Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 5b

For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

Beginnings: Genesis (continued)

Genesis 12-50 tells us about God’s mission to the world. God’s covenant to bless Abraham and his family is for all the mixed-up, sinful peoples of the world. Genesis is unique in that it is the account of God calling an ordinary man and his family, and so instead of comparing it with other ancient stories, we shall read it in the context of what we know about other nations.

IG then enters into a very interesting discussion regarding Abraham’s relationship with Yahweh. The names of Abraham’s family suggest that his ancestors worshipped the moon god, chief of whom was El. (Remember, Abraham was from the Mesopotamian city of Ur). Citing OT scholar Gordon Wenham, who analyses the names used for God in Genesis in light of Exodus 6:3, where God says to Moses: "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them", she concludes that "Abraham was thinking in terms of El, the god he already knew about, but that it was Yahweh who was calling him all the time." IG then documents how Abraham responded to God in ways which was already used in his culture – he did “religious” things, such as building altars, offering sacrifices and cleansing himself.

Abraham's worship is also contrasted with those found in his culture, as seen in the building of his own altars, and the absolute forbidding of human sacrifices seen in the account of Isaac. These patterns continue throughout Genesis. God speaks to Abraham and his family. He encourages them. He loves them. They respond in faith and obedience, and doubt and sin. There is no laying down of “religious” rules, but instead a demonstration of God’s covenant call to a particular family. Indeed, the covenant of Genesis 15, while similar in many respects to covenants in the ancient world, is different in that it is between God and a human family, not a king and a conquered nation, and it is unconditional. Abraham begins to see that this is a God who takes the initiative and keeps his promises, and so he is unlike El and the other gods. El might be said to do these things, but it is God who actually does them.

IG now turns her attention to the other nations in Genesis 12-50. Firstly, nations other than Israel are also Abraham’s descendants. Sadly, the descendants of Lot, Ishmael and Esau will turn to other gods and become some of Israel’s greatest enemies. The Moabites and Ammonites, for instance, result from Lot’s drunkenness and incest. Meanwhile, Abraham fails to share God’s concern for other nations. He lies to Abimelech and the king of Egypt, and causes God’s judgment to fall on them. He fails to take good care of his servant, Hagar. On the other hand, God approaches Abimelech in a dream (20:6-7) and rescues him. The Genesis narrative also seems to cast the mysterious figure of Melchizedek in a positive light, although this is not explicit. Perhaps most significantly, God uses Joseph to provide for the Egyptians during the years of famine.

What about other gods? Genesis is, for the most part, silent – no mention of the Canaanite or Egyptian gods. The only mention of other gods comes in the story of Jacobs. Laban’s household gods (31:19, 30-35) are not taken very seriously. Jacob also orders his household to rid themselves of all foreign gods when he goes to live in Bethel. Why does Genesis choose to record this particular episode? It appears that as Jacob had been disobedient before (having not previously gone to Bethel as he promised to), and in light of the disobedience of more or less his entire family in the previous chapter, where Dinah is raped, particular attention is drawn to the need to obey and trust God here. Jacob recognises that if God is God, all other gods have to go.

In summary, Genesis 12-50 does not directly discuss the surrounding religions. What are we to make of this? Some suggestions:
  • The other gods are not important. What matters is that the one true living God is active among the people he has made.
  • Forms of worship are not yet important.
  • Other aspects of religion, such as laws and ritual purity, are also not yet important. Trusting God is the more important issue.
"In calling out a people from polytheism, then, God did not give a religion. The way to blessing for a multifaith world was not a religion but a family called to dynamic relationship with the living God."

IG’s discussion concerning Abraham was fascinating, to say the least, but I do feel like I’ve been left hanging a little because she fails to bridge contexts between the world of Genesis and ours. For instance, what are the implications, if she is right, of how Abraham initially conceives of God? To be fair, IG does anticipate these questions in her reflection questions and likely wants the reader to do some thinking of their own by not providing any answers at this point! It’s probable that she’s saving this for later on in the book, but I would have liked more guidance on how to read this in the context of the overall storyline of the Bible / salvation-history. How does the coming of Christ change all this, if it does? Even just a couple of comments along the lines of "I’ll cover this more in chapter X, but here it’s sufficient to say that..." would have been welcomed.

Still, IG does a great job opening our eyes to the reality of a God who draws near and who calls his people, not a demanding deity who needs sacrifices.

Reflection questions:
  • Did God call you to religion or a covenant relationship?
  • If a Muslim, Hindu, or traditional African believer comes to Christ, what sort of religious practice should he or she follow?
  • Which of the laws or religious practices of your church were given by God?
  • God spoke to people outside Abraham’s family. Does he speak to non-Christians today?
  • Paul goes to the story of Abraham when he is discussing how non-Jews – people from another faith background – can be included in the church (Gal. 3). What can you learn from the story of Abraham about mission to a community that already has a different religion? How does this beginning of God’s mission to the nations compare to the beginnings of Christian missions in your country?

Next chapter:
Development: The calling of a people

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