Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Abraham, savior of the world

Genesis 12-25

It seems you can't do any justice to the book of Genesis without focusing on Abraham as its key character. The first eleven chapters have told a story of how God created the world and us humans to cultivate it, and how we chose death over life and deteriorated into depravity. God purified the world with a flood to wipe out all living creatures, except for faithful Noah and the creatures he was able to preserve on the ark. Now that this "baptism" has taken place, there are new life and new possibilities for the world; yet humans are by no means perfect. There is a strange ambiguity in this introductory story: was Noah really worth saving? Is not the human race even from Noah just the same sinful race of Adam which the flood was meant to wipe out? Genesis makes no attempt to settle that question. Instead, it goes on to God's new plans. The Bible may bring up more questions than it answers, but its agenda is always forward-looking. The unanswered (and possibly unanswerable) questions must be allowed to remain, while God does a new thing to bring new life to his world.

Abraham is the next step. We are really not told why God chooses Abraham. He hardly gets an introduction. All we know about Abram when he is introduced is that he is the son of Terah and has married Sarai, a barren woman. This is the drama of Abram's story: right from the beginning it appears as if he will be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, since he will have no children of his own. Yet God promises, seemingly out of the blue, that precisely the opposite will be the case. God himself will provide offspring for Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham). Make no mistake, this is how God intends to bless the world which he has just baptized: "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Abraham believes God, and this is reckoned to him as righteousness.

There are two scenes in Abraham's life that most fascinate me. The first is in chapter 18, when God is preparing to go down and judge Sodom and Gomorrah. We read,
The Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed by him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him."
Note the repetition of the promise concerning Abraham: he is to be a light to all people by doing righteousness and justice and teaching his offspring to do so. In fact, so privileged is Abraham in God's sight that he even gets to be involved in his judgment of the world. There is more in this scene that God telling Abraham what he's going to do. Abraham gets to respond and ask questions.
Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"
And Abraham goes further. He pushes God down to 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10 people: for the sake of only 10 righteous people he will spare the city. Abraham's relationship to God is thus shown to be one of incredible closeness, almost like Abraham is a trusted advisor of the Lord of all creation. Yet his servant status is very much clear: there is a firm separation between divine and human. This is perhaps what makes it all the more significant that God allows Abraham's voice to be heard. God spares Abraham's nephew Lot, even though Lot hardly seems like a paragon of virtue, for the sake of his relationship to Abraham.

I've always been attracted to this story of God hearing Abraham in the matter of judgment on Sodom. There seems to be a much more dynamic relationship between God and humans than is often contemplated among Christians. Not only does God's servant hear what his judgment will be, but he is also given the right to give feedback on that judgment. There is a sense in which God's judgment is, in fact, open for debate. The fact that in this case Sodom is still judged is perhaps a further commentary on just how far human beings have sunk into depravity. My sense is that the Bible is often trying to lay on pretty thick just how wretched humans really are, and that it is dangerous to underestimate the evil we cause. Nevertheless, I think there is an important principle to be learned from this: we ought not to be fatalists with regard to God's judgment.

The second incident in Abraham's life which intrigues me is in chapter 22, when God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This story is, of course, one of the most historically celebrated in all of scripture, and with good reason. It leaves the reader wanting desperately to get inside the mind of Abraham, who responds unquestioningly to God's outrageous command to sacrifice the one son, the miracle son, whom Sarah finally bore in her old age, the one chance Abraham had to leave behind legitimate offspring (well, not exactly; see chapter 25). For the Christian, there is no doubt here a foreshadowing of Christ's crucifixion. Abraham in a sense has to play the role of Christ, being willing to sacrifice his own flesh and blood in submission to God's will. Abraham's assurance to his son that "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering" is ironically justified; God does provide a ram for the sacrifice instead of Isaac. This leaves behind a nagging question: what if Abraham had actually had to go through with it? It would be one thing to bear punishment on your own body; it would be quite another to have to strike and kill your own son. Christians may contemplate this in relation to the Father's role in the crucifixion... This idea is profound, and there is no settling answer.

It seems unwise to think of this story as a prototype for faith. Instead, it seems to be a story which challenges us to think about the work God is doing to bring life to the world. One thing this story teaches us is that God really is the one who provides life. Anyone who is to be savior of the world must have absolute faith in God to provide life. Abraham passes the test: he even is willing to give back to God his only son. Is this the kind of faith we ought to have? I'm not sure there is a certain "kind of faith" presented here for us to imitate. What we have is the very particular story of Abraham, and we are shown God's very definite promise to the world in this man whom God has called.

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