Sunday, January 12
Genesis 12: The genealogy of Shem's descendents, at the
end of Chapter Eleven, prepared us for this beginning of the story of Abram,
whom we first find at the city of Ur, in the extreme southeast end of the
Fertile Crescent. That genealogy also introduced other aspects of the later
story. It told us, for instance, of the barrenness of Abram's wife (11:30),
which is a detail crucial to the later narrative. Likewise, it introduced
Lot, Abram's nephew, who will appear at significant points in the story
later on. Similarly, it told of those relatives who were left behind; these,
too, will be important in later aspects of the story.
The first migration goes from Ur up to Haran, at the very top and center
of the Fertile Crescent (11:31), and from there Abram's company proceeds to
migrate south and west (verses 5,9). Passing through Canaan, also known in
the Bible as Palestine, Abram arrives in Egypt, the southwestern extremity
of the Fertile Crescent. All of this migration is in obedience to God's call
(cf. Acts 7:1-5; Hebrews 11:8-10). Nor was Abram a young man at this point;
he was already seventy-five years old (verse 4).
Abram's brief sojourn in Egypt (verses 10-20) prefigure Israel's later
experience of that country. Thus, he is driven into Egypt by a famine in
Canaan (verse 10), exactly as Israel will be in the final chapters of
Genesis (41:57 - 42:2). In Egypt Abram encounters Pharaoh, king of Egypt, as
Israel will do near the end of Genesis and at the beginning of Exodus.
Indeed, one already observes Pharaoh to be a rapacious, threatening,
high-handed man of arbitrary behavior, exactly as we will find the other
Pharaoh encountered by Moses. Similarly and again like Moses, Abram will
outsmart this Pharaoh in a trial of wit and cunning. Moreover, Pharaoh is
visited with divine plagues (verse 17), as the other Pharaoh will be in the
case of Moses (Exodus 3:19-20). Like Moses and the children of Israel later,
Abram and his family depart from Egypt. When he does so, Abram leaves with
the wealth of the Egyptians (verses 16,20), as Moses will do later (Exodus
3:21-22; 11:1-3; 12:35-36). One also notes that Abram and Moses were about
the same age (75 and 80) at the time of their departure from Egypt. All of
these elements in Genesis 12 prefigure the Exodus story: the arrogance of
Pharaoh, the Israelite leader outsmarting and overpowering the Egyptian,
God's intervention in sending plagues, the vindication of the Chosen People,
the departure from Egypt, the enriching of the Israelites with the wealth of
the Egyptians. Thus, in just eleven verses of the present chapter, we have a
sort of synoptic prefiguration of the last dozen chapters of Genesis and the
first dozen chapters of Exodus. Moreover, the later Exodus of Moses will be
foretold to Abram (Genesis 15:13-14; cf. Acts 7:5-7; Hebrews 11:8-10,13-16).
Monday, January 13
Genesis 13: When Abram left Egypt, he and his family
were very wealthy, because of Pharaoh's generosity to someone he was trying
to gain as a brother-in-law! Now Abram and Lot find that the sheer size of
their flocks requires them to live apart (verses 1-7). The story of their
separation (verses 8-13) demonstrates Abram's humility in giving his younger
relative the choice of the land (verse 9), while he himself takes what is
left. This humble action of Abram illustrates the meaning of the dominical
saying that the meek shall inherit the earth. Abraham's descendents, not
Lot's, will inherit all this land. In this story we discern the
non-assertive quality of Abram's faith. He is not only meek; he is also a
peacemaker. Meekness and peace-making are qualities of the man of faith.
Lot serves in this story as a kind of foil to Abram. The meek and
peaceful Abram takes what is left, whereas Lot, obviously having failed to
do a proper survey of the neighborhood, chooses to live in Sodom. This was
to prove one of the worst real estate choices in history.
The present chapter closes with God's solemn asseveration to Abram,
promising him the land and the "seed" (verses 14-18). Unfortunately the rich
ambivalence of this latter noun (zera' in Hebrew, sperma in Greek, semen in
Latin) is lost in more recent translations that substitute the politically
correct but entirely prosaic "descendents" for "seed" (verses 15-16).
Besides Sodom, two other important Canaanite cities are introduced in
this chapter, Bethel (still called Luz at this period - cf. 28:19) and
Hebron. Both of these cities will be extremely important in subsequent
biblical history, and Abram is credited with making each of them a place of
worship (verses 4,18).
Tuesday, January 14
Genesis 14: The Old Testament provides a genealogy, at
least in brief, for most of its "persons of the drama." The clear exception
is Melchizedek, who suddenly enters the biblical story in this chapter of
Genesis and just as abruptly leaves it. Nothing whatever is said of his
ancestry, the rest of his life, or his death. Melchizedek simply appears
"without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning
of days, nor end of life" (Hebrews 7:3). In fact, Genesis 14 tells us only
five things about him.
First, Melchizedek was a king. "Salem," the city of his kingship, was an old
name for Jerusalem (Psalms 76 :2). Indeed, the Jewish historian, Flavius
Josephus, took Melchizedek to be the founder (ho protos ktisas) of the holy
city (The Jewish War 6.438). Speculating on the etymology of Melchizedek's
name (melek-hassedeq), Josephus calls him a "righteous king" (basileus
dikaios) (Antiquities 1.10.2).
Exploiting the resemblance of the name "Salem" to the Hebrew word for
"peace," shalom, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews calls Melchizedek
"king of peace." Like Josephus, he sees etymological symbolism in
Melchizedek's own name, calling him "king of righteousness" (basileus
Second, Melchizedek was "the priest of God Most High." In fact, he is the
first man to whom Holy Scripture gives the title "priest" (kohen), and it is
Melchizedek's priesthood that receives the greater attention in the Bible.
For example, while the Book of Psalms speaks of the Messiah's kingship as
derived from David (Psalms 78 :70; 89 :3-4,20,39,45; 110 :1-3),
the Messiah's priesthood is said to be "according to the order of
Melchizedek" (110 :4).
Melchizedek was "the first to serve as priest to God" (ierasato to Theo
protos), Josephus wrote, and long before Solomon built a temple at
Jerusalem, Melchizedek had already done so (to hieron protos deimamenos).
Indeed, Josephus traces the very name of Jerusalem (in Greek Hierosolyma) to
this "priest of Salem" (hierus Salem) (The Jewish War 6.438).
Following the lead of Psalm 110 (109), the author of Hebrews sees in the
priesthood of Melchizedek the "order" (taxsis) of the definitive priesthood
of Christ the Lord (5:6,10; 6:20; 7:17). The Bible's very silence with
respect to the death of that ancient priest of Salem is taken as a
prefiguration of the "unchangeable priesthood" (7:24) of God's Son, to whom
Melchizedek was "made like" (7:3). The latter was a living prophecy of the
definitive Priest who "has become the surety of a better covenant" (7:22).
Third, Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, just as Abraham's children gave
tithes to the Levitical priests (7:8-10). That detail argues for the
superiority of the "order of Melchizedek" over the "order of Aaron" (7:11).
Fourth, Melchizedek blessed Abraham, saying: "Blessed be Abram of God Most
High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has
delivered your enemies into your hand" (verses19-20). This priestly blessing
too indicates the superiority of the "order of Melchizedek," inasmuch as
"the lesser is blessed by the better" (Hebrews 7:7).
Fifth, Melchizedek "brought out bread and wine" (verse18). His offering of
bread and wine, moreover, was recognized as a priestly act; that is to say,
Melchizedek did this precisely "because he was" a priest (as is clear in the
Septuagint's en de and the Vulgate's erat enim).
Melchizedek's offering of bread and wine, of course, was a type and
prefiguration of what transpired that night when God's priestly Son took the
loaf of bread and the cup of wine into His holy and venerable hands and
identified them as His Body and Blood. This is how the Christian Church has
always interpreted the act of that first priest, Melchizedek, "who gave the
wine and bread, the sanctified food, as a type of the Eucharist (eis typon
Eucharistias)" (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 4.25). Melchizedek was the
"type of Christ, and he offered the same gifts that prefigured the Mystery"
(John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 36.3). "Who had the bread and wine?"
asked Ambrose of Milan. "Not Abraham," he answered, "but Melchizedek.
Therefore he is the author of the Sacraments" (De Sacramentis 4.10). The
living memory of Melchizedek thus abides deeply in the worship of the
Wednesday, January 15
Genesis 15: This, the first of two accounts of God's
covenant with Abram, is arguably the more dramatic and colorful. Here we
also find two expressions appearing for the first time in Holy Scripture:
(1) "the word of the Lord came to . . ." (verse 1), and (2) Abram "believed
('aman) in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness" (verse
6). That first expression will be especially prominent the Bible's prophetic
literature, and the second, which introduces the theme of righteousness by
faith in God's promise, will dominate much of the New Testament,
particularly the Pauline corpus. Indeed, St. Paul wrote the first commentary
on this verse, Romans 4:1-5.
At this point in the story, Abram is not called upon to do anything. He is
summoned simply to live by trust in God's promising word. Eventually, of
course, he will be called upon to do certain things, but the important point
that St. Paul sees in this passage is that already, before he has done
anything, Abram is called righteous. From this fact St. Paul argues that
godly righteousness consists radically in that profound trust in God known
in the Bible as faith. This faith is now explicitly spoken of for the first
time in Holy Scripture. Hence, the importance of Genesis 15 for Christian
theology. This is why Abraham is called "our father" in faith; his faith
stands at the door of the history of salvation. For St. Paul Abraham's
righteousness, prior to the works of the Mosaic covenant, became the point
of departure for examining the Christian's relationship to the Law of Moses,
which was one of the most difficult and practical questions raised in New
Testament times. For example, it was important to St. Paul that Abraham, at
this point in the story, has not yet received the command to be circumcised
(Romans 4:9-12); that command will not come until Chapter 17. That is to
say, Abraham was declared righteous before circumcision.
Thursday, January 16
Genesis 16: Like the precedent referred to in 15:2-4,
the legal fiction found here in verses 1-3 (and later on in the Jacob cycle)
was never part of Israelite law, though both customs are well attested
otherwise in Mesopotamian literature of the first half of the second
millennium before Christ - that is, the very period under discussion. This
fact is irrefutable evidence of the historicity of both of those narratives.
Hagar was one of the Egyptian slaves that Pharaoh gave to Abram back in
12:16. The idea of Abram's begetting children by this younger woman was
Sarai's, but when things backfire (verse 4) Sarai lays all the blame on
Abram (verse 5)! The latter just shrugs his shoulders and tells his wife to
handle the matter (verse 6). The slave Hagar, being an Egyptian, heads south
in her flight, though we know from another contemporary document,
Hammurabi's Code, that she endangered her life by running away. She travels
the hundred miles or so from Hebron to Shur, southwest of Beersheba, which
was a pretty good distance for a pregnant woman to walk, and there she
encounters the "angel of the Lord" (malek Adonai), an expression that
appears here for the first time in Holy Scripture (verse 7). The angel's
promise to Hagar (verses 10-12) stands parallel to the promises that Abram
himself received in the Chapters 13 and 15. Although she herself is a
slave, the angel tells Hagar that her son will not be.
It is a source of wonderment to this slave that she has been noticed by God
(verse 13) in this story of God's concern for the poor, the simple, and the
persecuted. Hagar discovers her worth, when God sends His angel to care
for her. God appears already as the champion of the downtrodden, as He will
be especially portrayed in the Bible's great social prophets.
What should be said about Abram's taking of this slave girl as a sort of
second wife? We observe that God did not tell him to do this. It was Sarai's
idea. The whole project, that is to say, was of the flesh, not of the
Spirit. It is no great thing for a young woman to conceive and bear a child,
but a great thing is what God had in mind to do. Sarai's plan was a classic
case of man interfering with the plans of God. This was simply a work of the
flesh, as St. Paul observed (Galatians 4:21-25).
In this respect, furthermore, the Apostle to the Gentiles saw a
prefigurement of the situation of the Jews and Christians with regard to
Abraham. The Jews, he argued, were children of Abraham is a fleshly way,
unlike Abraham's spiritual paternity of Christians! (4:26-28). Christians,
not being slaves, are not children of Hagar, whereas the Jews, unfamiliar
with freedom in Christ, are still slaves to the flesh and the Law (4:31).
They are the children of Hagar! This idea closes off a chapter of Galatians
that began with the transformation from slavery to freedom (3:29 - 4:7).
Friday, January 17
Genesis 17: This chapter narrates the circumstances in
which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah (verses 5,15).
This second account of God's covenant with Abram is the first instance, of
three, intimating the source of the name of his son and heir, Isaac. Isaac
was named for laughter, because that name, formed from the verbal root shq,
literally means "he will laugh." When Abram learns that he, at age 100, and
his wife, at age 90, will be the parents of this little boy, what else can
he do but laugh? (verse 17)
No one felt the irony of their situation better than Sarah herself, however,
who will learn of this divine plan in the next chapter, where she will
discover the news while eavesdropping, from within the tent, on a
conversation between her husband and the Lord whom he hosted outside.
"Sarah your wife shall have a son," she will hear the Latter say. Her
response? "Sarah laughed within herself," asserts the Sacred Text, a
reaction that she will be a tad too quick to disavow when questioned on the
matter. "I did not laugh," she will insist. "No," the Lord will press the
point, "but you did laugh!" (18:9-15).
Later on, right after delivering her son, Sarah will deliver the happy
laconism that is the third reference to Isaac's name: "God has made me
laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me" (21:6). Hers and Abraham's
laughter was prompted, of course, by the sheer incongruity of the
proposition, because "Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and
Sarah had passed the age of childbearing" (18:11).
According to the full Christian understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the
joy of Abraham and Sarah at the promised birth of Isaac was burdened with
prophecy, for his miraculous begetting foretold a later conception more
miraculous still. Isaac was, in truth, a type and pledge of "Jesus Christ,
the Son of David, the Son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). And Mary, mother of
this Newer Isaac, having conceived Him in virginity just days before, made
perfect her responding song of praise by remembering the mercy that God
"spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever" (Luke 1:55).
Did not Abraham himself anticipate with joy the later coming of that more
distant Seed? Surely so, for even our Newer Isaac proclaimed, "Your father
Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).
Like Moses (5:46), Isaiah (12:41), and David (Matthew 22:43), Abraham was
gifted to behold, in mystic vision, the final fulfillment of that primeval
word, "But My covenant will I establish with Isaac" (Genesis 17:21).
In the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons expressed thus the mystery
inherent in the figure of Isaac: "Abraham, knowing the Father through the
Word, who made heaven and earth, confessed Him as God, and taught by a
vision that the Son of God would become a Man among men, by whose arrival
his seed would be as the stars of heaven, he longed to see that day, so that
he too might embrace Christ, as it were; and beholding Him in the Spirit of
prophecy, he rejoiced" (Against the Heresies 4.7.1).
Saturday, January 18
Genesis 18: Two scenes fill this chapter. The first
is Abraham's reception of "the Lord" in the guise of "three men," whom the
Christian Church has always pictured as three angels. These Three were
either the prophetic prefiguration or the appearance of the Persons of the
Holy Trinity in human/angelic form, according to the earliest Christian
readings of the text. Because the prophetic promise given about Isaac in
this chapter, as we seen, is definitively fulfilled only in the New
Testament, it was appropriate that on that occasion God should appear as
that Trinity of distinct Persons which the New Testament proclaims Him to
be. St. Ambrose of Milan thus commented on this scene in the second half of
the fourth century: "Prepared to receive strangers, faithful to God,
dedicated to ministering and prompt in His service, Abraham beheld the
Trinity in a type. He supplemented hospitality with religious fealty, when
beholding the Three he worshipped the One, and preserving the distinction of
the Persons, he addressed One Lord, offering to Three the honor of his gift,
while acknowledging but a single Power. It was not learning that spoke in
him but grace, and although he had not learned, he believed in a way
superior to us who have learned. Since no one had distorted the
representation of the truth, he sees the Three but worships the Unity. He
offers three measures of fine meal while slaying but one victim, considering
that a single sacrifice is sufficient but a triple gift; a single victim,
but a threefold offering" (Faith in the Resurrection 2.96).
The second scene is Abraham's supplication on behalf of Sodom, where Lot
resides. Knowing that the Lord is prepared to destroy that city for its
wickedness, and fearing for the welfare of his nephew and his family,
Abraham bravely endeavors to "arrange a deal" with the Lord, in hopes of
having the city spared. In one of the most colorful scenes in a very
colorful book, Abraham plays the part of the Bedouin trader, a type commonly
met in the Middle East, attempting to arrange a lower price by the process
of haggling. Particularly good in this art, Abraham works from a "price" of
fifty just men down to a mere ten. He thus serves as the very model of
fervent intercessory prayer, unafraid of "pressing a point" with God. Alas,
Abraham knows that there are not even ten just men left in Sodom. Before he
can suggest a lower figure, however, the Lord abruptly breaks off the
negotiations and departs (verse 33). Sodom is doomed.