Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16View Bible Text
Genesis is a book about beginning: the beginning of humankind, the beginning of Israel, and the beginning of the relationship between God and a particular people.
Genesis 17 tells the story of the election of Abraham as the patriarch from whom many nations would descend, and who became the first father of three great faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It also tells the story of the selection of Sarah as the woman through whom Israel, the chosen people in their telling of their own story, will be born.
At the same time that Genesis focuses on one particular family it also draws connections between all the peoples of the world. The Torah and the rest of the scriptures will claim that while the God of Israel has a special relationship with Israel, the God of Israel is also the God of all the world.
In Abraham God chose a man many today would not choose for a religious leader, a man married to his sister (Genesis 20:12). Incest was apparently normative in his family of origin: Abraham’s brother Nahor married and had children with his niece Milcah, the daughter of their brother Haran. Bethuel, Laban, and Rebekah would come from that line descended from Milcah and her uncle. Eventually, Abraham will insist his son Isaac must marry a woman who is also their relative.
This context is important for two reasons, Abraham’s personal and family values were far from laudatory (he sold Sarah to a foreign king for sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels in Genesis 12:15), and because incest still occurs in religious communities, its presence in scripture is an opportunity to address it thoughtfully and pastorally.
Sarah too has serious character flaws. She forces her slave to marry and have sex with her husband to make a baby since God takes too long and she begins to doubt the promise, (Genesis 16:1-3). Though it is difficult to see when reading in English, the Hebrew text makes clear that Sarah abuses Hagar as violently as the Egyptians would later abuse the Israelites, using the same word for the abuse in Genesis 21:6 and Exodus 1:11. (The verb anah refers to both physical and sexual violence.)
Remembering that slavery was endemic in the biblical world does not negate its moral and ethical implications, and there is a distinction between recognizing and cataloging an ancient society’s social and cultural practices and normalizing them. God’s deliberate choice of deeply flawed human beings characterizes God’s relationship with humanity. And it provides an opportunity to remember that deeply flawed human beings are more than their worst actions past or present.
Abraham answered God’s call, trusting in a God he may not have previously known, one who was one of many in his Chaldean (pre-Babylonian) homeland in what would later become Iraq. The text makes clear that Sarah is not a silent partner in this venture. She has strong opinions and speaks her mind, and she chooses to accompany Abraham on the journey of a lifetime following the voice of God. She is a full partner in this endeavor.
Abraham is ninety-nine in this text and Sarah is ninety according to verse 17 omitted from today’s reading. In our world, some folk spend their entire lifetimes trying to figure out how to leave the hopes and hurts, dreams, and schemes of our past behind so we can live into who we are called to be. A person can spend a lifetime putting abuse and trauma behind her, unlearning destructive patterns, responses and behaviors, and relearning how to live and love as a whole and healthy person. Life lessons take a lifetime to accrue and perhaps Abraham needed seventy-five years before he could draw on that account and follow God’s voice to leave his ancestral home.
However, since Abraham lived to be one hundred and seventy-five according to the story, he had another hundred years, an entire lifetime to live into his fullest self, apply the lessons he learned, make mistakes along the way and try again. (I am not making a literal or historic claim here.) Perhaps one lesson we are to learn from the length of Abraham’s days is you’re never too old to leave behind that which will not bless you and start over. Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have needed to leave home to become fully who they were called to be. If we take this lesson to heart we too will leave ignorant, willfully ignorant, and harmful ethics and practices behind. Abraham’s patriarchal status was understood as beneficent.
We don’t have to normalize patriarchy to draw wisdom from this text. This story is about the interrelation of the peoples in Israel’s world, their common origin from one family and God’s unmerited blessing on them independent of their own actions. We can begin to talk about blessing all of the peoples of the earth when we understand them to be equally blessed, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and even those not on the radar of those composing this text.