Genesis, Covenant, and Salvation History

The biblical teaching is clear – salvation comes through the Jews, but for the sake of all people.

"The Last Judgement: Jacob, Abraham and Isaac in Heaven" (c. 1408) by Andrei Rublev [WikiArt.org]

One of the unique aspects of the Genesis narratives is that the sacred author(s) have such a profound consciousness of divine election that they see the beginning of the Hebrew people as flowing very naturally from the beginning of the universe. They show their belief that the Hebrews were chosen by God from the very dawn of creation. The smooth transition from primeval history to the period of the patriarchs brings out this awareness on the literary level.

Chapter 12 opens with the call of Abram and a promise:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.

In other words, history’s course is to be altered through the faith-filled response of this one man. These few verses contain several major points for reflection: first, the need to cooperate with God; second, the power (for good or evil) of one person; third, the role of Israel in bringing the pagan nations to a knowledge of the one true God.

This last point is important because it has been both denied and exaggerated throughout history. The biblical teaching is clear – salvation comes through the Jews (cf. Jn 4:22), but for the sake of all people. Therefore, when Judaism turned in on itself, it was being unfaithful to its mission (as the prophets felt compelled to reiterate). On the other hand, to remove the Jews from the benefits of salvation is quite wrong (as Marcion learned from the Early Church’s condemnation of him), for even today God holds a special place for them (cf. Rom 11).

Consistently, God promised Abram a son; yet as late as chapter 15, we hear Abram complaining of no offspring. One should notice the familiarity between God and Abram. God once more promises a son and reminds Abram of His protection and guidance to the present moment “And he [Abram] believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (v. 6).

A strange scene is then portrayed: God instructs Abram to bring some animals, which Abram cuts up, placing halves opposite each other. This was a covenant ceremony, calling down misfortune on either party to the covenant who did not live up to its terms. According to custom, both parties should have walked through the midst of the animals – essentially saying, “If I am not faithful to this pact, may the same happen to me that has happened to these animals.” However, now only God (in the form of fire) does so – implicitly acknowledging that He knows that human weakness will make covenant fidelity difficult. Within that setting, the Lord once again renews His promise of a son and a nation.

If a wife were not fertile, it was quite proper for her maidservant to provide her husband with a son. This type of proxy motherhood may shock us (well, maybe not anymore!), but for an incipient nation, it would have been deemed both natural and necessary. Thus, Hagar bears Ishmael.

In chapter 17, the covenant is reaffirmed. This time God changes Abram’s name to Abraham (“Father of Many”) to emphasize the sureness of the promise. In the Semitic mentality, one’s name had much to do with one’s role, and there are other examples of this kind of name-changing throughout the Scriptures (e.g., Simon to Peter). Abraham is then reminded of his part of the bargain: He must walk in God’s ways. The outward sign and reminder of this covenant is circumcision. A man’s loins were regarded by the Hebrews as the source of life, and so a connection is made between the future of this people and their relationship to God. Finally, Abraham is told that his own wife will conceive and that this child will be the recipient of God’s choicest blessings. Here it might be well to make a key application: The sign of circumcision, obviously, would be visible only to husband and wife; thus, one can say that when the spouses engaged in an act of love, they would also be reminded of the divine promise of life – leading Catholic moral theology to teach the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act.

Chapter 18 contains the intriguing story of the three visitors, one of whom turns out to be Yahweh Himself. Abraham’s deep-seated goodness stands out in this passage. The presence of God in unlikely persons is a recurring theme in Sacred Scripture; it is the basis for Jesus’ assertion that what is done to any who suffer or want is done to Him (cf. Mt 25). Abraham’s piety is again highlighted by his concern for any innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah. His bargaining with God is somewhat amusing, but it also teaches us that God does care and does listen.

As promised, Sarah bears a son and is called Isaac – a reminder of the laughter of his parents when they heard he was to be born of the barren Sarah. Ages in the Bible are frequently symbolic, but the inspired author seems intent on stressing that however old Sarah was, she was surely beyond the normal age for child-bearing. Modern people are often uncomfortable with miracles, but the Hebrews of old saw these divine interventions as concrete indications of God’s continuing providential care. Furthermore, the Scriptures often make the point that God is not bound by human laws or expectations. Thus, the conception of Isaac (like that of Jesus) is God’s doing – wholly unmerited by humanity and beyond our wildest imaginings. It would be good for us to be a little less skeptical of such occurrences, for when we have things too neatly planned, we run the risk of missing the God who takes delight in surprising us.

These “surprises”, however, are not always pleasant. The son who was the symbol of the future is the very one Abraham is commanded to sacrifice. The very thought horrifies us – or should (although those who belong to the contemporary Culture of Death would not be so concerned). Nevertheless, yet again God provides. Many of the Fathers of the Church saw in this passage a type of the sacrifice of Christ. Abraham stands for God the Father, willing to hand over his only son. Isaac points toward Jesus, the Innocent One, who does not hesitate to lay down His life. In addition to serving as a further confirmation of Abraham’s faith, the sacred author also may have wished to hit on still another issue: That Yahweh does not want human sacrifices, which the pagans practiced and which some Hebrews may have begun to adopt.

Sarah dies, and Abraham purchases a burial plot. Abraham arranges for his servant to return home to secure a wife for Isaac, the beautiful Rebekah. His work now completed, Abraham could die in peace and is brought to rest next to Sarah. The narrative ends with a sense of accomplishment and pushes the reader on to the story of Isaac.

The biblical text does not tell us much about Isaac. His claim to fame lies in the fact that through him the covenant was kept alive and was passed on to the next generation. Rebekah bears him two sons – Jacob and Esau – in competition with each other from the womb. Jacob was very clever and somewhat of a “Mamma’s boy.” Through a conspiracy with his mother, he tricks the old and blind Isaac into blessing him, instead of Esau.

The “Jacob material” ensues for ten chapters. Jacob eclipses not only Esau, but also Isaac. Jacob was a shrewd man and not above deceit – as we have already seen. Stories about his life and activities must have provided wonderful entertainment around campfires, and no attempt is made to whitewash his weaknesses or failings. Jacob was human and to be accepted for what he was. Nevertheless, he had received his father’s blessing and shared in the covenant promises. Indeed, the word of blessing is irrevocable, perhaps an early inkling of what centuries later we would speak of as the “sacramental character” of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Order.

The tales about Jacob preserved in the Bible have all the earmarks of folk stories and make for delightful and easy reading. The best-known story describes his wrestling with God. Because of this struggle, his name is changed to Israel (meaning either “one who has contended with God” or “one who has seen God”), the name which comes to be given to all his descendants as a people.

As Rebekah favored Jacob, so Jacob favored his next-to-youngest son, Joseph – to the chagrin of all his brothers. Joseph was often in danger of his life, always survived and, in fact, did better in the end. As God’s chosen one, he enjoyed the Lord’s favor and protection. The stories of Joseph are familiar to us from childhood but somehow never lose their appeal.

After the family is reunited and reconciled, Jacob makes Joseph promise to return his body to the ancestral burial place, and Joseph so swears. Jacob’s death is a very solemn event as he utters his last will and testament. Upon Jacob’s death, Joseph seeks permission from the Pharaoh to fulfill his father’s burial wishes, to which the Pharaoh readily agrees. After the funeral, the other brothers become fearful that Joseph might now take revenge, but he assures them of his good will.

On his deathbed, Joseph gathers his brothers around (reminiscent of Jacob’s death) and makes them promise to return to the homeland given them by God when conditions improve there. Furthermore, he asks that they bring Joseph’s remains to rest with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There the Book of Genesis ends, focusing once more on the covenant and on the land of that covenant.

Related:
• “Four basic truths about Genesis and Creation” (February 12, 2019) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “Genesis, Original Sin, and Original Happiness” (February 17, 2019) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 122 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

1 Comment

  1. Many honest scholars have doubted that the ancient Hebrews were ever in Egypt and believe that the Biblical story is wrong. But an interesting documentary on DVD format, entitled Patterns Of Evidence, shows that the best evidence shows that the Hebrews actually were in Egypt for a time, just as the Bible claims, and that the Biblical story describes events just as they actually happened. According to the documentary, scholars had been coming up empty not because the evidence did not exist, but merely because they had been looking in the wrong places and at the wrong times. The documentary is 2 hours long and definitely worth watching. Have fun!

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