Romans 4:1-17 and Genesis 12:1-4
Why Abram? Abram—this figure who emerges into story out of the dusk at the edge of time, was and is recognized as the ancestor of God’s covenant people Israel, and the promises of God were inherited through him—history turned, the world turned, on God’s relationship with this man, and his descendants.
But for a moment at which it understands such cosmic importance, Genesis is puzzlingly bare when it comes to the encounter of God and the man.
Abram enters the story at the end of a genealogy. Noah has a son named Shem, and Shem begat Arpachshad, who begat Shelah, who begat Eber, who begat Peleg, who begat Reu, who begat Serug, who begat Nahor, who had a son named Terah. And they all live a long time and, somewhere in there, everybody decides to stop filling the earth, and to focus on building a tall brick, flood-proof city, and God scatters them and confuses their languages instead. So Terah, one of these scattered families, is living out at Ur of the Chaldees, and he becomes the father of three sons, and one of them was named Abram.
That’s the story: a person named Abram, born someplace in bronze-age Mesopotamia. He had a wife named Sarai, who was unable to have children. He traveled with his father, and with his fatherless nephew Lot to Haran. And God starts talking to him. and makes this extravagant promise: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Later, God will promise childless Abram and Sarai, descendants and numberless as the stars, a family through whom, all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Genesis has absolutely nothing to say about why it was him. Which is a frustrating story. There must be a reason, right? Something heroic or holy or particularly useful about Abram and Sarai, that marked them out to be great the patriarch and matriarch, the foundation of a whole people. This seems like a reward for something. And much closer to the time of Jesus, there’s literature that offers a kind-of explanatory prequel. In one version, Abram comes to believe in God of heaven, and burns all the idols of his clan, and has to go on the run to the land of Haran.
And that’s why Paul starts writing about Abraham—because he recognizes that the silence of Genesis is the meaning; the absence of a reason for why its Abram becomes a way to make sense of his experience of Jesus.(1) He’s out among Gentiles, encountering again and again the power and love of God tangibly reshaping people who, to him, wouldn’t have seemed like very worthy recipients for the love and concern of God, but there it was.
What Paul has to say about the law and about works and wages, about righteousness and faith and the promise resting on grace—we can get tangled in that. But its Paul is working, arguing, pushing toward what he knows: that something has happened through the cross and empty tomb that made a new human family possible and real. He could see it.
And now, the idea of boundaries to the realm where God could act or would act, insider and outsiders, worthy and unworthy, was just nonsense. What did inside and outside mean in the presence of the God in whom [Abraham] believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.(2)
What Abraham discovered was what Paul had discovered: the God who had sparked life in the beginning for no purpose but the overflowing of love, now pouring out gift of new peace, new identity, new family, without any sensible reason.
I recently read a short blurb about a young woman who had a moment of facebook fame after she shared a story about a plant. A succulent. The sort of sweet, radiating little succulent you find in hipster coffee shops and guest bathrooms. She, for some reason, loved this little plant. She kept it in a sunny window. She had researched and kept an optimal watering schedule to encourage it. For two years. And then she decided it was probably time to re-pot it. So she got a new pot, and as she began to transplant it, the old pot broke. Inside, no soil, just a block of white styrofoam. It was fake. She had been nurturing a fake plant for two years. Home Depot heard about it and gave her a bunch of real plants. So, the journalist asked her what she had done with the fake. She said “I figured I loved it for two years; why quit now?”
I think those who are weary, would be grateful for a friend who would be humiliated by a fake plant and repot it and go on anyway. Our tendency is to love things in response to their being what we need them to be, love as exchange, as reciprocity. And on some level, we expect to be loved like that, which is an exhausting part of our finitude. And if you are looking for rest, there’s a flicker of gospel in that story.
God determined to risk love for us before we were, and to go on loving even if it meant all the pain of the world.(3) But we don’t even have to go down the theological road of saying that God loves us in spite of us, because Paul’s point is this: what we do between us matters enormously, but that categories like deserving and undeserving, worthy and unworthy, simply collapse before Christ; God in Christ Jesus says yes to you. And there is always a way back, and always more life.
1 In Paul, Paula Fredriksen suggests Paul’s assertion about the faith of Abraham is happened perhaps in dialog with other understandings of the Abraham story that attributed his calling to his righteous behavior. See p 105.
2 For understanding the explicit connection between the Abram story, and Paul’s conception of his mission to the Gentiles and the creative capacity of God, I’m thankful for John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, especially pp. 479-490.
3 The idea that God experiences all the pain of the world is widely explored but, for me, a particularly resonant expression of the phrase comes in a passage from Helen Wadell’s book Peter Abelard, quoted in Rowan Williams’ The Sign and the Sacrifice. Abelard and Thibault come across a snared, dying rabbit and Abelard, cradling it, is overcome by its suffering. And the two mean have this extraordinary dialog about the suffering of Jesus on cross, in which Thibault points to a dark ring in a cut tree and says that the cross is like that: it appears to be a singular moment, but the ring runs up and down the whole length of the trunk. Abelard looks down at the rabbit and says “you think that all this…all the pain in the world, was Christ’s cross?” And Thibault responds, “God’s cross…And it goes on.”