The Ethics of God’s New Missional Community
In our understanding of God’s people we have continually used this definition: God’s people are a missional community that reflects God’s character to/for/in the nations. In the stories of Genesis 12–50, it is easy to see mission and community, but what about character and holiness? In the above section, we have recognized the importance of God’s faithfulness to his promises as a key theme. This included observing times when God is faithful despite the actions of God’s people.
Genesis 12–50 is fundamentally about God’s faithfulness in the progress of his mission to bring blessing to the world through Abraham, but there are clear hints of the expectation by God of a distinct conduct and lifestyle for the success of God’s mission.
In Genesis 17, God cuts a covenant with Abraham in which God gives the rite of circumcision. The chapter opens, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him, saying, ‘I am God Almighty; walk continually before me and be blameless. I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly multiple your numbers” (Gen 17:1-2). Genesis 17 is a significant moment in Abram’s life because God gives him the new name Abraham to signify a new epoch in his life and by cutting an explicit covenant with Abraham. These opening verses raise an expectation of a lifestyle that is congruent with God’s character. The combination of “walk” (Heb: hlk) and “blameless” (Heb: tmym) occurs elsewhere in the Pentateuch to describe Noah, “This is the story of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the peoples of his day, and he walked continually with God” (Gen 6:9).
Genesis 17 does not give detailed information about what was expected of Abraham. The only regulation mentioned in Genesis 17 is the necessity for future generations to circumcise all males within their households. Otherwise, we must wait for the Sinai Covenant (Exodus 19:1–Num 10:10) to encounter specific ethical and cultic regulations. As we discovered in the previous section the emphasis in the book of Genesis is on God’s faithfulness. The next passage however serves to establish further the force of God’s exhortation:
“Then the LORD spoke, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him that he may guide his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18:17-19).
God is poised to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness found in those cities. Due to his relationship with Abraham, God reveals his intentions. In response, Abraham will intercede successfully on behalf of his nephew Lot (18:22-33). With the negative example of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah in the immediate context, verses 17-19 clearly present a contrast between God’s expectations for Abraham and the lifestyle/ethos of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, this verse establishes an expectation that part of Abraham’s vocation was to “guide” his children in the way of the Lord. This clearly suggests that Abraham was to instill an ethic of faithful obedience into his household.
This text is critical for understanding the interconnectivity between mission, holiness, and community. In this context we clearly see all three elements. Abraham’s family (community) was to embody a distinct ethos (holiness) as part of embodying the promise of serving as a blessing for all nations.
Genesis 22:16-18 “[The angel of the LORD] said, ‘I swear by myself, utters the LORD, that because you have done this—you have not withheld your only son, indeed I will truly bless you and expand the number of your offspring so that they are as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the grains of sand on the seashore. Moreover your offspring will inherit the gate of their enemies and all nations of the earth will find blessing for themselves in your offspring because you heeded my voice.’”
Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command to sacrifice Isaac epitomizes faithful obedience. This text embodies the tension between God’s promises as unconditional and the necessity of human response. In the context, we need to read God’s words to Abraham as an affirmation of his faithful obedience. God already promised Abraham all of the things included in the text. It is clear that Abraham’s obedience was not the cause of the God’s promises, but Abraham’s obedience points the way forward for God’s people. It is the desired response to God’s prior grace.
Genesis 26:2 The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land about which I am speaking to you. 3 Live in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your offspring I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to Abraham, your father. 4 I will multiply your descendants as though they are the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will find blessing, 5 because Abraham heeded my voice and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.”
In Genesis 26:2-5, God directly extends to Isaac the promises initiated with Abraham. God’s appearance occurs during a time of famine and serves to assure Isaac of God’s presence with him lest Isaac flee to Egypt. Verse five is critical for our reflection on the ethics of Israel’s ancestors. God cites Abraham’s obedience as the basis for renewing the promises for Isaac. God promises Isaac land, many descendants, and the mission of serving as an instrument of blessing. Abraham’s willingness to heed or listen to God’s voice functions as the model for Isaac to follow. Obedience enhances the ability of God’s people to advance God’s mission in the world.
In Genesis 39, Joseph models faithful obedience despite his circumstances. By Genesis 39, Joseph is serving as a slave in Egypt in the household of Potiphar an officer under the Egyptian Pharaoh. The narrator describes Joseph as handsome. His good looks attract the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph resists her by asserting his faithfulness in serving as a steward for Potiphar. Moreover in verse 9 he adds, “How can I do this great evil and sin against God?” Joseph’s goal is witness. He will not act in ways that dishonor God. This is the essence of a holiness rooted in mission. Joseph understood that his actions directly impacted the way that others would perceive his god.
We don’t want to over-interpret these passages, but the implications are clear: holiness matters. Faithful obedience enhances the missional success of the people of God. Too much is at stake in God’s mission to disregard this aspect. Scholars often debate a key question about the Abrahamic covenant: Is it conditional or unconditional? Perhaps the best answer is, “Yes.” God’s call of Abraham and his descendants is certainly an unconditional offer of promise and blessing. God offers unmerited favor and promises to Abraham. Yet, this unconditional offer nonetheless requires a human response to enact it. Genesis 12–50 is more interested in demonstrating the grace and faithfulness of the LORD who called the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but the necessity of a holy community is clearly implicit and adumbrates a more thorough treatment beginning in the book of Exodus.
What do you think?
© 2010 Brian D. Russell