Sunday, October 2, 2011

Genesis 26:5 The Theme Verse of Genesis

Some look to Gen 12:3 as the seed on which all subsequent revelation in the Bible is based, the blessing of the world by an offspring of Abraham; or even to Gen 3:15 which predicts that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. But there is another verse that unleashes the full torrent of all Genesis holds back unspoken in every verse of the book. It is hidden conspicuously in the middle of the 50 chapter journey, at the beginning of chapter 26. In verse 5, in language alien to the rest of Genesis, a dead give away that betrays the hand of its composer and thus intention, “…because Abraham observed my voice, that is he observed my observances, my commandments, my regulations, and my laws.”
In other words most Christians focus in on the blessings or what we get out of Genesis, but the preaching point, the charge is in the character of Abraham towards a pre-existent, pre-ratified, pre-given law of God. This is because the law is not the invention of the Exodus, but rather based on the character of God evident in Genesis, a constitution of sorts, a tiny Bible. Every bit of law that was given during the Exodus finds its justification in Genesis. The animals needed for sacrifice in Leviticus are described in Genesis. Every nation Israel encounters in the Exodus is prefigured in Genesis by its logical ancestor. Every cultic cite the Israelites destroy is claimed by Abraham for the worship of the one true God centuries earlier with altars and wells.

Does this contradict Paul’s argument that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works of the law? Not at all. In Genesis 15:6, all Abraham has is the promise of God about the numerous descendents he will have. Later in 17:1, on another occasion, God commands, “Walk (הלך) before me, and be blameless (תמים).” Both of these terms are legal terms that reference walking or living according to the law and being blameless in regards to it. The natural question is according to which law is Abraham walking and being blameless? The only natural explanation from the view point of the original audience would be the law later enacted at Sinai. This is not an unusual concept since rabbinic writings posit that the law (as well as messiah) existed before creation itself.[1] In other words the law was given from heaven, as opposed to invented at Sinai. What is important for Paul is that the righteousness that comes from faith and calling precedes a righteousness that comes from obedience. Abraham’s entire life is not a life of faith void of laws to obey, only the beginning. Abraham demonstrates a faith that quickly becomes obedient.

Some aspects of Abraham’s life are similar to the walk of faith that all Christians walk. All of us are called to live our faith AND deeds. All of us are called to model our lives on the character of God himself and God expects all of us to keep the commands he gives us. This kind of observant life of submission is the one which Abraham pioneered, which Jesus Christ duplicated, and by which the people of faith should be characterized. The law is not the opposite of grace, the law itself is a gift based on grace. May God’s people have the faith of Abraham who trusted in God, and let them also have the obedience of Abraham who listened to the voice of God.

Other aspects of Abraham’s life are more analogous to Jesus Christ than to his followers. For example Abraham’s obedience is rewarded with covenants and oaths which confirm earlier promises. These covenants are passed on to his children on the basis of Abraham’s obedience, not theirs. This is exactly what happens with Jesus and his disciples. Christ’s obedient sacrifice merits him worthy to be donned with a kingdom. It is this kingdom bestowed on Christ in which his disciples may participate as co-heirs because of Jesus’ obedience.

If Abraham is observing the law of Moses, are Christians obligated to observe it too? As many of the laws as can be observed without contradicting the salvation in Christ or the enactments of the Spirit should be observed. I do not have space nor the attention span to deal with every law, but here are four prominent examples from Genesis:

1)      Tithing: Most religious leaders who live on the financial offerings of their congregants would not suppose that following Abraham’s observance of the tithe is opposed to trusting solely in Christ for salvation, unless they saw it as an indulgence which expiated sin. Just because tithing is a Jewish law, does not mean it shouldn’t be observed by the Christian who is not subject to the law’s curse.

2)      Circumcision: In regards to circumcision, not even Paul thought it was completely incompatible with Christian faith since he himself circumcised Timothy, the son of Jewish mother in Acts 16:3, but refused Titus, a full gentile. In other words there is no law that might save a man from his sin, but there are laws given to the chosen which should be observed.

3)      Sabbath: Following this a little farther in regards to the Sabbath, it is unmistakable that God rested on the seventh day of creation. Furthermore, it is unmistakable that the law required people to not cook, or buy, or sell, or travel on the Sabbath. It is equally unmistakable that the Sabbath was suspended in regards to certain individuals with certain duties such as priests on ministry at the temple or God’s anointed king while at war. Whenever Jesus justifies his “breaking” of the Sabbath he does so based on who he is and what he is doing and not by undercutting the legitimacy of the Sabbath. Moreover, arguing that its okay to heal on the Sabbath is not the same as saying the Sabbath is done. All it means is that it is okay to miraculously heal on the Sabbath.

4)      Kosher: Lastly, according to Lev 20:24-25 the intention of the food laws is not just separation of clean food from unclean food (as even Noah observed), but the symbolic separation of God’s people from pagan nations. By separating his food an Israelite symbolically demonstrated what God did with Israel. As long as there is a distinct separation between Israel as God’s chosen people and pagan gentiles, the food laws make sense. But this was radically altered by no one less than the Spirit of God when he filled gentile believers in Jesus. By so doing, these believers could not be discounted as God’s people even though they had not yet become Jewish. This redefinition in who the people of God were, both Jew and gentile together as one family made separation based on nationality foolish and irreverent, and any symbolic law upholding separation overturned.

These four token examples show that the individual laws in Genesis-Exodus can not be blindly applied to all situations equally. The laws of God are principles, with specific purposes and exceptions. The problem is that the average Christian is so unacquainted with most Biblical law that it all seems equally unnecessary. God help us.

On a Textual Side Note:

The vocabulary of Gen 26:5 stands out as so unusual in Genesis that some may wonder whether it was a later addition to Genesis by a priestly writer or harmonized to the wording of Deuteronomy after the fact. A perusal of Deuteronomy however does not yield large quantities of the phrases in this verse, and in Deuteronomy the word “law” is never plural as it is here. Wenham thus concludes the verse evidences “rhetorical style” rather “than authorship”.[2] Even if a priestly redactor put in this verse as an editorial interpretation, it would represent such an early interpretation of these events that it would represent an accurate and authentic understanding of the story.  

Others take the unusual plural form torot as evidence of the dual nature of the law as both written and oral. While Judaism and especially rabbinic Judaism did sustain an oral fraternal twin to the written law, the historical evidence for such anywhere else in Genesis through Judges is absent.

[1] See Genesis Rabbah 1:4, Pesher 54a.

[2] Wenham, Gordon. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary, vol 2, 1994. pg 190.

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