Of Our Bible Reading Program: GENESIS 11-22 (June 21-27, 2010)
“Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). This is not only the main point of the Abraham and Sarah cycle of stories, it is one of the deep structure themes linking the Old and New Testaments. In the Gospels, people in need display this kind of trust in Jesus, who then tells them, “Great is your faith,” and “Your faith has saved you.” The Apostle Paul refers back to this verse to show how both Jews and Gentiles in Christ are saved in the very same way, by showing the same kind of faith in God that Abraham did: that God is true to his nature and his word (Rom. 4). James, the brother of Jesus, will also refer to this verse, but expand upon it in such a way as to show that when Abraham’s belief was fulfilled in action, then it was counted as righteousness. After all, “faith without works is dead.”
Its not that God lets us off the hook or grades us with a curve if at least we give mental assent to what he says. Rather, since “righteousness” means “right relationship,” the first and most important element of any right relationship is trust. And we don’t know that there’s any trust until we act upon that trust. Thus, trust is the first work of the law (Jn. 6:29). That’s just as true for our relationship with God as it is with each other. This brings us back to the first question in the Bible, posed by the first “snake in the grass”: “Did God really say…..?” (Genesis 3: 1) In other words, Is God really trustworthy? If we can’t say yes to that, we have no living, saving relationship with God to begin with.
One forgotten hero of the Abraham and Sarah saga is Hagar, the slave and stand-in for Sarah. As odd and shocking as it may sound to our ears, that a woman would suggest to her husband that he take her servant in her place, and that the child of the union will belong to the mistress, that was not all that unusual or un-heard of at the time. To the grief and pain of infertility, the culture of the time added a double whammy of shame, usually upon the woman. So Sarah is understandably desperate. Then comes the communal mindset of the time and place, by which a servant’s womb could effectively be considered her mistress’ womb, along with any children who come from it. But the facts of parenthood speak for themselves, and the status of Sarah and Hagar were reversed, if not their titles.
Hagar comes out of the conflict looking much more noble and responsible than either Sarah or Abraham, who adds passivity and irresponsibility to Sarah’s jealousy. Hagar is the first person in the Bible to give a name to God, “The God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13). You might want to impress your Muslim and Arab friends with that. Hagar is very important to them, and the Arabs trace their descent through Abraham and Hagar. Throughout the Old Testament, the names for God will pile up, each of them an important feature of the story, and not just an offhand assertion of belief. Let’s pay attention to them and give them the time they invite us to give to prayer and meditation.
….is launched in the Sarah and Abraham story to primogeniture (right of the firstborn to the a privileged portion) and patriarchy (power and descent unique to men), two of the most basic institutions of many societies. Here we see again how the Bible often challenges and subverts the sinful mindset and institutions (the rulers, powers and authorities of Ephesians 6?) of a fallen world subtly, by the language of worship and story, rather than through a didactic social analysis and direct political action campaign. Abraham’s promised descendants had to come through Sarah alone, one wife. And though Ishmael was the first-born son (and he was also blessed with a lineage), the promise and the blessing was still for and through the second-born Isaac.
Another challenge is launched against the institution of human sacrifice, with the provision of a ram in place of Isaac on Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22). For reasons known to God alone, he had to bring Abraham to that point of tension both to prove that Abraham was that trusting (“that God could raise the dead “ Heb. 11:19) and obedient, and to prove that God will provide the needed sacrifice (Gen. 22:14), as he did on another mountain, called Calvary. Lest we look down our noses with any sense of superiority over the ancients on this or other matters, I don’t see how we can’t but admit that child sacrifice is still as big a part of this day and age as it was 3500 years ago. In fact, we have organized it and industrialized it to a scale unheard of. Its called war.
“His wrath can flare up in a moment; Blessed are those who take refuge in him.”
This is the first of the royal psalms in the Bible, so-called because they relate to the enthronement of Israel’s king, sometimes in language that connects them intimately with God. The New Testament will apply them to Jesus, as the fulfillment of all these prayers, but with some important and surprising twists. The “rod of iron” with which the king and royal Son will rule the nations turns out to be the Word of God and the gospel (Rev. 12:5). The surprising juxtaposition of fearing and finding refuge in God, or God’s anointed king, underscores the point made by one ancient Christian devotional writer (I wish I remembered who), that God is “a consuming fire,” but one that burns hotter the farther we flee from him, and one which cools and refreshes the closer we draw near.