Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Biblical Family Systems


On Sunday, we'll read a defining moment in the life of God's people and in the life of Abraham and his descendants' family system. In Genesis 15, we hear God promise Abram a child. In a vision, God comes to Abram and reminds him that his "reward will be very great." But Abram is stuck in his childlessness: "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?...You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." In other words, "Why bother giving me such a great reward if it's merely going to disappear when I die?" But God had something else in mind: "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir."

In this defining moment, Abram believes God, and that trust, despite all the odds, becomes the basis for Abram's standing in God's eyes--his righteousness. As Christians, we are descendants not necessarily of Abram's biology but of his soteriology. We, too, as Paul writes citing Abraham, are saved by faith. But don't lose sight of the consequences of this promise and trust. It brings life and struggle all at once.

Abram, who becomes Abraham, trusts God. He stakes his life, his identity, his future on what God has promised. If the promise turns out not to be true, Abraham's relationship with God crumbles, and, in effect, God himself crumbles. God must be the all-faithful-one. As the story of Abraham's relationship with YHWH is told, the fulfillment of this promise becomes as critical for the Lord's identity as for the children of Abraham. For Abraham, all that potential becomes tied up in the birth of a child.

But having a child proves to be difficult. In the next chapter of Genesis, Abram, convinced God will give him an heir, has sex with his wife's slave, who gives birth to Ishmael. The men who wrote the Hebrew Bible and guarded its text and its interpretation tell us that the initiative behind that sexual relationship belonged to Sarai, Abram's wife: "So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife." But it's never that simple, is it? Even before a child is born, the promise of a child functions as an individual in the family, demanding the sacrifice of marital fidelity.

As one would expect, the relationship sours. Hagar, we are told, becomes proud and does not obey Sarai as she once did. Of course, it's never that simple, is it? Sarai was harsh and bitter, and who would blame her? Hagar flees, but the Lord brings her back, we are told, and a son is born. Later, when God promises a child through Sarah, Abraham is content to have Ishmael be his heir, but God has something else in mind. Isaac is born, and, about the time the child is weened, the older half-brother behaves roughly, earning him and his mother an expulsion from the family of covenant. God protects them, having made God's own covenant with Hagar, but the rift is complete. And Abraham says goodbye to his first-born son, the son he thought would be the proof of God's faithfulness.

This family drama continues with the near-sacrifice of Isaac, and a resulting separation between father and son that endures. We are told that Abraham's act was a gesture of faith and confidence. Perhaps. Maybe it was colored with grief. Or maybe God needed to prove Abraham's faithfulness and focus because his heart still pined for his lost child, proving he was able to let go. Regardless, the definition of faithfulness, which had been bound up in the birth of a child is transferred to the willingness to kill a child, and the system carries that stain for generations. Esau and Jacob, whose mother had her favorite. Yesterday evening, in the Daily Office (assuming 2 lessons in the morning and 2 in the evening), we read in Genesis 37:1-11 of Joseph's audacious and offensive dream that he, his father Jacob's favorite, would become greater than anyone else in his family. It continues. It always does.

As I read about Joseph and his brothers, still thinking about Abraham this coming Sunday, I was reminded that we can't escape our family. Joseph couldn't help his arrogant dreams because he was his father's favorite. His father couldn't help having a favorite because, much like Sarai, Joseph's mother, Jacob's favorite wife because of another family drama involving Rachel and Leah's father and God's strange expressions of faithfulness, had conceived unexpectedly and given him a son. And Jacob was only acting the way he had known his own mother to behave by having a favorite. And she had only behaved that way because she was the wife of Isaac, who had grown up under the shadow of being his father's second-born but covenanted child. Yes, it's complicated. What's the point?

We can't escape our family condition. We are self-seeking creatures who act only with what we know. That's a good description of sin. As broken, fallen people, it is part of who we are until we are set free from sin in Jesus Christ. We must die with him in order to be reborn into a new family, where unconditional love sets us free from the need for self-definition at the expense of others. That's what it means to be reborn into the family of God.

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