We are so used to seeing the world as a whole that we think nothing of a documentary maker who begins her film for out in space with our galaxy one among many, then we zoom in through the myriad of starts that make up that galaxy, those stars we glimpse in the Milky Way, and then the shot zooms by the outer planets of the Solar System, the gas giants until we see planet earth suspended as it were in space in all its beauty. And we home in through the thin blue line of the atmosphere down and down to a helicopter shot perhaps of Brian Cox perched on the unlikeliest of mountain tops somewhere in Scandinavia about to tells us of the wonders of the Universe. I am already on the edge of my seat!
The Bible begins in that kind of way, courtesy of ancient story tellers. We begin on a cosmic scale with the creation of the world and in Genesis 1-11 encounter larger than life stories that tell of the beginnings of things but speak to the world of today in every generation.
The scene is set in that world of God’s creation with all its many nations and languages for the story to home in on one individual, not on a mountain top in remotest Scandinavia, but in the heart of what has come to be known as the fertile crescent in Ur of the Chaldees. A remarkable ancient city in Mesopotamia, Iraq scarred and savage in the war of the last decade.
A story begins with Abram and Sara that is going now to be followed through as a family grows into the people of God and their story becomes the story of nothing less than God’s salvation.
There is a gear shift at Genesis 12 verse 1. That moment is marked throughout the rest of the Bible as this Abram and Sara become the father and mother of Isaac, as Isaac and Rebecca become the father and mother of Jacob who comes to be known as Israel, as Jacob and Rachel become the father and mother of the 12 sons whose families then become the 12 tribes who come to make up the nation of Israel, the people of God.
Now in Genesis 12-50 we are in the realm of true to life stories.
This ancient time perhaps three and half thousand years ago was a time of wandering peoples. It is possible to get a sense of the kind of wandering life those peoples had around that fertile crescent. This is the home of writing, of civilisation, and in these stories we can see the kind of life those peoples led.
Again we are in the world of story telling. For generations these stories were passed on as stories around the camp fires of a wandering people. Stories told vividly, bringing to life the roots of their people, capturing customs, practices lifestyles that can be explored in places like the British Museum. It is a world recognised by archaeologists.
The wandering of Abram and Sara is a wandering shared by many at that time. Settling to farm the land, to tend the sheep is all recognisable. When Jacob dreams and catches a glimpse of God and that ladder with angels ascending and descending he calls the place Beth El House of God and he erects a standing stone. Just as countless cultures are doing the world over three and a half thousand years ago.
The stories again are beautifully crafted. I grew up thinking of these as the stories of the Patriarchs overlooking the fact that the Matriarchs play an equally important role!
A couple of years ago we did a sequence of Bible studies on the stories of Genesis 1-50. What was fascinating was to see how those stories are beautifully crafted, often weaving together different strands. They seem to roll on, cycling through similar experiences each time taking us further forward in an unfolding story.
The stories of Abram and Sara, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob and Rachel roll forward and unfold as they tell of people whose lives are far from faultless. In different ways they make a mess of things and God is there always helping them to put things together again.
Corruption and the refusal to be welcoming in a world of wandering people gives rise to consequences that can be destructive and devastating as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah found out. Childlessness in a family is a major problem grappled with in all sorts of ways with multiple marriages, surrogate mothers. What’s fascinating is that those multiple marriages recur later in the Bible story and are not forbidden by specific law codes. Instead stories are told by people grappling with these circumstances … and it is in the telling of those stories and the observation of the intractable difficulties that come from multiple marriage, or from surrogacy in motherhood, that principles of faithfulness in marriage and of monogamy emerge through the Bible story.
What emerges from the outset is the way the God of the universe we have been introduced to in Genesis 1-11 is the God who relates to people individually in shaping a people who will live together in community. In the telling of their story, guidelines emerge that throw light on the way people are to live together in families and in relationship between families, in tribes and the relationship between tribes, and ultimately as a nation.
To make sense of all those things, and at the root of all these stories is an over-riding relationship between God and the people whose story is told. Abram and then Sara respond to the call God gives in faith. Then God enters into a relationship, a partnership, an agreement, a covenant with Abram and with Sara.
It is a relationship rooted in God and filled with promise. There’s a wonderful moment when Abram is brought outside by God and is invited to look up into the heavens, “Look towards heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them.” Then the voice of God says to Abram, “So shall your descendants be.”
Then comes that wonderful moment when Abram has faith, believes in God, puts his trust in him and that is ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’. It is as if he is set right with God.
So important is that sense of partnership, relationship, covenant between the God of grace and Abram and Sara in their faith that the story of that covenant is told all over again in chapter 17.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;* walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram,* but your name shall be Abraham;* for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring* after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’
These stories in Genesis 12-50 are true to life stories that help us to understand who we are and how we relate to each other. This is a wonderful glimpse of what it is to be in that closest of relationships with God.
Notice different strands in this relationship. God is a god of grace – he takes the initiative. God expects great things of Abram. Abram’s response is the response of faith.
The covenant is particular but through Abraham and his descendants it is a promise that opens out to a whole multitude of nations – you shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. And then comes the promise of land that the wandering people will settle in and will become their own.
God’s relationship is so close that something of God now is added to Abram’s very name, the very personal thing that gives him identify. No longer will he be Abram or Sara be Sara without an ‘h’. Now one letter of the four-letter word for God, the letter ‘h’ from YHWH is added to Abram’s name and he becomes the person we know him as, and to the name of Sara who becomes the person we know her as, Abraham and Sarah with a letter’h’.
Abraham is seen as the father figure of the people of God.
Down through the centuries the people think of themselves as the people of Abraham, they look to the God of Abraham.
Down through the centuries they have to grapple with their identity. Who are they? What marks them out as the people of God? That has become a burning question with the brutality of the Roman occupation of their land. In an occupied land they cannot call their own, who are the children of Abraham?
That question is the one that is addressed at the very beginning of the New Testament in the opening words of Matthew’s Gospel. An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messsiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac and Isaac the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.
The New Testament opens with a reprise in the shaped of a genealogy that summarises the Old Testament story beginning with Abraham and culminating in Jesus. Jesus is one of the children of Abraham.
But already as Jesus comes on the scene it is a question that people are grappling with. There is one who has taken upon himself the mantle of the great prophets of old that hold the powers that be to account. His name is John the Baptist and before Matthew tells Jesus’s story he has to tell John’s story. Just being descended from Abraham is not enough for John the Baptist. Clearly some there are who want to emphasise descent from Abraham and ownership of the land. But John sees things differently. It is not the actual descent that counts but something deeper. In Matthew 3.9 John speaks out … Do not presume to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
There’s mystery here. It is as if John the Baptist is latching on to that promise that Abraham would be the ancestor not just of a single nation located in one land, but of a multitude of nations.
At the end of John 3 Jesus lines himself up with John the Baptist in his baptism, is driven into the wilderness and then in 4.12 he begins his ministry. What Matthew records is very telling. Just as John has taken up the mantle of the prophets, so too Jesus claims to stand in the line of the prophets.
It’s worth paying attention to the words.
Now when Jesus* heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’*
Notice that Galilee is identified as Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule, has come near.
Then comes the sermon on the mount – on the mountain top Jesus declares a new law. Then in Matthew 8 Jesus breaks barriers down and stretches out beyond … as if he is being all inclusive. First a leper is cleansed, then in Capernaum he heals a Centurion’s servant.
It is the faith of the Centurion that prompts Jesus to marvel. But then he calls to mind the Abraham story. It is as if once again he is focusing on the covenant with Abraham that reaches out to that multitude of nations. Those who are children of Abrham are not just those of physical desent.
When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one* in Israel have I found such faith. 11I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 13
Many will come from east and west and eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
For Jesus the all-important thing is not the physical descent from Abraham but walking in the way God calls Abraham to walk. And that is open not just to be people descended from Abraham but to all.
Turning from Matthew 8 to John 8 it is in the temple that Jesus is sharing his teaching. It is during a festival when light plays a great part. At that very moment when lanterns are lit from the great lamps in the temple courtyard, and then from lantern to lantern the light spreads through the Temple courtyards down the steps and out into Jerusalem and beyond, Jesus gets up and declares, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Light of ‘the world. ‘Whoever’ follows me.
“Whoever is from God hears the words of God.” And the all important thing in hearing the words of God is to put them into practice, to live by them, to act on them.
It is as if all who hear Christ’s words become the descendants of Abraham as they hear those words and put them into action. Jesus is laying claim to that dimension of the covenant God makes with Abraham that sees Abraham as the father figure of a whole multitude of nations.
Those who hear Jesus say this find it offensive, how can this be. They want to latch on to another dimension of the covenant with Abraham that focuses on the land and limits the descendants of Abraham to those in direct descent. They feel as if Jesus is laying claim to precedence over Abraham. That’s not the point Jesus is making, however. Rather he bears the stamp of the very God whose identify is there in Abraham’s name.
Very truly, I tell you, says Jesus, before Abraham was, I am.
Jesus sees himself as fulfilling the very essence of the covenant with Abraham because he bears the very identify of God deep within himself.
Jesus reads Genesis and the story of Abraham and homes in on the way the covenant opens up to be all-inclusive of the whole multitude of nations. He is the one who is light of the world and has come for all.
Reading Genesis through the eyes of Jesus prompts us to see Jesus as the fulfilment of all the whole relationship God has with Abraham. In Jesus the covenant opens up to be inclusive of all. Jesus is offering a very Jewish interpretation of the Abraham story that is true to that story, but finds its focus in a different place from those contemporaries who were Pharisees and many others. For them physical descent and the actual land was all important. For him a relationship with God that hears God’s word and puts them into practice was all important.
To read Genesis and the stories of Abraham through the eyes of Jesus has massive practical and political implications today. It is what draws me to reject the view of those who maintain that the covenant with Abraham means that the whole land of Israel and Palestine must be for Jewish people alone. No, No, No. In Jesus that covenant finds its fulfilment and opens up to include all who hear God’s words and act on them – and it reaches out into the whole multitude of nations. That’s why it is important for us to take seriously the cries of the Christians of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Israel, Palestine in their appeal to us as Christians to work for a political solution that enables Jews and Palestinians to live together in that land and recognise each other as the children of Abraham.