Blogging toward Sunday

June 2, 2008

Odysseus wants nothing more than to get home. For the Greeks, as for
most ancient peoples, the house and city were islands of order in the
midst of a howling wilderness. They would do anything to stay home or,
having left, to get back.

Israel’s history, however, begins with
a man who leaves home and wanders off toward the horizon, not knowing
where he’s going and never intending to go home again. Abram’s call is
the birth of Israel. It is also a turning point in the formation of
humanity.

Yahweh promises that Abram
will receive all that an ancient man hopes for: many descendants, a
nation, a great reputation, a land, blessings for himself and curses
for his enemies. Yahweh commands Adam to be fruitful (Gen. 1:26-28),
but also promises to make Abram fruitful (17:6). At the time,
Abram has no children, and he’s accompanied by a barren wife (11:30).
He sets up altars at Shechem and between Bethel and Ai (12:6-9), but he
owns no land.

All Abram has are Yahweh’s promises. At this
point, it’s just words. But he goes. No human has acted like this
before. Like Noah later, Abram is the founder of a new humanity. He
waits in faith for many years, but eventually has a son, who has two,
one of whom has 12 children, who have thousands. (One of the best brief
accounts of Abram’s life is in James B. Jordan’s Primeval Saints.)

For
Paul, Abram’s faith has a specific focus. Abram is justified by faith
in God’s powerful promise to bring life from his dead body and from
Sarah’s dead womb (v. 22). Christians are accounted righteous by the
same faith, faith in the resurrection of Jesus, who was raised for our
justification (v. 25). Because righteousness is by faith in God’s
promises, the promise to Abram extends to all humanity, and he is a
blessing to all nations.

Paul is no innovator when he says that
the promises to Abram were for also for those Gentiles who claim his
faith. Jesus’ table fellowship enacts the same theology. Tax gatherers
are despised because they cooperate with unclean Romans. Yet Jesus
calls a tax gatherer to share his ministry as a disciple, and sits down
at the tax gatherer’s table with sinners (Matt. 9:9-13). Jesus spends
his life tearing veils, breaking the wall of partition between Jew and
Jew, and between Jew and Gentile, brick by brick. (Marcus Borg’s work
highlights the importance of table fellowship in first-century Judaism.)

Eating
with sinners and tax gatherers, Jesus says, is no violation of Torah.
The weighty things of the law are mercy, justice and truth (Matt.
23:23). Torah is God’s instrument for bringing the promise of Abram to
Jew and Gentile, not an instrument for stroking human pride.

Jesus
is the seed of Abram, the one in whom every promise to Abram—of seed,
land, reputation—is fulfilled. Jesus is the seed of Abram, the
eschatological head of the last human race. Jesus is the seed of Abram,
who like Father Abram, left his father’s house to go to a far country
that had been promised to him.