(05) The Calling of a People—Genesis 12

Ted Grimsrud

We have seen that the Bible from the very beginning promises peace – understood as wholeness, harmonious relationships among people, closeness to God.  God’s original work as creator was an act of peacemaking.  God brought forth life – “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).  What is comes from God, reflects who God is, and is very good.  When God speaks creation, the result is peace.

However, from the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah, we also know that that which was created good soon became broken and corrupted, the scene for evil and sin.  The biggest problem, according to Genesis six, is that “the earth was filled with violence” (6:11).  God responds with overwhelming judgment.  The story of Noah and the Flood, however, ultimately tells of God’s resolve never again to respond to sin and evil with massive destruction.  God, it would appear, has decided to persevere, to stay with creation as it is, to seek to heal the human heart rather than simply punishing the source of such grief.  As the rest of the Bible makes clear (and human history in general), it will take God time to do this healing work.

As a unit, Genesis 1–11 essentially gives an account of the disintegration of the human community.  We read of the movement away from the initially established wholeness (peace, shalom) of creation down wherein human beings are empowered by God serve as God’s regents in the world through the Garden of Eden, Cain’s murder of Abel, the Flood, and the tower of Babel.  It seems as if the human race runs its course in short order and runs from its original empowering vocation, rendering itself powerless to do anything other than self-destruct.  The end of chapter eleven gives us a picture of this movement from wholeness to powerlessness  in a nutshell:  “The name of Abraham’s wife was Sarah.…Now Sarah was barren; she had no child” (11:29,30).

We who read this story now know that Abraham and Sarah are in a powerful sense exemplars of humanity as a whole.  Sarah’s “barrenness” can be seen as a reflection of the general human condition.  To be barren meant childlessness for Abraham and Sarah, which basically meant they had not future.  They would have no descendants for whom they would be ancestors.  They would not be able to live on through their children and their children.  A more powerless position could scarcely be imagined.  So, Abraham and Sarah’s predicament reflects the general state of the human condition following the movement away from the empowerment for life they had been given by God in the act of creation.

We have a contrast here.  We read of Sarah and Abraham’s barrenness on the one hand, their lack of a future.  Their deep despair and powerlessness symbolizes the fate of grasping, self-oriented, cold-hearted humanity living apart from God.  The initial movement toward autonomy taken by Adam and Eve and Cain finds its denouement in this brief but oh so clear description of Abraham and Sarah’s situation.  No future.  A dead end.  Yet, on the other hand we have God’s speech as we read on into Genesis 12.  God speaks to Abraham and Sarah in a way that creates life out of chaos.  God promises them a future.  God speaks a new work with creative power, and makes a future out of barrenness.

Abraham and Sarah’s powerlessness reflects the fruit of autonomous humanity grasping for power apart from God.  In contrast, though, God responds not with punitive violence but with the promise.  The dead end now becomes the path to life.  Already, by Genesis 12 we have established a pattern that characterizes the core story of the rest of the Bible – God is a God of life, whose response to the destructive consequences of humanity seeking autonomous power is patience and creative love.  Time after time we will read of a divine initiative to sustain life, to sustain the promise, to sustain the hope for wholeness, to bring peace out of chaos. 

As will often be the case in what is to come in the rest of the Bible, here in Genesis 11–12 the story makes a point of emphasizing the vulnerability and apparent weakness (and lack of special virtue) of the instruments of God’s healing work.  There is little that is exceptional about Abraham and Sarah – their power to be agents of healing primarily comes from God going against the grain of cultural priorities and conventional wisdom.  The ancestors of the promise, the founders of the community that will bless all the families of the earth would not obviously be two “wandering Arameans” who are unable to bear children and who have no other notable resources or status.

However, these are the tools God uses.  God’s response to the brokenness of creation is now based on long-suffering love, not on brute force.  God’s agents are not the mighty and powerful, those most capable of “reformation” by the power of brute force.  Instead, God’s agents are the ones through whom God’s long-suffering love can be made apparent.

God’s response to the brokenness of creation is to seek patiently to heal.  Genesis twelve, the calling of Abraham and Sarah to be a great people, tells of the beginning of God’s strategy for healing.  Basically, God’s strategy for healing is summarized in the words to Abraham in verse three:  “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God’s strategy for healing is to call a people, to establish a community of people who will know God.  God’s strategy for bringing about peace is through another act of creation, the creation of a community.  It is through people of faith living together, face to face, people of faith learning to love and give and take.  It is through concrete daily peaceable community life among specific, particular groups of people that God will make peace for all the families of the earth.

God calls into being a people, a community of faith.  God’s purpose for calling this people has to do with blessing “all the families of the earth” (12:3).  This is God’s strategy for healing – the creation of a community, the calling of a people to know God’s love and to share that love with the rest of the world.  I want to reflect on three aspects of God’s strategy.           

First of all, God brings newness for his people.  Secondly, God uses his people to help others find this newness.  And, thirdly, God is committed to staying with this strategy over the long haul.

(1) God brings newness for his people.  The basic point here is that the community of faith that God calls together is based on these people knowing God’s love and mercy.  God promises newness to Abraham and Sarah.  They are promised a transformation.  Sarah is barren.  She cannot have a child.  There will be no descendants.  There is not hope for the future.  They are “no people.”

Into this barrenness, God speaks newness.  Already in the biblical story we have a kind of resurrection.  At several important moments in the Old Testament God intervenes to sustain or provide life in the face of what appears to be a dead end.  So, when we get to the key moment in the gospel story, God raising Jesus from the dead, we have to do with a pattern God has already shown, not something totally new and unprecedented.  Sarah is barren – and then God gives her a child.  The children of Israel are slaves in Egypt, in danger of be erased from the face of the earth – and then God frees them and pulls them together as a people under Torah.  One unfaithful king after another leads the people of the promise down the path of conformity with the idolatry and injustice of the nations, with any sense of the Promise fading nearly out of sight – and then God helps King Josiah find the law book and restore it to the people’s awareness.  The nation is destroyed by the Babylonian empire, its temple and king’s palace both reduced to rubble – and then God speaks through the prophet to promise a future.

So, what we read in Genesis twelve is only the first of many “resurrections.”  The present reality of being “no people” will change.  Abraham and Sarah will be a people.  God says, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2).  And God does bless Abraham and Sarah, giving them a child.  They become the grandparents of many.  These people know of God’s mercy and show evidence of that mercy to the wider world.  The Old Testament does tell us about unfaithfulness.  However, the Old Testament also tells of at least some faithfulness, of people who know God, of many expressions of peace, wholeness, healing, shalom. 

The promise of newness, the experience of newness is also, of course, central to the message of Jesus.  As Mary proclaimed just before his birth:  “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:54-55).  In Jesus, God’s gift of newness found its most profound expression.  Jesus also called together a people to be a light to the nations, to know God’s newness and to share it far and wide.

God’s gift to Sarah of a child in her barrenness should not be surprising for people of faith.  God is a God of new beginnings, a God who brings fruitfulness out of barrenness.

God said to Abraham, “I will bless you.”  The first move is God’s.  The first reality is God’s mercy, God’s gift of life, God’s promise of a future.  The core reality of our faith communities being faithful to God’s call of us is for us ourselves to know God’s mercy, for us ourselves to accept and experience the newness God brings for his people.  From the very start of the biblical story, God’s mercy stands as the fundamental reality.  Peace, wholeness, health, and mutuality are all part of the created order that God established from the beginning – and continues to enliven throughout the story even in the face of much that brings alienation into creation.

(2) Affirming God’s first step of showing mercy in giving new life in the face of barrenness, we can better understand the second part of God’s strategy for healing.  After bringing newness to his people, God uses his people to help others also know this newness.  God says to Abraham, “I will bless you,” then, “I will make you a blessing.”  God’s strategy for healing, God’s way of bringing peace, of bringing wholeness, of bringing shalom, to the beloved creation is to use the community of faith to share with others the wholeness they are finding, to share with others the newness God has brought them.

God calls Abraham and Sarah and their descendents to be witnessing community, witnessing to the mercy and healing love that God has shown them.  This witness is not primarily about ideas or doctrines or beliefs – it is about a way of life.  The community, thus, can only truly witness to that which it actually lives. 

The danger that Abraham and Sarah’s election or chosenness from the start faces is that this calling is understood to be about the well-being only of the chosen people rather than being a calling to bless all the families of the earth.  The biblical story throughout reflect this tension.  At times the tendency to focus inward and to become self-absorbed as if God is basically calling the people simply to be happy for their own sake rises to the surface.  Often, a counter-witness then finds expression to remind the people of the original message to Abraham and Sarah (one powerful example may be seen in the well-known story of Jonah and his reluctance to venture outside his own clearly set boundaries to witness to God’s mercy in the wider world).

Scattered throughout the Bible, though, we find expressions of this original calling.  Just prior to God’s giving the Ten Commandments following the exodus, the people are reminded that they are a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), with the implication that they are called as a community to mediate God’s Torah to the world.  Later, both Isaiah and Micah’s books contain the vision of the nations coming to Mount Zion to learn the ways of peace.  Jesus concludes his ministry according to Matthew’s Gospel with a call to go out among the nations and teach them the way of Jesus.  The Christian Bible concludes with an amazing vision (though not actually amazing to those who have been attentive to this motif from the story of Abraham and Sarah onward) of the kings of the earth bringing their glory into the New Jerusalem (“kings of the earth” being code language throughout the Bible for those in rebellion versus God) and the nations being healed by the leaves from the Tree of Life.

The message to Abraham and Sarah that they will bless all the families of the earth gains clarity as we follow the story of the children of Israel down through the rest of the Old Testament.  The blessing ultimately would be expressed through witness to the ways of peace and justice (as expressed in Torah), not through the sword of the nation-state.  We will see that the nation-state path for children of the Promise ended up as a dead end.  However, even after following this dead-end, the chosen people retain the vocation given to Abraham and Sarah – as we see in the message given through the prophet Jeremiah to seek the people of the city where you find yourselves (Jeremiah 29:7).

Jesus and his followers follow after Jeremiah’s exhortation, recognizing that the genuine blessing offered through Abraham and Sarah’s descendents requires independence from nation-states.  The message of shalom that they are called to witness to must be a lived reality in their communities in order to be the kind of “good news” they may communicate with others.  These communities, thus, must maintain independence from the power politics of nation-states. 

At the same time, Jeremiah’s exhortation also makes clear that in order to be a genuine blessing, the faith community’s ways of peace and justice must be manifested visibly amidst the nations.  Abraham and Sarah’s calling does not underwrite withdrawal and separation beyond that which is necessary for fidelity to their vocation.

(3) The third point I would like to draw from the story of God calling Abraham is that God is committed to staying with this strategy over the long haul.  It is difficult for us to be patient.  We see so much brokenness around us.  We wonder, what the use?

God’s promise to Abraham, God’s healing strategy of calling a people to know and to share newness—this happened well over three thousand years ago.  God is still patient.  God still perseveres.  God’s long-suffering love knows no end.  God is in this for the long haul.

The biblical story itself highlights God’s patience much more than God’s direct intervention to transform the world.  We pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is on heaven,” as we should.  But this coming kingdom obviously is taking a long time.  God’s respect for human freedom seems to require of God a willingness to let things run their course.

What God wants from people of faith, I think, is that we might learn from God’s patience.  What God wants from us is simply accepting the newness that God continually offers us.  Simply accepting this newness and then letting God use us to share that newness with others.  These were the two elements of God’s calling of a people back in the time of Abraham.  “I will bless you,” God said, “so that you will be a blessing.”  These remain the two elements of God’s calling of people of faith – “I will bless you…so that you may be a blessing.” 

Simply accept God’s newness – let God use us to share that newness – and patiently trust that God will, in time, fulfill the promise to heal creation.

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