Over the last several weeks we have spent some time looking at revelation in the spoken word, the written word, the primordial word of creation, and the Word made Flesh. We have talked about how the Word of God is always more than information, be it regarding how to live or how to think of God. We have seen how the words of scripture indicate that its own authority is relative to the authority of the Author who became Flesh and made His dwelling among us. The written words of the prophets and messengers are always subject to the Living Word made Flesh who is the Son of God, who is the One and Only God.
Tonight I want to trace the implications of this truth for how we read and understand scripture. Why did God begin his interactions with creation in what appears to have been daily visits in the Garden, walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day? Why was this pattern interrupted by the Fall and become occasional visits, mostly through the words of messengers, sometimes in theophanies, and finally the Incarnation?
If you will accept for the moment that Garden represents an ideal that is interrupted by the Fall, then we can begin tonight by looking at how the post-fall interaction of God with people is geared towards rekindling the relationship that was broken by the Fall. The written Word was never intended to be only a set of instructions for how to live before God. It includes such information but that is not primarily the purpose of the text we call scripture. My thesis is that scripture should be seen as a record of God’s mission throughout history to re-establish the relationship with his children that was broken when those children chose their own way of independence rather than God’s way of relationship.
The story of Creation posits humanity as the pinnacle of God’s Creation. It is humanity, male and female, that bears the image of the Creator (Genesis 1:27). Humans are capable of a special relationship with the Creator. This relationship is broken when humans choose to be like God rather than to be with God. Humanity does not sufficiently learn the folly of this aspiration when they are banished from the Garden, and must be scattered again when they build the Tower of Babel that is supposed to reach into the heavens where the gods reside. To the extent that humanity realizes the dream to exist apart from God, their aspirations of divinity turn quickly into the nightmares of hell, for the definition of hell is separation from God. To the extent that we realize our dream of independence from God we experience the nightmare of hell. Thus it is an act of salvation when those dreams are frustrated. God will not allow those dreams to materialize because those dreams will be the death of us. God desires relationship with us, and is not willing to leave us entirely to our own aspirations which inevitably will be our destruction.
And so, many years after the Fall and after Babel, God calls Abraham and offers him a magnificent opportunity in a partnership in which Abraham’s family will be blessed, and the means of blessing for all the earth. Genesis 12:
2 “I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
This Promise is ultimately realized in Jesus Christ but, as we will see later, it is realized in spite of everything Abraham and his family can do to frustrate that Promise. In Genesis 15 the covenant with Abraham is ratified, but instead of participating in the ratification ceremonies as would have been expected in the Near East customs of the time, Abraham sleeps. Abraham, and Israel, are invited to participate in God’s redemption of the world but ultimately that redemption proceeds on the strength of God’s commitment, in the face of strenuous opposition born in the Garden but continued throughout time.
We will return for a closer look at Abraham’s story in a minute but for now let’s continue the whirlwind tour of the history of Israel’s relationship with the God who called them. When God delivers Israel out of Egypt he is rewarded with bitter complaints and ingratitude while the deliverance is still in progress, during the exodus, and upon the entry into the Promised Land. You might say that Israel does not have a clue regarding their responsibility in making this relationship work. They want what God can give and complain liked spoiled children when they do not get what they want. These times of complaint are interspersed with times of repentance and return to live in relationship with God, but the good times never last. After several futile cycles of relationship and rebellion in the Promised Land the chosen children are eventually banished into exile and only a remnant returns to rebuild the ruins of their former glory.
In the end there is a magnificent blessing to the world that comes through Abraham’s family, but it is hardly with the cooperation of the family. By all human appearances the blessing comes through by the barest of threads, only on the strength of God’s commitment to be in relation with his Creation. When all of the promises are despised, and many of the prophets are disparaged and killed, and it seems that God’s words are seen as burdensome rules that the keepers of the law cannot be bothered to uphold even while they lay that heavy burden on those who must listen, then God, who still has not given up on his dream of a relationship with his children, God himself takes on human flesh, moves into the neighborhood and pitches his tent with us, because He desires to be in relation with us.
But we must return to see how well Abraham and Israel heard God’s call, God’s invitation to participate in blessing all nations, God’s invitation to relation. We have already noted that God’s plan was to bless Abraham, and to bless the world through Abraham. How well did Abraham understand this invitation? How faithfully did Abraham live out his part of the invitation to be a blessing to the world? How well did Abraham live in a relationship of blessing to God’s world? How well did Israel live in a relationship of blessing to God’s world? And as we look as the example of Abraham and Israel we must be mindful of the ways in which their stories are mirrored in our own lives.
Abraham’s first challenge follows very closely on the heels of the exhilarating call of Genesis 12:2-3. In the verses immediately following the call Abraham does leave his father’s country and goes to the land God shows him. When God tells him “This is the land I will give to you and your descendants” Abraham builds an altar (12:7), and promptly moves on (12:8). He winds up in Egypt where he is concerned his life may be in danger on account of the beauty of his wife, so he tells her to stretch the truth and advise the lechers that she is his sister, so that he will be treated with greater respect on the merits of his beautiful sister. Is that living in an honorable relationship? So far Abraham has not learned to cherish his relations and is not very concerned about living in ways that bring blessing to those relations.
In the next chapter Lot and Abraham’s herdsmen are quarreling over limited resources and again Abraham’s reaction is avoidance and separation rather than working out an amicable solution that would allow Abraham and Lot to live in a proximity that fosters relationship. Abraham chooses peace, but at the expense of relationship rather than peace in relationship.
In Genesis 16 Abraham and Sara grow tired of waiting for God’s promise of a son so Abraham has relations with Sara’s handmaid that soon result in a pregnancy. Hagar, knowing how long Abraham and Sara have desired offspring develops an attitude that Sara finds reprehensible. Sara complains to Abraham and, being a typical man, Abraham turns pale, turns tail, and runs from relational conflict. “Do with her what you want” he says, knowing full well that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Hagar is in for a rough time in Sara’s hands. Abraham has not yet tuned in to the value of relationship, and has no real care for God’s blessing on his family, much less God’s blessing on the world. He is not even fulfilling the minimal requirements of decency in his relations, much less bringing blessing to those relations.
But in Genesis 18 we see a glimmer of hope. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent when he spies three strangers passing by. He invites them in for a meal, he washes their feet, and engages them in conversation. In the course of the visit the promise of a son is repeated, which causes Sara to laugh hysterically, and then Abraham finds out that Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed because of their great wickedness. And Abraham, this man’s man who to this point has run from every relational conflict with admirable dedication to self-preservation, intercedes for the unknown inhabitants of this pair of cities slated for destruction. Not only does he intercede, but gaining a reprieve for cities based on the presence of 50 righteous people, he further bargains for a reprieve based on the presence of an ever diminishing number of righteous souls until he thinks “Surely, two cities of this size must have at least 10 righteous individuals” and leaves the strangers to go about their business, relatively certain he has saved these cities from destruction. I can’t help but wonder what Abraham knew about Sodom and Gomorrah that compelled him to persist until only 10 righteous souls would safeguard the cities. In any case, it appears there is finally a spark of humanity in Abraham that glows for the welfare of someone other than himself. Is he finally getting that the covenant is one of relationship? A covenant of relationship between God and Abraham that is a blessing to Abraham, his family, and the nations? It looks hopeful!
Unfortunately, this hope is quickly dashed. Soon after this Abraham again portrays Sara as his sister rather than his wife and allows Abimelech to take her. Again Abraham avoids risk and betrays relationships rather than embracing relation.
Soon after this Isaac is born, conflict develops between Ishmael and Isaac and, rather than work to bring relational peace in his family Abraham again abdicates his responsibilities and unjustly allows Hagar and his son to be banished into the desert to almost certain death. He is all for the absence of conflict, but the hard work of bringing peace in relations is too much for him.
Now, it seems, God has had it. Now God decides it is time to test Abraham. Does Abraham “get” the covenant? Does Abraham get that he is to be a blessing to his family, and his family to the nations? It is time to find out. Genesis 22 “Abraham” God says. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Why does God have to remind Abraham of his love for his son? “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love” It seems that God is giving Abraham every excuse, every encouragement, to resist the request. What will Abraham do? Will Abraham remember how much he loves his son? Will Abraham give even a thought to how much God loves his son? Will Abraham recall that the terms of the covenant included a family, a great family, that would bring blessing to the nations? Will Abraham care enough about the covenant to challenge God as he did when the Lord announced plans for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities totally unrelated to the covenant? Or would Abraham once again capitulate and run from the hard work of nurturing relationships and being a blessing to his family?
“Early next morning” 22:3 says, Abraham ran. Abraham saddled up his donkey and rode his ass out of the land of the Philistines. He didn’t talk to Sara, he lied to his son, and he came within a whisker of slaughtering God’s promise on the altar of his own myopia. God never spoke to Abraham again. When Abraham’s arm is outstretched with his knife in hand, God himself does not intervene. It is an angel who calls a halt to Abraham’s foolishness, and Abraham, who was supposedly so devoted to God that he would do anything he commanded, now is all too willing to listen to an angel who contravenes God’s command. Having just flagrantly indicated his utterly careless disregard for God’s covenant Abraham is not repentant but merely sacrifices a ram in what has been characterized as a grotesque pretense of worship. He and his servants return to Beersheba, far from Sara. We don’t know where Isaac is, and we can only surmise where a son who has just by the barest of margins escaped a sacrificial slaughter by his own father would be. That is not the sort of wound from which a relationship would quickly or easily recover. Abraham’s opportunity to be a blessing to his family, to say nothing of the nations, has been all but irrevocably compromised. As far as we know Sara and Abraham never talk to each other again either. When Sara dies Abraham comes from a distance to grieve her passing and facilitate her burial. Next time Isaac lays eyes on Abraham is when he comes to participate, with Ishmael, in the burial of his father. It seems that in death Abraham managed to bring about a peace between the brothers that he could never achieve in his lifetime, a peace that has rarely been realized since.
What could have been if Abraham had taken his own responsibilities in the covenant seriously? What could have been if Abraham had challenged God regarding the sacrifice of his son, the son whom God saw necessary to remind him he loved, as Abraham had challenged God for the lives of those he did not know in Sodom and Gomorrah?
Why was Abraham’s family eventually known by the name of the one who did wrestle with God rather than Abraham’s own name? Genesis 32:22ff When Jacob spends a whole night wrestling with God, he has his name changed in the morning from Jacob “he deceives”, to Israel “he struggles with God”, and Israel is the name by which the family is known to this day.
When God declared his intention to wipe out the Israelites Moses challenged the decision by appealing to God’s reputation and character Exodus 32. Again God honors the challenge and relents from destroying Israel.
What would have happened if Israel had been led into the Promised Land by a Moses who dared to challenge God when instructed to kill the Canaanites, every man, woman, and child? How would Israel’s story, and the history of the Middle East be different if a Moses had reminded God that according to the covenant with Abraham Israel was to bring a blessing to the nations rather than a wholesale slaughter?
But all of this is still pointing fingers when we must recognize our own reflections in these stories. What might be if we really believed that God’s primary desire for us was to be in relationship? What if we really believed that all of the information in scripture is given not primarily so that we can know and believe the right things, and do the right things, but so that we could learn to value our relationship with God, and live in a relationship of blessing to each other, in our communities, to the nations, and to God? What could be if we once caught a vision, and learned to live by the vision of what it means for a creature to bless the Creator and partner in blessing creation?