Monday, January 22, 2007

Reading Genesis 15

In my tardy (but considered) opinion, our first two research questions are most relevant to this week's material, to wit, and somewhat embellished:


1. If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship? In particular, is the faithful relationship between Lord and human mediated or immediate? How do questions of faith, doubt and knowledge structure the terms of the relationship?
2. What can Abraham's relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology? In particular, are the rhetorical forms of dialogue and metaphor relevant to the particular operations of theology?


I invite your comments on these questions, as well as a number of others I have suggested in my reading notes below; as always, your own particular interests and insights are requested. Below find my inexhaustive reflections on the text.

Genesis 15
In Genesis 14, Melchizedek’s appearance introduces a priestly mediator between Abram and God Most High; in Genesis 15, however, Abram resumes direct communication with the Lord, immediate and unmediated by priest or person. Indeed, Abram’s encounter with the Lord in this chapter appears, for the first time, to be genuinely dialogic: Abram and YHWH converse in an exchange of questions and answers, requests and responses.

The temporal nature of the encounter is difficult to interpret: the Lord first comes to Abram in a vision, but it’s not clear to me whether the vision comprises the rest of the chapter; if it does, then Abram experiences an unusual sleep-within-a-dream. In any case, the conversation, whether occurring in real-time or dream-time, is narrated so as to underscore its passage through time and space. YHWH takes Abram across two crucial symbolic thresholds: the limen of his tent, in verse 5, and the setting of the sun, in verse 17. Whereas the Lord’s first utterance of the covenant in 12:1 occurs in some anarchic beginning outside of history, as Jim as suggested, the reiteration of the covenant in Genesis 15 can be understood to take place in a very different temporal mode, a here-and-now history that moves in human increments of time and space. (Alternately, I suppose, the liminal location of the encounter could be read as conferring a special ontological status of some sort on the conversation. Readers’ wild speculation considered opinions solicited.)

The Lord’s utterance in Genesis 15 differs rhetorically from his first pronouncement in Genesis 12, as well, most notably in the introduction of metaphor. In Genesis 13:16 the Lord says, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” A cognate simile (a species of metaphor) is introduced in in 15:5 to the same effect: “Look up at the heavens and count the stars---if indeed you can count them. … So shall your offspring be.” Dust and star as metonym for earth and heaven; earth and heaven as metaphor for Abram’s family.

Roman Jakobson, of course, has written famously on metaphor and metonymy; I know Ricouer and Derrida have also written on metaphor, though I don’t know what they’ve said; I also am absolutely ignorant of Hebrew rhetoric. If there is anything to be gathered from the appearance of metaphor in the covenant, perhaps one might begin with the trope’s logic of substitution and interruption: dust and star work as conceptual substitutes for offspring, bringing their superabundance---indeed, their unknowable superabundance---to bear on the idea of Abram’s seed. But the substitution of metaphor is accomplished by interruption, rather than by the contiguity of metonymy: star and dust are not continuous, conceptually, with offspring. Interruption, substitution---this is the vocabulary we’ve been using to talk about the Lord’s disruption of the patrilineal logic. Is there a connection? (Readers’ wild speculation considered opinions solicited, if the question is interesting.)

This chapter seems to introduce the problems of faith, doubt and knowledge---problems that will reappear surrounding the conception and birth of Isaac. Verse 6 tells us that “Abram believed the Lord, and he [the Lord]? credited it to him [Abram?] as righteousness.” Several verses later, however, Abram seeks a surer knowledge, asking in verse 8, “How can I know that I will gain possession of” the land? In response, the Lord directs Abram to bring him various animals, and upon Abram’s compliance the Lord puts on a miraculous show of supernatural power, assuring Abram that he can “know for certain” that his descendants will ultimately inherit the land. This is clearly a foreshadowing of the episode with Isaac later, but I have no idea what to make of the specifics. I’m certain there’s symbolic meaning to Abram’s various offerings and to the way they are prepared, described in verses 9 and 10, but I’m ignorant. (Knowledgeable readers’ insights solicited.)

Finally, something might be said about the highly atmospheric recounting of Abram’s extraordinary night vision in verse 12-21. Abram’s “deep sleep” and the “thick and dreadful darkness” that falls upon him bring to mind both Adam’s deep sleep at the creation of Eve and the darkness that blankets the formless earth at Genesis 1:1; from both darknesses YHWH brings forth light. (I don’t know the original Hebrew, so I don’t know whether these parallels are supported by the lexis.) Abram knows he has encountered the creator God: in verse 2 he addresses YHWH as “Sovereign,” the term (I think) introduced by Melchizedek at 14:19 that encompasses maker, creator, possessor, and engenderer. (Please correct me if I’m wrong here, Jim.)

It is this context of creation that YHWH gives Abram the extraordinary prophecy of the future of the great nation that will bear his name. This is the first appearance of the word “covenant”, I think, though it is by now the third or fourth iteration of the themes of inheritance and offspring. Here the Lord promises the land not to Abram himself, but to his descendants: the gift is deferred, but also defined. Abram’s descendants will displace---substitute, interrupt---the “Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” In Genesis 13:14 and 13:17 the Lord invites Abram to claim the borders of his land by seeing and walking its perimeter, an incremental and continuous act of possession. In Genesis 15, however, YHWH installs Abram’s offspring in the land---discursively, at least---in a radically discontinuous, substitutionary fashion. Metonymy and metaphor are coming to mind here, again. Is there anything to be learned from from these differences? (Readers’ considered opinions wild speculations solicited.)

15 Comments:

Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I think Rosalynde's comments suggest a sort of threshold in chapter 14: it is apparently only after the mediation of Melchizedek that anything like a dialogic relation--or an immediate one for that matter--with the Lord opens up for Abram. What is it in the Melchizedek encounter that opens that possibility? What role might the bread and wine play in this sudden opening of the dialogic relation. (I imagine Jim, because he is teaching his "philosophy of food" course this semester, might have a word to say on that.)

I wonder how this might be thought back into the non-historicality of the immemorial Jim introduced in chapter 12. There, the immemorial word opens the narrative itself (specifically, perhaps, because it functions as a command to get moving); or, in other words, the non-historical opens the historical, the spiritual opens the temporal. One reading, perhaps of the whole of chapter 12 is to take it as a temporal history the moments of which are so many non-temporal or non-historical moments (of theophany).

What all of this has to do with the present chapter, and especially in the terms Rosalynde has introduced, is this: the structure of the disruption (and therefore grounding) of the historical by the non-historical seems to be very similar to the structure of metaphor as Rosalynde describes it. That the heavens are summoned on this point specifically is interesting: the heavens--the lights of the heavens, at least--are the non-historical that historicizes (their circularity--their eternal round--makes them non-historical even as they provide the defining units--the reckoning--of time, history, temporality, and even narrative). The metaphor introduced embodies the disruption/grounding of the historical by the non-historical (heavens).

Now that I think through this, it forces me to engage a tension in this chapter that I hadn't before recognized: as he crosses the first symbolic boundary (the door of the tent), Abram is told to look at the stars; if the temporality is supposed to be continuous (whether in a dream-state or otherwise), it is odd then that a few verses later, the second symbolic boundary to be crossed is the going down of the sun. In other words, the text implies two events: one that happens at night, and another that happens another day as night falls. In fact, the chapter might be read as a narrative of two parallel events, in both of which Abram crosses a symbolic boundary to sit beneath the night sky.

These thoughts are getting jumbled a bit. I will step back and think some more before writing anything else.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

I apologize that I've yet to respond to this. I am very interested, both in this particular text and in what Rosalynde has written. However, I have two public lectures to give tomorrow, one that is not yet finished and one that is not yet started, and I have to take my mother to the doctor in the morning. You can see, therefore, why I'm looking at blogs and reading e-mail rather than actually getting down to work.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

A couple of extremely speculative thoughts about chapter 15:

vs. 1, “after these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision”

This verse marks the first time that the Lord’s “appearance” to Abram is described in this way. In 12.1 it simply says: “The Lord said to Abram . . . ,” 12.7: “the Lord appeared to Abram and said . . . ,” 13.14: “the Lord had said to Abram . . .” What is different here is the use of the circumlocution “the word of the Lord came to Abram.” This construction - with its metonymic description of the Lord as being his “word” – appears to mark a new aspect of mediation, as Rosalynde suggests, in Abram’s relation with the Lord. Perhaps this means that, post-Melchizedek, Abram doesn’t quite resume immediate communication with the Lord?

Also, perhaps it is the introduction of a symbolic dimension to the relationship that allows Abram to do more than simply comply with the requests and commands of the Lord: their relation, now articulated in terms of words and symbols (also demonstrated in the highly symbolic covenant ceremony shortly to follow?), allows for Abram to use words to engage and reply rather than simply offering mute gestures of obedience. If so, is this a step forward or a step back? Is this a sign of Abram growing up - he breaks with the naïve immediacy of his relation to the Lord for the sake of a mediated “adult” relationship? Though the price of such a relationship vis-à-vis the symbolic order appears to be (surprise!) the loss of certainty and the introduction of feelings like shame and fear.

vs. 5, “look up to the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them”

I read a whole series of books over Christmas break about the history of the notion of infinity in religion, mathematics, and philosophy. I’m not sure what to say about this verse at the moment (don’t worry, I won’t let that stop me), but it strikes me as potentially significant nonetheless. What Abram expressly fears is “going to his end” childless (15.2) and what the Lord offers in response is a promise of something endless. What strikes me about the example the Lord gives, however, is that it is not an example of a “potential” infinity. The uncountable “infinity” of the stars (or the sand) is right there, actualized and surveyable (though uncountable) as a complete set right before Abram’s eyes. The stars and sand are an example of a kind of synchronic infinity rather than the diachronic infinity we would normally associate with endless generations of children - generations that may be never ending, but are never present all at once.

This suggests to me (continuing the requested wild speculation) a way of thinking about the relation of eternity (the immemorial, as Jim puts it) to Abram’s present historical moment. Eternity is not another kind of diachronic temporality (one that would be essentially the same as everyday time, but never-ending and uncorrupting), but a dimension of diachronic temporality that is perpetually synchronically available (like the infinity/eternity of the stars in the sky) at any moment of the historical present and available as an interruption of the inevitable movement from cause to effect of historical necessity.

To bring this back around to Roman Jakobson (who I know only second-hand through Lacan), Lacan reads Jakobson’s notion of metonymy as the diachronic dimension of our linguistic experience and metaphor as the synchronic dimension of experience. Metaphor is, for Lacan, the properly symbolic dimension of language that is "eternal" and directly related the formation of the unconscious.

vs. 18, “on that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram”

It may be worth noting, as many of you likely already know, that in Hebrew the idiom proper to making a covenant is to “cut” a covenant (which some scholars have speculated is an idiom that may find its genesis in exactly the kind of ceremony described here in 15.9-17). At any rate, it’s not insignificant (possibly) that the newly symbolic dimension of Abram’s relation to the Lord is grounded in the “cut” of a covenant.

The symbolic is surely a cut that simultaneously frees us from the tyranny of the immediacy of the senses and the passions even as it splits our identity in two, cutting me off from myself by representing me to myself (I can never quite coincide with myself again now that I’m represented to myself and this moves me to constantly fantasize about a kind of illusory perfection in which I would no longer suffer from this inadequacy – the kind of illusion that is, I think, at the root of every sin, i.e., pride: pretending to be self-sufficient when you are not). Further, the symbolic first loops this representation of myself to myself through the eyes of the Other so that, in a fundamental way, from here on out, the Other is inside me before I am –“extimate to me,” Lacan says - closer to me than I am to myself. Hence the introduction of fear, shame, uncertainty associated with the initiation into the symbolic. This way of talking also resonates in all kinds of ways with Levinas, Derrida, Marion, etc. and their descriptions of the “called subject.” This cut may also prefigure the most significant covenantal cut of all (circumcision) in which Abram will finally be given his promised heir - but only if he submits to a symbolic castration so that the child is never truly his own but the Other’s (i.e., the Lord’s).

Some final thoughts.

Is this kind of cut necessary in order for any threshold or limen to be crossed (see Rosalynde’s discussion of the limen)? Without the cut, are we condemned to the immediacy of whatever IS, forever unable to cross a threshold and arrive at something new?

Is it this symbolic cut that makes possible “metaphor” by allowing for substitution and, hence, precipitates the loss of self-identity (identity with one’s homeland but also the identity with one’s own name – the Lord will make Abram’s name great . . . but only by changing his name)? Metaphor, here, as the axis of substitution and synchronic symbolism may also be key to thinking about the possibility of the ram being substituted for Isaac. Only the opening of the symbolic and metaphorical (with all its problems) allows for substitution/atonement?

All of this appears to me to bear on Rosalynde’s excellent reformulations/ extensions of our general discussion questions: (1) is the faithful relationship between Lord and human mediated or immediate?, and (2) are the rhetorical forms of dialogue and metaphor relevant to the particular operations of theology?

To (1) I suggest: mediate. To (2) I suggest: yes, yes, yes.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

Adam, your comments about the symbolic dimension implied in "the word of the Lord," and all the Lacanian apparatus that it suggests, are very stimulating. But they're making the historicist in me nervous. (Frankly, my own comments about metaphor made me nervous in the same way.) In order to make any claims about the symbolic functions of language---or indeed the rhetorical functions of metaphor---in the original text, don't we need to ground them in period-specific Hebrew rhetoric and philosophy? This, at least, was how I was trained to work; however, I'm willing to play by somebody else's rules if I can understand them. Is the idea simply that the deep structures of language and psyche are transhistorical and trans-er,lingual?

7:06 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Rosalynde,

Great questions.

I certainly don’t intend the above speculation as other than speculative (though, perhaps, speculative in a more literal sense of simply “trying to see what we can see”). And I take it is a complement that it makes the historicist in you (and me) nervous – classically, there is nothing philosophy loves more than to make the historicists and rhetoricians nervous :)

There is also no doubt that some period-specific Hebrew rhetoric and philosophy would be beneficial here (my Hebrew, however, is barely even Hebrew-specific). However, I think that there are certainly some transhistorical / translingual structures in play. I don’t know that we need to be expert in the details to be able to assert (as you rightly do) that there is a newly “symbolic” or “dialogical” dimension to Abram’s and God’s relationship in this chapter (especially in light of the introduction of actual dialogue with God and the institution of a formal, symbolic covenant). I’m also relatively confident that most every assimilation into a symbolic order will involve the kind of subject-splitting alienation Lacan discusses in which we become capable of symbolically registering our own identity only by looping it through a symbolic register that is radically Other to us as non-symbolic “animals.” (And the experience of alienation and exile seems to be fundamental to much of what is happening to Abram.) Further, reading “metaphor” as a way of describing language’s fundamental logic of substitution isn’t entirely necessary, but it’s convenient and, either way, I can’t conceive of a symbolic order that wouldn’t entail substitution as one of its fundamental operations.

Of course, tying these general theses to specific events, uses of words, metaphors, etc. in the text is where things really start to get speculative and in this respect I'm more than happy to entertain (may they proliferate!) alternate readings, etc. Perhaps methodologically, we could say that what I suggest above is certainly more properly theological than historico-critical. As Joe says on another blog: “The more I work with the scriptures, the more I think that the united approach of LaCoque and Ricoeur is the best way to think about the scriptures generally: we should take up all the weight of historical criticism, and then transition from that (and quite naturally) to theological or interpretive questions.” Though I am certainly eager to jump to second task. Please, keep me honest!

My best,
Adam

9:31 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Adam's comments (Lacanian, of course) point to the interrelation of historicality (the very possibility of narrative) and the symbolic: the rupture of silence by the word (Heb: dbr, which can be translated literally as "a deferral," for what THAT'S worth!) of the Lord, which amounts to the introduction of a mediation between Abram and the Lord, opens onto the first dialogic relation between Abram and the Lord. Here at last we have worlds in collision: rather than Abram doing his thing and the Lord His, there is a meeting up of things in a real struggle (a major result of which, as already noted several times, is doubt). Struggle: the start of a dialogical narrative, or the start of a dialectical history?

What I mean by this last question is this: what kind of space ought we to feel between the symbol and the type in the Abraham story generally? Does the "word" that mediates a real dialogic relation (narrative, history) mark the rise of a symbolic order through which Abram and the Lord form a covenant community (one cut, from the very beginning)? Or does the "word" rather mediate a dialectical history (narrative, relation), giving rise to (or even echoing) a typological order in which Abram and the Lord are bound to each other in the cutting that anticipates the eventual end of history? In short: does the "word" hail Lacan (can I say Judaism?) or Hegel (can I say Christianity?)?

Am I justified in reading so great a distinction between the two roles or orders of the "word"? In a sense, the point of Derrida's "The Two Sources of Religion at the Limits of Reason Alone" is to deconstruct this very distinction, isn't it? I raise these question because I think my own reading of metaphor as the non-historical opening of the historical was (implicitly, perhaps not even implicitly--just silently) grounded by my interest in typology, whereas Adam's very similar reading of metaphor as the synchronic introduction of the eternal into the historical (the unconscious into consciousness, if I'm following him right) is grounded (I think) in an interest in the symbolic, in language or linguistics more broadly.

I think this distinction and its justifiability go to the roots of a uniquely LDS reading of the Abraham story: in a sense, doesn't the LDS "position" perform the same deconstruction of this distinction? For the Latter-day Saint, history, though punctuated by so many beginnings and endings, is without beginning or end. Somehow we believe at once in a continued diachronic temporality ("eternal progression") and a beginningless, endless synchronic non-temporality ("God lives in an eternal now," and we will too?).

Perhaps the best reason to bring all of this up here is the fact that all of this is raised in the name of Abraham (in the Book of Abraham, but also in D&C 132, etc.).

9:47 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Joe,

I'm not sure I entirely follow the distinction between a "symbolic order" and a "typological order" - though you propose that we might want to deconstruct this very difference. Could you say more about the distinction? Typology strikes me as being fundamentally structured by the possibility of substitution in a way that is perhaps identical with metaphor. Are you suggesting that the difference has to do with the type of community they engender?

My best,
Adam

2:08 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I'm not sure I follow the distinction very well either. I think I'm reading in the one (typology) the grounding of a closed-ended history and in the other (symbolism) the grounding of an open-ended history. But, like you say, I think I'm also suggesting that the distinction deconstructs itself. Might it be that the one (typology) is metonymic and the other (symbolism) is metaphorical? History as embodiment (the Word as God and as with God; Christianity) vs. history as messianicity (the word as self-rupturing text; Judaism)? I'd like to think about this further.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

I apologize for coming in late on this; I feel like I have about 3 years of background reading to do before being able to fully understand, let alone helpfully respond to, many of the points discussed. Thus, I will unfortunately have little to say about dialogic relations, beginnings of history, and so forth.

What I am able to wonder about is the repetition of the covenant. This chapter marks the third time that Abram has been promised the land, although this time there does seem to be significant extensions of the boundaries of that land. Why does the Lord continually repeat the promise to Abram? Perhaps fruitful thoughts along this line relate to the circumstances in which the recitation occurs. Abram is first promised great posterity and a promised land, as we noted, after his father's death. He is next promised these things after allowing Lot to choose the better part of the land. Finally, in this chapter he is again promised land and posterity after rescuing Lot and dealing graciously with the king of Sodom. Is the Lord enlarging and expanding His covenant with Abram as a consequence of Abram extending his concern for others? Perhaps this has something to do with the interruption of patriarchy we've been discussing. Though the Lord's promise to Abram remains patriarchal (he will have great posterity), the Lord enlarges and expands this covenant in response to Abram's willingness to depart strict patriarchy. I'd be interested to hear other takes on the reason the Lord so frequently repeats the promise.

Also interesting is the Lord's response to Abram's request for proof. As noted, this is the first time in which Abram has become God's partner in conversation. But God responds to Abram's request in something other than language, with a miraculous (and to my modern ears quite odd) display of divine power. For better or worse, though, it doesn't seem like the power of this demonstration lasted long. (There's a reason that Isaac is named "Isaac," one that Abram would probably like to forget.) What does this tell us about divine communication? What does this tell us about the non-verbal communication posited frequently within the Church as a means of knowledge?

I apologize that these thoughts aren't more directly on the topics discussed. I'm hoping that the coming chapters will push our questions and discussions more toward my areas of competence.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Jeff J. said...

I apologize for coming in late on this; I feel like I have about 3 years of background reading to do before being able to fully understand, let alone helpfully respond to, many of the points discussed. Thus, I will unfortunately have little to say about dialogic relations, beginnings of history, and so forth.

What I am able to wonder about is the repetition of the covenant. This chapter marks the third time that Abram has been promised the land, although this time there does seem to be significant extensions of the boundaries of that land. Why does the Lord continually repeat the promise to Abram? Perhaps fruitful thoughts along this line relate to the circumstances in which the recitation occurs. Abram is first promised great posterity and a promised land, as we noted, after his father's death. He is next promised these things after allowing Lot to choose the better part of the land. Finally, in this chapter he is again promised land and posterity after rescuing Lot and dealing graciously with the king of Sodom. Is the Lord enlarging and expanding His covenant with Abram as a consequence of Abram extending his concern for others? Perhaps this has something to do with the interruption of patriarchy we've been discussing. Though the Lord's promise to Abram remains patriarchal (he will have great posterity), the Lord enlarges and expands this covenant in response to Abram's willingness to depart strict patriarchy. I'd be interested to hear other takes on the reason the Lord so frequently repeats the promise.

Also interesting is the Lord's response to Abram's request for proof. As noted, this is the first time in which Abram has become God's partner in conversation. But God responds to Abram's request in something other than language, with a miraculous (and to my modern ears quite odd) display of divine power. For better or worse, though, it doesn't seem like the power of this demonstration lasted long. (There's a reason that Isaac is named "Isaac," one that Abram would probably like to forget.) What does this tell us about divine communication? What does this tell us about the non-verbal communication posited frequently within the Church as a means of knowledge?

I apologize that these thoughts aren't more directly on the topics discussed. I'm hoping that the coming chapters will push our questions and discussions more toward my areas of competence.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

Thanks for your response Jeff, and there's no need to apologize. I hope not, at least, since I'm certainly as far outside my area of competence as you are!

I wonder whether there might also be a bibliographic reason for the repetition of the covenant: I know just about nothing of the textual history of Genesis, but perhaps there are issues of authorship and manuscript history that could account for the repetition.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Jeff,

I'd certainly like to echo Rosalynde's response. Competence is something that we are each lacking in a variety of ways and one of our aims in assembling the group we have was to arrange for a productive cross-pollination of interests and vocabularies. I'm wholly in favor of opening up a variety of different discussions in different registers with different concerns. For instance, as has been suggested, I've got some Lacan on the brain, (though its likely that none of us, myself certainly included, are "competent" to talk about Lacan), but I have no interest in the discussion being limited to this narrow vein. May alternate concerns, approaches, etc. proliferate!

Speaking of Lacan . . . I also think that you make an excellent point about the (non?)efficacy of God's non-verbal display of power. The weakness of the enduring persuasiveness of the image (the smoke and fire, etc.) is potentially important when thinking about the different ways in which God can/does communicate with us.

My best,
Adam

9:40 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Jeff,

I'd certainly like to echo Rosalynde's response. Competence is something that we are each lacking in a variety of ways and one of our aims in assembling the group we have was to arrange for a productive cross-pollination of interests and vocabularies. I'm wholly in favor of opening up a variety of different discussions in different registers with different concerns. For instance, as has been suggested, I've got some Lacan on the brain, (though its likely that none of us, myself certainly included, are "competent" to talk about Lacan), but I have no interest in the discussion being limited to this narrow vein. May alternate concerns, approaches, etc. proliferate!

Speaking of Lacan . . . I also think that you make an excellent point about the (non?)efficacy of God's non-verbal display of power. The weakness of the enduring persuasiveness of the image (the smoke and fire, etc.) is potentially important when thinking about the different ways in which God can/does communicate with us.

My best,
Adam

9:41 AM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

I'm coming to this discussion late, trying to catch up. My apologies to all. I've read and enjoyed Rosalynde's reading and the responses, but I don't have much to add to them. So I'm going merely to add my a few of own ideas and questions, with some reference to previous comments.

I think the discussion of the symbolic and the historical is very important, though I, too, agree with Joe that we need to take up the weight of historical criticism and then transition to interpretive. I also like another point that Joe made at the Feast Upon the Word blog:

"As faith (relational), hope (relational), and charity (relational) replace belief (non-relational), wish (non-relational), and serenity (non-relational)–all of this through the rupture of the order of the order that we call the Atonement, what C. S. Lewis calls the “new creation”–history comes to mean something else, because it is taken up within the reality from which it issues."

For believers, history does not mean what it means for non-believers. As a result, there is no such thing as the merely historical.

Verse 1: Nachmanides says that this vision occurred in the day rather than in the night. I suspect that is because nothing is said about a dream or about night in the beginning and because we see the sun setting later, verse 12. The Hebrew, mhzh (used only four times in the OT), is used in Numbers 24:4 and 16 clearly to mean a waking experience, so perhaps it means the same here. However, the Lord's command to look at the stars suggests that this occurred at night. This confusion of day and night takes the scene out of any ordinary temporality. I think that may be a repetition of what Joe was saying about day and night in this chapter.

I was particularly struck by the idea that only after the mediation of Melchizedek does the dialogic relation begin. At the same time, I think Adam is right to point out that the Lord comes as his word, which raises questions about that idea. Is the point that our dialogic relation with God is a relation with his word?

God promises military protection and that, as God's vassal, Abram will receive war booty. (The word translated "reward" is the same word that appears in Ezekiel 29:19, where it is translated "spoil.") He is recognizing that there is a covenant relation between him and Abram, though later in the chapter he will make a covenant with Abram. As Jeff points out, the covenant that is to come will be the third time that the Lord has explicitly made that covenant, and the covenant relation is assumed more often than that.

Though we aren't doing apologetics here, this making and renewal of the covenant suggests that our own covenant relation with God (and others) isn't something done once and for all, but something that must continually be redone.

If we ignore the chapter divisions (as we should), the most recent part of the story runs: Abram rescues Lot; he pays his tithe to Melchizedek and perhaps they join in a covenant meal; he refuses to accept booty from the king of Sodom; the Lord promises him protection and booty. For God to make covenant with Abram means that Abram refuses fealty to the world and pledges it to God, but what are we to make of the parallels in the story:

War with Lot's captors as a chief : : Service to God as a vassal
Covenant with Melchizedek : : Covenant with God

Is this a way of placing the earthly and the divine in parallel?

Verses 2-3: Abram wants to know what the point of God's promised gifts are if he has no heir. Since God has already promised him that his descendants would inherit the land, he could reasonably infer that he was to have descendants, but he has not. Perhaps he thinks that he has forfeited his blessing because of some sin. Or is it possible that he does not yet fully trust the Lord. If so, then part of what we see is the shift from not yet trusting fully in verse 3 to full trust in verse 6.

Verse 6: For Paul, this verse is a key to understanding grace: God counted Abram's belief as righteousness prior to the covenant of circumcision, so circumcision (and, by extension, the Law) is not necessary for righteousness. Belief—trust in God—is sufficient. The Hebrew word translated "believe" is cognate with the word "amen." Literally the verse says something like "Abraham came to be sure or confirmed in the Lord." "Believe" is a good translation, but so is "trust."

I think Paul is right to see in this the teaching that our relation to God is a relation of trust rather than a relation of assent. It is also relevant that this is not a two-sided covenant. In other cases, there is more of a parallel to our contracts, with obligations for both God and Israel (though the difference in power between God and Israel, both before and after the covenant is made, reduce the parallel significantly). In this instance, God makes promises to Abram, but doesn't impose any requirements.

The covenant makes the military metaphor of verse 1 more important: God will fight our battles with us (I see nothing here about him fighting them for us) if we trust him, and he will reward us by making our lives infinitely fruitful.

Verse 7: The Lord initiates this covenant with the same formula he uses to introduce the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6), reminding Abram of how he was brought out of Ur. Abram's initial call and promise comes from an anarchic beginning, then here (in the middle?) Abram covenants with God in time, and the promise he receives is of a posterity without end. The covenant made in time joins the infinite (in the sense of "without bounds") beginning and end of Abram's relation to God.

The promise in the last half of the verse also serves as the anti-type of Israel's experience: "to give thee this land to inherit it" and "to give you the land of Canaan" (Leviticus 25:38). The experience of Israel is the type of Abram/Abraham's experience.

Verses 8-10: The animals are the animals of later temple sacrifice and, just as in later sacrifice, Abram splits all of the animals but the bird (cf. Leviticus 1:6, 17). Normally the animals would then be placed on the altar and burned. Here, too, Abraham is the anti-type for Israel, though I wonder what to make of the differences between his covenant offering and their temple sacrifices.

Verse 15: Is it significant that this is the first time in scripture where we see the word shalom, "peace"? I find it interesting that the peace spoken of is the peace of death: you will die in peace. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says that tob, "good," is often used "where English idiom would prefer a more specific term such as 'beautiful' or 'expensive'" (345). So, "peace" and "good old age" (the New American Bible uses "contented," which I like) are rhetorically parallel. Abraham's first promise is that he will die contented, even though he knows that his descendants are going to be enslaved and only freed after 400 years. What is it about the covenant that makes death a matter of contentment? I assume that, for us, part of the answer is the promise of an afterlife, but this text says nothing about that.

Verse 18: Adam has said very interesting things about "cut," following up on Rosalynde's remarks about the limen, so I won't follow up on those remarks except to add that the covenant also cuts Abram off from the world, as per verse 1.

I've never before noticed that, with this covenant, Abraham receives two promises: contended death, suggesting a full and contented life, and the Promised Land as his inheritance. I'm intrigued by that, but I don't have much to say about it.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

Reading about chapter 16, I noticed this about chapter 15: the rabbis have wondered why the Lord opens his vision to Abraham with "Fear not." He had just come from victory over four kings and being honored, in different ways, by the kings of Salem and Sodom. And he had declined the wealth of the world offered by the king of Sodom and accepted the covenantal meal offered by Melchizedek. In that context, why should he have been afraid?

Some answer that he feared having killed even one innocent man in a battle. Others suggest that he feared the consequences of having defeated the kings: they might return with larger armies. A third group suggests that Abram feared that perhaps he had used up all of the divine grace alloted to him.

Regardless of how we account for Abram's fear, I think it is instructive that the answer to fear is covenant. That also will be relevant to Abraham's fear of having no heir.

What is the connection between fear and the revelation of God? Is it a necessary precursor? Or is the revelation the solution to our fear? Or . . . ? Are our fears like Abraham's, that we have unknowingly done evil, that something evil may lie in our future, that we cannot be the recipients of divine grace?

9:22 PM  

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