An Essay on Exegesis, Genesis 18
William Elkins, Drew University
A Literal Title?
might an essay on Genesis 18 be titled?
The title is important. It
locates us. It often expresses the
literal sense of the passage, and it places us at a particular place and time.
But the subtitle is also important. It catches the eye and provokes the
imagination. Try these: "They Who Laugh
Last Laugh Best," or "Divine Justice at a Deep Discount."
the New Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures the editors often title each
chapter. The title for chapter 18 is "A
Son is Promised to Abraham and Sarah."
This title notes one aspect of the literal sense. The problem, however, is that it does not
indicate the complexity or embody the mystery of this chapter.
In one sense, exegeting Genesis 18 is analogous to
one of those New Yorker cartoon caption contests in which "an illustrated
portion of a cartoon" is presented and the readers "try to write a caption that
completes the cartoon." This would
appear to be a simple exercise. The
cartoon is right there on the page.
However since the cartoon can be read from a number of perspectives, it
is multiply ambiguous. In addition,
since our sense of humor is often off line when we exegete scripture, we are
left with a prosaic title and the literal sense of one limited perspective. We
miss the strangeness of trying to capture and caption something that just does
not make immediate sense in logic or wit.
Moreover, if the urbane style of New Yorker can stump us, the
theological subtleties of Genesis may be quite beyond our grasp. Of course, we
cannot discount the possibilities of revelation to inspire limited
interpretations for a community of readers.
A closer reading of Genesis 18 in light of Elliot Wolfson's
interpretation suggests the following subtitles: "No Body, Non-Sense" or
"No Body Gets Out Wholly Alive."
subtleties of Genesis 18 may be indicated by a few simple questions. In
addition, these questions may clarify some of the difficulties for an exegesis
of the scriptural logic (theologic) of this passage.
Was the stranger of the promise laughing or not when he replied to Sarah's
fearful denial that she laughed on hearing the promise?
Was Sarah's laughter more realistic and revealing than Abraham's silence on
the stranger's promise?
Is Abraham's argument with God over the fate of Sodom an indication that he has
finally understood the theology supporting the promise of the
Is the abrupt end of Abraham's argument with God over the fate of Sodom an
indication of the paradox of divine justice: the impossibility of measuring the
infinite demand/gift of justice/mercy?
Is the end of Abraham's argument and his return to silence and to his home an
indication that some embodiment is necessary for God's for
A Homiletic Exegesis
is often a rhetorical mistake to mix the real and the fantastic. Yet this story does just that. It mixes new
life with those who live under the shadow of death. Old men and women do not have children. The stranger's promise that Sarah will bear a child is simply
fantastic. It's far beyond belief, so Sarah laughs. But is her laughter a bitter laugh like the laughter that
undercuts all our efforts to get things right in the processes and politics of a
Humpty Dumpty world (where we all fall down and where all the kings horses and
all the kings men can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again), or is it the
laughter of wonder like that which startles us into joy at the appearance of a
loved one walking out of hell? In
Genesis 18 these questions are entirely undecided. But is this a problem?
is clear that we ordinarily don't mix categories. Old is old and young is
young. There is nothing new on this
aged earth. Yet God does get in the
mix. God transfigures things that
before the action of God we could not imagine being any other way. We know that old men and old women will not
become the fathers and mothers of a great nation. In one sense our narrow certainty and the limits of our
imagination constitute an Egyptian captivity. Moreover, when everywhere is an
Egypt we do not hope or laugh; we cry.
But when the God of the Exodus hears us and brings us out of Egypt "by
signs and wonders" we will sing and laugh.
We do not, however, laugh fully or for all times. Somehow, in all times and places, we carry
an Egypt with us. In history it is
undecided whether we will learn the recreating/resurrecting logic of God's
wonderful works. It is, however,
vitally important that we learn something of God's divine comedy, since God's
story is what makes our lives dramatic and blessed.
does God laugh for the liberation of God's people? Does God laugh for the renewal of life? Does God laugh with Sarah?
Did God laugh when he contradicted her fearful denial? "But Sarah denied, saying, 'I did not
laugh,' for she was afraid. He said,
"'Oh yes, you did laugh'" (Gen 18:15).
noted, in the text the answers to these questions are undecided. Although I
cannot but imagine that God did laugh in a wonderful way ("Is there nothing too
wonderful for God?"), there is no evidence for this, except the name of Sarah
and Abraham's son: Isaac, traditionally
identified with God's laughter. The
problem, however, is whether God is laughing at Sarah (since she bitter that no life is in her yet she does not
understand her real situation before God), for
her (since she cannot yet laugh in wonder at the gift of God), or with her (since she has just seen
beyond the limits of her dead end categories)?
All this is undecided, yet perhaps there is a point to the
uncertainty. Songs that express the
covenant may begin with a peal of laughter that breaks from and into the
tension between despair and hope. Our
hope may begin with the laughter of God and end with us sharing that same
joy. The covenant promise is that God will do a
wonderful thing for God's people and, despite all the troubles we have and will
see, they who laugh last laugh best.
this is not the whole story. What do we
do with the incongruity of Abraham arguing with God? Given the unbalanced relation between the wonderful power of God
and ordinariness of Abraham's potentialities, isn't this scene too close to a
joke (a child arguing with a storm devastating a city ) for us to take comfort
in this situation? Even if, all things
considered, the situation is not humorous (given the prospective fate of
Sodom), the situation is rhetorically odd.
Given Abraham's intense deference toward God, why would Abraham risk an
argument with the Judge of the World?
Why would he have any interest in disputing the balance between
righteousness and sin? What is the advantage of calling God to have mercy on
everyone in Sodom when five hundred or five thousand would seem to be too
little to balance the concentration of sin that constitutes the city of
Sodom? Finally, and more importantly,
why did Abraham stop at ten, when he appears to have God locked down into the
divine logic of a slippery slope?
be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so
that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the
Judge of all the earth do what is just?"(Genesis
reduction of the number of the righteous sufficient to save the city from fifty
to forty-five, to forty, to thirty, to twenty, to ten forces us to ask, why did
Abraham stop at ten? Is it simply a
need for a minyan (an odd possibility in the narrative world)? Why not just continue the countdown? Why not continue to discount how much
justice is needed? Why not argue that
the righteous Judge should spare Sodom even if there were "nine, eight three,
two" persons or even "one" righteous person there? Why cut the argument short when Abraham seems to be working out
the wonderful mystery and mercy of divine justice? Moreover, why is Sodom destroyed?
may be the case that any form of justice, to be divine, must be perfect as God
is perfect. So Sodom must be
destroyed. Yet given the wonderful
power of God to bring life from death (a child from two bodies as good as dead)
then it may be possible that one just person may be enough to balance the
difference between the infinite requirements of divine justice and the burden
of human history. Why not simply create
righteousness from nothingness?
course the argument does not end here (with the one or none) and though
Christians might try to find in this type of scriptural logic the themes that
begin to shape a theology of the
resurrection of those made righteous from the dead, this would take the
intertextual possibilities of this passage beyond its limits. All we know from
this passage is that "the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to
Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place" (18:39).
A Scriptural Possibility
is the significance of Abraham's concern with the balance of the just and the
unjust in Sodom in relation to God's justice?
What is Abraham doing when he is arguing with God? Why is Sodom destroyed?
possibility is that he has finally gotten the point of the promises of
God: God can do wonders. If God can fulfill God's promises through
the fructification of Sarah and Abraham so that they become parents of a new
nation, why can't God take the smallest number of the just as grounds for saving
thousands of the unjust? Moreover there
may be a deeper personal and scriptural logic behind Abraham's debate with
God: if God can make Abraham and Sarah
bear life, why can't God make Sodom righteous?
If so, then Abraham's argument with God is an attempt to push and test
the logical and performative limits of the wonderful power of God. If God is merciful to Sodom then this is
further proof that the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah will be fulfilled.
However, if God does not save Sodom when the just are discounted at a drastic
rate, then God's mercies to Abraham and Sarah may require some substantial
response, or (in the worst possible case) be illusionary.
odd these considerations may be, they make some theological sense in the context
of what the stranger implies about the nature of God. The stranger asks, rhetorically, "is anything too wonderful for
the LORD?" The implied answer is: No !
God is wonderful. There is
nothing that can prevent God from bringing about all that is good and
just. So, the limits of age, hope, of
bitterness, the self-limitations of our foolish laughter, our whistling in the
dark under the shadow of death, these conditions will not ultimately limit God
from making both creation and God's people signs of God's Shalom. But given the
very real limitations of his life Abraham might be naturally interested in the
limits of God's mercy. He wants to know
how wonderful God is and he wants to know whether or not God be will be limited
by anything at all.
simplest statement of this argument is that given God's mercy to Sarah and
Abraham, the salvation of Sodom is a hope filled possibility. However, the passage stops short of God
stating that Sodom will be considered righteous and saved. Why?
There is, of course, a difference between old age and sin. Moreover, since Abraham's argument with God
may be read as Abraham testing God, this may prevent the text from pressing the
logical limits to this argument towards a violation of the name and nature of
God. As Elliot Wolfson notes in his
detailed and nuanced interpretation of the theological and philosophical
implications of circumcision, there must be a place for righteousness and often
this involves bearing the marks of righteousness. In some sense, righteousness cannot be created out of
nothing. However, the fact that God
continues the argument with Abraham is certainly a sign that the righteousness
of God is mercy, so the children of Abraham can't keep from pressing God on the
relation of and limits to God's mercy and righteousness. God must have a place for righteousness but God can
make a place for God's righteousness. Thus, the
Christian Church, as one of the Children of Abraham, follows Paul in making a
place for righteousness by holding the virtues of faith, hope, charity to be
marks of God's presence. In this way
the church becomes the body of Christ as God marks the church with signs of
God's presence in Christ, through the Spirit.
However, Genesis 18 does not conclude where the more intensely
logical of the Children of Abraham might press it. It ends where it
ends and presumably this where God wants it to end. "And the LORD went
his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned
to his place" (18:33) Abraham goes home "to his place." God sets the
limits of mercy, so there are limits to justice that Abraham must
accept. He has his place and the Sodomites have their place and they
are different. Moreover, the fate of Sodom will be decided by God, not
by Abraham. Semiotically, this may imply that some conditions (some
signs) cannot be changed or transformed. Given a certain depth of sin,
fewer than ten righteous will not be enough to balance the demands of
God's justice with the depths of God's mercy. The world must make a
place for God to be revealed and Sodom is not it. In the final
analysis, however, the scriptural possibilities of the way God
identifies God - "is there nothing too wonderful for the Lord?" - seem
to cut thorough the grain of this argument to reveal the possibility of
a deeper scriptural logic: the sin of the world, the condition of those
outside the covenant, even death, will not limit the mercy of God to
make creation and his people holy to God.
This is the preferred reasoning of the Church as one of the Children of
Abraham. However, no matter how vital
this is to the Church, the scriptural logic detailed Elliot Wolfson must
introduce a dialectical tension into this tradition of interpretation.
As noted above, Elliot
Wolfson argues that there must be some location that is circumcised
(circumscribed) to make place or provide a means for God to manifest
Godself. The circumcision of Abraham
prepares him to receive a sign of God's presence. This may be a possibility for Sodom. Fifty, or forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, even ten may mark a
place for a manifestation of God, but without someone being just, without
community that makes a place for justice, there is no body to make sense of the
signs of God's presence. In some sense,
despite the mercy of God, the difficulty for Sodom is that there are not enough
just bodies in the body politic for God's mercy to take hold. The difficulty that this argument introduces
is that for Christians is that this emphasis on embodiment is difficult to
accept in its literal sense. The
doctrine of the resurrection and its implications for righteousness of the
gentiles mitigate against an emphasis upon the necessity of physical signs for
the embodiment of God's effective presence.
For example, Paul's letter to the Romans (2:25-29) argues that
circumcision is not necessary if Christians keep the law. Moreover, for Paul, true circumcision is a
matter of the heart: "it is spiritual and not literal" (2:29). For Pauline Christians, spiritual
circumcision results from appropriating
of the spirit of the resurrected Christ "descended from David according
to the flesh (who) was declared to be Son of God with power according to the
spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:3).
Christians, the doctrines of resurrection of Christ's body and the church as
the body of Christ have displaced an emphasis upon the necessity of other
embodied signs for the manifestation of the presence of God. The antinomian implications of this
displacement have been terribly problematic.
Scripturally, however, the argument of Romans leads Paul to state that
Abraham was considered righteous "before he was circumcised." Moreover, the
implications of the resurrection are read back into the story of Sarah and
Abraham. For Paul, the flesh of Abraham
and, by implication, the flesh of Sarah's womb, was "as good as dead" (Romans
chapter 4). For Paul it is Abraham's
faith in the promise that is a manifestation of righteousness for which
was the sign or seal. In Elliot
interpretation of Genesis, this is simply not the case. In order to receive a sign of God, in an
analogy to the way Abraham welcomes the three strangers, his circumcision has
prepared a place for a manifestation of the divine. Circumcision is a place of hospitality, a sign of an open
possibility, through which God may work wonders.
what should Christians do with all this?
To say the least, an emphasis upon circumcision introduces a deep
dialectical tension into the body of Church (as the body of Christ) by
revealing a pervasive tendency to disembody the spirit of God. However, if we take the above exegesis of
Genesis 18 together with the argument of Professor Wolfson's paper as locating
a dialectical tension between embodiment and a scriptural logic that displaces
limits to God's mercy, our scriptural reasoning may benefit from three
The first , following the logic of Wolfson's argument and the
implications of Abraham's argument with God, is that some sign is necessary for the wonders of God. Some sign, some body, is necessary for a
wonderful transformation or renewal to take place. For Christians this implies that although we have been given the
spirit of Christ, if there is no body shaped by this faith, then there is no
sense or meaning to our faith in Christ as a manifestation of
The second , following the logic of God's promise to Sarah and
Abraham, is that every sign is
incomplete and futile until it is completed through the wonders of God.
Whether we are circumcised or not, God will open a new future, one that we
could not imagine in and through the present form of our flesh. Thus the flesh of Abraham and Sarah was as
good as dead in terms of the possibilities and limitations of the world. However, from the perspective of the promise
of God, their lives were, as Paul notes, futile only in and through the hope
that the promise provided. Every sign
is incomplete outside the wonders of God.
The third hermeneutic possibility is the recognition that no sign is absolutely opaque. The wonder of God will break through and
transform the limits of our world through the renewal of our lives. For Christians, our faith in the
resurrection of the dead implies that not even hell is outside the
transformative mercy of God. There may
be little or no justice in Sodom, Sodom may be hell, but it can be saved.
These three points are not lost to Christian life and
doctrine. For example, Dietrich
Bonhoeffer in his Sanctorum Communio emphasized that the church was a
fact of revelation. As a revelation of
God, it is complete, effective, and yet at the same time the church will be
completed in history. Moreover in
The Cost of Discipleship and
Life Together he emphasized that being
part of the church required that Christians practice obedience in particular
ways. One of those disciplines was
daily prayer directed toward the interpretation of scripture. For Bonhoeffer, the church circumscribes and
shapes our actions because, baptized into the body of Christ and shaped by the
Spirit, Christians are marked by the disciplines that bear the marks of
cruciformed scriptural interpretation..
To be the church, the church requires the embodiment of Christ formed
the final analysis, however, when Christians are presented with the scriptural
dynamic embodied in Genesis 18 and the wonderful argument developed in Elliot
Wolfson's paper, we are reminded of a deep dialectic that mitigates against our
tendency to dematerialize the Spirit of God.
Christians need a place to embody signs of God's presence. The scriptural logic of Genesis 18 calls us
to mark the body of the church and our lives with church disciplines that
prepare for manifestations of the Divine.
Our hope, like the hope of Sarah and Abraham, is that through the
prayerful interpretation of scripture we may discover the renewal of our bodies
and communities beyond the limits of our physical (and political) imaginations
and that we may laugh together with the joy of God. In the end, prayer and study may become the essential
preconditions forming the hope of all the Children of Abraham: scriptural
reasoning will prepare us for manifestations of God.
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