Old Testament Lectionary March 1st Lent 2 Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

As we move to the second Sunday of Lent we have for our OT reading the second of God’s covenants, this time with Abraham. Last week we considered the covenant with Noah, but as time has moved on there are some significant developments here. We noted last week that the covenant with Noah was entirely one-sided: nothing was required of him. It seems that that is the case here too, but actually there are two conditions, and two responsibilities on Abraham’s part. He must walk before God faithfully and be blameless (v 1), and he is to undergo, and ensure the continuance of, circumcision (v11) (although this section has been cut off by the lectionary compliers. See what I did there?)

Faithfulness and blamelessness take us back to the description of Noah in Gen 6:9, and they are not so much moral terms as terms of relationship. It isn’t that Abraham is never to do anything wrong, or that will blow the relationship for good. It is more about continuing faithfully in a relationship which already exists; not going off the rails or losing the plot.

File:Jan Provoost - Abraham, Sarah, and the Angel - WGA18441.jpg

Circumcision can be seen as equivalent to the rainbow in the Noah story. God puts a mark on the created world to remind him of the special relationship he has with its inhabitants now that the reality of human sin has been acknowledged. Now he puts a mark in human bodies as the ‘sign of the covenant’.  Like the rainbow this is to be an eternal sign, although of course Paul has to explain later that it is not physical circumcision which means anything under Christ, but the covenant relationship with Christ through the cross.

But perhaps even more significant in this passage is the changing of three names. Abram becomes Abraham, which means that he is no longer merely an ‘exalted father’ but is now the ‘father of many’, and Sarai (the argumentative one) becomes Sarah (the princess, the mother of kings). These names stick: who ever thinks of them as Abram and Sarai today? The change is permanent, in line with their new covenantal relationship with God. But it is not just the human figures in this story who get new names. God himself is named for the first time here as El Shaddai, a name which bristles with translational difficulties, and which may mean God of the mountains, God the destroyer, God of breasts (ie fertility – quite probable in this context) but almost certainly doesn’t mean God Almighty.

So what? I hear you cry. I think the key verses, and the key character here, are v 15-17 and Sarah. Thirteen years earlier, in response to God’s promise that Abram would have a son and heir, he had slept with Sarai’s servant who produced Ishmael. Almost certainly they had assumed that because of Sarai’s infertility Ishmael was the fulfilment of God’s promise. But here El Shaddai specifically names and renames Sarai, and spells it out to Abraham that he will give him a son by her. Amazing though that seems, the story speaks of a God for whom nothing is impossible, and of humans who happily settle for less than a downright miracle. Thirteen years is a long wait, indeed it is twenty five years since the promise of a son was first made. But God is faithful, and to hold on to his promises, and to remain faithful and blameless before him, will eventually bring its rewards. And to be renamed by God is a deeply symbolic reminder of our remaking in Christ. One of my favourite songs is loosely based on words from Isaiah 62:

I will change your name

You shall no longer be called

Wounded, outcast,  lonely or afraid

I will change your name

Your new name shall be

Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one

Faithfulness, friend of God

One who seeks my face

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Genesis

Welcome to this new blog, which is designed to help us see the huge picture of the Bible, by encouraging us to read one book per week. As promised it certainly won’t be the last word in scholarship, but I hope it will help people to read their Bibles more and with greater understanding.


So … Genesis. The word means ‘beginnings’, and the Hebrew words with which it begins simply mean ‘In the beginning …’ It helpful to think of the book in three ways: as an overture, as a book of ‘Just So’ stories, and as a scene-setter. It contains the well-known stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham and the Patriarchs, and Joseph with his amazing coat. Just like an overture for an opera of musical, the book introduces briefly some of the themes we’re going to hear played out more fully as the story unfolds. So we see God as creator, but also destroyer, we see the idea of covenant relationships, of calling, of journey and pilgrimage, of sacrifice and mercy, and of a purposeful working out of God’s plans for redemption. In the story of Abraham we see both the calling of the ‘chosen people’, but also the idea that the only reason God chose a nation was to be the purveyors of good things to the whole earth. Their calling was to be blessed but also to bless, a theme which I have explored before. Maybe you could trace some of these themes through the rest of the Bible and see how they are developed, just as a composer develops his original musical hints into full numbers.

File:The Creation - Bible Historiale (c.1411), vol.1, f.3 - BL Royal MS 19 D III.jpg

But the other purpose of Genesis is to answer some questions which will later arise. The technical term for this is ‘aetiology’ – a ‘just-so’ story which you can imagine parents telling their children to explain something which they observe as they go through life. Another technical term here is ‘myth’, which doesn’t strictly mean ‘not actually true’, but rather that it explains something. So the stories of creation are there to explain how we all got here, and to argue whether Adam and Eve were literal historical characters is to miss the point entirely, and is about as useful as arguing about whether Pandora’s box was made of wood or metal. ‘Why is that pretty coloured thing up in the sky?’ is another question we can imagine children asking, and the story of Noah and the flood answer that question. Similarly questions such as ‘Why are we living where we’re living?’ can be answered by the story of the call of Abraham to go to ‘a land which I will give you’.


Thirdly, though, the book acts as a scene-setter for the drama to come. THE pivotal event in Israel’s history is the Exodus from Egypt, which we will come to next week, but before God can get his people out of Egypt he has to get them in there, so the long story of Joseph is there to explain how it came to be that those who had been promised God’s favour and a land of their own are working as slaves far from home under cruel foreign domination. To be continued …

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac.

To think about:


  • Why are there two different stories of creation? What is each meant to teach us?
  • What can the story of Abraham’s call (Gen 12) say to the church today?
  • What can you learn about the ministry of Jesus from reading Genesis?


OT Lectionary Mar 16th Lent 2 Genesis 12:1-4a

Elsewhere in a different blog I’m writing about the church – what’s it’s for and how we can get it right or wrong (#whatschurchfor). This passage is absolutely key in understanding the state of the church today, and in order to grasp why I’ll need to take you back a few years to an evening spent in London with Chris my wife. We’d got tickets for some show or other, and we were going to eat first and then go on to the theatre. I have no remembrance at all about the show, or even what it was, but I’ll never forget the meal. We went to a well-know chain which wasn’t called ‘Simon’s’ but something in close partnership with him. We ordered our meal, which I have to say was very nice, and decided that if we were quick we just had time for afters. Trying to summon a waiter or waitress we found that all the staff seemed inexplicably to have disappeared. After about 20 minutes of hanging around we decided that we’d missed afters and we had to get going, so our quest became instead for someone who would give us our bill. We could easily have just walked out, and I have to admit we were tempted, but in the end I got up from our table and went hunting. Seated in a booth round the back somewhere about ten staff, all in their uniforms, were tucking into a meal. ‘Sorry to interrupt’ I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster, ‘but we need to pay and go.’ Grudgingly one of them got up and got our bill, which we paid in haste and just made it to the theatre in time. At least it saved us the cost of a tip.

File:Waiter in a restaurant, Paris 2011.jpg

The Jews in the time of Jesus were very keen on being the ‘chosen people’, but what they hadn’t grasped was that they were chosen to be God’s waiters and waitresses to bring his blessings to the rest of the world. Abraham’s call in this passage was twofold: to be blessed, but also to be a blessing to all peoples on earth. And therein lies the problem: the Jewish nation wanted the first bit but forgot the second, a tradition in which much of the Christian church has been proud to follow. Whenever we claim exclusivity; whenever we operate as a holy huddle; whenever we subtly set up church structures which are hostile to newcomers or outsiders or people who are not like us, we are just like those staff who are happy to sit and feast themselves while others go unnoticed and hungry. This call, to remember that original commission to Abraham, both to be blessed and to bless, echoes through the rest of the Bible: most notably in Isaiah 49:6

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

When Simeon greeted the new-born Messiah he too knew that this was God’s call:

“My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)

Since this narrow exclusivism and self-centred consumerism has been, and continues to be, such a perpetual problem for God’s people, we do well to look at our own church life very carefully, lest we find ourselves feasting at God’s table while others go hungry, wanting blessings but less keen on being blessings. It has long been my practice to remind people of this danger liturgically: whenever I give the liturgical blessing at the end of services I always use this adaptation of the usual words:

The blessing of God Almighty,

The Father, the Son,

and the Holy Spirit

be among you, remain with you always,

and make you a blessing to others.