On Genesis 17
Some years ago, Dennis came to my office to talk about how his study of the Bible had reshaped his understanding of God. He related an episode in his life just a few years earlier involving the purchase of a swing set for his young daughter. His church background had emphasized the sovereignty of God, including the notion that God’s
detailed will for his life would extend even to the choice of swing set. Two sets were in the running, when during devotional Bible reading, he came upon Deuteronomy 12:15, “Notwithstanding thou mayest kill and eat flesh in all thy gates, whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, according to the blessing of the LORD thy God which he hath given thee: the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the roebuck, and as of the hart” (KJV, ital mine). One of the swing sets was on sale at Sears and Roebuck (as it was still known then). At the time, it seemed as though the Sovereign God had given Moses a message just for him, Dennis said.
Setting aside the view of scripture involved in Dennis’s interpretation for another blog entry, Dennis’s understanding of the sovereignty of God resonates with popular Christian language about God’s will, God’s concern for every element of our lives, God’s omnipotence, God’s sovereignty, etc. Does the concept of the Sovereignty of God mean that God controls every aspect of our lives? Of course, if the idea of sin means anything, it means that, in fact, people do things contrary to God’s will. Does the concept of the Sovereignty of God mean, then, that God seeks to control every aspect of our lives? Does the purchase of a swing set rise to the level of importance such that the God who created the universe would consider it vital to the direction of Dennis’s life?
One day, the Bible does not provide information concerning the setting or even the means, God communicated with Abram, then living in Haran in modern Syria. The substance of the message was a promise and a call. God asked Abram to leave Haran to resettle in a place God would grant Abram as a possession, but would identify later; God promised to protect Abram, to make childless Abram, whose very name ironically means “exalted father” (or ‘Big Daddy’) the ancestor of a great nation; and, most importantly, God promised to make Abram (and his descendants) the avenue for bringing blessing to all the families of the world (Gen 12:1-3). Notably, God offered no detailed procedural instructions. “So Abram went” (Gen 12:4), and for years lived his life, if the biblical account reports all the important interactions between God and Abram, without specific guidance.
Abram and Sarai, his wife, were both quite old. In fact, Sarai was post-menopausal (Gen 18:11). The text does not explicitly say so, but the narrative suggests that Abram understood that the details of executing God’s plan fell to him – at least he behaved as though this were the case. Leaving Haran, Abram brought his nephew Lot along, apparently as his heir. Strife over pasturage between Lot’s shepherds and Abram’s, however, caused a fracture in the family, and Lot left for the region around the Dead Sea (Gen 13). Undeterred, Abram “adopted” Eliezer of Damascus, his slave, to be his heir (Gen 15:2). After Abram intervened in regional war to deliver Lot, who had been taken as a prisoner of war (Gen 14), God communicated with Abram, apparently for the first time since issuing the original promise, and apparently to reaffirm that promise (“your reward shall be very great,” Gen 15:1). With a boldness that contemporary believers find shocking, Abram challenged God to go beyond words, to make good on the promise. God responded by elevating the promise to a covenant (not by actually giving the promise substance). ‘No,’ God said, ‘Eliezer will not do. I have in mind your own son will be your heir’ (Gen 15:4). Unlike English (which has only the one word, “you”), Hebrew can distinguish between masculine and feminine, singular and plural in the second person (so there are four “you’s” in Hebrew). Significantly for the continuation of the story of Abram’s life, God employed the masculine singular form of “your” in this reiteration of the promise: the promised heir will be Abram’s son; God failed to specify that the son will also be Sarai’s child.
Consequently, when barren, post-menopausal Sarai offered her servant-girl Hagar to be Abram’s concubine, Sarai, like Abram before her, proposed a viable tactic for executing God’s promise. Abram agreed, but the account unfolds to expose flaws in the execution. Barren Sarai and Hagar, soon to be the mother of Abram’s child, contended with one another over status in the household. Hagar fled; God promised Hagar that, even though Sarai’s tactic was not the approach God had had in mind, since her son will be Abram’s son, the promise God made to Abram concerning protecting him and his offspring applied to her son, too. Indeed, as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to God’s promise – even when human tactics do not reflect the overall strategy – God instructed her to name her child Ishmael, “God has heard/will hear.”
At this point, God talked to now ninety-nine year old Abram once again (Gen 17), reconfiguring the covenant established earlier (Gen 15) to affirm the original promise. Twenty-four years had passed since Abram had left Haran (Gen 12:4) and thirteen years since Ishmael had been born (Gen 17:25).
This reconfigured covenant differed from the earlier version in three important ways. First, it placed Abram under obligation for first time. Indeed, God had put Abram into a deep sleep during the earlier covenant procedure (Gen 15:12), asking nothing of him in return for God’s restatement of the original promise. Now, however, God imposed circumcision on Abram and his descendants as “a sign of the covenant” (Gen 17:10).
Second, again for the first time, God specified that the promise that Abram will become the ancestor of a great nation included Sarai. She will be the mother of the covenant people (Gen 17:16).
Third, in the major difference, God made accommodations for the disparity between God’s original “strategy” and the actual situation produced by the improvised tactics of Abram and Sarai. The question, posed by Abram, was, ‘What about Ishmael?’ Alluding to Ishmael’s God-given name, God said, ‘I have heard you. I promised to bless and protect your offspring; Ishmael is your offspring.’ Moreover, “I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (Gen 17:20 RSV). In fact, the new situation differed so much from God’s original intention that it required name changes for Abram and Sarai. Henceforth, Abram (“exalted father’) would be known as Abraham (“father of a multitude”) because two nations under God’s protection would descend from him (Gen 17:5); similarly, Sarai (“my princess”) would be known as Sarah (“princess”) because, now, she, too would become the mother of not just one (“my”), but many nations (Gen 17:16).
In reference to God, the language of sovereignty, like fatherhood and motherhood, is metaphorical. God is like a human father or mother in relation God’s “children.” Parent language emphasizes God’s care, human dependence, God as the source of life. If the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael has something to say about God’s sovereignty in the universe, it must be that while God may be sovereign, God is no tyrant. God establishes directions and objectives, but God does not micromanage or manipulate. Indeed, God’s sovereignty not only accommodates “detours” from the straightest line to the objective, but, God’s sovereignty makes room for human free will and seems to encourage human beings to pursue their own paths toward the objective.
The Good News in the metaphor of God’s sovereignty is not, then, that God controls or determines every step, every decision, every outcome in the course of our lives. The swing set from Penneys would probably have worked out just fine. The Good News is that God does not abandon God’s original intention. God does not exercise despotic sovereignty; the medium of God’s sovereignty is not controlling, dominating coercion, but love in relationship. The best portrait of God’s patient, persistent sovereignty can be seen, of course, on the Cross – an exercise of self-sacrificial love, not of imposing force.