by: Wes Howard-Brook on February 20th, 2012 | 12 Comments »
“Go from your land, and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that 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.” (Genesis 12.1-2)
That Jesus was not a “Christian” startles many, although it is simply a fact. However, it is equally true that Abraham was neither an “Israelite” nor a “Jew.” The Genesis narrative returns to a time before such categories to tell the story of a person responding to the Voice that calls him to leave all traces of “empire” behind. The “religion” Abraham is invited to embody counters the urban, imperial mode ex-pressed by the reign of David and Solomon as well as the Babylonian empire of its author’s time during Exile. It also transcends human labels for the divine and the divine’s ways.
Scholars have long argued that the book of Genesis is a pastiche of sources woven together in various times by writers with divergent agendas. But whatever truth there might be in such theories, the final form is a beautifully crafted whole that offers a radical alternative to what we politely call “civilization.” A particularly elegant transition is found in the move from the failed Tower of Babel (Gen 11) to the invitation to Abram (Gen 12).
The Tower tale is a political cartoon, mocking the particular pretensions of the Babylonian empire to unite people through shared language and a sky-scraping construction project by which the people hope to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11.4). YHWH is portrayed comically as unable to see the city and the tower without coming down from the divine heavenly court. The Hebrew text builds its satire with bricks of words composed largely of three consonants, in imitation of the Babylonian baked-earth bricks. It concludes with a pun that, to our ears, is trilinguistic: the Hebrew balal (“confused”) plays on the Akkadian “Babel,” likely meaning “gate of the gods.” In English, of course, we hear also “babble,” i.e., to use words incoherently. The entire empire-building project is a confused cacophony.
The Genesis text then moves through a series of generations, arriving at Terah, Abram’s father. The family are from Ur, a major city of the Babylonian empire. Terah, for unnarrated reasons, takes his family along the Euphrates to the far western edge of the empire, settling in the city of Haran.
It is there that Abram hears an unidentified Voice calling him to continue the journey all the way out of empire to new land and promised blessing. Ancient midrash, along with medieval commentators, propose many explanations for this two-stage journey. Popular is the idea that Abram’s natural intelligence recognized the absurdity of idolatry and, failing to convince his neighbors to give up their imperial ways, he prevailed upon his father to leave Ur behind. Whatever antecedent idea might have already been within Abram, it is only on the outskirts of empire that we hear the Voice speak to him.
Readers have two great advantages over Abram. First, the text tells us — but not Abram — whose Voice it is: “Now YHWH said to Abram…” (12.1). Second, what reader or hearer could not already have known the name “YHWH” and identified it as the God of Israel? This is certainly a deliberate choice by the writer to render the divine as beyond human names. The Voice is beyond our categories, beyond the dividing walls of “religions.” It is the “I” that speaks to human beings as “Thou,” in Martin Buber’s classic formulation. It is the Voice within that is not-our-own-voice, yet is to be trusted with our lives. It is the Voice that leads from the shackles and death-dealing of empire to the freedom and blessed abundance of sacred creation.
Abram (later Abraham) is not a plaster saint. Sometimes he listens to other voices: his own or that of his wife, Sarah. When he does so, death often hangs in the air. But when he remains faithful to the Voice, life begets life, flowing outward to “all the tribes of the earth” (12.3).
It is Abraham’s intimacy with the One who makes and sustains life that allows him to be a model for people across cultures and religions. That holy intimacy reveals the imperial lies that seek to seduce us into submission. It enables us to see the truth that there is an alternative to empire, in lifeways that offer blessing for all people. This is the truth that binds people together beyond the categories of “Jew” or “Christian” or “Muslim.” It is in walking together in response to this Voice — by whatever name — that true “religion” is found.