Great things with God often begin in humble places. A desert nomad is for no known reason singled out and called to come down to the land of Canaan. Nomads travel. There is nothing on the surface unusual about a man like Abram packing up his family and separating from his father’s clan to form a new one in a different land. But behind the surface something quite unusual is happening.
The divine voice speaks to Abram, more than once. This journey is filled with God’s purpose. That purpose is a promise to Abram’s progeny and, more significantly, to all the families of the earth. Genesis does not yet explain how the families of the earth can find blessing through the man Abraham. Nor does it explain how his descendants, the future nation of Israel, will bless the world. Writing sometime during the monarchy in Israel and/or Judah, the authors of the Abraham stories in Genesis believe Israel is central to a plan of God for all nations.
From our vantage point more than three thousand years later than Abraham, we can say something miraculous has happened through the people of Israel. The entire planet has been changed and history affected on a massive scale by a tiny people group. So much culture and religion has come to the world through this humble beginning. Both the Jewish and Christian versions of what follows after Abraham lead to the same ending. The final chapters of this great story of humanity with God will be the reshaping of the world, bringing us back to the potential Adam and Eve missed. God’s light and wisdom, unending life, desires fulfilled, the experience of love as it was meant to be, all these and more will be part of our future existence. The blessing through Abraham is one vital step in that direction.
God initiates a covenant with Abram (1-3), Abram journeys with Sarai and Lot (4-5), Shechem and the altar there (6-7), Bethel’s altar and on to the Negev (8-9), famine during which Abram tries to pass Sarai off as his sister (10-13).
As the chapter breaks from the eleventh into the twelfth in Genesis, the style of narrative takes a decided turn. The story of Terah’s line had already begun to develop from the genealogy in eleven. But now a new kind of story will unfold, a story told at much greater length, with detail about a set of characters like we’ve not yet seen in the book of Genesis.
Already Abraham’s family under his father Torah had been migrating to Canaan, but arriving in Haran to the north of Canaan they stopped. While in Haran, Abram (not yet called Abraham) hears the divine voice saying, “Get yourself going” (לֶךְ־לְךָ lech-lecha). The command in this form suggests a separation, which is also confirmed in the rest of the instructions. He is to get himself going away from his father’s clan, to journey where God will show him. We assume as readers Abram has not heard the divine voice before. Hearing it now for the first time, he listens. According to Joshua 24:2, he and his family had worshiped other gods. But which of them ever spoke to him or gave him direction for his life?
Something new is happening and Abram has been singled out to receive something from heaven. There are seven promises in all to Abram: to become a nation, to be blessed, have great name, to be a blessing, that those who bless him will be blessed, that those who curse him will be cursed, and that the whole world will be blessed through him. The promise “all the families of the earth will be blessed in you” features a verb that could mean “will bless themselves by you” (reflexive, instead of the traditional passive). In other words, it is possible to read this promise as something much smaller: “All the families of the earth will say, ‘May I be as blessed as Abram.’” While this translation is possible, the rest of the Abram stories will show the truth of the traditional translation, for other groups of people will be blessed or miss out on blessing depending on their dealings with Abram.
The remarkable message of this promise is that good fortune will come to the whole world through one man and his descendants. It is a theology of the kindness of heaven through the choosing of one nation, Israel, who descended from the patriarch, Abraham.
The narrator breaks into the story in vs. 6 in an intrusive manner, saying “the Canaanites were then in the land.” That is, at the time period in which the writer lives, the Canaanites are no longer in the land. This is one of many clues that Genesis was written in the time of the kings of Israel and Judah rather than in the days of Moses.
The “terebinth” tree at Shechem is a natural place for Abram to stop. Tall trees stand out in a middle eastern landscape and were naturally viewed as sacred places. God speaks again to Abram from there, promising that this land will someday belong to his descendants. Abram follows the natural route along the highland road to Bethel. He builds altars along the way at Shechem and Bethel, prefiguring the worship of God in the land of Israel. He lives for some time in the Negev desert, a place where he will not have to compete with powerful neighbors, but can live as a desert nomad with his flocks and herds. This is the lifestyle Abram is accustomed to. However a famine develops and Abram migrates to Egypt. There we have the first story involving tension and a threat to the divine promise.
Childless Abram is promised to become a great nation, but now a foreign king may take his wife. How will the divine promise come true?
GENESIS 12:14 – 13:4
Life spins out of control. Our destiny totters on the brink of ruin. And then a new day rises and there is relief. What seemed to promise unavoidable ruin turns out to be one more thing we overcome in life. Abraham experienced this for a specific reason: God’s promises to him were unconditional and extremely potent.
While we will not have the same experience Abraham did, it is nonetheless true that we benefit from God’s unconditional promises to bless all the families of the earth. This life God has given us is not immune to tragedy, but the direction all things move in is toward blessing and life. So even in this life, harsh and unyielding as it may be at times, there is often reprieve, relief, recovery, and a restart.
What do we do in such moments? Abraham returned home to Bethel, a rather long journey, and “called upon the name of Adonai.” There is power in the act of worshipping God. Genesis notes the places where Abraham established an altar, where he called upon God’s name. Later generations returned to these places. Behind the story of Abraham is something much bigger than one man, a semi-nomadic animal herder, traveling and surviving. Abraham’s life is about a divine promise that will mean blessing for the whole world. Abraham had a place in God’s plan. So do we.
Understanding, celebrating, supporting, and being grateful for the promises of God, we find our purpose in life on earth. Life is about meaning, not power or pleasure. Where is our purpose, the meaning of our life specifically, in this plan of God? That is the question we must ask ourselves and find the answer to.
Threat to the covenant in Sarai’s abduction (12:14-20), Abram returns to the land to Bethel (13:1-4).
There is a pattern in these narratives: a threat arises which could nullify God’s promises to Abraham, the threat resolves itself, the covenant promises are restated (Walton, NIV Application Commentary). I will make you a great nation, God promises, but Abraham is childless and now his wife has been taken into the harem of an Egyptian ruler. This pharaoh compensates Abram richly, probably to smooth over the injustice of her forceful abduction (Sarna). Abram is enriched, ironically, because of his own deception (telling people Sarai is his sister). Even when doing wrong, Abram is blessed.
But God ends the threat to the covenant (if Sarai is not the mother of Abram’s children, the covenant promise is broken) by afflicting the pharaoh, who is wise enough in the ways of religion to understand. The threat resolves itself — not because of something Abram did, but in spite of Abram. The divine promise is unconditional. The famine comes to an end and Abram journeys back to his new home in the land of promise.
Coming back to Bethel, where he had built an altar (12:8), he “calls upon” or “invokes” the “name of Adonai” (13:4). The same phrase was used in 12:8 upon Abram’s first arrival at Bethel. In a later story, Jacob will come to the same place and encounter God (Gen 28). What sort of worship did Abram offer when the text says he “called upon the name” of Adonai? This may have involved burnt offerings (which we later see that Abram knows how to offer) and a prayer. There are only four places in the Bible that use this description for worship (4:26; 12:8; 13:4; and 26:25).
Imagine if the outcome of your life was guaranteed to be peace and plenty. Your mistakes would all be erased and only good things would result from your life. The trials and challenges of life that came your way would all be successfully resolved in your favor. Even foolish decisions you made would come out well for you in the end. This was Abraham’s life.
In yet another threat to the covenant promises, Abram foolishly offers Lot the first choice at which land to settle. Given first choice where to settle, Lot could have chosen to occupy the places in Canaan which God promised to Abram’s descendants. Instead Lot saw the potential wealth and ease of the Jordan Valley in the oases along the river or perhaps near the Dead Sea (the location of Sodom is unknown). In the narrative world of Genesis, it is important where Abram journeys and builds altars and makes temporary homes. These places prefigure the cities where the Israelites will settle.
According to the logic of the Genesis story, God was watching out for the Israelites and guided the life of Abraham according to an unfolding plan. In other words, behind the circumstances and people and places of life, there is a promise of grace and goodness which God told Abraham would be for all the families of the earth. What often looks good to us (the well-watered plain near Sodom) will perhaps turn out to be nothing or even a tragedy. But what seems the difficult, arduous path, settling in the mountains and in places with less water, will turn into light and life in God’s hands.
The threat of strife between Lot and Abram’s camps (5-7), the threat of Abram’s generosity giving away the promised land (8-9), Lot chooses the territory outside of the holy land (10-13), the Lord reaffirms the land promise to Abram (14-17), Abram builds an altar and settles in Hebron (18).
Once again in this section of the story we see the pattern of threat to the covenant, resolution, and reaffirmation of the promises to Abraham and his descendants (Walton, NIV Application Commentary). Abram, rather foolishly, offers Lot a choice which could include him taking the heart of Canaan, the land promised in the covenant to Abram. Instead, Lot chooses the land that looks more prosperous to him.
It is without doubt a wisdom lesson that what appears to be wealth (a well-watered plain and several prosperous cities) is nothing apart from God’s blessing. Sodom and Gomorrah will, of course, turn out to be illusory blessings while the greater land of Canaan will, with God’s blessing, be the land of a different sort of prosperity. Still, Abram is led into the promise without his own effort. The divine covenant is fulfilled by grace. Lot chooses land on the edge of and possibly outside of the boundaries of the promised land (the location of Sodom and Gomorrah is not precisely known).
This section alludes to what will come, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (vs. 10) and the wickedness of the people there (vs. 13). Hebron, south of Jerusalem and on the primary ridge of the Judean mountains, becomes the primary home of Abram and the place where he will be buried along with Sarai. It is considered one of the four holy cities of Judaism today (with Jerusalem, Safed, and Tiberias).
We look at the universe and feel dwarfed by it. Is it hostile to us? At times it seems so. Nature seems to have no care about us, being willing to unleash forces that destroy human life and lay our buildings to rubble. Some thinkers and writers have imagined the universe as a cold, dark place and human beings as mere insects struggling for survival in a random, meaningless existence. The Bible does not address this concern with philosophical answers, but rather assumes that human beings have known from the earliest history that there is a Creator of heaven and earth.
Melchizedek is an example of someone from the stories told in ancient Israel who did not give in to the prevailing polytheistic views, but who retained knowledge of the Creator. Abraham may have thought he was alone in the world, the only one who knew about the Judge of All the Earth, the Lord whose name he called upon at various altars in the land of Canaan. According to Genesis, this ancient human knowledge was not lost and is, in fact, what the Israelite faith is based on. The universe is not hostile, but was made to be a place of life especially for us, human beings made in God’s image. Abraham was grateful to have discovered the priest-king of Jerusalem who shared his faith in the Creator, he gave one tenth of his share of the spoils as an offering to Melchizedek’s temple.
Imagine being lonely in your faith, unaware of other people who share your optimistic view of the universe and your belief in the One God. Genesis presses us to be grateful for relationships and community where these values are shared.
Details of the battle of nine kings (1-11), Lot is taken captive in the war (12), Abram and his 318 retainers rescue Lot (13-16), the king of Sodom comes to meet Abram (17), Melchizedek blesses Abram and Abram gives the priest a tenth of the spoils (18-20).
Genesis 14 stands out from the entire Abraham cycle as unique in style. The detailed and virtually indecipherable war report of vss. 1-11 with its place names and kings is from some unknown source and time. Sarna details the reasons to conclude that vss. 1-11 are drawn from a pre-existing source (the detail of names compared with the anonymous pharaoh of the previous narrative, the use of rare language, and the large amount of material not directly pertinent to Abram’s story). Abram becomes involved in a war between city-states of the east with city-states by the Dead Sea, risking the entire covenant promise by risking his life. Until vs. 12, the war account has no apparent relevance to the Abraham cycle.
Suddenly, in vs. 12, the story comes home. These battles are not mere historical events, but directly affect Abraham and his beloved relative, Lot.
The story that follow in vss. 13-20 shows signs of being older than many other parts of the Bible. For example, Melchizedek calls God “Most High” (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן ‘el ‘elyōn) and “Creator of heaven and earth” (קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ qōneh shamayim va’aretz). The first of these terms relates more to the Canaanite way of describing deity (older than Israelite) and the second uses a term (קֹנֵה qōneh) which was related in later times by עֹשֵׂה ‘ōseh, see Sarna’s commentary for details).
From a number of references in Psalms and Isaiah, we see a tradition of regarding Jerusalem as a city of righteousness. Psalm 110 suggests that there was a history of priest-kings in Jerusalem, which became a precedent for David who took on some priestly functions and mixed them with his kingly role. Melchizedek, then, becomes a forerunner of ideal kingship in Israel. He seems to possess the knowledge of the Creator, that one god made heaven and earth. Abram finds, to his surprise, that he is not the only person who is aware of the unique God. Sarna describes Melchizedek as follows: “He is patently regarded as monotheist, one of the few select non-Israelite individuals who, in the scriptural view, preserved the original monotheism of the human race in the face of otherwise universal degeneration into paganism.”
As for the meaning of the overall story, it fits into the Abraham cycle as another episode of threat to the covenant followed by resolution and a reaffirmation of the promise. Abram could have been killed in his rather foolish decision to get involved in a war between city-states. As usual, though, God rescues him and keeps the promise alive.
GENESIS 14:21 – 15:6
To be a friend to someone, as Abraham was to God, includes trusting them. The biblical words (in the New Testament as well as the Hebrew Bible) for “faith” include the meaning “trust” (as well as the meaning “faithfulness”). In Hebrew the root word is related to “amen” (אָמֵן) and the verb is הֶאֱמִן (he’emin, “he trusted”). The New Testament word is πιστις (pistis, “trust, faithfulness”).
Abraham’s “believing” God was more than some kind of mental assent to a truth. Eager to support a theology of salvation by believing a short list of doctrines (the commonly expressed evangelical Christian version of the “gospel”) many point wrongly to Genesis 15:6 for support. But this entire story, including this verse (quoted twice by Paul, who actually gets the meaning right but is then misinterpreted by his readers) is about something deeper.
Abraham is remarkable. He caught a vision for God’s promise and believed and trusted. His was not a shallow doctrine, something like “God is faithful and therefore keeps his promises.” Rather, it was a personal, specific trust based on a love relationship that “God is faithful and therefore keeps his promises.” The two statements are identical, but in the first instance the context of belief is mere theology, assent to a fact. In the second, the statement is part of a relationship that is personal.
Given that we are not likely to have the kind of revelation from God that was granted to Abraham, how can we share the sort of trusting friendship that he had with God? Part of the answer is that we look to the experiences others have had with God in the past. Abraham’s story tells us something about God. More than that, we need to seek out a personal experience with God through the passages of life. Yes, this is difficult — given that God is mostly silent and we can easily misinterpret events an their relationship to God’s causality or indifference — but it is not impossible. Trusting him when we want and need big things out of life (as Abraham did) or when life get’s very difficult is a far better way to live than being cynical. Some people will call our belief wish-fulfillment. It’s okay. Trust and love and beauty are worth believing in. If our skeptical friends are right, their lives are no better for it. But if we are right, then having a trusting friendship with God day by day enriches our lives and benefits our loved ones. If we are wrong, then none of this matters.
Abram refuses the spoils (14:21-24), the divine-shield promise (15:1), Abram seeks a solution to childlessness through his servant Eliezer (2-3), the Lord affirms a son for Abram and a people numerous as the stars (4-5), Abram’s faith is his righteousness (6).
There are two possible reasons our story emphasizes that Abram did not take spoils from his rescue mission with Lot. One, we see that Abram is a righteous man who wants nothing to do with Sodom, the wicked city. Two, it is vital that the blessing come to Abram through God and not through his grasping for it.
Having just triumphed in a battle and also having shown integrity with the spoils, Abram receives a divine promise in a vision. The Lord will be his shield (so no worries about reprisals from the foreign kings, Sarna). The image of the divine shield comes up often in the Psalms (Psa 3:4(3) and 5:13(12)). Abram has refused the spoils or reward of Sodom, so God vows that his reward will be great.
Abram takes this opportunity to speak out of his pain. The expression “O Lord God” (Adonai Hashem) is rare in the Torah, a strong address to God in emotion (Sarna). The use of language such as “I shall die childless” suggests Abram’s boldness and emotion in this exchange (the Hebrew is literally “I walk childless,” compare Psa 39:14 for the poetic use of “walk” as “die”). God responds to Abram’s suggestion that Eliezer be the heir by reaffirming the slow-coming promise. Further, God insists that the stars are a worthy image of Abram’s coming offspring.
Against the odds, Abram believes. God knew how hard it was for Abraham to be childless, how the continual disappointment must have made it harder to keep trusting. The fact that Abraham persevered showed God a friendship and trust from Abraham that was extraordinary. God regarded this as righteousness, says Genesis 15:6. Some have drawn the wrong conclusion from this, in my opinion, misreading Paul’s interpretation of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4, and misusing Abraham’s faith as a supporting pillar to a particular Christian doctrine of faith. It should be noted that Christianity is not monolithic, that there are many variations in theology. Nonetheless, one prevalent idea is that God accepts faith — which human beings diseased with original sin are capable of displaying — in lieu of actual right living — which human beings are not capable of. Faith is a substitute requirement of God since moral goodness is ultimately impossible.
Not only does this view misunderstand the New Testament’s references to faith (in many cases the meaning is “faithfulness”) but this theology has nothing to do with the Abraham story. Abraham was not perfectly righteous, true enough. But his persistent belief in God’s promise is a kind of loving trust. In any relationship, loving trust is a good work, an act of kindness and faithfulness. God was touched by Abraham’s tenacity of friendship and love with him. “Abram trusted in Adonai,” says Genesis 15:6, “and he considered it to be his righteousness.” Abraham’s righteousness was seen in his willingness to keep trusting God. This is faith as an act, not a mental assent to some facts. This is active love, not psychological belief. This is faithful love in action.
GENESIS 15:7 – 17:6
We are all familiar with the law of reciprocity (“I will do x for you because you do y for me”) as one model of a relationship. We use this model with people who are not bound in a close relationship to us (business relationships). But we are also familiar with the law of sacrificial love (“I will do x for you because I love you”).
Sometimes people say God is remarkable because he does great things for us and we cannot return these acts of kindness in similar measure to him. That is inaccurate. God’s love is like parental love and we are like children to him. Which of us would not offer the world to our children assuming we had the resources? (And which of us would not go into Egypt and set our children free from slavery or even be crucified to save the lives of our children?)
No, what is remarkable is that God regards us as beloved children. We already possess within us the same kind of love God has, though not in the same measure and not with such purity. We are made in his image. We know that love like God’s exists and we see it in human relationships. The adjustment in our thinking comes in seeing what kind of relationship we have with God. It is not a relationship of reciprocity, but closely bound love. Divine love is not some alien phenomenon completely unique to God. It is the perfection of a kind of love we were made to have ourselves.
God walks alone through the pieces in the vision to Abram. He vows to bless Abram and his descendants as part of a declared purpose to bring good to all the families of the earth. God’s love is directed toward human beings as his children. Reading this remarkable story, we are challenged to love people in the same way, offering to sacrifice ourselves that they might benefit. We are also encouraged to know that we are loved in this way by the most powerful lover in existence. Like Abram, we are children, and God walks through the pieces for us too.
The covenant between the pieces (15:7-21), Hagar and Ishmael (16:1-16), Abram becomes Abraham (17:1-6).
The unusual scene in Genesis 15:7-21 draws this comment from Nahum Sarna, “For the first time in the history of religions, God becomes the contracting party” (JPS Commentary). We read about similar rituals — in which animals are cut into parts, laid out in two parallel lines, and people walk between them — in other Ancient Near Eastern texts as well as in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 34:17-20 refers to an apparently well-known custom in which a calf is cut in two with people passing between its parts. At Mari the expression “killing a donkey foal” is used synonymously with making a binding covenant and a similar reference found in a text from Alakh uses the phrase “cutting the neck of a sheep” (Sarna). A text found in Syria called the Sfire treaty expresses the meaning of the cut up animals: “As this calf is cut up, thus Matti’el and his nobles shall be cut up” [if they do not adhere to the treaty] (Sarna).
God, symbolized in Abram’s dreamful vision as a blazing clay oven, is the only one who walks between the pieces. The implication is that God himself swears to keep his covenant with Abram.
Meanwhile, the news about Israel’s future is mixed with sadness. Abraham’s descendants will experience a period of wandering as aliens followed by enslavement and then oppression. But the end will be freedom and prosperity. None of this trouble will begin in Abraham’s lifetime.
What are we to make of Genesis 15:16? This is commonly read as a sort of justification for the later commands in Torah to eliminate the Canaanites from the land. It is usually read as meaning, “The sin of the Canaanites has not yet accumulated enough judgment for me to command you to destroy them, but I will wait until their guilt is worthy and then command you to do so.” Walton objects, suggesting a completely different translation as well as interpretation (The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest). He observes that Amorites do not equal Canaanites, the Torah does not state that accumulated sin-guilt is the reason for commands to dispossess them, and that the usual translation of Genesis 15:16 has problems. He suggests the following paraphrase, “It won’t be until after your lifetime is over that your family will return here because the destiny of destruction that has been decreed for your friends and allies has been and will continue to be deferred.” Thus, Genesis alludes to a coming destruction for the people surrounding Abraham but says that Abraham will coexist peacefully with them in his lifetime.
After this, still yearning for the fulfillment of the promise, Abram and Sarai try to obtain their desire through a concubine. Abram conceives a child, Ishmael, by Hagar. Ishmael too is blessed, many tribes will come from him. When the child turns thirteen, God appears again to Abram (visibly?) and commands Abram to walk in his ways. What could it mean to Abram, who lived before any Torah was revealed, to walk in God’s ways?
The answer is that Abram will live justly and rightly according to the knowledge that human beings already possess. Culturally speaking, it is as if a king has told someone under his protection to be faithful. Abram knows without special revelation what that requirement means. In a forthcoming story, we will see that Abram has ideals about justice, for example, when God announces his intention to destroy Sodom. In the Bible, good and evil are things human beings already know about even apart from a revealed law.
When Abram’s name changes to Abraham, how are we to understand the significance of the change? Abram means either “exalted father” or (if the second syllable is related to the Akkadian ramu) “the father loves [him].” As for the name Abraham, commentators have long struggled to explain what the added syllable accomplishes. It is not as simple as the text makes it sound (“for I will make you a father of a multitude”) where “father of a multitude” is av-hamōn אַב־הֲמוֹן. The added letter in Abraham’s name stands, apparently, for the world “multitude.” But the name Abraham does not translate directly into “father of a multitude.” It seems rather his name has been “made great” (expanded by a syllable) and the meaning of that syllable relates to the promise of a large nation to come from him. An alternative understanding, first formulated by Ibn Ezra, is that the name is an acronym: ABiR Hamon goyiM, “mighty one of a multitude of nations” (Ibn Ezra, Sarna).
God sees human beings as worthy, bringing us up to the potential we were created for. We see this in the way Israel comes to be the chosen people. This is very much a choosing beforehand, not a choosing based on merit. Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod calls it “carnal election” (meaning “bodily election,” an idea that contrasts with Christian theologies of “spiritual election” based on a prerequisite of faith).
God’s way is first to choose us and then to transform us. The order is crucially important. It seems the Torah has an idea of grace that goes beyond standard Christian theological understanding. Many understand salvation in the New Testament as a sort of earning our place with God by the merit of our willingness to believe in Jesus. In this standard theology, a person earns his or her place and then God does transforming work. But in Genesis Abraham’s descendants simply are the chosen and transformation does not depend on even the merit of faith. The truth is, some Christian theologies do align with this idea in Genesis (especially where it is understood that salvation is by Jesus’ “faithfulness” not a person’s “faith” in Jesus).
What are are the implications of God’s free and redeeming election? For Jewish people, the election of Abraham means being born into a covenant status as a priestly people to the world (see Exodus 19:6). For non-Jewish people, the election of Abraham means God is bringing blessing to all the families of the earth through the Jewish people. Belief in God, his covenants of blessing, and Messiah have come to the world through Judaism.
If God’s choosing is free, if it before any kind of merit and in that sense unconditional, then we simply receive it. Faith is our way of appropriating and being transformed by a love we have already received.
The covenant of election and the land throughout the ages (7-8), the sign of circumcision (9-14), Sarai’s name changed and the promise of a son (15-22), Abraham circumcises his household (23-27).
Because of his friendship and affection for Abraham, God chose Israel (which Christian theology came to call election). Genesis describes it this way: God chose Abraham and made promises to his descendants after him. Deuteronomy looks at it from the other side: God delivered Israel from Egypt “because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them” (4:37). In Genesis 17 God promises to be God to Abraham’s descendants throughout the ages. And he will give them the land of Canaan as an everlasting holding.
The free and irrevocable election of the people of Israel is part of God’s way of relating to all the peoples of the world and redeeming from within. Abraham did not earn this election. It is free and based on God’s choice, his love for his friend, Abraham.
But what about the sign of circumcision? Does that change the nature of this election, making it earned rather than free? Not at all, the act of circumcision is how new generations take their place inside a free covenant, not a way for people to earn their place in the covenant. Christian theology refers to God’s choosing us and giving to us sacrificially as grace. Some Jewish thinkers (especially Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith) also reflect on “grace” and “election” in the Abraham stories. Wyschogrod’s term for it is “carnal election,” using the word “carnal” in its literal sense for “pertaining to the body” (as opposed to “the soul”). In other words, the choosing of Israel has nothing to do with a prerequisite of faith or good works, but is based merely on birth.
A Jew is born chosen. Circumcision is a sign of new creation, coming after the seventh day of a boy’s life and on the first day, the eighth day, of the rest of his life. It is a sign of grace, of belonging to a promise that is larger than we are, of being marked with God’s mark. Vs. 13 says, “Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.” (JPS).
God’s grace is free (as Genesis affirms consistently). And as much as it is free, it is also irrevocable (see Paul’s explanation in Romans 11). But though in some matters Christian theology has agreed with Genesis, in another very important way that same theology opposes Genesis. This is because Christianity has historically believed that Israel is no longer God’s people, having been replaced by “the Church.”
But Genesis uses the word “everlasting” and the phrase “throughout the ages,” giving the lie to the Christian notion of God setting aside Israel as a people. It may be difficult for Christians to understand how a pre-Jesus people could remain chosen post-Jesus, but God’s saving love for Israel and for Christians is really very similar. God sees human beings as worthy, bringing us up to the potential we were created for. This will involve transformation, even painful changes, for the nation Israel and for human beings individually.
Sarah also receives a consonant from God’s name (from Sarai to Sarah) and the promise of a descendant is specified: a son. God consistently chooses Sarah over all other possible avenues for bringing the promise of descendants to Abraham. While much less is said about Sarah’s relationship to God, she is nonetheless the one chosen by God, the mother of Israel as much as Abraham is its father.