|Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
By Paul S. Nancarrow
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
The covenant God made with Noah was universal, encompassing all humanity—indeed all land-based life—in a new kind of relationship with God, a relationship of co-creativity by which evil in the world will no longer be destroyed as in the Flood, but will be transformed to new potential for good. The covenant with Abraham, described in this reading for the Second Sunday of Lent, is more specific. In this covenant the human side of the relationship is to “walk before [God] and be blameless,” while the divine side is to make Abraham and Sarah the ancestors of “nations” and “kings,” and “to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
In the covenant with Noah, the human side was simply to be “fruitful”; here that basic generativity is given more specific direction, an orientation toward God and an ideal of moral integrity. Human life is thereby given a deeper dimension, a clearer purpose in relationship to the source and goal of creative energy. The divine side of this new covenant is also more specific: more than simply a promise to be non-destructive, God in this covenant commits to an ongoing relationship with a human family, to be their object of worship and source of value, their enduring ideal of creative transformation through generations of growth and development.
The greater specificity of this covenant comes at some cost: rather than embracing all humanity, this covenant is made with Abraham and Sarah and their offspring, one particular human line. We can trace the beginnings of religious exclusivity to this covenant. We should note, however, in this passage the number of times God stresses that Abraham and Sarah will be the parents of nations and peoples in the plural: not just a single ethnic group, but a multitude of human communities. Likewise, we can remember that God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, thought not quoted directly in this passage, is that through their offspring all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3, 28:14). So while this covenant is more specific and exclusive in its formulation, its intention and end result is still to embrace all human life, as in the first covenant with Noah. The passage invites reflection on the specific qualities of walking before God with integrity that are truly conducive to the creative transformation of evil into potential for new good.
A song of thanksgiving for rescue from danger, this psalm echoes the theme of creative transformation of evil and destruction from the Genesis passage, placing it now in a personal rather than an ethnic context. The poet had been in some state of affliction, from which he had prayed for deliverance; now no longer in danger, he uses his own experience as the evidence to persuade others of God’s saving power, God’s ability to take up the wreckage of suffering and from it to bring the possibility of new good. From his own experience, he can state with confidence that “the poor shall eat and be satisfied,” “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD,” and even “before him shall bow all who go down to the dust”: the saving help of God is not meant for one person alone, or even one people alone, or even the living alone, but encompasses all who have known life, and all who will know life, the “posterity” and “future generations” and “people yet unborn,” who will arise in a world where God’s transformative creativity is always already at work. The human side of this transformative relationship is to “fear” (perhaps a better phrase in modern English would be “be in awe”), “praise,” and “worship,” paralleling Abraham and Sarah’s covenantal role to “walk before God and be blameless”: by orienting their lives toward God and striving for purity of intention in embodying divine ideals, humans lend their measure of creativity to God’s mission, co-creating with God new rescue from destructive affliction.
This passage takes up the hint of universalism in the Genesis reading and amplifies it, stating emphatically that Abraham’s being made “the father of many nations” means in fact that he is “the father of all of us.” The key for Paul is that descent from Abraham is not a matter of bloodline or biology, but consists in reenacting in one’s own life the quality of faith lived by Abraham.
Paul says that Abraham’s “faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’”; a process approach invites us to consider both these key words in more than their typical modern meanings. “Faith” is often understood to mean the act of giving intellectual assent to a proposition, even through it cannot by proven by hard evidence or rigorous analysis. This very passage seems to invite such an understanding: God proposed that Abraham would have many descendants, and even though Abraham could see no evidence for that proposition, given his and Sarah’s advanced age, he nevertheless assented to it, and that was his faith.
Such intellectual assent is of course one component of faith; but more important than agreement with a proposition is Abraham’s disposition of his inner and outer life toward the fulfillment of the proposition, the way Abraham “hoped against hope” inwardly while outwardly going where God led him and doing as God guided him. It is this entire disposition of life, this shaping of the self by enactment of divine aims, that constitutes faith; and this is the faith that is reckoned as “righteousness.” Here also, we must understand “righteousness” in a deeper sense that its typical modern meaning. The Greek word Paul uses here is dikaiosyne, which is based on the root dike or justice; “righteousness” thus includes both personal morality and social justice, in direct contrast to the way the word is often used today. Moreover, the root concept of justice in biblical thought is more than “lawfulness” or even “fairness”; justice in its root sense is “right relationship.” So righteousness before God means being in right relationship with God—and that right relationship is nothing other than to dispose one’s life toward the embodiment of divine aims and ideals—therefore faith is counted as righteousness.
Those who reenact the faith of Abraham walk before God as Abraham, and are therefore counted righteous and blameless as Abraham; they thus keep the human side of the covenant made with Abraham, receiving the same relationship with God as Abraham, and can therefore be considered descendants of Abraham. The covenant of co-creativity to transform the revolts of destructive evil into potentials for new good is thus carried on in new generations by those who believe (ie, “belove,” credere, commit their hearts to) “the God … who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” the God “who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”
Where the Romans passage makes the connection between the faith of Abraham and faith in Christ, the Mark passage drives it home with an uncompromising definition of such faith: Jesus teaches, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”The word used for “life” here is psyche, which can mean the “animating principle” of bodily life, as well as meaning “soul” or “self” or “center of personal identity.” So the overall meaning is more than just the biological difference between living and dead tissue, but comprises the whole sense of being a living person.
We can therefore paraphrase this central teaching of Jesus as “the more one tries to protect one’s selfhood, the less a person one becomes; but the more one gives over one’s selfhood to Jesus and the gospel, the more a person one becomes.” An insight from process thought is particularly helpful here, namely the insight that the “self” is not a thing or object or some sort of reified essence “within” a person, but that the “self” is a thread of continuity or stream of influence running through successive moments of personal experience. What makes me me is a constellation of memories, qualities, and defining characteristics that each moment of my experience inherits from its predecessors and passes on to its successors, so that each moment of my becoming is recognizably connected to what came before, while also opening possibilities for new increments of experience. Central to this personal succession is a balance between novelty and continuity: too much novelty in a moment of experience could obscure the connection to previous moments and disrupt the sequence; too much continuity between moments could reduce the freshness of experience and degrade moments to mere repetition of their predecessors; either way, richness of personhood is lost.
With this operative notion of self, then, we could interpret Jesus’ teaching as saying that the anxious need to protect and save the self leads to an inexorable degradation of the self into triviality of repetitive experience, while entertaining aims and ideals derived from Jesus and his proclamation de-centers the self from its own preoccupations, initially experienced as a loss, but effectively opening new personal experiences to greater richness, depth, and more vital streams of influence.
Jesus’ own mission to be rejected, killed, and raised again demonstrates God’s faithfulness to creatively transform loss of self into new possibilities for greater personhood; those who follow Jesus, enacting in their self-constitution the divine ideals revealed by God in Jesus, will experience similar loss of self and rising into greater personhood. Taking the risk to de-center your self by entertaining divine aims for your enactment is the act of faith that, as the Romans passage says, is reckoned as righteousness and right-relationship with God; it is the call to walk before God and be blameless, as the Genesis passage says, that constitutes the human side of the divine-human covenant established in Abraham. Losing self-preoccupation for the sake of finding greater personhood in living the ideals of Jesus is the theme of all forms of Lenten self-denial and self-discipline.