We're just easing our way through Genesis, and we have so many classic stories to encounter in this week's stretch! The transition from Genesis 11 is striking: in the Tower of Babel story, humanity loses the ability to speak to each other with clarity and understanding; chapter 12 opens with God speaking a language of promise to Abraham. We saw the term "covenant" regarding God's promise to Noah never to flood the world again, but here it takes a more usual form: each party promises something. Abraham goes where God instructs, God promises to make him the founder of a people. A covenant is a contract in the ancient Middle East - and the contract is marked by a physical sign - which would be a document for us, but in a largely illiterate world, it's usually a rock or some such visible token. Here we don't learn about the sign of the covenant until the third time the promise is made, and it's circumcision. Why not a rock? Strange choice. But a covenant has, because of these stories, a deeper connotation: it's a sacred contract between God and humankind. God chooses to bind God's self, to be constrained in a contractual relationship. This is understood to be an enormous gift.
This relationship will prove most fruitful, even as it must arise from an erstwhile barren couple. And thus we are launched on the Patriarch cycle of tales, focused on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the fathers of the people of Israel. In these chapters, watch as the initial promise to Abraham deepens into the full covenant, and then is given a wrenching challenge in the near-sacrifice of his only son.
Questions to ponder as we read:
- What does it mean to be called by God? to be chosen to enact God's plan? What sort of person is called? Abraham's behavior in these stories is hardly above reproach; why has God chosen him rather than someone more obviously upright and admirable?
- How do the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and of the angelic visit to Abraham and Sarah promising a child illuminate each other?