Posts Tagged ‘Genesis 12’

Rarely does the book called Isaiah indulge in retrospect. Particularly in the second half of the book, the operational summons is to sing a new song, to forget the former things, to embrace YHWH’s penchant for doing something shockingly new.

In this light, the first section of the book’s fifty-first chapter raises a readerly eyebrow.

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.

Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah 51:1-2 (NRSV)

This chain of three imperatives is manifestly retrospective, although it would be wrong to call it nostalgic.

There must be something about ‘Abraham your father and … Sarah who bore you’ that elevates the ancestral couple as worthy of the exilic community’s contemplation. Indeed, the immediate text signals wherein that virtue lies and the context further ornaments the allusion.

First, the text of these two verses gives every indication of alluding to the famous calling of Abraham, with its promised of remarkably multiplied progeny.

Now 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. 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 the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3 (NRSV)

Besides the naming of Abraham and Sarah, the Isaiah text picks up the notion of blessing (ברכה and verbal ברך). Additionally, both texts emphasize the dimension of multiplication towards vastness. In Genesis, this notion manifests as promissory: ‘I will make you a great nation’ (ואעשׁך לגוי גדול) and ‘and make your name great’ (ואגדלה שׁמך). In the allusive Isaiah text, the language is slightly different:

…for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah 51:2 (NRSV)

One discovers, then, in both texts the notion of blessing towards vastness.

So much for the evident textual links that make Isaiah 51.1-2 a recontextualized echo of Genesis 12.1-3.

Yet the Abrahamic motif has not been concluded just yet. In the hands of the Isaianic interpretation of the exiles’ plight, there is more to say.

The clear and immediate insistence is that YHWH is still capable of multiplying his people via blessing towards vastness. What became true of Abraham and Sarah represents an invitation for the exiles to trust YHWH’s intention to multiply them in similar fashion.

Yet is striking that the ensuing verses are thick with reference to the paradoxical but intensely Isaianic notion of subjugating the nations in those peoples’ own interest.

Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.

I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.

Isaiah 51:4-5 (NRSV)

It appears, then, that this forward-looking book finds Abraham and Sarah to be worthy objects for a bit of retrospective pondering. This is so precisely because in the experience of the iconic patriarch and matriarch one discerns YHWH’s purpose to bless his people towards vastness in a way that has global implications for those nations who find themselves conjoined to YHWH’s little people.

If the Isaianic tradition constitutes exilic prophets coaxing out the meaning of the prophetic deposit that has become their treasure and also of conjuring the bracing concept of an imminent New Exodus, then it is also true that the tradition can reach even farther back into Israel’s long memory. When it does so, it becomes a summons to trust that YHWH’s stubborn insistence upon blessing not only Abraham and Sarah but also those nations who will look favorably upon them has survived the storm of exile.

In the hands of Isaiah’s interpreters, retrospect becomes prospect and memory, instruction.


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