Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I'm feeling the need to slow it down a little even though there were few comments posted on the last entry. And I really didn't get to chapter 15 in the last post, so I am starting with it and going through chapter 17 only. I have also done a lot of reorganizing of some of my own blogs. I created another blog page called "The Narrative of Scripture" [http://scripturenarrative.blogspot.com/] where I can do posts similar to the ones I do here but engage more in discussion (hopefully) with people in my Meeting locally and then devote the Catholic Quaker blog to a different set of conversations. On the scripturenarrative blog I have posted a very long article on the narrative theology approach to reading the Bible and how it is both similar and different from early Friends' approach to scripture. The article can be accessed at http://scripturenarrative.blogspot.com/2011/05/friends-and-scriptur...).
Back to Genesis - In chapter 15 of Genesis, God’s word comes again to Abram and he is led out to see the stars of the sky. We know what an amazing sight that is in places where the landscape is not filled with electric lights. It must have been truly amazing in the days when there was no place on earth with electricity. And God promises Abram again that He will make Abram’s descendants as many as the stars in the sky. That Abram has faith (or trusts) in God’s promises is “credited . . .to him as an act of righteousness” (15:6). And truly it was, for at this point in his very long life, the story records him as having NOT ONE descendant. God repeats the covenant, and solemnizes the occasion by having Abram offer a heifer, a she-goat, a ram (all age 3), a turtle dove and a pigeon. Each of the first three is split in two and Abram guards them all day. Apparently this cutting of animals in half was part of a solemn oath taking ceremony where those making promises were walked through the divided remains so as to be reminded that breaking one’s word could lead to very bad stuff.
In the evening, Abraham falls into a trance and “a deep, terrifying darkness envelope[s] him” (15:12). God reveals to Abram that his descendants shall suffer a period of slavery before God delivers them. When it is dark, a “smoking brazier and a flaming torch” pass between the severed pieces of animal and the covenant is concluded with respect to the lands God intends to confer on Abram’s line.
Sarai apparently is not quite as righteous as Abram. Discouraged by her own infertility and perhaps a rational assessment of the impossibility of having a child at their ages, she is not quite as ready as Abram is simply to trust in the word of God. She is impatient and comes up with her own plan to make the promise of God come to pass. She offers Abram her maidservant Hagar with the idea that perhaps any children that result might be considered hers. Hagar is an Egyptian woman - perhaps acquired when they were in Egypt? She does become pregnant, but the success of Sarai’s scheme only creates problems. Hagar now thinks she is better than Sarai. Sarai is jealous and blames Abram for her problems. Abram allows Sarai to decide what shall happen with Hagar (16:6) and the child, and Sarai has no pity now. She “abuses” Hagar so much that she finally runs away. The tragedy of human machinations here will require deep and on-going redemptive intervention by God—an intervention that is not yet at an end in our day.
The Lord’s messenger finds Hagar by a spring in the wilderness and asks her where she is going. Then he advises Hagar to return and submit to the mistreatment, and in return she will be given a promise parallel to the one given to Abram. She is the first woman with whom a covenant is contracted with the Lord. Soon after her return, Ishmael is born. Abram is 86.
The story is interesting for many reasons. First there is the impatience and “unfaithfulness” of Sarai who simply cannot believe that God will be able to bring forth an heir for Abram from her aging body. How is the promise to be realized? Certainly God doesn’t expect them just to sit around and wait for a miracle. “God helps those who help themselves—right?” We reason like this all the time. And what we learn from this story is that God, while clearly not behind this “solution,” will accept it and redeem it. There will be many times in this story that a similar thing will happen. God will promise something. We will become impatient or get some inspiration of our own how we can “make” God’s promise happen and we will get it wrong—we will grasp a way he is not behind—but ultimately our unfaithful impatience will not result in total disaster. That is good news! Something good will come from Ishmael’s birth even though it wasn't God's original plan. This redemption of human plans will happen again with the institution of the monarchy in Israel where it is instituted despite God's earlier proclamation that it should NOT happen; and perhaps it happens all the time. Perhaps every redemptive “effort” that man has made will ultimately be transformed by God into real redemption by God’s deep and unrelenting love for us, both in our lives and in human history.
Anyway, thirteen years later, when Abram is ninety-nine, the Lord appears to him again and restates his promises to him a third time: 17:2 – You will be the father of many nations, the covenant will be perpetual and is sealed by the act of circumcision. The first two are in 12:2 “I will make you a great nation, your name a blessing” and 15:18: “your descendants shall be countless, you will receive the land from Egypt to the Euphrates.” Perhaps what we have here is simply another version of the original covenant God makes with Abram, but the repetition of it highlights the fact that God’s promises and God’s intervention is on its own timetable, not ours. Nothing Abram or Sarai do will hurry the process. God changes Abram’s name here to Abraham and institutes the practice of circumcision. Thus, God says, the covenant “shall be in your flesh as an everlasting pact” (17:13). Sarai’s name is modified to Sarah and the birth of their son is foretold. The pact with Ishmael is confirmed as well. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains and will become a great nation. The chapter ends with Abraham and Ishmael being circumcised even while it is clarified that Ishmael is not to be the heir God has been promising all along.