Thursday, September 17, 2015

Reading in Genesis This Week (12.1-25.18)

514zcWswk7L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I continue my Old Testament reading, along with Walter Brueggemann’s, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. This week’s reading of the story of Abraham has been a great comfort to me as I navigate the difficulties of life and ministry while trying to keep my eyes on the promises of God. I am posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there.

The story of Abraham is the story of God breaking back into the world to bless it through one family. It is the story of God's promise and Abraham's faith. The story is bounded by two tests: 1) Will Abraham leave behind his secure world to trust in God's promise to bless him and 2) Will Abraham relinquish the greatest blessing that God gave him - his son Isaac? Abraham passes both tests and becomes the pattern and example for the faith journey of Israel and for the church and a vehicle for God's blessing which is completed in Christ.

The promise is God’s power and will to create a new future sharply discontinuous with the past and the present. The promise is God’s resolve to form a new community wrought only by miracle and reliant only on God’s faithfulness. Faith as response is the capacity to embrace that announced future with such passion that the present can be relinquished for the sake of that future.  106

The call of Abraham moves him from the security of what has known to a pilgrimage in which he must trust God each step of the way. this is necessary because Sarah's barrenness shows that the family, and people in general, in their own power had reached a dead end. Abram's only hope was to trust in God's promise and give up temporal success to find blessing in God's promised future. Abraham exercised faith by living his life based on God's promise, not by what he could see in front of him. This brought blessing which he was to share with others. Abram's "job" was to live a blessed life which brought others into God's blessing.

The juxtaposition of the barrenness of Israel and the speech of God is definitional for Israel. “Barrenness” marks the deep futility of Israel. “Speech of God” asserts the freedom and power of God to work his will among the hopeless. The remainder of the text is simply the announcement that the speech of God overcomes and overpowers the barrenness of human reality. 11.30-12.9, 117

Well-being cannot be conjured by Abraham and Sarah. It can only be given. But the giving depends upon receiving, upon Israel’s conceding that the initiative for life is held by this other one. It requires a break with the ideology of modernity which assumes there is only us. There is no promise without a promise-maker. There is no real Genesis, no new beginning for barren people, apart from the reality of this God. 11.30-12.9, 119

Of course, Abraham was not a perfect example. When he got his eyes off of God and his promises, and was concerned more for his own temporal security, he brought the curse on those around him. In contrast, when he acted in faith all those around him were blessed. The two stories in 12 and 13 illustrate this from opposite sides. In chapter 12.10ff, Abram, concerned for his own skin, endangers Sarai and brings a curse to the Egyptians. In chapter 13-14, as he trusts God to provide he can afford to be generous to Lot, and even rescue him when Lot's bad decisions lead to him being taken captive. Through all of this, whether Abram is faithful or fearful, God continues to act based on His promise.

When Abraham acts faithlessly, as he has obviously done, curse is released in the world. The faith and/or faithlessness of Israel matters not only to Israel. It is decisive for the nations. In this strange way, Israel has the capacity to impact the affairs of nations. Genesis 12, 129

Whereas his inability to trust the promise had made him fearful in the preceding tale, here his trust of the promise makes him gracious and generous. His practice of the promise enables him to be a source of life for Lot (one of the nations, cf. 12:3b) and permits blessing to come upon both of them. Genesis 12-13, 131

The two together (and neither alone) present faith the way it really is. Like Abraham, we are strange mixtures of prudence and trust. But in both, the gospel is at work. In both narratives, the promise-making, blessing-giving God is at work. The trust of Abraham matters in these narratives. But it does not matter finally. What matters finally is the faithfulness of Yahweh to this family. Genesis 12-13, 134

Abraham refuses the invitation of the king to act in an acquisitive way (v. 23). Instead, he makes a faith affirmation. He will not rely on the king nor give the appearance of relying on him (cf. Judg. 7:2). He will rely only on the God whose name he knows and to whom he has sworn an oath (v. 22). The well-being and prosperity which Abraham already has and which he is yet to receive is not to be credited either to military or political machinations, but only to the free gift of God. Genesis 14.17-24, 138

Chapter 15 is the center and turning point of the Abraham story. Even though Abram has obeyed the voice of God nothing has really changed. He still has no heir and is still in danger. At this point God appears to him and promises an heir. The present situation has not visibly changed but God has made a promise for the future. Abram embraces that promise and agrees to live by it. That is the essence of faith throughout the scriptures.

The future of God’s goodness is open to those who trust themselves to that future, seeking neither to hold on to the present nor to conjure an alternative future of their own. But, Paul has also understood that finally it is not faith which makes the difference. Faith responds to an already given grace. This faith is not simply an embrace of the goodness which meets us in the world, but a reception of the goodness of God promised in spite of the way the world is. The faith of Abraham is not in anything he sees in the world, but in a word which will overcome the barrenness of the world. Faith is reliance on God’s promise of overcoming the present for a new life (cf. John 16:33).  Genesis 15, 146

Chapters 16-18 show that, although Abraham and Sarah have embraced the promise in theory and in a large sense, they do not fully believe it in terms of their daily lives. They still think that they can create an heir by normal means when God promises to do it through a miracle. When God tells them what he plans to do they both laugh and mock God. God's then asks them to make a commitment as to whether they believe God can do the impossible. This is the call in our daily lives. We need to live based on God's promise, not what is happening around us. Faith is living with the hope God promises in a seemingly hopeless world.

The Ishmael presence suggests two things. Seen vertically, with reference to God, it asserts that God has not exclusively committed himself to Abraham-Sarah. God’s concern is not confined to the elect line. There is passion and concern for the troubled ones who stand outside that line. Seen horizontally, from the agenda of Abraham-Sarah, Ishmael is a temptation not to trust the promise. The very child who discloses the passion of God for the outsider is no small threat to the insider. Genesis 16, 153.

Biblical faith is never cerebral. It is always lived and acted. Genesis 17, 155

Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity. Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that hopelessness as “normal.” The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness. This story embodies a statement of irony, for the total Abraham/Sarah story is about a call embraced. But in this central narrative, the call is not embraced. Genesis 18.1-15, 158–159

The exposition we have urged leaves itself open to misunderstanding, as though faith makes every desirable thing possible. But not everything is promised. What is “possible” is characterized only as everything promised by God. That is, only what corresponds to God’s good purposes is possible. He has promised a future in a new community, but not everything we would seek.  Genesis 18.1-15, 161

Bruegemman insists that chapters 18 and 19 must be taken together or the whole point is missed. He sees Chapter 19 as showing the simple principle of retributive justice that is a part of holiness, but not the whole thing (as with Job's friends). God is not determined to destroy sinners but tries to find a way to allow grace to operate through his chosen people. The key point in the passage is in 19.29 in which the salvation of Lot in the destruction of Sodom is seen as an answer to the prayer of Abraham. Abraham's negotiations with God are the key point: the faithful chosen person can act to save those who deserve judgment. Taken together the two stories show that God acts, through his chosen people, to provide grace to a world that does not deserve it. 

The righteousness and justice of Abraham are not simply moral obedience. They are also a passion for the well-being of the very ones who have violated God. Genesis 18.26-33, 169

God is not an indifferent or tyrannical distributor of rewards and punishments. Rather, God actively seeks a way out of death for us all...We are thrust into our vocation of caring obedience. It is the resource that can turn wrath and keep death at a distance. With Abraham, we must study the scene of destruction and know something urgent about God’s call to us. Genesis 18-19, 175–176

Job prayed only for himself in his presumed righteousness. Abraham prays for the others who are recognized by all as unrighteous. Abraham disputes with God about the meaning of his Godness. It is clear to both Abraham and to Yahweh (in that order) that God is not a tyrant but really God. And from that flows good news. Genesis 18-19, 176

Chapter 20 is an amazing story that works a little differently than the previous one. In this story God uses Abraham to save the world (Abimelech and the Philistines) despite his lack of faith. The saving factor is God's grace and promise, not Abraham's faith. Again, it breaks down the popular idea that God works on the basis of retributive justice. I think the whole passage is constructed as though God is using these situations as teaching modules for his chosen representative, Abraham.

As it stands, the text makes the claim that Abraham is the chosen of God, not by words (which are lacking), nor even by faith (which is feeble here), but only by God’s incredible grace...God’s grace overrules. It overrules with Abimelech in keeping him from a deathly sin (v. 6). It overrules even more completely with Abraham. Morally devious though he is, it is his prayer which is heard (vv. 7, 17)...It is even the case that Abraham is the father only by the promise. This man who nearly brought death to Abimelech by his scheming (v. 3) is still the means by which God gives life and blessing (vv. 17–18). Unworthy as he is, he is God’s chosen way of life to the nations. Genesis 20, 179

Genesis 21 and 22 provide the climax and main point to the story of Abraham. God is seen as the miraculous provider in the birth of Isaac despite the human lack of means. Then God turns around and tests Abraham by asking him to give up his son, the very reason he has been doing everything else and the essence of god's promise. The issues are will Abraham trust and will God provide. In both cases the "test" is passed. The shows the main point of the way Israel, and Christians, was/are to live: absolute, "all-in" trust in God's promises. It is a rejection of "doing it on my own." This is only "reasonable" because Yhwh is a God who can turn crucifixion into resurrection.

While Abraham is celebrated as a designated man of God, in the arena of human commerce he must fully pay his due as must all the others. No one interprets his designation by God as a proper means of securing economic advantage. Genesis 21.22-34, 179–180

It is clear that living in the world of skillful determining, planning and competence is problematic. Such a way easily crushes the spirit and consigns one to the world of compulsion, control, and alienation. Such a way tries to live “by bread alone” (cf. Deut. 8:3). Against that, Paul understood that to live in the arena of “wonder” is the way to freedom and joy. Genesis 21.1-21, 184

The word of God is scandalous. It never comes to fruition as we expect it. Some conclude it fails and they are driven back to their own seemingly adequate resources. Others conclude it fails but have no resources and so are driven to despair. Even father Abraham cannot release the child of the slave-woman (cf. 17:18). Even this father of faith flinches from the radicalness. Genesis 20.1-12, 181

The call to Abraham is a call to live in the presence of this God who moves both toward us and apart from us (cf. Jer. 23:23). Faithful people will be tempted to want only half of it. Most complacent religion will want a God who provides, not a God who tests. Some in bitterness will want a God who tests but refuse the generous providing. Some in cynical modernity will regard both affirmations as silly, presuming we must answer to none and rely upon none, for we are both free and competent. But father Abraham confessed himself not free of the testing and not competent for his own provision. Genesis 22, 192–193

The resurrection is the miracle by which God provides new life in a situation where only death is anticipated. The dialectic of testing/providing in our narrative becomes the dialectic of crucifixion/resurrection in the faith of the church...It is the same God who tempts and provides. The connection is that God is faithful. In the end, our narrative is perhaps not about Abraham being found faithful. It is about God being found faithful. Genesis 22, 194

Chapters 23-25 tie up the loose ends of the story and bring it to its conclusion. The older generation dies, as the text says "full and blessed," and they prepare the next generation to continue God's mission. Because, the promise is "seed" an heir to carry on is critical and the steady faith in the promise of God by Abraham, the servant, Isaac and Rebekah are examples of how we are to live out our mission. Abraham was blessed because he lived his day-to-day life based on the promise of God and used his blessings to bless others.

In a culture which grasps for visible signs of faith, which is driven toward scientism, and which falls for too many religious quackeries, this story stands as a foil against easy and mistaken faith. The workings of God are not spectacular, not magical, not oddities. Disclosure of God comes by steady discernment and by readiness to trust the resilience that is present in the course of daily affairs. Genesis 24, 201

The faith offered here is for those who are willing to be led. The mandate of Abraham (v. 7) looks back to 12:1 and sets such faith precisely where it must be lived, between the old place abandoned and the new place not yet received. Genesis 24, 202

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