Genesis 17:1-22 - Separation and Commitment
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. 8 And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” 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.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” 19 God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” 22 And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.
The story of Abram/Abraham is one of the most important stories of the Old Testament. God calls Abram to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldeans to go to a place where God would show him, and in his new home, wherever that is, God will make him the father of nations.
It sounds like a pipe dream. The interaction between God and Abraham provides the backdrop for the Hebrew story, the Christian story, and the Muslim story. It is from this one man that God sets in motion three of the worlds most prominent religions. We call Abraham the “Father of Nations” because of this promise made between Abraham and God, a promise that would be the covenant between God and the Hebrew people for a possession of land and a home all their own.
In the story of creation, I pulled out the theme of separation, an act that God instituted at the moment of creation. Once again, God uses the tool of separation to create something wholly new. Asking Abram to leave his home land is an act of separation. The more I look at these passages with this particular lens, the more I see how God uses the act of separation to create something new. It is as if God cannot make possible what is new unless there is separation from the old. The shift from old to new makes space for the creation of the next thing. We see this pattern throughout scripture, but most assuredly in Genesis.
When God asks Abram to leave Ur, what made Abram say yes? In extra-biblical sources we are told that Abram, from the time of his youth, had a deep and abiding relationship with God. He clung to God in the way that others did not. Even after moving to Haran from Ur, he held close to the God of creation. He saw with his own eyes that the statues and figurines worshiped by other cultures were useless in providing direction or comfort. Abram even challenged his own father in possessing such trinkets and vowed to destroy them all if his father did not.
In our passage today, we are at a pivotal moment in the story of Abram. God has not only separated him out as being someone special but has chosen to change his name to reflect the enormity of his new role. 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.” A father of a multitude of nations. In this moment it must have struck Abram funny because he knew that he was advanced in age, as was his wife, and knew that she was barren because she had never been able to have children. And yet, God is proclaiming over Abram, now renamed Abraham, that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.
This story comes immediately following the story of Abraham’s son Ishmael via Hagar, but God does not intend for Abraham to see Ishmael as his only heir. God, instead, proclaims that Sarai, who he renames Sarah, will have a son, and they are to name that child Isaac.
As for Ishmael, God blesses Hagar and Ishmael, and we are told in Genesis 16:10 that God will greatly multiply Hagar’s “offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” Ishmael becomes the father of 12 tribes, the 12 tribes of the Arab world and eventually the Muslim faith.
We have the benefit of knowing how this story ends. Indeed, Sarah does have a son and he is named Isaac. Isaac has a son named Jacob, and Jacob has 12 sons which become the namesakes of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob will wrestle with God and prevail, and his blessing, received at daybreak is also a name change, from Jacob to Israel.
The subtle way that God uses separation throughout the Book of Genesis makes me wonder why we ever thought we were irreparably separated from God. It is only through our separation that we are able to discern a need for God. Without that fundamental distance, God would be a given, a permanent fixture in our lives that would not require seeking, nor worship, or praise. It is only in our separation that we are able to identify the need for our creator.
I recently listened to a talk given by a Rabbi regarding the story of creation and the “fall of Adam and Eve.” He offered an alternative to our typical telling of the story. In the Christian world, we have always argued that it was the sin of Adam and Even that created the chasm between God and humanity. The Rabbi asked one important question, though, that changes the equation. Why would God place the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the center of the garden and then instruct them not to eat it even though the “fruit was good for food and a delight for the eyes,” and also place the serpent in the garden to point to the tree that was “off-limits.” The Rabbi posits that God orchestrated this encounter and that the goal was to get Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit so that their eyes would be opened. They did not die after eating the fruit, instead they were brought into the fullness of life.
What we often think of as the fullness of life is that which is easy and without effort. God shows Adam and Eve; Noah, and Noah’s sons; and now Abraham and Sarah that the fullness of life is one which requires commitment. When we read about the idyllic circumstances in the Garden of Eden, God never intended for be trouble free and perfect. Trouble free and perfect doesn’t allow humanity to explore the depths of their humanness, to explore the depths of God, their creator, nor the depths of creation itself. Their commitment to God and to the process of growing in both faith and in understanding was the hallmark of God’s creation. As humans, we are uniquely positioned to experience these things.
We might ask why God would want us to experience these depths, why it is necessary for us to live with death and strife, even evil? If you think about the human experience from the beginning of time, it has been a series of steps forward, steps backwards, but always moments of self-discovery. It’s as if God set in motion the very foundation of the universe and then set humans in motion to explore and create in their own way. We are not only discovering more about ourselves, how our minds and body’s function, but also how the universe is knit together in this amazing tapestry of life.
God wants us to experience all of this and more. If the universe is alive, and I do believe that it is, if humans weren’t made to be curious beings who strive toward deeper knowledge, then why make something (i.e., the universe) that no one will discover?
For all that we say about God, the mystery that is God is our greatest quest. We search throughout the cosmos for a glimpse of the divine, a taste of that which we can never fully know. How the earliest writers of the Hebrew text describe this act of becoming may be the story that made sense to them, the story that explained the act of creation and the leaning into the fullness of life, but it also the ongoing story of all of creation. We continue to expand our knowledge, expand or depth and breadth of wisdom regarding the function and form of the universe, and at the center of all this activity is the God of Abraham, showing us one more layer of what it means to faithfully commit to the God of creation.