Sustaining Promise and Hope in Present Circumstances
As we work our way through the Abraham saga, a story of promise and hope for a new future, we begin to note how odd and daring the narrative and the utterances of Yahweh seem. Abraham and Sarah are promised a new homeland, descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens, and that these descendants shall be a blessing to all of humankind. Yet, from the beginning circumstances appear to suggest otherwise. Not the least of which Sarah remains barren until Yahweh intervenes with the news that she shall bear a son. At age 90!
She and Abraham laugh themselves silly, but a year later a child is born and given the name Isaac, “laughter,” or “he who laughs.” Although it is up to him to carry on to the fulfillment of the promises made, “He Who Laughs” becomes the one who sees the knife gripped in his father’s hand about to sacrifice him to the same Lord of the Promises, until, lo and behold, an angel say, “OK, that’s far enough! There is a ram nearby. Sacrifice that instead and let the boy live.”
Yet, for this all to go forward the boy needs a wife and child. Abraham arranges for Rebekah to be that wife. All looks well until she too remains barren for twenty years. [Genesis 25:19-34] One would think Yahweh, he who utters promises, might make it all easier. Nevertheless, Isaac appeals for help, and Rebekah conceives – not one, but two children ‘struggle’ within her we are told. The Hebrew is more like they are crushing one another, a sign of future struggles. Now Rebekah cries to the Lord in despair, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”
The Lord replies with what can only be described as an oracle: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger. Sure enough, first comes the strong and hairy one, Esau who becomes a great hunter, followed by Jacob, literally “the heel-grabber,” apparently trying to pull Esau back so as to emerge ahead of him. “Heel-grabber” really means more like “trickster,” “scoundrel,” or “rascal.” This is not a compliment. He, we are told, attends the flocks and lives in tents. Yet, as the younger, how odd it seems that he will be the one to further the promises made. There is trouble in the tenthold. Isaac “loves” Esau, while Rebekah “loves” the Trickster.
Indeed, he tricks his brother Esau to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. This appears to be OK with the Lord, thus upturning the rights of primogeniture. This also means he will be the spiritual and ancestral head of the family. Just to make sure, Rebekah conspires to trick the now old and blind Isaac into blessing Jacob disguised as Esau. The last is now first. Soon, however, Esau wants to kill his brother and retain his birthright. Rebekah urges Jacob to leave.
While on the lam, Yahweh renews the promises to Jacob. He who contrived to gain an undeserved birthright and blessing is now described as the one through whom the entire human family will receive blessing! Yet this is no accident, no “fluke” of history. It is the unfolding intention of God who, Jacob’s unsavory character notwithstanding, promises to accompany the fugitive in order to ensure his safety and well-being. The solitary Jacob is solitary no more: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” [Gen 28:15] Yahweh’s eternal presence is secured.
Jacob is renamed Israel by the Lord, meaning “he who has struggled with God.” Things do not go any more smoothly for Jacob as Israel. Esau remains out to get him. His relative Laban tricks him to marrying not one but two of his daughters, Leah and Rachel! Jacob never gives up his trickery, but remains loyal to Yahweh and demands the same loyalty of all his family which is, as the original promise suggests, quite numerous eventually becoming twelve tribes headed up by his twelve sons.
Yet, throughout this odd and daring narrative, among circumstances that seem deadly and insurmountable, Israel is to remember that Yahweh is with them, the promises remain in force, and that Israel is not to surrender the life of its destiny to present circumstance.
The circumstances of our present time are also freighted with many promises: promises of greatness, promises of economic progress, promises of security – the list is nearly endless among those in the political class. Yet, against all these sorts of promises we are urged to embrace self-sufficiency while continuing to acquire, accumulate and consume all that we possibly can. We are also urged to fear the stranger and believe that “God helps those who help themselves.” We are to depend on ourselves and what we can manage to consume, defending what we have at all costs. As Walter Brueggemann observes in his seminal work, Old Testament Theology: Our insistence on visible circumstance seemingly banishes promise from our world. When promise is banished and circumstance governs, we are most likely left with nothing but fear and despair, whether the fear of “the other,” or the despair of the self-sufficient or of the dis-empowered. And fear and despair, says Brueggemann, are no basis for a viable social community.
He goes on to ask if perhaps these odd and daring texts might offer an antidote to our ready embrace of despair? This story of Jacob/Israel and Esau, and the rest of the Abrahamic saga, strikes us as remote from our present circumstance. Yet, they have always struck Israel as remote!
In the end, it will be our consideration of these and other promissory statements in the Bible that can sustain the very notions of promise and hope wherever we find ourselves, just as they did for our spiritual ancestors of our faith. Indeed, it is Jesus who urges us to careful and faithful reading of God’s Word in his Parable of the Sower in Matthew chapter 13. We are to be the fertile ground upon which God’s promises take root, are nourished, treasured and maintained against all present circumstances to the contrary. These stories are meant to sustain us as they have Israel in its various exiles and periods of occupation and oppression.
“In the end,” writes Brueggemann,” our consideration of these promissory statements is as it always was for Israel: a massive assurance grounded in the flimsy evidence of the witnesses” – people like Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Isaiah and Jesus. [p.173] We return to these stories because they have held and sustained the promises of Yahweh that make for viable social community. We are not in this on our own. We are those people who know that the God of these utterances and promises is with us no matter what circumstances we face. These stories remind us that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. For as he says to Jacob he says to us all, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go!”