Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Genesis 16 - There is still one hurdle Abraham must negotiate—the human solution that his wife Sarai dreams up. Sarai, discouraged with her own infertility and not quite as ready as Abram is simply to trust in the word of God they have received becomes 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 Hagar 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.
This 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—and He will make it work in spite of us. It will happen with Ishmael’s birth; it will happen again with the institution of the monarchy in Israel; 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 and redemptive work in us, in our lives and in our history.
Genesis 17 - 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, “All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant” (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 (17:20). 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.
First Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (96 AD)
Section 61 – Clement assures his readers that the Lord is the source of the “sovereign authority” at issue in Corinth. Grant them “health and peace, harmony and security, that they may exercise without offense the dominion which thou has accorded them” (48). May thou, O Lord, “direct their counsels as may be good and pleasing in they sight, that in peace and mildness they may put to godly use the authority thou has given them, and so find mercy with thee” (48).
Section 62 – Epilogue: “Belief, repentance, true Christian love, self-discipline, discretion, perseverance – we have touched on these in all their aspects. We have reminded you of your duty to earn in all holiness the approval of Almighty God by a life of rectitude, truthfulness, and patient resignation, and to live amicably and without malice together, in peace and charity and unfailing consideration for others” (49).
It is through the exercise of these virtues that our forefathers won approval in the past.
Section 63 – He tells them they will give him great “joy and happiness if you will lay to heart what we have written through the Holy Spirit, and will respond to the appeal for peace and harmony which we have made in this letter, by putting an end once and for all to the rancours of an impious rivalry” (49).
Section 64 – He begs them to send his messengers back with news of “truce and unity” (49).