neither discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Yahweh, for I am faint.
Yahweh, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
My soul is also in great anguish.
But you, Yahweh—how long?
Return, Yahweh. Deliver my soul,
and save me for your loving kindness’ sake.
I am weary with my groaning.
Every night I drench my bed with my tears.
My eyes waste away because of grief.
I grow old because of all my adversaries.
Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity,
for Yahweh has heard the voice of my weeping.
Yahweh has heard my supplication.
Yahweh accepts my prayer.
May all my enemies be ashamed and dismayed.
They shall turn back, they shall be disgraced suddenly.
Several years ago, I was hospitalized for over a week with a nasty gut infection. For several weeks after my release, I was required to administer an intravenous drip of antibiotics several times a day including the middle of the night. Either as a result of my illness, or as a reaction to the antibiotics, I became profoundly depressed. To occupy the time while the I.V. dripped and to distract myself from dark thoughts, I read some of the psalms. To my surprise, those psalms that were a complaint to God, or a cry for help - especially this one - were a real comfort.
The revelation that became Scripture knew that suffering is a lonely endeavor. And it knew that in the darkest nights of the soul it is easy to imagine God as distant. These psalms invite us to acknowledge that feeling of distance, but also to challenge it. God shares even that suffering.
Answer me when I call, God of my righteousness.
Give me relief from my distress.
Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer.
Yahweh will hear when I call to him.
Stand in awe, and don’t sin.
Search your own heart on your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness.
Put your trust in Yahweh.
Many say, “Who will show us any good?”
Yahweh, let the light of your face shine on us.
You have put gladness in my heart,
more than when their grain and their new wine are increased.
In peace, I will both lay myself down and sleep,
for you, Yahweh alone, make me live in safety.
The psalmist invites us to “stand in awe” of God – to rest in the knowledge that He who laid the foundation of the earth is with us and hears us every moment of the day and the darkest hours of the night. We don’t have to make any pilgrimage or undertake any deprivation to feel God’s gaze, we need only search our own hearts and be still. For the psalmist, knowing that God loves him provides what Paul called, “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.”
Call on his name.
Make what he has done known among the peoples.
Sing to him.
Sing praises to him.
Tell of all his marvelous works.
Glory in his holy name.
Let the heart of those who seek Yahweh rejoice.
Seek Yahweh and his strength.
Seek his face forever more.
Remember his marvelous works that he has done,
his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth,
you offspring of Israel his servant,
you children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
He is Yahweh our God.
His judgments are in all the earth.
Remember his covenant forever,
the word which he commanded to a thousand generations,
the covenant which he made with Abraham,
his oath to Isaac.
He confirmed it to Jacob for a statute,
and to Israel for an everlasting covenant,
saying, “I will give you the land of Canaan,
The lot of your inheritance,”
when you were but a few men in number,
yes, very few.
They went about from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another people.
He allowed no man to do them wrong.
Yes, he reproved kings for their sakes,
“Don’t touch my anointed ones!
Do my prophets no harm!”
Sing to Yahweh, all the earth!
Display his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
and his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised.
He also is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but Yahweh made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him.
Strength and gladness are in his place.
Ascribe to Yahweh, you relatives of the peoples,
ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength!
Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name.
Bring an offering, and come before him.
Worship Yahweh in holy array.
Tremble before him, all the earth.
The world also is established that it can’t be moved.
Let the heavens be glad,
and let the earth rejoice!
Let them say among the nations, “Yahweh reigns!”
Let the sea roar, and its fullness!
Let the field exult, and all that is in it!
Then the trees of the forest will sing for joy before Yahweh,
for he comes to judge the earth.
Oh, give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good,
for his loving kindness endures forever.
Say, “Save us, God of our salvation!
Gather us together and deliver us from the nations,
to give thanks to your holy name,
to triumph in your praise.”
Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Israel,
from everlasting even to everlasting.
1 Chronicles 16:8-38
Yahweh is my rock,
and my deliverer, even mine;
God is my rock in whom I take refuge;
my shield, and the horn of my salvation,
my high tower, and my refuge.
My savior, you save me from violence.
I call on Yahweh, who is worthy to be praised;
So shall I be saved from my enemies.
For the waves of death surrounded me.
The floods of ungodliness made me afraid.
The cords of Sheol were around me.
The snares of death caught me.
In my distress, I called on Yahweh.
Yes, I called to my God.
He heard my voice out of his temple.
My cry came into his ears.
Then the earth shook and trembled.
The foundations of heaven quaked and were shaken,
because he was angry.
Smoke went up out of his nostrils.
Consuming fire came out of his mouth.
Coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also and came down.
Thick darkness was under his feet.
He rode on a cherub and flew.
Yes, he was seen on the wings of the wind.
He made darkness a shelter around himself:
gathering of waters, and thick clouds of the skies.
At the brightness before him,
coals of fire were kindled.
Yahweh thundered from heaven.
The Most High uttered his voice.
He sent out arrows, and scattered them;
lightning, and confused them.
Then the channels of the sea appeared.
The foundations of the world were laid bare by Yahweh’s rebuke,
at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.
He sent from on high and he took me.
He drew me out of many waters.
He delivered me from my strong enemy,
from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me.
They came on me in the day of my calamity,
but Yahweh was my support.
He also brought me out into a large place.
He delivered me, because he delighted in me.
For you are my lamp, Yahweh.
Yahweh will light up my darkness.
For by you, I run against a troop.
By my God, I leap over a wall.
As for God, his way is perfect.
Yahweh’s word is tested.
He is a shield to all those who take refuge in him.
For who is God, besides Yahweh?
Who is a rock, besides our God?
God is my strong fortress.
He makes my way perfect.
He makes his feet like hinds’ feet,
and sets me on my high places.
He teaches my hands to war,
so that my arms bend a bow of bronze.
You have also given me the shield of your salvation.
Your gentleness has made me great.
You have enlarged my steps under me.
My feet have not slipped.
Blessed be my rock!
Exalted be God, the rock of my salvation,
Yes, you lift me up above those who rise up against me.
You deliver me from the violent man.
Therefore, I will give thanks to you, Yahweh, among the nations,
and will sing praises to your name.
He gives great deliverance to his king,
and shows loving kindness to his anointed,
to David and to his offspring, forever more.
2 Samuel 22:2-20, 29-37, 47, 49-51
As David nears the end, he surveys his life and finds God was with him all the time, as promised. When David was in trouble, God roused Himself to a fury to protect His own, laying bare the very foundations of the earth. David was not immune from suffering: He had lost his favorite son and was overcome with grief. And being God’s beloved didn’t inspire him to be particularly virtuous all the time, as he arranged for the death of Uriah so that he could continue his relations with Bathsheba. But David was always sure of God’s loving gaze.
David took his staff in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones out of the brook and put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag which he had. His sling was in his hand; and he came near to Goliath, the Philistine. The Philistine walked and came near to David; and the man who bore the shield went before him. When the Philistine looked around and saw David he disdained him; for he was but a youth. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” The Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky, and to the animals of the field.”
Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of Yahweh of Armies, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. Today, Yahweh will deliver you into my hand. I will strike you, and kill you. I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines today to the birds of the sky, and to the wild animals of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that Yahweh doesn’t save with sword and spear; for the battle is Yahweh’s, and he will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine arose, and walked and came near to meet David, David hurried, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine.
1 Samuel 17:40-48
David represents God’s beloved; outmatched, outgunned and with virtually no chance of success against the troubles he faces.
Nonetheless, David delivers his inspiring, confident war cry and then runs headlong against his enemy.
God will not necessarily deliver us from the cause of our suffering (“Yahweh doesn’t save with sword and spear”). But in the end, the day will be His and the day will be ours. In the story of Noah and the Ark, the Flood did not represent the judgment of God, it represented Chaos. God did not make Creation from nothing, but rather drew it out of Chaos - dividing light from dark, night from day, earth from water, and finally humanity from earth. Chaos will return in each of our lives, but God tells us it does not have to sink us. He will invite us to float over it until it recedes and dutifully close the door of the Ark behind us.
Knowing that we are the beloved of God means that we never suffer alone and we don’t have to let suffering demean us. We can run headlong into it.
Image: David & Goliath, Caravaggio (1600)
for there is no one besides you,
nor is there any rock like our God.
The bows of the mighty men are broken.
Those who stumbled are armed with strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread.
Those who were hungry are satisfied.
Yes, the barren has borne seven.
She who has many children languishes.
Yahweh makes poor and makes rich.
He brings low, he also lifts up.
He raises up the poor out of the dust.
He lifts up the needy from the dunghill
to make them sit with princes
and inherit the throne of glory.
For the pillars of the earth are Yahweh’s.
He has set the world on them.
He will keep the feet of his holy ones,
and no man will prevail by strength.
1 Samuel 2:2, 3-5,7-10
One of the most prominent themes in Scripture is that God is with those who suffer. It manifests itself in every book of the Bible in one way or another.
Heroes are always the smallest, the morally compromised, the second born: Moses, chosen by God to be His chief negotiator with Pharaoh, is a stutterer. Jacob, later to be renamed Israel and father of the twelve tribes, was the second born and obtained his older brother’s birthright and blessing by fraud. David, chosen to be king of Israel, was out in a field shepherding sheep when the promising candidates were lined up for selection, and the thing with Uria was pretty disgraceful.
Also, God always concerns Himself with those the widows and the orphans. Jesus concerns himself with the sinners and tax collectors, the prodigal sons, the lost sheep, the poor and the sick.
We’ve heard this so often, the existential shock of it has worn off. Historically, God’s competition was Ba’al. According to the Canaanite mythology that Judaism replaced, Ba’al was a fertility god and demanded the execution and immolation of first born children to appease him. It is said that the valley outside Jerusalem, Gehenna, stank from the smoking pyres of human sacrifice. Ba’al, like every pagan god before him, clearly favored the strong, the wealthy, and the powerful.
When, in the fullness of time, God revealed himself, he announced that He was different. God favored those who could not defend themselves and found themselves brought low.
This is our God.
Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is how you shall bless the children of Israel. You shall tell them:
May God bless you and keep you.
May the light of His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.’
So shall you invoke My name to the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”
Every Sunday night before we sit down to eat, my wife and I place our hands on our daughter’s head and recite this ancient blessing.
It is not so much an attempt to get God to do something, but a recognition that He has already done it. As the descendants of Abraham, we can claim the ancient promise God made to him. This is the covenant, so often repeated, and so often confirmed throughout the Biblical narrative – that God will always suffer with us and love us. Though the universe is vast and often seems capricious and cold, we are never alone.
Image: The Pillars of Creation
For you are a holy people to Yahweh your God. Yahweh your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession, above all peoples who are on the face of the earth. Yahweh didn’t set His love on you nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all peoples; but because Yahweh loves you, and because He desires to keep the oath which he swore to your fathers, Yahweh has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Know, therefore, that Yahweh your God Himself is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and loving kindness with them who love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations. Yahweh your God will keep with you the covenant and the loving kindness which He swore to your fathers. He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your body and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your livestock and the young of your flock, in the land which He swore to your fathers to give you. You will be blessed above all peoples. There won’t be male or female barren among you, nor among your livestock.
Deuteronomy 7:6-9, 12-14
This is an extraordinary statement of divine acceptance. God chose Abraham at random to be the recipient of God’s eternal blessing and covenant. Abraham had not yet demonstrated any virtue and would, over the course of the story, be a model of vice as much as virtue. Here again God states that He does not choose us because we have been particularly deserving or have stood out to Him at all. God goes on to say His covenant will survive anything and is practically irrevocable. He asserts that it would take at least a thousand generations of uninterrupted sin to rouse Him to the least indignation.
As Paul Tillich wrote:
You are accepted! You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted![i]
Image: The pale blue dot on the right is Earth taken by Voyager I twenty-five years ago from 3.7 billion miles away
[i] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1948) 161
God spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty; but by my name Yahweh I was not known to them. I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their travels, in which they lived as aliens. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant. Therefore, tell the children of Israel, ‘I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. I will take you to myself for a people. I will be your God; and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for a heritage: I am Yahweh.’”
Moses spoke so to the children of Israel, but they didn’t listen to Moses for anguish of spirit, and for cruel bondage.
Here, again, God refers to the covenant He made with Abraham. He promises that He will save them from slavery and take them to Himself as His people.
But the Israelites are so broken-hearted by their circumstances they cannot hear, let alone believe, this extraordinary divine promise of loving attention. But their inability to hear Him doesn’t prevent God from keeping His promise. Later in the rescue mission, at the shores of the Red Sea the waters of which God is about to part to complete their escape, Moses will tell the people: “Don’t be afraid. Stand still and see the salvation Yahweh will work for you today; for you will never again see the Egyptians whom you see today. Yahweh will fight for you, and you need only be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14).
God will do His work. We need only be still.
Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the back of the wilderness, and came to God’s mountain, to Horeb. Yahweh’s angel appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the middle of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I will go now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”
When Yahweh saw that he came over to see, God called to him out of the middle of the bush, and said, “Moses! Moses!”
Moses said, “Here I am.”
God said, “Don’t come close. Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.” Moreover, He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
Yahweh said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey. Now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to me. Moreover, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come now therefore, and I will send you to challenge Pharaoh, that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
God said, “Certainly I will be with you.
Again, the dual themes of asymmetry and proximity reveal themselves.
God appears as mysterious fire and warns Moses that he cannot approach too close. Moses must remove his sandals in recognition of the sacredness of the space God occupies. Later in the story, the Israelites will be warned not to touch Mount Sinai as God descends onto it amid thunder, lightning, trumpet blasts and earthquakes. Moses is afraid to look at God and indeed God will warn him in the coming chapters that no one can see God and live.
But Moses will later see God “face-to-face” and Jacob will be renamed, “Israel,” because he wrestled with God and lives. In Genesis, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, marvels that she looked upon God and lived. And God has arrived to deliver a message of warmth, nearness, and loving concern. He is with us, and although He evidently cannot free us from suffering, He suffers with us. He frees us from the slavery of being one little mote in a vast universe and places us squarely in the center of His palm.
Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place, and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. He took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. He dreamed and saw a stairway set upon the earth, and its top reached to heaven. Behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Behold, Yahweh stood above it, and said, “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I will give the land you lie on to you and to your offspring. Your offspring will be as the dust of the earth, and you will spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. In you and in your offspring, all the families of the earth will be blessed. Behold, I am with you, and will keep you, wherever you go, and will bring you again into this land. For I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken of to you.”
Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” He was afraid, and said, “How awesome this place is! This is none other than God’s house, and this is the gate of heaven.
This short passage contains three themes that are repeated throughout Scripture:
Jacob’s dream of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending represents that we do not live in a dualistic universe where there is divide that cannot be crossed between the divine and the human, or the sacred and the profane. Jesus is the incarnation of the divine in the human. When he dies on the cross the veil that separated the Holy of Holies in the Temple from the outside is torn in two. In the Catholic tradition, we both venerate the tabernacle in which the Eucharist is kept, and reach in and eat the contents.
Jacob receives precisely the same promise of abundant divine love and attention that his grandfather, Abraham, received. God’s promise to Abraham that His covenant will endure generation after generation is fulfilled. It doesn’t mean that Abraham’s decedents will not experience suffering. Far from it, as they will find themselves enslaved in Egypt in the next book. But it means that God is with us, exults in our successes, but especially suffers with us in our pain and failures. Isaiah will prophecy the arrival of a messiah named Immanuel, or “God is with us” – a story that Matthew relates at the birth of Jesus.
And finally, Jacob is awed by his encounter with God. Our deepest intuitions of God are paradoxical. On the one hand, God is with us; a familiar Presence and our most intimate relationship. On the other hand, we can’t help but feel our smallness in the presence of God. Rudolf Otto called this feeling “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, the numinous, the utterly ineffable and overwhelmingly holy – the feeling our creatureliness in the presence of our Creator. Martin Buber put it this way:
O, you safe and secure ones. You who hide yourselves behind the ramparts of law so that you will not have to look into God’s abyss! Yes, you have secure ground under your feet, while we hang suspended looking out over the endless deeps. But we would not exchange our dizzy insecurity and poverty for your security and abundance … Of God’s will we know only the eternal; the temporal we must command for ourselves…
Twas’ grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace that fear relieved.
dispelled is darkness.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
The light has shined on those
who lived in the land of the shadow of death.
You have multiplied the nation.
You have increased their joy.
They rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as men rejoice when they divide plunder.
For the yoke that burdened them,
and the staff on their shoulder,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as in the day of Midian.
Yahweh said, “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now, and see whether their deeds are as bad as the reports which have come to me. If not, I will know.”
The men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood yet before Yahweh. Abraham came near, and said, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it? May it be far from you to do things like that, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be like the wicked. May that be far from you. Shouldn’t the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Yahweh said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “See now, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord, although I am dust and ashes. What if there will lack five of the fifty righteous? Will you destroy all the city for lack of five?”
Yahweh said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.”
Abraham spoke to him yet again, and said, “What if there are forty found there?”
Yahweh said, “I will not do it for the forty’s sake.”
Abraham said, “Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak. What if there are thirty found there?”
Yahweh said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
Abraham said, “See now, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord. What if there are twenty found there?”
Yahweh said, “I will not destroy it for the twenty’s sake.”
Abraham said, “Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak just once more. What if ten are found there?”
Yahweh said, “I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.”
Yahweh went his way as soon as he had finished communing with Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is often assumed to be about a wrathful God punishing bad behavior. But the story really isn’t about that at all. The vast majority of the text consists of an extraordinary discussion between Abraham and God in which Abraham ask God if He will spare the city if just a few innocent people can be found there. God’s answer is inevitably, “yes.”
In the Biblical narrative, it sometimes seems like God’s concern is with the Israelites as a group rather than with each individual. And in our lives, it is easy to feel very small and insignificant – one person in a world of billions. We might ask, “does God take notice of me?” The story of Sodom and the discussion between Abraham and God reveals that God does not love groups; He loves each of us as His unique creation and takes notice of each one of us as though we are the center of His universe.
Jesus said something similar in the Gospel of Matthew:
Aren’t two sparrows sold for an Assarion coin? Not one of them falls on the ground apart from your Father’s notice, but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore, don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.
Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Leave your country, and your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram went, as Yahweh had told him. Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go into the land of Canaan. They entered into the land of Canaan. Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time, Canaanites were in the land. Yahweh appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your offspring.” (Genesis 12:1-7)
Yahweh said to Abram, after Lot was separated from him, “Now, lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for I will give all the land which you see to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if a man can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring may also be counted. Arise, walk through the land in its length and in its width; for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14-18)
Yahweh brought him outside, and said, “Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He said to Abram, “So your offspring will be.” He believed in Yahweh, who credited it to him for righteousness. He said to Abram, “I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur to give you this land to inherit it.” (Genesis 15:5-7)
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty. I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” Abram fell on his face. God talked with him, saying, “As for me, behold, my covenant is with you. You will be the father of a multitude of nations. Your name will no more be called Abram, but your name will be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you. Kings will come out of you. I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your offspring after you. I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are traveling, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:1-8)
I will bless you greatly, and I will multiply your offspring greatly like the stars of the heavens, and like the sand which is on the seashore. (Genesis 22:17)
God promises that Abram will be the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which, taken together, today represent well over half the global population. There is nothing in Abram’s backstory to suggest he deserves to be chosen for this immense blessing and honor. In fact, Genesis tells us who Abram’s ancestors were, but doesn’t tell us anything else about him. God’s choice appears to have been entirely random.
But Abram’s story is more than just the history of world religion. Abram’s name means, “father,” and the new name God gives him, “Abraham,” means “father of nations.” We are not supposed to see Abram as a heroic, distant Biblical figure, but as being in our own immediate family and our direct decedent. Abram represents each one of us and God’s unreasoning decision to take each of us as His very own.
God repeats His covenant with Abram repeatedly as though to make sure we don’t forget it. He speaks in the most evocative language: He tells Abram to look in every direction to see the land God will give his children as an everlasting possession. He invites Abram, and each one of us, to look up into the ancient starlit night sky and the sand on the boundless seashore to illustrate God’s abundant, eternal love.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep and God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.
God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw the light, and saw that it was good. God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light “day”, and the darkness he called “night”. There was evening and there was morning, the first day.
God said, “Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse “sky”. There was evening and there was morning, a second day.
God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear;” and it was so. God called the dry land “earth”, and the gathering together of the waters he called “seas”. God saw that it was good. God said, “Let the earth yield grass, herbs yielding seeds, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with their seeds in it, on the earth;” and it was so. The earth yielded grass, herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with their seeds in it, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a third day.
God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs to mark seasons, days, and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth;” and it was so. God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light to the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
God said, “Let the waters abound with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky.” God created the large sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind. God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures after their kind, livestock, creeping things, and animals of the earth after their kind;” and it was so. God made the animals of the earth after their kind, and the livestock after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind. God saw that it was good.
God said, “Let’s make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them. God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree, which bears fruit yielding seed. It will be your food. To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food;” and it was so.
God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. There was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.
The heavens, the earth, and all their vast array were finished. On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy, because he rested in it from all his work of creation which he had done.
Some extraordinary themes reveal themselves in the first Creation story:
God brings order from Chaos, represented by the distinguishing of things from one another and, even more evocatively, the watery Deep. In a few chapters, God will teach Noah how to survive the return of Chaos when floodwaters engulf the world, and carefully lock the door of the ark behind him. Moses will command the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape the Egyptians, pursuing them to return them to slavery. Elijah will divide the Jordan river as he faces the chaos of the end of his earthly life and his apprentice, Elisha, will divide it again to begin his own ministry. Jesus will calm turbulent waters, walk on them, and teach Peter that he can walk on them too.
The earth and everything that emerges from it is Good, and God blesses it.
God is ancient and sovereign. He created an abundant, nurturing universe heartrending in its beauty, mystery and majesty.
God made us in His image. From the very beginning, He intended us to be His children – a message He would underline with earthquakes, thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai and again in Bethlehem and once more on Calvary.
And He must be still, as we must be, to reflect on the enormous beauty of it all.