Friday, March 22, 2013
In Search Of Truth, Genesis 17:1-19
In this chapter God expands upon his previously established covenant with Abram.
God tells Abram to live continually in his presence in a blameless manner. This command implies a desire for relationship. God doesn't simply want a list of rituals to be performed. He desires relationship with us. At the same time, his perfect, just character rightly demands perfection of those he is in relationship with.
The paradox of God's desire for relationship with humanity and his rightful requirement for justice (which calls for separation between himself and sinful beings) is the reason for the various rituals and sacrifices we see in the Old Testament. They are all symptoms of the problem, as well as foreshadows of its solution.
Abram "fell on his face", an idea strange to us today, but that communicated a reduction of self-interest in favor of the one being bowed to. In fact, the Hebrew word most commonly used (by far) for "worship" in the Old Testament means "to bow down". In the Biblical sense, "worship" is not singing or even praying, but much broader. it is a prioritization of God above everything else, especially above our own interests.
God reaffirms his previous promise to multiply Abram's descendants, and changes Abram's name to Abraham (meaning "father of many").
God adds an interesting, faith-bolstering detail to his promised blessing of Abraham. Verse 6 says "kings will come forth from you". Moses, the author of Genesis, couldn't have known the kings that Israel would produce, as Israel was a theocracy at the time Genesis was written.
Yahweh also adds a new element to the covenant. A relational one. And one that would be "everlasting", applying to all of Abraham's offspring. Yahweh promised to be God to both Abraham and his offspring, a unique connection that would last forever.
For the first time, Abraham is given a way to participate in this covenant. Circumcision was already being practiced in the ancient world as a rite of puberty, fertility of marriage. Once again, Yahweh takes something already familiar and adapts it for his purposes. The painful, bloody nature of the procedure gives it weight and a connotation of sacrifice. (A gracious version of sacrifice compared to other gods of this time, who demanded human sacrifice.) The organ being cut is closely connected with producing offspring and the act of greatest union and intimacy in human experience. In light of these elements, circumcision was both experientially intense and symbolically meaningful as a physical reminder of God's sworn connection to Abraham and his descendants, as well as their sworn connection to God.
The flip side of this involvement of humanity in the covenant is the inevitable effects of free will. God honors the capacity for choice he has given humanity and therefore this aspect of the covenant could be broken by the choices of Israel.
Previously, because of the old age of himself and his wife Sarai, Abram slept with a female servant to try and produce an heir that would facilitate God's promised blessings. But God makes it clear here that Sarai is as much a part of the promised blessing as Abraham. God changes Sarai's name to Sarah, seemingly to emphasize her importance in this plan. Although Sarai and Sarah both essentially translate to "princess", changing someone's name in the ancient world indicated authority over that person and the intention for them to serve a special purpose.
In case any doubt remained (and it did, given Abraham's disbelieving laughter), God affirmed that Sarah would give birth to Abraham's son and told Abraham to name him Isaac (meaning "he laughs"). A great bit of interaction here, which may even indicate God's sense of humor. I can almost imagine Yahweh saying, "You're laughing now, but wait and see. You're gonna look back on this moment every time you say your son's name."
Again I'm reminded of God's desire to have an ongoing relationship with me and with all of us. He is not aloof, but uses language and ideas we're familiar with to speak to us. Circumcision and covenants may seem alien and strange to us. But they were highly meaningful relational experiences that revealed important things about Yahweh.
Relationally, Yahweh was operating with humanity in a way completely foreign to every other religion in the ancient world. Intervarsity Press's Bible Background Commentary observes:
There are no parallels in the ancient world to covenants between deity and mortal, though certain gods are known to make demands and promise favorable treatment. In most of these cases kings report their care of the sanctuaries of the god and then tell how the deity responded with blessing. But these fall far short of a covenant relationship initiated by deity for his own purposes. (pg. 49, IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament)
There is no god like Yahweh. He is higher and greater than any other, but willingly stoops lower than any other god is willing in order to have what no other god wants... a loving relationship with you and me that will never fade and will only get better.