Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Reimaging the Covenant"

Genesis 16.1–19.38:

As we saw in the previous post, Genesis’s narrative develops a tension of sorts between, on the one hand, God’s faithfulness in covenant, and Abra[ha]m’s unfinished and imperfect faith, on the other. The themes continue in the four chapters we’re reading today, and if anything that tension is only exacerbated. And yet these four chapters introduce an intriguing twist: we begin to see some surprising features about God and his own dealing with humanity, features that, perhaps, we haven’t seen since Genesis 6 and that play a formative role in Abra[ha]m’s unfinished, imperfect faith.
  1. 1. In light of chapter 15, and especially 15.6’s notice that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” Genesis 16 begins on a very peculiar, if not quite discordant, note: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children” (16.1). Narratologically speaking, this verse is unimpressive and, frankly, redundant. Abram has already asked God about this, has already complained that one of his slaves, Eliezer of Damascus, will be his heir, and has already been promised that a son and not a slave shall be his heir. This is what Abram believed when he believed God and when his belief was reckoned as righteousness. In other words, what Genesis 16 presents as an obstacle in the narrative’s plot, Genesis 15 has already taken care of. So we have a choice to make here: Either this section of Genesis is poorly put together, perhaps from multiple and disparate sources, or the problem introduced at 16.1 is not about Abram’s and Sarai’s childlessness but about, again, their unfinished, imperfect faith (with whatever, if any, consequences for source criticism).

  2. 2. At this point another problem arises, one that I’m uncomfortable describing but one that, I think, the text strongly if still implicitly intends. In 16.2 Sarai takes a more active role in the narrative, and I think the narrative presents this, along with Abram’s lack of activity, as a failure of faith. In 16.2 Sarai speaks up: “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” Two things jump out at me:

    • a. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time since Genesis 3 that a female character has had any lines in the story. Now, of course, other female characters will play speaking parts in Genesis before the story is over. But up to this point, when a woman speaks God’s plan for humanity has been interrupted. In Genesis 3 God has left humanity with a task (tending the garden) and a command (singular): Don’t eat from the tree in the center of the garden. By speaking with the serpent rather than listening to God, the woman has subverted both the task and the command. And if all this the man was strangely silent, until, that is, he found the words to rat out his wife in 3.12. Similarly here in Genesis 16: God has left Abram with a promise, and by speaking Sarai threatens to subvert that promise. And again the male character is speechless (“And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai”; 16.2). Of course, my cynicism here leads me to point out that the silent Abram is being told by his ninety year old wife to sleep with her Egyptian slave-girl; his silence is scandalously self-serving.

    • b. Despite this clearly androcentric perspective, the text presents Sarai’s failure as Abram’s failure. Abram, not Sarai, has been promised an heir. Abram, not Sarai, capitulated to his wife when she (and he, if we’re honest) looked upon her slave-girl as a commodity rather than as a human being. And Abram, not Sarai, fails to take any decisive action whatsoever, so that when Hagar becomes pregnant and resents Sarai (for being barren? for handing her over to be raped?) all Abram can muster is a pathetic, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16.6). In Genesis 3, the man’s disobedience was just as striking as was the woman’s; so also here in Genesis 16, Abram’s wickedness (isn’t this the right word?) matches Sarai’s.

    • c. I’m not trying to discount the clearly male-oriented perspective of the text by suggesting that Abram, like Adam, comes out as poorly as Sarai. While I think this may be, Abram’s coming-out-poorly is achieved precisely through the text’s androcentricity. In terms of the narrative, Sarai, like Eve, should not have spoken up, and Abram, again like Adam, should not have listened to his wife. And while I think the text’s perspective — misogyny doesn’t seem an inappropriate word here — is clear, I’m less confident that the point the text is making depends on that perspective. The text isn’t advocating that wives should be silent and husbands more in control; the point here is that both should speak less and listen to the promise of God more. Those who would perpetuate the narrative’s orientation risk, I think, missing its point.

  3. 3. Even so, I find the next scene touching, as God deals tenderly with Hagar and her plight. Even in the midst of his instruction to “return to your mistress and submit to her” (16.9), God enters into covenant with this slave-girl and her son (note the resonances between 16.10 and the promises given to Abram). I can’t help but think that Hagar — the victim of Sarai’s and Abram’s machinations — comes out better here than do her masters!

  4. 4. And yet, in Genesis 17, God reaffirms once again his covenant with Abram, laying claim upon this Chaldean twice: once by renaming him Abraham and once by commanding him to be circumcised and to circumcise every male of his household. The contrast between Abraham’s faith[lessness] and God’s faith[fulness] could hardly be starker.

  5. 5. In the midst of this “laying claim,” a narrative which legitimates and explains Israelite identity and election, Abraham’s new name should give us pause. The mention of “a multitude of nations” (17.4, 5) and the promise that “I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (17.6; my emphases) form a litany that emphasizes the relation between Israel and her neighbors. This emphasis, of course, will be tempered later in the Pentateuch when the Lord commands Israel to completely destroy the nations she dispossesses. But that makes such internationalism at this point in the narrative all the more striking. [I should also say explicitly that Christianity is not the only expression of Abraham’s heritage that has embraced this relation; neither has Christianity always and everywhere avoided the particularist views that denigrate everyone else as “other.”]

  6. 6. In light of all this (esp. points 1–3, above), I think the narrative intentionally shifts in chapters 17 and 18 to explicitly name both Abraham and Sarah as the parents of the child through whom God’s promise will be kept. Both Abraham (17.17) and Sarah (18.12) laugh at the promise of the Lord, a surprising contrast with Abram’s faith in 15.6.

  7. 7. As suggested above, in these chapters we begin to see another side of God, a side that was hinted at in chapter 6. After receiving Abraham’s hospitality and restating the promise that Sarah would bear a child, God deliberates with himself and reveals and element of possibility within God himself. This is important precisely because our Greek-philosophical heritage, pervasive in the West, has emphasized the perfection of God to such an extent that words like impassibility and immutability define for us what God must be like. These words have no place in Genesis 18. Here, as in the beginning of Genesis 6, we see a God who wrestles with moral issues, who enters into humanity’s struggle to walk righteously, who grieves wickedness rather than living above it (and unaffected by it). Perhaps paradoxically, the Lord’s dilemma (18.17–19) provides the opportunity for Abraham to fulfill God’s election and call: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” I think this is important, especially because we could read the negotiation in 18.23–33 in terms of Abraham’s mercy and compassion eclipsing the Lord’s. I think this reading would be mistaken for two reasons. The first, as I’m currently arguing, is that Abraham’s mercy and compassion are provoked by the Lord’s decision to involve Abraham in his plans. We should bear in mind that, at other times, we’ve seen people victimized (e.g., Pharaoh [12.10–20] and Hagar [16.1-16]) by this same Abraham. The second is that Abraham successfully bargains God down to sparing Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of ten righteous persons, but God intervenes on behalf of Lot and his family, six righteous persons at the absolute most and arguably, by the end of Genesis 19, none at all.

  8. 8. Finally, the tragic story of Lot and his family demand some comment. Lot’s offer to the rioting populace — his daughters in place of his guests — is detestable and, in my view, indefensible. And I hope I am not reading my own biases into the text when I think the text presents Lot’s actions as detestable and indefensible. I had never noticed that, after offering his virgin daughters to the mob, Lot pleads with his daughters’ fiancés (!!!). In other words, Lot wasn’t just offering up his daughters’ dignity and their futures nebulously conceived; these women had specific hopes and plans for their lives. Other than his hospitality, it seems that in this story Lot’s one redeeming virtue is his relation to Abraham!
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is, of course, legendary (I am making a theological rather than historical point here). But this story is not about the virtues of hospitality or the condemnation of sexual — and especially of homosexual — depravity. The story is still about election and covenant, and about God’s choice of Abraham as the object of both. When we remember God’s promise in 12.3, that “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,” the angelic provision for Lot and his family and the judgment against Sodom come into different (perhaps even crisper) focus. Lot and his family are spared because of their relation to Abraham, which is to say more than simply that Lot was Abraham’s nephew. Sodom’s king, on the other hand, had tried to have his own way with Abraham (cf. 14.17, 21–24) and had been rebuffed. I suspect more needs to be said here, but at the very least I think this is a better direction for our reading of Genesis 19 than is the traditional perspective on Sodom and sexuality.

One last point, this one perhaps more inappropriate than the rest: A friend of mine recently asked me if I knew what Lot had said to his wife as they were fleeing Sodom. Since I hadn’t read the narrative in some time, I told him that I didn’t know. The answer? “Hey babe, what’s that behind you?”


The Pook said...

Too many deep thoughts there to answer at this time of night, will have to think more about what you say before commenting further, but I can relate to your unease at our Aristotelian view of God that traditionally sees him in our theology as almost the Unmoved Mover.

In my Reformed tradition the Westminster Confession, as also the 39 Articles of the Church of England, is very big on God's impassibility and immutability. Now I can understand and go along with what the Reformers were trying to safeguard there, but I think it's not the whole story. They are trying to protect the idea of God's sovereign independence - that it is we who are dependent on Him and not the other way round. He does not respond in the way we respond with our human affections and passions. But I don't see in the Scripture God portrayed as emotionless and unresponsive to human activity, and I'm not convinced that Calvin's solution of accommodated language is sufficient.

For my views on the Abraham stories, see my sermons at:

Rafael said...

Well stated, Pook. I'm finding more and more that what I like about theology (and theologizing) is what it safeguards against more so than the portrait of God it advocates. I'm not in the camp of negative theology yet, but I am sympathetic to the Reformed emphasis on God's sovereignty (and our dependence upon him as sovereign) without buying into the "distant father" image that sovereignty often — if unnecessarily — leads to. But notice that my reading of the Genesis narrative tries to emphasize that sovereignty while still allowing for God's actual and genuine interaction with his creation.

My Visual Bookshelf