1 The LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4a So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.
Genesis is the first book of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah 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 1650 BCE, if the accounts are historical.
The Book of Genesis (like the Torah as a whole) is an amalgam of religious traditions, some of which are dated 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 these sources are identified (among other ways) by their different theological emphases, names for God, names for the holy mountain, and portrayals of God’s characteristics.
The first 11 Chapters of Genesis are called the “primeval history” which ends with the Tower of Babel story — an “etiology” (story of origins) relating to the scattering of humankind and the multiplicity of languages. The last chapter of the primeval history also traced Abram’s lineage back to Noah’s son, Shem (which means “name” in Hebrew and from which we get the word “Semites”). It also noted that Abram’s wife Sarai was barren (11:30), and this fact presented much of the tension in the stories that follow.
Barrenness was perceived as a great misfortune in Scripture, and was a condition that affected Sarai, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah (Samuel’s mother), and Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptizer), among others.
Chapter 12 of Genesis began the “ancestral history of Israel” in which YHWH called Abram (whose name is the same root word as “Abba” or father) to go to a land that YHWH would show him. There, Abram would become a father of a great nation and (as a descendent of Shem) his own “name” would be great (v.2). Unlike some other covenants in Genesis, this promise of the LORD is “conditional” in that it would not become effective unless Abram went to the land YHWH showed him.
Today’s reading is part of the oldest writings in the Torah and presented YHWH (“LORD” in all capital letters) anthropomorphically in that the LORD had conversations with Abram (whose name meant “exalted ancestor”). Abram’s name was changed by YHWH in Gen.17:5 to Abraham (“ancestor/father of a multitude”).
The distance to travel by foot was great. Ur, where the journey began in the southern part of Mesopotamia, is 500 miles from Haran. Haran (in northern Mesopotamia) is more than 600 miles from Canaan. The New Oxford Annotated Bible points out that YHWH’s command and promise was similar to the commands and promises given to Isaac (26:2-5) and to Israel/Jacob (31:3,13).
The Jewish Study Bible observes that there text does not offer any reason this particular Mesopotamian (Abram) was selected by YHWH or if there is any indication that Abram merited the land, offspring and blessing he received. The JSB also notes that the blessings constituted, to some extent, a reversal of some of the curses on Adam and Eve.
The phrase “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (v.3) was interpreted by Paul as a blessing on the Gentiles through Abraham (Gal. 3:8). The NAOB says this phrase can also be translated as “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” – or in other words, people will say “may we be like Abraham.”
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
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.
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) 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 in 49 CE, the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. 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. (They were not called “Christians” until the 80’s.)
Paul died in 63 or 64 CE. Accordingly, the Temple in Jerusalem (which was destroyed in 70) was in full operation all during Paul’s life. As a Jew who was also a Jesus Follower, Paul saw the Jesus Follower Movement as part of a broader Judaism and continued to have expectations about the fullness of the Coming of the Messiah/the Christ.
In today’s reading, Paul’s initial statements were directed at Jewish Jesus Followers – persons who (like Paul) saw Abraham as their ancestor “according to the flesh” (v.1). The Jewish Annotated New Testament interprets “justified by works” (v.2) to mean justification (after the fact) by virtue of Abraham’s circumcision and the circumcision of the males of his extended household in Genesis 17. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary notes that “contemporary [from the Second Century BCE onwards] Judaism depicted Abraham as an observer of the law in advance (Sir.44:20)” but that Paul rejected this view in saying that Abraham was justified (righteous) apart from deeds and therefore he had no reason to boast.
Paul went on to assert that Abraham’s righteousness (right relationship with God) was a result of Abraham’s faithfulness and trust in God (v.13), rather than something “earned” like wages (v.4). In other words, Abraham’s justification/right relation to God was not a matter of something owed (like wages) to Abraham by God because of Abraham’s compliance with “law.”
In verse 3, Paul quoted Gen.15:6 as “proof” of Abraham’s righteousness. The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggests that Paul “shared his contemporaries’ view that God had called Abraham out of idolatry.” Similarly, Paul cited David (whom he regarded as the author of all the Psalms) for the view that God “reckons [grants] righeousness apart form works” (v.6).
In Paul’s epistles, the word “Faith” (pistis) is almost always better understood as “faithfulness.” For most modern persons, “Faith” is understood primarily as a cognitive assent to one or more propositions, but “faithfulness” for Paul is the active living into one’s beliefs through grace and trust in God.
In the last verses (13-17) of today’s reading, Paul continued his discussion of the law and its limitations. Paul did not diminish the value of adherence to the law by Jews (including Jewish Jesus Followers). For him, however, the two laws that did not have to be observed by Gentile Jesus Followers were the requirements of circumcision and eating only Kosher food.
Paul noted (v.13) that at the time the LORD made the promises to Abram, it was not “through the law” (i.e. Abram was not circumcised and did not obey the Kosher dietary laws at the time described in Genesis 12). For this reason, Paul said Abraham could be the ancestor of both the circumcised and the uncircumcised.
Paul emphasized that mere obedience to the law is not sufficient for the fullness of a right relationship with God. It depends on faithfulness (v.16). This right relationship (righteousness) is available through faithfulness to both those who are “adherents of the law’ (Jewish Jesus Followers) but also to those “who share the faith[fulness] of Abraham (v.16).
1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The Fourth Gospel is different in many ways from the Synoptic Gospels. The “signs” (miracles) and many stories in the Fourth Gospel are unique to it, such as the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Raising of Lazarus.
The chronology of events is also different in the Fourth Gospel. For example, the Temple Event (“Cleansing of the Temple”) occurred early in Jesus’ Ministry in the Fourth Gospel, rather than late as in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, but in the Fourth Gospel, it occurred the day before the first day of Passover so that Jesus (who was described as “the Lamb of God” in the Fourth Gospel) died at the same time lambs were sacrificed at the Temple for the Passover Seder to be held the night he died.
Most scholars agree that the Gospel was written by an anonymous author around 95 CE, at a time when the “parting of the ways” between the Jesus Follower Movement and Rabbinic Judaism was accelerating.
In today’s reading, Nicodemus is described as a “Pharisee” – a member of a group which carefully observed the Jewish purity laws. He was also a “leader [archōn] of the Jews.” In the Fourth Gospel, “the Jews” is almost always the author’s shorthand expression for the Temple Authorities. As a leader, Nicodmus would likely have been a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest leadership in Jerusalem, presided over by the high priest, and responsible for the internal and autonomous affairs of the Jewish people. Its membership consisted of Sadducees and Pharisees.
According to The JANT, Nicodemus is a Greek name. He appears only in the Fourth Gospel. In John 7:51, he urged his fellow Pharisees to give Jesus a hearing (on the question whether a prophet could come from Galilee) and in John 19:39, he brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes for embalming the crucified body of Jesus. Scholars disagree whether Nicodemus was historical or a purely symbolic character.
In the Fourth Gospel, light and dark play major symbolic roles, so Nicodemus’ approach at night preserved his status within the Sanhedrin and was a symbol that he (as a Pharisee) was – in the opinion of the author of the Gospel — coming from a dark (spiritually unenlightened) place. In The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, Bishop Spong concluded that the story is wholly symbolic and that it depicted “those who prefer the security of the known darkness to the startling vision of life lived in a new understanding of God.” Spong also noted that calling Jesus “Rabbi” gave great staus in First Century Israel.
The JANT points out that the phrase “kingdom of God” (vv.3 and 5) is used only once in the Fourth Gospel, but is prominent in the Synoptic Gospels. The “wind (v.8) is pneuma in Greek and can also be understood as breath (of life) or spirit. Wind is unpredictable, has great power, and is essential for life.
The words “from above” (v.3) are a translation of anōthen, which The NJBC says is ambiguous and can also mean “from the beginning” or “again” or “anew.” The JANT observes that this verse is the origin of the phrase “born again Christian” – a phrase that Spong said can lead to “spiritual immaturity.” Spong suggested that in speaking of the kingdom of God, the author/Jesus was not speaking in a dualistic way but rather that the “realm” is to be understood experientially, not spatially. Spong observed that Jesus “represented a new dimension of humanity, a new insight, a new consciousness, a new way of relating to the holy: and all of this he [the author] placed into Jesus’ conversation with his mythical character named Nicodemus…. Jesus was saying, you must enter a transformative experience. You must see with insight or second sight.”
The JANT also notes that the word translated as “you” in verses 7 and 11 is plural, so the author of the Gospel was presenting Jesus as speaking to others in addition to Nicodemus (as a representative). The reference to “no one has ascended into heaven” (v.13) overlooked Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11).
The reference to Moses’ lifting up the serpent in the wilderness (v.14) is the story from Numbers 21 in which YHWH sent a plague of snakes upon the Israelites because of their complaining about the food and lack of water. To save the people, Moses prayed to YHWH and was told to cast a bronze snake so that the people could gaze upon it and be saved. The snake is now the medical symbol, the caduceus.
Because there was no punctuation in the Greek manuscripts, scholars are not sure whether the “speaker” in verses 16 and 17 is the author of the Gospel or whether the author was attributing these statements to Jesus. The NJBC states that (except for the Prologue, John 1:14 and 18), verse 16 is the only reference in this Gospel to Jesus as monogenēs, a possible reference back to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son” in Gen.22:2