As you read this week, consider that – unlike the stories of origins from the first 11 chapters of Genesis – the stories of the Patriarchs are set within a historical context. These stories would have been told generation after generation as a part of the oral histories of this ancient people, however they probably weren’t written until the time of the Babylonian Captivity 1500 years later.
This is probably the era when the Genesis stories were actually gathered and edited, penned and preserved for posterity. Consider the meaning these stories would have had for the nation of Israel exiled in Babylon.
As you read Genesis 21-26, remember that God had called Abraham and promised him descendants like the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). In the ancient world and even among some peoples today, having descendants that continue on beyond your life is a kind of immortality as it were. This was the way Abraham believed his life could extend beyond his one lifetime.
But if Abraham followed this call of God to sacrifice his son, if he consented to give up the long awaited son of promise, the future God had promised him would disappear. His life would have no meaning and Abraham himself would become as if he had never existed.
As you read, place this story within the context of the Babylonian Exile. Once again, like Abraham, the people of Israel stood at the precipice of extinction. In Exile, they faced the very real possibility that they would be lost to history. Here is a people who have seen themselves (like Abraham) as bearers of the promise, called to be a blessing to the nations, chosen to be light for the world – but now they find themselves on the verge of non-existence.
Imagine how this intriguing tradition of the Binding of Isaac, might have helped shaped their identity and their self-understanding as a people. Here in Exile are the very children of Abraham whose existence had been put at risk before on the Mount of Moriah for the sake of the Promise. When they read and re-read this story in their own day, they could see how Father Abraham had – tenaciously, stubbornly, absurdly – trusted that God would keep the Promise and preserve the people.
Surely for this threatened, exiled remnant of a people, this story offered comfort for their affliction, brought hope into their hopelessness, built confidence in their future and steeled the faithfulness of those who had seen themselves as forsaken. And the ancient story – reinterpreted for their own day – gave them a renewed challenge: How would they face their own testing? Would Israel choose to trust God with Abraham’s same resurrection faith? Would they too believe that the Lord would provide?
As you read the Psalms (34, 66 and especially 22), imagine Psalm 22 coming from the period of Exile as well. Imagine how forsaken this people of God must have felt: “my God, my God! Why have YOU forsaken me?!”
As you read John 18-21, jump again in history and imagine Jesus of Nazareth, carrying his cross to the Place of the Skull and facing the very real possibility of extinction. But for this Lamb of God, there would be no ram in the bush.
Sometimes we speak too easily our belief that Jesus is truly human and truly divine. What does this mean? If Jesus of Nazareth were truly human, then he would have faced his death like all of us do – with the sure knowledge that when humans die, they stay dead. But Jesus believed anyway, he trusted anyway, he counted on God’s faithfulness in spite of the sureness of death.
Now one more jump – imagine the community of John 70 years after Jesus grappling with the unfathomable reality that their long awaited Messiah had been crucified. Why? What does this mean? Making sense of startling, earth-shattering events almost never happens in the moment. It is usually in retrospect that any of us can conjure any wisdom about meaning and find any sense in what – at the time – seems like non-sense. And so, once again, like the ancestors before them, the first century Christians read and re-read the ancient stories and re-interpreted them for their own day.
Notice how John incorporates Psalm 22 into his telling of the Christ Event. Note that he quotes the portion of the Psalm about “dividing my garments” but leaves out the cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In order to understand how John interprets his own Scriptures, recall John’s Christology: no one takes the life of John’s Jesus, rather he gives himself over and gives up his spirit. This Christ is in control of the situation to the very end.
As you read Romans 9-13, recall that Paul and Mark, and then later Matthew and Luke and John all taught and wrote in order to help a new community of Christ to ground themselves in a faith that was founded upon the fact and unspeakable mystery of a crucified Messiah. Each one made sense a bit differently from the other; the mystery is too big to put in a box with neat descriptions and tidy explanations. Truth is too large to be one little thing. Each understanding offered by faithful seekers contributes to the whole. Every different insight adds more light.
This part of Romans offers Paul’s best understanding of the relationship of God with the people of Israel, the people of promise. For Paul, God’s covenant is irrevocable and Israel still has a place in God’s overarching plan. They continue to be a part of The Story.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.