Lectionary Commentaries for March 5, 2023
Second Sunday in Lent
Commentary on John 3:1-17
Ronald J. Allen
Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a
Justin Michael Reed
The call of Abram is a watershed moment in the book of Genesis and celebrated in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, reading its literary context can suggest some surprising theological insights and challenges.
In Genesis 11:26, the narrator introduces Abram as part of a genealogy—that rote genre we so often ignore. Breaking from a fifteen-verse pattern of formulaic descriptions and anonymous siblings, the narrator names Abram’s two brothers (Nahor and Haran) and even nieces (Milcah and Iscah) and a nephew (Lot). Sadly, we also find that the father of those nieces and nephew, Haran, dies while they are still residing in their homeland (11:28). How will the family cope?
The living brother marries Milcah, daughter of the deceased brother. Is this a kosher relationship1 intended to insure her well-being or a frightening example of incestuous dominance in the absence of her father?
The narrator gives us nothing on the fate of Iscah, the other daughter of Haran. Haran’s partner (wife/widow?) is never mentioned.
As for Abram, he marries Sarai whom the narrator swiftly marks as barren (verses 29–30). After twenty generations of fathers reproducing with unnamed mothers, infertility arises as a palpable issue—and the woman, Sarai, is singled out. For Abram and Sarai, their homeland is haunted by the pale specters of death and childlessness. So they leave.
More accurately, Abram’s father (Terah) takes them (and Lot, the son of the deceased) on a journey to settle in Canaan. But they don’t make it to Canaan. Ironically, they settle in Haran, a city whose name echoes the name of the dead brother (Genesis 11:31).2
This is where Yhwh steps in.
Against this background, one can see that God’s call of Abram is not just an imposition of divine blessings and imperatives on Abram’s life. Instead, God inaugurates a reciprocal relationship that calls Abram to blossom in the journey he is already on and makes room for God’s purposes to be fulfilled.
God’s call for Abram to leave his “country” and “kindred” is a continuation of the exodus that Abram already began, not a wholly new idea. But their initial departure came because Abram’s father “took them” (Genesis 11:31).3 Now God is calling on Abram to take agency in migrating and even to leave his father’s house (12:1).
The physical destination also comes from Abram’s side of things. Canaan—the place the family was headed to but never arrived at—turns out to be “the land that I [God] will show you” (Genesis 12:1, 5). God is calling on Abram to recommit to a journey he delayed completing, but now in partnership with God.
From God’s side of the relationship, Abram will be a beacon for God’s big plans. Since the earliest chapters of Genesis, God desires a thriving and diverse creation (1:27–30; 2:18; 8:17; 9:1, 7), but divine intentions are repeatedly corrupted (4:8, 22–23; 6:11; 9:25; 11:4) because human hearts remain perpetually wicked (6:5; 8:21). Instead of quitting, God decides a different strategy such that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” through Abram (12:3).
Of course, Abram benefits immensely. With God, Abram’s journey will flourish: God will make him a great nation and make his name great (Genesis 12:2), God will bless and curse people according to how they treat Abram (12:3), and Abram’s descendants will possess the very land where Abram sojourns (12:7).
It is inspiring to think that God wants to partner with Abram (or us)—that God desires to draw optimal fulfillment from a life journey. But reading this passage in context also leads us to ask, “Why is Abram singled out by God?” What about Sarai, who is not consulted or chosen? Or Lot? Or Terah? Or the enslaved people Abram acquired in Haran? Or any person or people group we will encounter in Genesis?
Genesis does not show Abram as having earned or immediately deserving to be the medium for God to bless all the families of the earth. In fact, the first foreign group Abram interacts with suffers divine plagues because of Abram’s selfish androcentrism, lies, and xenophobic prejudice (12:10–20).
What if we sympathize with the “others” in this text and honor the attendant discomfort?
How do we speak to anyone who identifies with Haran, whom God does not promise long life? Nahor whom God does not call out of his depressing circumstance? Milcah whom God does not save from incest? Iscah whose story everyone ignores? Terah who is cut off from family? Sarai who is perpetually “second fiddle”? the enslaved/underclass who are counted as objects?
Preaching beyond Abram requires relativizing Abram’s uniqueness. Of course, those who trace their ancestry to “Father Abraham” center the patriarch. But even the scriptures written by these Israelites include Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest of the true God (Genesis 14:18–20); Hagar, an enslaved Egyptian who has her own theophany, names God, and mothers a people (Genesis 16:7–14); Balaam, a Mesopotamian prophet who knows and proclaims God’s blessings (Numbers 22–24). None of these are descendants of Abram, but they each have a unique relationship with God. All of this is to say that the Bible presents a people’s story of being loved and chosen by God (Deuteronomy 7:7–9); but that same Bible hints that God’s story is bigger and particularly tied to others (Amos 9:7). There is more room for telling God’s story.
What will it take to help us center the story differently? And how will preaching with the “others” bring about God’s blessing for all the families of the earth?
- Leviticus 18 forbids many sexual relationships between close relatives. The closeness of an uncle and niece is not prohibited. Although sexual relations between an aunt and nephew is prohibited (Leviticus 18:12-14), that is the relationship between Amram and Jochebed, the parents of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. So, it is possible that different biblical authors have different ideas of which relations are taboo.
- Although they look identical in an English transliteration, the person Haran and the place Haran begin with different consonants in Hebrew.
- In the Hebrew, the first verb in 11:31 says Terah “took” Abram, Lot, and Sarai, but the second verb says “they went out together.” Some ancient versions (the Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, and Vulgate) attest to a slightly different pronunciation of the vowels in the second verb so that the translation would be the more uniform pairing of “took” with “he brought them.”
Commentary on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
The epistle lesson for the Second Sunday in Lent continues in Romans. After laying out his theology of sin and grace on the macro level in Romans 5:12-21, in Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 we see Paul’s theology of grace in the specific story of Abraham.
The justification of ungodly Abraham (4:1-5)
In Romans 3:10, Paul cites the Psalmist to make a sweeping declaration: “None is righteous, no, not one” (English Standard Version). Abraham, therefore, must be set on the same ground as all humans: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6). The one who is “counted” or “reckoned” righteous is the one whose faith is in the God “who justifies the ungodly.” The justification of Abraham, therefore, is the justification of one whom Paul would label ungodly. Paul’s use of Psalm 32:1-2 in 4:7-8 makes this clear: David’s statement about how God does not count sin helps interpret Abraham’s justification. The person who is blessed by God is one whom God has forgiven for their lawless acts, covered their sins, and not reckoned sin. Abraham is set right before God solely because of his faith. He has no works or worth to place before God as the basis of his righteousness; Abraham is justified “as a gift.”
Understanding Paul’s dichotomies in Romans 4:4-5 is important. As Paul explains, the worker receives a “wage” but it is “not counted as a gift but as his due.” Abraham was not justified by works (4:2), so he has not been paid or rewarded out of obligation. Although Paul does not continue his distinction in a straightforward way, one might spell out the implied logic thus: if you don’t work but believe in the God who justifies the ungodly, righteousness is reckoned not according to obligation, but as a gift. Paul is using the verb “reckoned” from Genesis 15:6 in its basic economic sense: workers get paid—something is “reckoned” to them. But Paul’s argument is set forth in such a way that work precludes gift-giving, because God’s gift is given not to those who have worked for or are worthy of it—which would, in Paul’s mind, be no one (see also 3:9-20!). Instead, righteousness is given—reckoned—as a gift to those who believe, by the God who justifies the unworthy.
Jesus is not explicitly referenced in Romans 4:1-23. But the way Paul relates the Abrahamic promise to Jesus in 4:24-25 and his understanding of justification as a gift for the unworthy makes sense only as a reading of Abraham after the Christ-event. The death and resurrection of Christ for sinners has become Paul’s hermeneutic for interpreting the history of God’s promise, which has always been incongruous to those who receive it and always directed towards its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. In this way, it is not difficult to see how Abraham’s faith is tied to our own: we are all part of the story of the same promise.
The creation of a new family by grace (4:13-17)
In Romans 4:1-5 Paul’s argument is centered on his reading of Genesis 15:6; in 4:13-17 he is concerned with Genesis 17:5. For Paul, the promise of Genesis 17:5—that Abraham would be “the father of a multitude of nations”—is answered in the miraculous birth of Isaac. But Isaac’s birth is also read through and seen to be pointing to the ultimate fulfillment of the promise in the death and resurrection of Jesus, through which Abraham’s multiethnic family is created. The text has this logic: God justifies the ungodly (4:1-8); thus, God’s promise is for both Jews and Gentiles (4:9-23). Indeed, the hinge of Paul’s argument from one section to the next is verse 9: “Is this blessing [of righteousness] then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” God’s gift is given to both Jews and Gentiles, because it is an unfitting gift; God does not take into account human worth or works, because he is the justifier of the ungodly. His promise is received by faith that points away from oneself to look instead to God.
Abraham thus believes in the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17)—that is, his faith is in the God who raised Jesus Christ for our justification (4:25). The resurrection is an act of creation anticipated by the act of creation that is the birth of Isaac in and through the deadness of Abraham and Sarah (4:19). The story of the birth of Isaac is thus read by Paul as a story of death (deadness) and resurrection (birth): the Christ-event is both hermeneutic for and fulfillment of the Abrahamic story.
The other major correspondence between the two parts of this reading is that just as Abraham was justified while ungodly, he was also justified before he was circumcised. He had not done anything vis-à-vis the law to make himself worthy before God, so his circumcision could not be part of the equation in his justification. Thus, because Abraham received the promise not “through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13), Abraham is the father of all who believe. The law does not provide a human with resources for becoming worthy before God; indeed, it “brings wrath” rather than worth. As such, God’s promise is received by faith, so that the promise “may rest on grace” (4:16; the phrase is the same as 4:4). In both 4:4-5 and 4:16, grace is set over against works and the law, because God’s way of justifying is a gift that raises the dead and calls into being what does not exist (4:17). Precisely because there is no human criteria for justification but the faith that is the absence of worth, it is received by both Jews and Gentiles.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 is a powerful reading that sets forth the shape and story of grace, showing how all of life and history is, for Paul, interpreted through the death and resurrection of Christ. Just as there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in being under sin (3:22-23), God’s promise of righteousness is available to all by faith. One need not be deserving, be the right kind of person, or have the right kind of credentials. God has been and is still one who justifies the ungodly, loves sinners, and raises the dead.
John 3:16 is one of the most beloved texts in the Bible, but is typically used without reference to its historical, literary contexts. The lectionary calls the congregation’s attention to those contexts by placing John 3:16 in its context in the revelatory encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. The lectionary interrupts the full context, however, by omitting John 1:18-21, a passage that raises serious theological questions about John 3:16,
Whereas Matthew subscribes to apocalyptic Judaism, John leans towards a fusion of Judaism with themes from Greek philosophy influenced by Platonism, such as found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, an approximate contemporary of Jesus. From this perspective, John sees the world as a two-story universe.
Nicodemus’ arrival at night indicates that this ruler of the Jews is living in the shadow of the world. However, John portrays Nicodemus as being curious about Jesus, not understanding him. By including Nicodemus in the Gospel, John indicates that not all Jews are inherently imprisoned in the world. Nicodemus represents Jewish people who have introductory curiosity and even intuition about Jesus, but who need much more.
The Jesus of John gives Nicodemus—and the reader—the essential next step: “to be born from above.” Those entrapped in the world must receive the revelation that comes from heaven (John 3:3). According to 3:16, being born from above means believing in Jesus as the way to eternal life and heaven, a concept explained below. John offers the congregation a reason they can accept these things: Jesus is the only one who has been in heaven and has descended to the world (John 3:13-15).
John 3:16-17 offers a powerful theological rationale for why God sent Jesus into the world. God loves the world. Given the Johannine world view, this perspective is stunning. The attitudes and behaviors of the world are inimical to God. According to everyday logic, God should be angry with the world and punish it. Yet, God loves the world. For John, love includes a dimension of feeling but goes beyond to include actions for the good of the other and the community. Love is a decision of the will.
God loves the world, so God consequently acts for the good of the world. God’s action is to give Jesus. In Bible School in the 1950s we sang, “For God so loved the world, [God] gave [God’s] only [child],who died on Calvary’s tree, from sin to set me free.” But in the Fourth Gospel, God’s giving of Jesus refers not to the crucifixion alone but to the entire event of Jesus descending from heaven and revealing the way to eternal life. Those who believe in Jesus will inherit eternal life; that is, as long as they continue to be in the world they will live as a colony of heaven. They will experience qualities associated with heaven, such as life, love, truth, freedom and abundance even as they experience conflict with the world. At death they will follow Jesus from the world to heaven (John 14:1-7).
For John 3:18-21 then says plainly that those who do not believe in Jesus are already condemned. To be condemned is to continue to live in the prison of the world, and to die without hope of continued life. Those who do not believe in Jesus love the darkness (the world as defined above) more than they love the light (God, Jesus, and the possibility of heaven).
There is an important nuance to John’s use of the two-story universe and the experience of both salvation and condemnation that preachers often like. As we have implied, those who believe in Jesus experience eternal life in the midst of the world, living, as we have said, as a colony of heaven. As preachers often say, “You don’t have to die to experience heaven. You can experience it right now.” By contrast, those who do not believe in Jesus “are condemned already,” that is, their experience in the world is itself a mode of condemnation.
When approaching John 3:18-21, preachers today need to be careful not to project too many of our contemporary theological issues onto the ancient text. Nevertheless, many Christians are troubled by John’s exclusivism. It moves against the deepest claim of John 3:16, namely that God loves the world. To condemn is hardly to act for the good of the other. Moreover, John’s viewpoint runs against the grain of contemporary inclusive theological urges to respect the validity of many religions and universal salvation. A side note: preachers should define universal salvation when speaking of it.
The preacher who ventures to critique the text is advised to do so with circumspection, taking into account three factors: