Old Testament (Genesis 17-23)
1. Genesis 17:1-23: What is the significance of the covenant of circumcision? Does it not constitute works righteousness and if not, why not? And why circumcision as a sign of the covenant?
Since that’s not one question but three, let’s take each in turn.
Genesis 17 refers to the giving (Hebrew: ntn) or confirming of the covenant. This covenant ratification follows on from the covenant inauguration (or “cutting of the covenant”) in Genesis 15. The cutting of the covenant, with its strange ceremony with fire and divided animals stresses the chronological priority of God’s action which takes priority and pre-eminence over man’s. Genesis 17 majors on man’s response which ratifies and confirms the covenant already made by God’s divine initiative.
God commands Abraham to “walk faithfully and be blameless so that I might make my covenant and increase your numbers” (v2). Some might glance at this verse nervously and conclude that it teaches a kind of works righteousness, whereby Abraham’s blameless life is the basis for God making the covenant. Some translations give this impression more than others:
- NIV is too misleading with its transactional translation that almost makes God’s blessing completely contingent on Abraham’s obedience: “walk before me…then I will make”
- KVJ and RSV both put the relationship of actions in consecutive relation: “walk before me…and I will make”.
- ESV and Wenham both frame Abraham’s action in terms of purpose: “walk before me…that I might make the covenant” (Wenham adds, “so that”).
Yet, the point here is not, I think, that Abraham’s faithfulness then leads God to confirm the covenant. Rather, it is that Abraham’s divinely-mandated faithfulness constitutes the ratification of the covenant that has already been initiated by God in Genesis 15. Again, it isn’t that God’s blessing—already given without regard for Abraham’s status or character (on which see the rather mixed portrait in chapters 12:10-20 and 20:1-18 for instance)—is contingent upon Abraham’s works. Rather Abraham’s future works from here on in constitute the ratification of the covenant. The consecutive relationship laid out in the KJV and RSV partially gets at this reality. But the translation of the ESV best captures the sense that Abraham’s walking faithfully and blamelessly has as its purpose the ratification of a covenant already established by God.
Genesis 15 and 17 do not warrant EP Sanders’ view of common Judaism summarised as “one gets into the covenant by God’s grace, and stays in by works” (Grant Macaskill has argued that contemporary evangelicalism has vehemently rejected Sanders’ assertion while ironically following it in practice). Rather, it is all by divine grace. Yet that grace does not come without duties and obligations which themselves could be seen as a grace. Indeed, the Reformed tradition, in contrast to the Lutherans, tends to follow the traditional Jewish conception of seeing the Law as a gracious blessing, albeit not fully binding for Gentile believers with the coming of Christ but instead finding its fulfilment in the Law of Christ (it continues to have relevance for Jewish Christians, however).
Paul reads Genesis 15 and 17 in this way in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. The figure of Abraham was central to Jewish identity. Abraham was the father of the Jewish people. We see in a number of writings that the Jewish people saw themselves as the sons of Abraham because they were faithful to the Law of Moses. The logic here was that when Genesis 15:6 declares, “Abraham had faith and this was credited to him as righteousness”, Abraham was faithful to the covenant of circumcision, given in Genesis 17 (or by submitting himself to the test of Genesis 22…see 1 Macc. 2:52 for example). In other words, even though Genesis 17 and 22 happe after Genesis 15 in the narrative sequence, a number of Jewish writings place it logically before—the upshot is that God credited Abraham with righteousness on the basis of future acts of obedience (keeping the covenant through circumcision and obeying God’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac). The story here is that to be a faithful child of Abraham was to be a faithful child of Moses.
Paul challenges this re-telling of the Abraham story and critiques the reading of his fellow Christian Jews in Galatians and non-Christian Jews in Romans 4 and Galatians 3. In both texts, for Gentile Christians to be faithful children of Abraham does not mean becoming faithful children of Moses. Instead, for these Gentile Christians, being faithful children of Abraham meant placing their trust in the Messiah, Jesus. For in him, all the promises of God to Abraham, had come to fruition.
Still, we should not (Paul would not…and James certainly wouldn’t!) shy away from the fact that there are covenant obligations and duties on the part of mankind (these are common in Near Eastern treaties). And so, Abraham and his household and every member of his household, free and slave, are to go through the same ritual. As Wenham states, “…by comparison with the obligations God has taken upon himself for the benefit of Abraham’s descendants, the duties imposed on Abraham are quite slight (vv 9-14)”. Once again, though, there are duties. The covenant is the very opposite of a “no-strings attached” contract.
Finally, why circumcision? Circumcision seems to have been a cultural practice in neighbouring regions of the Near east like Canaan and Egypt (though apparently not in Philistia; see Judges 14:3) or Mesopotamia (Abraham does not appear to have been circumcised, for instance, until this point). So one reason was its familiarity as a ritual. But circumcision, an irreversible ceremony which resulted in the removal of foreskin, also symbolised the eternal and irrevocable nature of this covenant. The covenant with Abraham is “an everlasting covenant” (v.1). Finally, circumcision is referred to as a sign of the covenant (v11). There are in the OT/HB, different types of signs, ranging from the sign acts of the prophets to proof signs like those in Exodus. There are also mnemonic signs, signs which remind both parties of a promise made. The rainbow in Genesis 9 reminds God of his promise to never again flood the earth. Whereas the sign of the bow in the sky reminds God, circumcision in Genesis 17 functions more like Sabbath or Passover which serve to remind man of the promises made to God. It is an intimate, personal and embodied reminder of the promise to walk blamelessly. I will return to this important point about embodiment below.
New Testament (John 8:31-John 11:57 & Matthew 16:13-20)
2. John 11:5: Jesus loves Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and presumably could have spared Lazarus’s life, and yet stays where he is for two more days. Why?
“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was…”. The seeming injustice of Jesus’s action is not lost on the characters in the narrative. Martha, probably with some frustration, states, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (21; see also verses 32 for Mary’s reaction and v37 for some of the crowds). Yet there is also belief on Martha’s part that Jesus can even now accomplish God’s purposes, though quite what this means is unclear (John 11:21-22).
But as with the Akedah, the biblical authors skilfully signal the purpose of the divine action which at first glance appears unclear at best, and petty and cruel at its worst. Genesis 22 opens with, “then God tested Abraham”, indicating that what is to take place is to verify Abraham’s obedience (see also 22:15-18). Similarly, Jesus states that Lazarus’s “illness will not end in death, but is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it”. What is meant here is, I think, not that Lazarus is fatally stricken with the specific and planned purpose that Jesus might then have an occasion to show God’s power. It seems more akin to the episode of the man born blind. Jesus encounters a situation of illness (or in chapter 9, disability), and starts from the reality of the situation. The situation and Jesus’s delay are an opportunity for Jesus’s followers to trust in him. Numerous textual details support this point:
- “for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (15).
- “I know that you always hear me”, Jesus prays at the tomb. “But I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they might believe that you sent me” (v42).
- Martha’s faith in the power of God to raise Lazarus and to offer life through trusting in Christ is tested (25-27), with Jesus asking her: “do you believe?”
- Indeed, the purpose of John, as revealed near its end, is “that you might come and continue to believe that the Messiah is Jesus and have life in his name” (20:31). This aligns perfectly with Martha’s confession which is striking for having fully grasped Jesus’s purposes.
A more direct answer to the question why Jesus delays, is a slightly more uncomfortable one. It has to do with Jesus’ priorities and timing in relation to his death. As J. Martin C Scott (EBC, 1189) writes,
Jesus’ initial response to come and meet his friend’s need might appear callous, but it shares the same sentiment as his initial reply to his mother’s approach at Cana. He has come to do God’s will, not to answer the call of family or friends. The verse is full of irony: Lazarus will die, but the story will not end in his death, but rather in the death of Jesus, which all along is seen as the sign of his glorification. The reader discovers this only as the drama unfolds, so Jesus remains where is to let things develop (11:6).
3. John 11:23: what does it mean for Jesus to say that he is the resurrection?
In addition to the absolute “I am” sayings (where Jesus states, “I am He”, and so identifies himself with the One God of Israel), there are eight predicate “I am” sayings in John. These are sayings that contain an additional element to them and often offer pictorial representations or metaphorical ones—”I am the light of the world”, for instance. These fill out Jesus’s divine identity. As just noted, usually Jesus’s I am sayings reference abstract nouns in the predicate section—Good Shepherd, Gate, Light of the World, etc. etc. Yet the “I am” saying in 11:23 is different. The resurrection, as Martha correctly identifies, was an end-time event. So how can Jesus be an event?
The saying speaks to the reality of participation—of living in close relationship with Jesus who is Life himself. Jesus is saying that he offers his resurrection and his life to those who trust in him. The resurrection is not simply an end time event (as Martha partially grasps) but one that has, in Christ’s very person, begun to pour over and seep into the fabric of human existence. This is part of what it means for Jesus to say that he is Resurrection.
Is it not redundant to say “resurrection and the life”? No, though some, including Lightfoot, have argued that the two terms are coterminous and that Jesus means the life of the resurrection (and some manuscripts omit resurrection and others life; see Barrett, p.396). It is possible that the two parts of this saying refer to different things. Not only does participating in Jesus guarantee that one receives a physical body in the new heavens and the new earth. To participate in Jesus also and more fundamentally means life in him; that is, not simply resurrection life and a resurrection body but life and relationship with Light and Life itself (“that life was the light of all mankind”).
Discipleship Reflection: Skin in the Game
There are plenty of massive themes and issues raised from the readings this week—covenant and circumcision (Gen 17), the Trinity/Divine Identity (Gen 18), judgment (Gen 19), atonement and sacrifice (the Akedah in Gen 22), Jewish-Christian relations (John 8 and 9:22), disability and illness (John 10-11), resurrection (John 11), Christology (John 10:34ff), divine mercy (summed up in God’s question to Hagar, “what is the matter?” NIV; “What troubles you”?, NRSV) and so on.
The point I wish to reflect on now is the theme of embodiment that comes through in the readings. The importance of human bodies is a reality that comes out quite sharply in a number of the readings from this week: in Genesis 17, we have circumcision, a ritual performed on human bodies; in John 11 we have the very real physical death and then raising of Lazarus; and finally, we have in the “binding” or Akedah of Genesis 22, the reality of sacrifice, with the physical ram provided in place of Isaac, who had, shockingly, submitted himself to be a sacrifice.
It is easy to forget that Christianity is a messy, bloody, physical affair. As well as being a worldview-shaping philosophy, it deals with the physicality of human bodies. It is this God who creates (Gen 1-2), and then recreates (Gen 8-9), and then enters into covenant with human beings (Gen 15, 17), a covenant which has as its symbol, a physical act on physical human bodies (NB: women were also considered full members of the covenant despite circumcision being only for men). In the binding of Isaac—an episode that is difficult to read as a new parent!—God provides a ram in place of, and as a substitute for, Isaac. The Passover connections are clear. There is no atonement for sin without a sacrifice and without blood (a theme that will become important in Leviticus). This is shocking to most laptop-wielding Westerners who very rarely come into contact with blood (and when we do, we tend to think of it as a sign of death when it is more often a sign of life—child birth or giving blood, for example). But that blood signals f life also makes sense of the death of Jesus which early Christians frequently referred to in terms of shed blood that cleanses from sin. Without the logic of sacrifice, Jesus’s sacrifice is almost entirely arbitrary—”God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (a clear allusion to the Binding of Isaac if ever there was one) is taken to mean that the great extent of God’s love is shown in the cross, whereas this verse in fact refers to the precise way in which God loves the world, namely through giving his Son to a cursed death to remove the curse of sin and death. We might better translate this verse, God loves the world thusly.
Returning to the theme of embodiment, in John’s account of Lazarus, we have a stark reminder of the physical reality of death. Jesus takes death seriously and weeps over it. Lazarus does not simply die physically while his spirit or soul moves on to another plane. Death is real and its effects are real (though the metaphor of sleep used by Jesus refers to the fact that those who trust in Jesus die, they are kept in God’s care, until awakened with new bodies at the resurrection). Lazarus’s resurrection is also real and physical and not merely a spiritual feint of hand. Lazarus comes out of the grave having been dead for four days.
In short, the Christian faith deals with the physicality of human bodies because God deals with the physicality of human bodies. In fact, in the most scandalous and novel move of all, God takes on one. The Christian faith is about physical presence because God is physically present to us (for more on this reality, see the wonderful chapter, “The Divine Presence”, in Richard Bauckham’s, Who is God?). We see this in the shocking revelation that the Word, the Logos which was “with God” in the beginning and indeed “was God”, which was “full of grace and truth” (precisely the phrase used of God who showed his back to Moses in Exodus 34), it is this Word who “took flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). As Bauckham (Who is God? p.29-30) writes,
The opening words of John 1:14, “the Word became flesh,” have no precedent at all in the Hebrew Bible. This is astonishingly novel. The word “flesh” in John’s Gospel refers to human nature in its weakness and mortality. It emphasizes the difference between human and divine nature (cf. 3:6). The Word, who both “was with God” and “was God,” became utterly human.
The Christian faith also holds the physical together with the spiritual. We see this perhaps best in John’s Gospel, the Spiritual Gospel (so called because of its emphasis on the Spirit). In short, the human body matters but it is not all that matters. In addition to gaining resurrection life, Lazarus with his raised body also proves, as so often in John’s gospel, a deeper point: that trusting in Jesus means that there is relational and spiritual life in him. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me, will never die”. Lazarus has already died so the reference to “will never die” must refer to spiritual or relational life and death. That Jesus is referring to relational life or life with him, and not simply to physical life, does not denigrate the body but beautifully elevates it to its chief and glorious purpose—trusting in, knowing, relating to and enjoying God in Christ forever. That, John’s Jesus is saying, is the chief end of the human person.
List of Questions
- Genesis 18:1-2: who are the three men? Angels? Introduced as “seeing the Lord”.
- Genesis 18:22-23: is Abraham before the Lord? How does that fit with John 1, “no one has ever seen the Lord”? Is John simply referring to Moses not seeing God but only his back?
- Genesis 18:25: how does this fit with teaching of Jesus, “sun shining on both the righteous and the wicked”? Does God show impartiality?
- Genesis 21:22-24: why does Abraham have to give sheep etc when the problem seems to be Abimelek’s?
- Genesis 23: What point is being made? Is Abraham lavish and generous with his wealth or foolish with his money?
- John 8:41: The opponents accuse Jesus of being an illegitimate child when he claims God as his father. Is there a hint of a tradition that Jesus had no earthly father (that is, he was not the offspring of Joseph, biologically, and so was thought to be legitimate)? Was this a tradition among Jews in Jesus’s time or John’s? I seem to recall something like this in anti-Christian literature like the Toledot Jesu.
- John 8:44: Jesus tells his opponents that their father is the devil, since they imitate him with their murderous and untruthful behaviour. How do we make sense of this within the context of Jewish-Christian relations?
- Matthew 16:19 (Confession of Peter): what does it mean for Peter to have the keys of the kingdom of heaven and to bind and loose on earth?
- John 9:2-3: was sin commonly seen as the cause of disability in ancient world? How does Jesus’s comment compare against the historical context?
- John 9:2-3; 11:4: What difference might it make if we thought of sickness and disability in this way (“this sickness will not lead to death”; “neither this man nor his parents have sinned”)? Is Jesus saying the sick and disabled are blessed and give glory to God in and of themselves or that God is glorified in healing them? Surely, we need to be careful here to avoid saying that God heals on every occasion?
- John 9: 22: when John mentions those followers of Christ being thrown out of the synagogue, does this refer to an experience taking place during the life and ministry of Jesus or one that occurred at the time he was writing (or both!)?
- John 10:1,8: is the thief the Devil?
- John 10:16: who are these other sheep? Gentiles? Yes. See 11:52.
- John 10:17-18: Is Jesus able to raise himself? I thought that early Christians believed that the Father raised him?
- John 10:34: How do we make sense of Jesus’ exegesis of Psalm 82:6 (“you are all gods”)? How does this compare with other early Jewish/Christian exegesis?
- John 11:4: Lazarus does die so what does Jesus mean? (see 11:23 on death and life)
- John 11:16: what is Thomas on about?
- John 11:48: why did the Pharisees think that the Romans would take away the nation and Temple if Jesus continued to gain a following?