Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then 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. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I 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.15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
We serve a covenant-making God. On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard the story of how God made a covenant with Noah, his family, and all the creatures of the earth. With the sign of the rainbow, God promised never again to destroy the creation with a flood. That covenant is often understood to have universal application. There are no stipulations. God regretted the flood and announces that such an action will never again occur. Now, several generations later, God chooses to make another, narrower, covenant with the couple from Haran—Abram and Sarai.
The reading from Genesis 17 is the third rendition of God’s covenant with Abram, and the first to include Sarai as an active player. The first version, found in Genesis 12, involved a call to leave Haran and head out for a new home. The second version, found in Genesis 15 God appears to Abram and makes a covenant, promising descendants who will inhabit the land. Since Sarai is past child-bearing years, she sends her servant Hagar, with whom Abram has a child—Ishmael. Now, in Genesis 17, God again appears to make a covenant with Abram. Apparently, Ishmael isn’t the promised one after all. No, God intended Sarai to be the mother of nations. The promise to the aged and childless couple is that they will produce a cache of descendants who will inhabit the land of promise. A historical-critical analysis suggests differing layers of the story, drawing from Priestly and Yahwist sources. That may well be true, but read it canonically, in its final redaction.
I should note a major difference between the first and third versions of the covenant. In the first Abram and Sarai are told that through their descendants (however we will count them) the nations will be blessed. In this version nothing is said of that blessing, only that their descendants will inhabit this land, though the promise of the land is omitted in the lectionary selection (along with the word about circumcision). In addition to the promise of Sarai being the mother of descendants, the couple receive updated names to signify the change in their status. Now they will be known as Abraham and Sarah.
As I noted there is the middle part that is missing (Genesis 17:8-14). It is the part where God gives the land to Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants. That promise is a bit tricky in our day as Palestinians and Israeli’s try to find a path to a peaceful sharing of lands both claim. For Christians these verses are a bit awkward, so best to leave them aside. The other element in the missing section is the command to circumcise all males in the household, including slaves. Barbara Brown Taylor points out something interesting about the adding of circumcision here: His faithfulness will now require more of him than simply answer to his new name. He is ab out to become bodily involved” [Feasting on the Word, p. 55].
While the first rendition of the covenant—Genesis 12—speaks of the benefit of the covenant to the nations. The focus here is a reminder that God is faithful and will restore the people to the land. Written long after God called Abraham and Sarah, by a people that likely is either living in exile or have recently returned from exile this is an important promise. God is faithful to the covenant. They will have a home. This is why the word “everlasting” is so important. Having lost your home, you hold on to the promise that it will be restored to you.
When read this from a Christian perspective, we need to acknowledge that through the ages Christians have understood the “new covenant” that is entered into through Jesus replaces this earlier covenant. We have read Paul’s contrast of law and Gospel in this way (see 2 Corinthians 3). We have charged the Jewish people with the execution of Jesus and have justified persecution of the Jewish people, leading to the Holocaust itself, on this basis. The message has been: Jesus came to the Jews first. They rejected him. Therefore, God rejects them.
How then do we understand this word about an everlasting covenant with Abraham and Sarah? There are two opening caveats here. God demands that Abraham be blameless and walk in the ways of God. That is, Abraham and Sarah are invited to be in relationship with God, as are their descendants. This reference to descendants is important. There can be no everlasting covenant if there are no descendants. Sarah understands that she is well past child-bearing age, which is why she laughs when she is told God will provide a child (Gen. 18:12-15). Paul takes on this story and speaks of the hope that allowed this covenant promise to be enacted. In Romans 4, Paul writes that “hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’” (Romans 4:18).
Paul understands the covenant to be rooted in faith in the grace of God. It is not, he believes, based on the law. His point in this Romans letter is to reinforce the importance of taking hold of the grace of God brought to the people through Christ, who died for our trespasses, and then was raised for our justification (Romans 4:16-25). This is not, of course, a fully developed atonement theology. It is instead an affirmation that our relationship with God is rooted in grace and entered into through faith.
We must careful how we read this story of the covenant. The promise is everlasting, but the nature of that promise is not as clear. Faithfulness to the covenant does seem to be a condition, but qualifies as a failure to stay faithful? It also doesn’t mean that God has replacement policy. The passage also raises questions about the role of the land, and how we should understand any claims upon on it by Jews or Palestinians or anyone else today. There are no easy answers. But, surely, we must affirm God’s commitment to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.
As for we who Christians, we have understood ourselves to be included in the covenant made with Abraham. Paul speaks of Jesus being that seed of which God promises (Gal. 3:16). One solution here is to follow the lead of Sibley Towner:
We can rightly understand the “seed” as all the progeny of Abram, even as we affirm with Paul that in the full sweep of the Christian canon, Christ is the pivotal figure in the extension of that blessing upon the nations that God promise to be the destiny of Abram and his progeny. [Feasting on the Word, p. 55].
I am constantly reminding myself to not read Scripture in a way that separates God’s people from the covenant that makes with them. There is something about the biblical story we find in the Hebrew Bible. Israel stumbles a lot, but God remains faithful. We stumble a lot, and God remains faithful. That is a good word to remember as we continue this Lenten journey that seems focused on God’s covenant promises. God is faithful, even when we fail to remain faithful.
Picture Attribution: Provoost, Jan. Abraham, Sarah, and the Angel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56510 [retrieved February 19, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jan_Provoost_-_Abraham,_Sarah,_and_the_Angel_-_WGA18441.jpg.