Reframing Abraham’s Call in Genesis 12—Beyond Supersessionism

For a long time I have understood the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) as fundamentally missional or instrumental, in the sense that the ultimate purpose for which God calls this ancestor of Israel is to mediate the blessings of salvation to the nations.

I taught the book of Genesis with this orientation for many years. And this understanding of Genesis 12:1–3 has played an integral role in my framing of the canonical narrative of Scripture in books I have written, such as Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (1995) and A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (2014). It can be found also in a variety of essays written in the intervening years.

Three Challenges to My Interpretation of Abraham’s Call

However, my missional/vocational interpretation of Genesis 12:1–3, and thus my instrumental understanding of Israel’s election, was itself called into question—no less than three times.

Initially, I was challenged by two Christian scholars who had participated in Jewish-Christian dialogue—the Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum (who I met through the Canadian Theological Society) and the American Old Testament scholar Werner Lemke (who was my colleague at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School).

Both Baum (who had heard a paper I gave in 1995) and Lemke (who read my book Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be in 1996) challenged me to repent of my implicit Christian supersessionism towards my Jewish brothers and sisters. This was something I had not been conscious of in my thinking.

The third challenge, which helped me positively reframe the call of Abraham, was an email conversation in 2007 with the British Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly, as we discussed a chapter he was writing on the call of Abraham for his book The Theology of the Book of Genesis (2009).

These three challenges led me to take seriously the problematic approach to Judaism that I had inherited from the church, which assumed that once the messiah had come, Judaism had become irrelevant and could be safely discarded.

Of course, I would never have put things in quite so stark a way. But I see how my interpretation of Genesis 12 could be harnessed to support that idea.

The question I now had to grapple with was how I could be faithful to my Christian understanding of redemptive history (I am a Christian, not a Jew—even though my mother was Jewish), while respecting God’s desire to bless, not just the nations through Abraham, but Abraham himself—and his descendants, the people of Israel.

On the Way to a New Reading of Abraham’s Call

This required me to engage in a much more careful reading of Genesis 12 than I had previously done.

The result was that when I was composing my chapter on the plot of the biblical story for A New Heaven and a New Earth, I wrote a lengthy excursus on the call of Abraham that attempted to take into account Moberly’s analysis of the issues, while still maintaining (in the end) a missional reading of Abraham’s call.

Once I had completed the excursus, however, I judged that it was too much of a sidetrack from the flow of the chapter and so I ended up simply summarizing the fruits of my analysis in two brief sections—one about the call of Abraham (pp. 61–62), the other about the place of the exodus from Egypt in the larger biblical story (p. 63). Although I did not abandon a missional reading of the role of Abraham/Israel in the story of salvation, I did affirm God’s purposes for the flourishing of Abraham/Israel—on the way to this larger purpose.

Ever since writing this excursus, I intended to work it up into a published essay on the subject, but never got around to the task. I was, however, recently encouraged to do this by New Testament scholar Andy Johnson, who drew on my unpublished analysis for his chapter on the call of Abraham in Holiness and the Missio Dei (2016).

I was further motivated to work on this material by my participation in an ecumenical Jewish minyan in New York City called the Hadar Institute, through which my respect has been greatly enlarged for Jews seeking to respond in faithfulness to God’s covenant.

My connection to Hadar (formerly called Mechon Hadar) came through one of its founding Rabbis, Shai Held. Having had email correspondence and an initial phone call with Rabbi Held (in 2015), and then reading many of his writings. I have twice participated in the week-long Executive Seminar sponsored by Hadar (in 2016 and 2017). I blogged about my first experience of the Executive Seminar here.

At my request, Walter Moberly, along with other Christian Old Testament scholars, joined me in writing endorsements for Held’s recently published two-volume commentary on the Pentateuch, entitled The Heart of Torah. I then organized and chaired a panel discussion of The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2019. I blogged about this SBL panel here.

Beyond a Supersessionist Reading of Abraham’s Call

Most recently my engagement with Genesis 12 and the question of supersessionism led to an essay called “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei: Reframing the Purpose of Israel’s Election in Genesis 12:1–3.” In this essay, I tried to be faithful to the text of Genesis 12:1–3 (paying attention to its details), while understanding the role of this text in the larger biblical canon—in a way that honors both the Christian and Jewish traditions. At the end of my analysis, I interacted specifically with Martin Buber’s understanding of Israel’s election and the blessing of the nations.

The essay has now been published as chapter 4 in Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis: Essays in Tribute to Paul Livermore, ed. by Douglas R. Cullum and J. Richard Middleton (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2020), 44–64.

This is a volume of twenty-five essays that I co-edited with Doug Cullum, the Vice President and Dean of Northeastern Seminary. It is a Festschrift in honor of our retired faculty colleague Dr. Paul Livermore, one of the charter faculty members of the Seminary—indeed, the person who first came up with the vision to start Northeastern Seminary.

Although I have been moving towards a new reading of Genesis 12 for a while now, the decisive impetus to work on the essay “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei” was my participation in this Festschrift. I am delighted to offer the current essay in tribute to Paul Livermore, who has always been interested in how the New Testament and the early Christian tradition (articulated by the Church Fathers) are related to the Jewish context in which they were birthed.

I have written a follow-up blog with more details about the fascinating essays in the book, along with an introduction to the incomparable Paul Livermore, whose life of teaching generated these essays from faculty colleagues, church leaders, and past students.

There and Back Again—My Visit to “Oxbridge”

This is the sixth installment about my speaking in the UK.

After spending the weekend in Leeds, giving talks on eschatology and lament for the Thinking Faith Network, we headed for “Oxbridge,” where I would speak three times on the topic of biblical eschatology (“A New Heaven and a New Earth”).  For those who don’t know the term, “Oxbridge” refers the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest universities in England.

Although bound together by prestige and history, the two universities are in different cities; and they not connected by any clear, straightforward route—either by road or by rail (as I found out, when I traveled between them, twice).

Oxford

My first stop was Oxford, to speak at the Monday evening meeting of the Graduate Christian Forum, held upstairs in The Mitre pub. A small but collegial group of Oxford students, professors, and friends gathered for the lecture; and we had continued conversation for about an hour afterwards, interspersed with drinks and snacks.

I don’t know if C. S. Lewis and the Inklings ever met in The Mitre (I know they met in a variety of Oxford pubs), but I did see their most famous meeting place, the Eagle and Child (fondly known as the Bird and Baby).

So I’ve mentioned C. S. Lewis, and the title of this post alludes to J. R. R. Tolkein (the subtitle of The Hobbit), but it was Francis Schaeffer’s presence that I felt at The Mitre.

This was because I met Joe Martin, a retired American engineer, who had spent time as a young man with Schaeffer at Swiss L’Abri, the Christian study center that Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded in 1955.

Francis Schaeffer’s writings greatly impacted me as a young theology student, as I noted in the introduction to my book A New Heaven and a New Earth:

I was therefore delighted to meet Joe Martin, who functions as a pastor to Oxford students, nurturing their consciousness of a biblical worldview and its impact on all of life.

Joe gave me a theme issue of an Oxbridge journal that was devoted to the topic of Jerusalem in history and theology. His article on the “New Jerusalem” made many of the same points that I addressed in my eschatology lecture (in his case, I was clearly preaching to the choir).

Cambridge

The next morning we headed for Cambridge, where I would speak twice—first at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (which I’ll report on in my next post), and then at the Jubilee Centre (on eschatology).

The Jubilee Centre is a sort of Christian think tank and outreach ministry that (according to their web site) “offers a biblical perspective on contemporary issues and underlying trends in society, of relevance to the general public.”

Among their forms of outreach, they publish a series of papers that bring incisive Christian analysis to a range of topics of concern to a wide audience in the UK and Europe.

My lecture at the Jubilee Centre was co-sponsored by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), which exists under the umbrella of Tyndale House at the University of Cambridge.

My initial connection with the Jubilee Centre came through Jonathan Chaplin (about to retire from being the director of KLICE), who was a fellow graduate student with me at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, before he returned to his native England to do PhD work.

It was great reconnecting with Jonathan Chaplin and meeting the staff at the Jubilee Centre, including Jonathan Tame, director of the Centre, who introduced my talk (above).

Oxford

The next morning we headed back to Oxford, so I could speak at Wycliffe Hall, an evangelical school of theology in the University of Oxford. Although this stop was added only at the last minute (in fact, I only found out about it when I was about to leave my home in Rochester for the airport), it was a worthwhile addition to the speaking tour.

I gave my eschatology talk to a group of faculty and students and after a brief Q&A, I gathered with a smaller group for more in-depth discussion of issues raised in the lecture.

I was glad to reconnect with Ben Johnson, tutor in Biblical Interpretation at Wycliffe Hall, who I had previously met at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in 2016 (we both gave papers in the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures section). Ben is a friend of my colleague Josef Sykora, both having studied Old Testament with Walter Moberly at Durham University. Ben recently moved back to the US to take up a position at LeTourneau University.

Ben Johnson is co-editor, along with my long-time friend Keith Bodner, of two volumes of essays on characters and characterization in the books of Samuel and Kings; I contributed an essay on the prophet Samuel to the volume entitled Characters and Characterization in the Book of Samuel. I have blogged about these two volumes here.

In my next post I’ll talk about my time at the Faraday Institute in Cambridge.

A Visit with Walter Moberly and St. Cuthbert in Durham

This is part 3 of my journey through the UK.

Having left Aberdeen, I got on the train from Scotland to England, arriving in Durham around suppertime. I was welcomed at the station by Walter Moberly, professor of Old Testament at Durham University.

Walter Moberly is a brilliant scholar who cares immensely about reading Scripture theologically for the sake of the church. I have benefited greatly from his work over the years; indeed, my very first email contact with him (ten years ago), prodded me to significantly nuance my interpretation of a particular biblical text (Genesis 12:1-3).

Walter was also the doctoral supervisor of my colleague Josef Sykora, for which I am very grateful.

Abraham’s Response to God in Genesis 22

I came to Durham, at Walter’s invitation, to give a paper in the Old Testament research seminar for postgraduate students in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. My topic was “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”

My interpretation of this famous story (known in Jewish tradition as the Aqedah or the binding of Isaac) deviated significantly Walter’s (he has written extensively on the topic). Whereas I was critical of Abraham’s silent response to God in Genesis 22, Walter has defended Abraham in numerous articles and thinks the story was meant to teach about the true attitude of the heart when Israel offers sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple.

I don’t doubt that the story came to have that use, but I wanted to understand what it could mean in the narrative world of the Abraham story itself.

Despite our disagreement, and the questions that he raised in the wake of my presentation, Walter was extremely gracious to me throughout my visit to Durham.

The Hospitality of Walter Moberly

He was, in fact, a wonderful host. I stayed with Walter and Jenny Moberly in their house near the university, the very house that Charles Kingsley Barrett (the famous New Testament scholar) used to live in.

Having lived and taught in Durham since 1989, Walter Moberly has become very knowledgeable about the history of the university and the cathedral (which are both on the same grounds).

He gave me a fascinating walking tour of Durham cathedral, which dates back almost to the Norman conquest (which took place in 1066). Construction began in the late eleventh century and was completed in the early twelfth century—which makes the cathedral about a thousand years old (that’s pretty impressive to someone from the New World).

St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Among the historical details I learned was that St. Cuthbert (634–687), the monk who became bishop of Lindisfarne and who died there, was buried in Durham cathedral.

When it became evident that the island of Lindisfarne (off the east coast of Northumbria) would no longer be safe from invasion by enemies, the monks moved their order (along with the body of Cuthbert) to Durham and he was re-interred there. This was before the Cathedral was built.

Legend has it that when Cuthbert’s tomb was opened (first to move him to Durham, then to rebury him in the cathedral once it was built) his body was incorrupt. This magnified the fame of Cuthbert, who was a saint in his own right independently of this phenomenon.

Even when emissaries from Oliver Cromwell (the staunch Puritan) opened Cuthbert’s tomb in the seventeenth century, they were awed by the incorruption of his body, and re-buried him, despite Cromwell’s distaste for the veneration of saints.

I had the amazing experience of sitting where this picture was taken, looking at Cuthbert’s tomb (the dark rectangle set in the floor), overwhelmed by the depths of time (a twenty-first century man contemplating a seventh century monk buried in a twelfth century cathedral).

I prayed silently, offering thanks for the faithfulness of God from the beginning of creation, through all the ages of the world, including his revelation through Abraham, Israel, and Jesus, up through medieval England, and into all the lands of the world, right up to the present day—and on into the consummation of all things.

Thanks be to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the creator and redeemer of all times—including this brief epoch we call human history.

My next post takes us to the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield.