This year during the season of Lent, the Gospel readings offer a series of narratives which describe encounters that Jesus had (largely from the Gospel according to John). In parallel to those stories, in the Hebrew Scripture readings, the lectionary offers a sequence of passages telling some of the key moments in the story of Israel (from Genesis, Exodus, 1 Samuel, and Ezekiel),
This sequence of key moments in the story of Israel offers a series of vignettes of faithful people from the past—our ancestors in the faith who stand as role models to encourage us, centuries later, in our own journey of faith. They are figures which are worth holding up for our reflection and consideration. These stories each have the function of an aetiology—that is, a mythic story which is told to explain the origins of something that is important in the time of the storyteller.
The online Oxford Classical Dictionary defines the term as follows: “Aetiology in religion and mythology refers to an explanation, normally in narrative form (hence ‘aetiological myth’), of a practice, epithet, monument, or similar.” Whilst telling of something that is presented as happening long back in the past, the focus is on present experiences and realities, for “such explanations elucidate something known in the contemporary world by reference to an event in the mythical past”.
The ancestral narratives of Israel (Gen 12–50), as well as the series of books known as “the historical narratives” (Exodus to 2 Kings, Ezra—Nehemiah) are all written at a time much later that the presumed events which they narrate. The final form of the books as we have them most likely date to the Exile or post-exilic times, although pre-existing sources would have been used for many of these stories. (There are specific references to earlier written documents—now lost to us—scattered throughout 1—2 Kings.)
Those older stories were remembered, retold, and then written down, because they spoke into the present experiences of the writers. Common scholarly belief is that the stories found in Gen 12–50 were originally oral tales, that were collected together, told and retold over the years, and ultimately written down in one scroll, that we today call Genesis.
For this coming Sunday, we are offered the account of the calling of Abram, who journeys into a new future (Gen 12:1–4a, Lent 2A). This has been a key passage for Jews throughout the centuries; Abram is remembered and honoured as “the father of the nation”—indeed, as “the father of all nations”; and this passage claims that it was God’s intention to grant the blessing of abundant descendants to Abram and his wife, to fulfil this promise.
The passage is found after the opening 11 chapters, which are often labelled the “Primeval History”, since they recount the creation of the world and the sequence of events which were fundamental for understanding human existence (such as human sinfulness and conflict, the expansion of humanity, the great flood, the growth of tribal entities, and the diversification of languages).
The passage also stands at the head of those stories, originally oral, which were collected because they revealed much about the nature of Israel as a people and as a nation. These chapters tell stories about the patriarchs and their wives (Abram and Sarai, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel). This particular passage introduces key themes for the people of Israel.
A word of caution: the lectionary stops in the middle of verse 4: “Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him”. To be fair, however, we need to read beyond the point where the lectionary ends this passage; that selection indicates that Abram took Lot with him, but the narrative actually continues, indicating that Abram travelled with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, “and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan” (Gen 12:5).
The lectionary is, sadly, blatantly sexist at this point: it includes the names of the two leading males, Abram and Lot, but fails to note that they travelled with their spouses, Sarai and the (always unnamed) wife of Lot; and indeed there is reference to the presence of many others with them in their journey, which would undoubtedly have included both males and females within the extended family grouping. We need to read this ancient aetiology with a contemporary critical awareness. Certainly, the faith of Abram and Sarai and their extended family is a key message conveyed by this passage.
The story explains four important aspects of life and faith for the people of ancient Israel and on into contemporary Judaism: the land is given to this people, the people (of Israel) will become “a great nation”, the name (of Abram) will be blessed, and the descendants of Abram, “all the families of the earth”, will likewise be blessed. These four points—land, people, name, descendants—loom large throughout the history of Israel. Indeed, they maintain their potency into the present age—and need to be read and understood with political and cultural sensitivity today.
The story makes it clear that the land of Canaan was given by God to Abram and his descendants. As the story continues beyond the section offered by the lectionary, “they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.” (Gen 12:5–7).
Laying claim to the land of Canaan us a thread that runs through Hebrew Scripture. The promise of land is repeated in the covenant with Abram: “your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites” (Gen 15:18–21). The long list of names of those inhabiting this land indicates the extent to which this promise would prove to be disruptive for these peoples.
The promise to Abraham was confirmed to Isaac (Gen 26:3) and to Jacob (Gen 28:13), and the full extent of the promised land was set out in Exodus 23:31, “from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates”. By the time of the United Kingdom, it is said that “Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt” (1 Ki 4:21).
The disruption to the inhabitants from the invasion and colonisation by the incoming Israelites is told in detail through the book of Joshua, when the people enter the land and cause havoc for the inhabitants; and the book of Joshua, indicating how the “settlement” of the land required centuries of battles and conflicts.
When first the northern kingdom, then the southern kingdom each went into Exile, the yearning to return to the land was strong. When Jeremiah buys a field in his hometown of Anathoth from his cousin Hanamel (Jer 32:1–15), the purchase serves to provide assurance that the exiled people will indeed return to the land of Israel; “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jer 32:15).
Ezekiel, speaking for God, declares that the people “shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God” (Ezek 39:28–29).
As a sign of his confidence that God will maintain his commitment to Israel, Ezekiel tells in detail his vision of the new temple that would, he believed, be built in the land (40:1–43:27), as well as the role of the Levitical priests in that temple (44:15–31) and various provisions that would be in force after the return to the land (45:1–46:24).
Third Isaiah predicts that “your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever” (Isa 60:21); he speaks of a time when “they shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord” (Isa 66:20). The focus on the land is a strong thread running throughout Hebrew Scripture.
The claim that the people of Israel have made for their land has been contentious throughout history—not least in the last 80 years, since the post-WWII settlement re-established the modern state of Israel in this precise area. This return of the Jews to their homeland after World War Two was implemented with little concern for what it would mean for the people who had long lived in the area—those now identified as the Palestinians.
The term Palestinian is ancient term, being used by the Greek historian Herodotus five centuries before the common era (BCE) to designate “a district of Syria, called Palaistinê” between Phoenicia and Egypt” (Histories 1.105). The term was subsequently used by numerous Greek and Roman writers.
In the early 2nd century CE, the term “Syria Palestina” (literally, “Palestinian Syria”) was given to the Roman province of Judea, which had been the area ruled over by kings of the Southern Kingdom after the time of Solomon. This occurred after the uprising led by Bar Kochba—so the designation was for a land which no longer had many Jewish inhabitants.
In putting down the Jewish uprising, the Romans had also removed Jews from Jerusalem and the surrounding rural areas, which they renamed Colonia Aelia Capitolina. Aelia came from Hadrian’s nomen designating his gens, Aelius, while Capitolina indicated that the city formerly known as Jerusalem was dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus, to whom a newly-built temple was dedicated.
So the contest between ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ was an ancient enmity which was revived and intensified from 1948 onwards. The homeland had been given to the Jews in the aftermath of the Shoah, also called the Holocaust, perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its sympathisers. For Palestinians, yet he establishment of the Nakba, a period in which the displacement of many local populations has taken place. Unfortunately, and unjustly, this continues even today under the Israeli Government’s policy of continuing to establish new settler areas.
So whilst the passage about Abram and Sarai setting off, exuding hope and demonstrating trust in God’s promise, is a fine reminder of the need to have trust in Hod and to set our in faith in new directions in our discipleship, it is also now a fraught and contested word, given how it has been used to justify events millennia later. Let us speak of this passage with care.
I am so pleased that my own church, the Uniting Church in Australia, has been thinking about our relationship with the Jewish People for a number of decades now, a nd that has included giving careful consideration to issues surrounding the land—both historical claims and current realities.
In 1997, a working group (of which I was a member) had presented a Statement to the national body of the church, the Assembly, in which these matters had been canvassed. The Assembly agreed to invite Uniting Church bodies and members to give consideration to these matters:
7.9 that the Jewish people have a particular historical, cultural, emotional and spiritual bond with the land of Israel, which is a central element of the Jewish faith, and which is inextricably bound to the history of the Jewish People;
7.10 that the historic roots, rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people must be properly acknowledged;
7.11 that from a properly informed position, and in the light of the moral tradition of Christianity, it can be appropriate for the Uniting Church to have and express a view about both Israeli and Palestinian policies and actions;
7.12 that the search for a just and lasting peace for all states and peoples in the Middle East merits prayerful engagement on the part of all Christians
In obedience to that guidance, whilst I was a member and, for a time, co-convenor of the Uniting Church’s National Dialogue with the Jewish Community, I took part in many vigorous discussions relating to these issues. I listened and learnt, as well as speaking, in those discussions.
In 2009, the Assembly received and adopted a full Statement on Jews and Judaism in which it reiterated “that the State of Israel and a Palestinian State each have the right to live side by side in peace and security”. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581
In 2011, following the work of another working group (of which I was also a member), the President and General Secretary issued an invitation to Uniting Church members “to consider taking peaceful action toward a resolution to the conflict”; it included a comprehensive set of suggested actions, including prayers, advocating with MPs, inviting speakers, supporting a relief or development project in the West Bank or Gaza, and supporting a boycott of goods produced in the illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This was published under the heading of A Prayer for Peace, at https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/Ministries/ROF/images/stories/A_Prayer_For_Peace_Information_PageED.pdf
Abram and Sarai stepped out in faith. That is a wonderful role model for us to emulate. Where they went, and what their descendants did, has given us pause for consideration. How do we venture into the new in ways that do not damage others?