithfulness. Even today, then, father Abraham continues to have many sons and daughters.

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