Lesson: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Genesis is the first book of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah is also called the Pentateuch (five books) in Greek. Genesis covers the period from Creation to the deaths of Jacob and his 11th son, Joseph, in about 1,650 BCE, if the accounts are historical.
Genesis (like the Torah as a whole) is an amalgam of religious traditions, some of which are dated by scholars to about 950 BCE and some of which were developed as late as 450 BCE. Since the late 19th Century, Biblical scholars have recognized four major “strands” or sources in the Torah, and they are identified (among other ways) by their different theological emphases, names for God, names for the holy mountain, and portrayals of God’s characteristics.
Today’s reading is one of the three accounts of YHWH’s covenant with Abraham to bless him with many descendants. It was written by the Priestly writers between 550 and 450 BCE. This account added that it will be Sarah who will bear the child that would lead to many descendants.
Although the reading today appeared to make an unconditional covenant with Abram about numerous offspring (v.2), the omitted verses (8 to 14) required Abram and his offspring to be circumcised. This made the covenant a conditional one in which both parties had obligations.
The reading is also about names. In the Hebrew Bible, one’s name described who you were and your destiny. Abram means “exalted ancestor” and has the same root as “Abba/father”. He was renamed Abraham (“ancestor of a multitude”) (v.5). Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah (“princess”) when Abraham was told that she (at age 90) would conceive and bear a son (v.15).
The Priestly writers took the position that the name YHWH was not known to the Israelites until the Exodus (Exodus 3 and 6). In verse 1 of today’s reading, YHWH disclosed the divine name to Abram as “El Shaddai” – translated variously as “God Almighty” or “God of the Mountains” or even as “God with Breasts” (a fertile god).
Epistle: Romans 4:13-25
13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore, his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was his longest, last, and most complex letter. It was written in the late 50s or early 60s (CE) – about ten years before the first Gospel (Mark) was written – to a Jesus Follower community that Paul did not establish. Among other messages in the letter, Paul sought to encourage respectful and supportive relationships between the Gentile Jesus Followers and the Jewish Jesus Followers in Rome.
The “backstory” is that the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 CE. His successor, Nero (54-68 CE), allowed Jews (including Jewish Jesus Followers) to return to Rome, and this created tensions about leadership and worship within the Jesus Follower Community. (Jesus Followers were not called “Christians” until the 80’s.)
Paul was a Jew who became a Jesus Follower who saw the Jesus Follower Movement as part of a broader Judaism. As such, he continued to have expectations about the fullness of the Coming of the Messiah/the Christ. Reflecting his Jewish roots, Paul exhorted the Jesus Follower Community in Rome to follow the Commandments, particularly to love one another as neighbors.
In Romans, Paul used a number of terms that need to be unpacked. “Righteousness” (vv.13 and 22) is one of them. “Righteousness” is understood generally as being in right relationships with God and others. It is sometimes translated as “justified.” A “just” person is also a “righteous” person, and “justified” is used the same way that a page of type is “justified” – all the margins are straight and in order.
Another term that needs explanation is “faith,” a word Paul used seven times in this reading alone. “Faith” for Paul was not used the way it is now typically used — as an intellectual assent to one or more propositions. The Greek word for “faith” (pistis) has an active aspect and should be understood as “faithfulness” – actively living into one’s beliefs through grace and trust in God. Paul emphasized that “faith” is a matter of the heart not the intellect and that faithfulness leads to righteousness (v.13).
In today’s reading, Paul held up Abraham as an example of “righteousness” (being in right relation with God and man) who was blessed by God, not because of the Law (which wasn’t given until Sinai) and prior to the requirement that he be circumcised, but because of his faithfulness.
Paul also argued that God can do what God has promised (v.21). Most particularly, Paul asserted that through faithfulness to the God who raised Jesus from the dead (v.24), both Gentile and Jewish Jesus Followers share in the faith of Abraham and are “justified” (i.e.in a state of righteousness with God and man as Abraham was) (v.25).
Gospel: Mark 8:31-38
31 Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The Gospel According to Mark was the first Gospel that was written and is generally dated to the time around the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest gospel and forms the core for the Gospels According to Matthew and Luke (both of which were written around 85 CE). Over 50% of the material in those two Gospels is based on Mark. Because these three Gospels follow similar chronologies of Jesus’ life and death, they are called “Synoptic Gospels” for the Greek words meaning “Same Look/View.”
Today’s reading comes immediately after a passage in which the disciples said that others had suggested that Jesus might be [reincarnations of] John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets (v. 28). In response to a more direct question, Peter offered “You are the Messiah” (or the Christ) (v. 29).
In today’s reading, Mark said that Jesus taught them that the “Son of Man” (an apocalyptic figure based on Daniel 7:13 and best understood as “The Human Being”) would undergo great suffering, be killed, and rise after three days (v.31). For the Jesus Follower audience hearing Mark’s Gospel in the early 70’s, this “future” was already past and confirmed by history.
In the story, Peter served as a stand-in for all those who were expecting a Messiah who would be God’s anointed, rid the country of the hated Romans, and restore Israel. Jesus rebuked Peter in words reminiscent of the rebuke of Satan by the High Priest Joshua (whose name is “Jesus” in Greek) in Zech. 3:2.
Today’s reading is a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. From now on, Jesus was portrayed in terms that are based on the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12, including the statement in Mark 10:45 that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In addition, from now on, the enemies of Jesus are stated to be “the elders, the chief priests and the scribes” (v.31). In the other Synoptic Gospels, the opponents of Jesus are primarily the Pharisees, and they are severely criticized. In the Fourth Gospel, the enemies are “the Jews” — a translation of the Greek word “Ioudaios” (literally, the Judeans). In the 70+ times the word is used, it is clear from each of the contexts that the word actually referred to the Temple Authorities and the Pharisees, not to “the Jews” generally.
The Gospel passage today also made clear to the generation that had endured the turbulent events of the Jewish Insurrection in 66 CE and the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE that self-preservation is not the highest value — “those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (v.35).