Opening The Old Testament
YHWH the Amazing: Reflections on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Though the lectionary reading adds verses 15-16 to the tale, including Sarai's name change to Sarah (the names appear to be dialectically equivalent), the wonderful surprise of the story does not occur until the next section of the text. "Then Abraham fell on his face" again. At first the reader imagines that the patriarch is once again performing his appropriate and expected religious duty in the face of the renewed covenant with his God. But the very next words appear like a thunderclap: "and laughed, saying (muttering?) to himself, 'Can a son be born to a 100 year old man? Can Sarah, who is 90, give birth?' So he said to God (aloud), 'May Ishmael live before you!'"
Abraham has had enough of God's ludicrous and absurd promises! One-hundred-year-olds do not have children! Ninety-year-old women, as the next chapter will discreetly say, "have ceased to be after the manner of women" (Gen. 18:11). In short, well before the days of fertility therapies, Abe and his spouse are not going to have children; they are headed for the nursing home, not the maternity ward.
But God will have none of this, and booms the promise one more time. "No! Sarah your wife will bear a son for you, and you will call him Isaac." And with that name God joins in the ironic fun. When Abraham "fell on his face and laughed" in verse 17, he in fact "Isaaced," because that name means "laughter." Laugh at my promise, huh, says God? Well, we will just see about that. I will show you laughter, my man, in the person of a bouncing baby boy, born to the two of you in your vast old age. As Genesis 18:14 has it: "Is anything too amazing for YHWH?" The answer is plainly, "No!"
But what to do with this grand story in Lent? Must we bow to the wonder of it, fall on our own faces in reverent awe, and swallow the miraculous birth of a boy to the geriatric pair? Is this a test of our faith in the power of God? Well, perhaps yes and no. The answer is yes if the point is that our own attempts to direct our own course, like Sarai's ill-conceived plan to get a baby from Hagar, too often end up in various kinds of disaster. But the answer is no, if the point is to believe six unbelievable things before breakfast. A United Methodist response to a baptism says it well: "With God's help, we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal." Without God's help, a child can be pushed out into the wilderness. Without God's help, people can end up hating and despising one another. Without God's help, Lent can be only an exercise in religious gimmickry. But finally, the tale says, nothing is too amazing for God.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.