YHWH the Amazing: Reflections on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Lectionary Reflections
Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

March 4, 2012

Of all the problems with the lectionary that many preachers use fairly regularly, the choice of verses in the pericope for today is among the very worst. It is frankly inconceivable that anyone reading Genesis 17, a text right at the heart of the long struggle for Abram and Sarai to find fulfillment with the promise of YHWH for them to have a child, could possibly leave out the quite hilarious, and yet tragic, irony to be found between Genesis 17:3 and Genesis 17:17. These two verses are nothing less than the lynchpin of the entire chapter, and the lectionary collectors have apparently missed the crucial connection.

Chapter 17 sits at an important juncture of the long story of nascent Israel's attempt to establish itself in the land of promise. In chapter 15, YHWH has covenanted with Abram and has promised him that "Eliezer of Damascus," apparently a slave in Abram's household, will not be Abram's heir, though he appears to be the only one possible, since Abram remains without a child; rather "your very own seed will be your heir" (15:2-4). YHWH then leads Abram out under the night sky and urges him "to count the stars, if he is able." Faced with a myriad points of sparkling lights, dotting the great canopy above him, Abram is then told, "So shall your descendants be" (Gen. 15:5-6). Abram's doubt is met with YHWH's certain promise.

Then in chapter 16, Sarai, tired of the long wait for a child, and not getting any younger, determines that her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, can serve as a surrogate mother for her barren mistress, and give the family the child promised. The result is disaster. Hagar begins to "look with contempt" on her flat-bellied owner, and Sarai, humiliated and furious, demands that Hagar be thrown into the desert, along with her child, to die. Rather than argue against the plan, Abram acquiesces, saying callously, "Your slave-girl (note he refuses to use Hagar's name) is in your power; do to her as you please." The patriarch is all too ready to sacrifice the mother of his child, and apparently the child of the promise, without a care. This is far less than a flattering portrait of YHWH's choice of one who is to "bless the nations" (Gen. 12:3)!

We then come to chapter 17, long considered to have come from another hand than the chapters we just read; in the traditional historical-critical account of the construction of the book of Genesis, Genesis 17 has usually been assigned to the Priestly authors, given its serious attention to the question of circumcision with which the chapter ends (Gen. 17:22-27). But the earlier verses continue the promise-in-danger theme that began all the way back in Genesis 11:30 where the reader was warned "Sarai was barren; she had no child." After six chapters, and far too many years, the prune-faced couple remains alone, while the promise of YHWH keeps sounding—"you will be a great nation." But when Abram turns 99 years old, that promise could only sound like hollow mockery, as the aged duo examine one another's deeply etched faces and experience decreased physical desires.

Yet YHWH is still announcing the promise. "I am El Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous" (Gen. 17:1-2). "Then Abram fell on his face," and we can only imagine that his dive for the dirt in the presence of God is once again his willingness to hope against hope that this time, at last, YHWH will finally fulfill the divine promise that has now been uttered to him more times than he cares to count. And God does go on at length, reiterating that covenant, changing Abram's name to Abraham (the former means "great father" while the latter means in the context "father of many," as the succeeding vs. 6 implies). And God now clearly includes the land of promise in the covenant in addition to the numerous offspring (Gen. 17:7-9).

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.

2/29/2012 5:00:00 AM
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    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.