Lectionary Year B
March 16, 2003
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Step III: Composition

A. Immediate Context

(JFC) Pre - Genesis chapter 16 tells of Sarai's encouraging/permitting her husband Abram to impregnate her/their slave girl to get them some "offspring". The slave-girl, Hagar, ran away for seeming to be at odds with her mistress. God and an angel of the Lord found her and sent her back to Sarai and told her about the many offspring they would have. The son Hagar bore, Ishmael, was predicted to be a rough and difficult man.

Interlude - The omitted verses (8-14) find God promising to give them the land of Canaan as a gift and regulating the covenant with circumcision as its sign.

Post - Verses 17-27 of Genesis 17 reports Abraham's laughing at God's predicting he would father a child and Sarah would conceive and bear a child, to be named Isaac. Next, Abraham bought his slave-born sons and circumcised them as God had told him to do. Abraham, age 99, and Ishmael, age 13, were also circumcised the same day.

B. Organization

(JFC) From the pre-historical stories of creation, the fall, the flood, the earliest civilized families and their plights, we get on toward Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob and Leah and Rachel and on to Joseph and his brothers in the Book of Genesis. Some reviewers find divisions in the Book named by the "beginnings of the generations of . . ." (each newly named patriarch). Perhaps the pivotal passage in Genesis comes in 12:1-3. This passage ends Genesis' Primeval History and begins the more nearly historical narratives. Here we read of God's selecting Abraham and Sarah to multiply, to receive the land and to enjoy a relationship with God for the purpose of benefiting more and more people. That relationship with the deity gets increasingly more emphasis and, possibly, finds its first real graphic change in the people God chooses in the changing of Abram's and Sarai's names and the promise of their abundant progeny. The Abraham cycle goes from chapters 12-25, the Jacob cycle 25-36 and the Joseph stories 37-50. The principal purpose of Genesis seems to be the dramatic ways God deals with the world and to interpret God's forming and directing the beginnings of "My Covenant People", Israel. John S. Klesman, in Harper's Bible Commentary, writes, "Some prominent themes that occur throughout Genesis include the following: the theme of the promise, of blessing in place of curse, of election, and of familial strife." These families face hardships upon hardships, yet God brings them through the challenges to be ready to develop a faith community by the end of the Book. And, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, in chapter 22, is also thought to be quite pivotal in this Book.

C. Issues of Authorship

(JFC) This passage of Genesis is said by the footnotes in the NRSV, to be "from the priestly tradition". Walter Brueggemann, S. R. Driver and Speiser agree. It must be noted that all three principal names for God (hw"hy>, yD;v; lae, and ~yhil{a/) occur in our text this week. Yet, still, we would be remiss if we failed to notice that, "The prevailing account of the composition of the Pentateuch in modern scholarship is the 'Documentary Hypothesis.' In most versions of the theory four documents are hypothesized to have been redacted in forming the Pentateuch: J, a Judean source of about the tenth century B.C.; E, a north Israelite source of about the eighth century B.C.; D, the core of Deuteronomy, which is identified with the 'book of the law (torah)' that was promulgated by King Josiah in 622 B.C. (see 2 Kings 22-23); and P, which is variously dated before, during, or after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.," as Harper's Bible Dictionary reports it. Ergo, to discuss the late composition of the text at hand, some characteristics of such a document need to be identified. Here we have some measures of time, some names of people, which data might indicate some record keeping and calendar watching like priests did in those days. We also get some monologues from on high, some promises there from as well and some mentions of kings of nations yet identified. The emphasis on "generations" is also quite characteristic of Priestly portions of these Books. These elements might lead to a later rather than an earlier date. E. A. Speiser (AB) concludes that the Priestly documents are from a school of composers who existed and wrote for centuries, pre-monarchical through reconstruction after the Exile.

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