For a long time I have understood the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) as fundamentally missional or instrumental, in the sense that the ultimate purpose for which God calls this ancestor of Israel is to mediate the blessings of salvation to the nations.
I taught the book of Genesis with this orientation for many years. And this understanding of Genesis 12:1–3 has played an integral role in my framing of the canonical narrative of Scripture in books I have written, such as Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (1995) and A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (2014). It can be found also in a variety of essays written in the intervening years.
Three Challenges to My Interpretation of Abraham’s Call
However, my missional/vocational interpretation of Genesis 12:1–3, and thus my instrumental understanding of Israel’s election, was itself called into question—no less than three times.
Initially, I was challenged by two Christian scholars who had participated in Jewish-Christian dialogue—the Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum (who I met through the Canadian Theological Society) and the American Old Testament scholar Werner Lemke (who was my colleague at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School).
Both Baum (who had heard a paper I gave in 1995) and Lemke (who read my book Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be in 1996) challenged me to repent of my implicit Christian supersessionism towards my Jewish brothers and sisters. This was something I had not been conscious of in my thinking.
The third challenge, which helped me positively reframe the call of Abraham, was an email conversation in 2007 with the British Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly, as we discussed a chapter he was writing on the call of Abraham for his book The Theology of the Book of Genesis (2009).
These three challenges led me to take seriously the problematic approach to Judaism that I had inherited from the church, which assumed that once the messiah had come, Judaism had become irrelevant and could be safely discarded.
Of course, I would never have put things in quite so stark a way. But I see how my interpretation of Genesis 12 could be harnessed to support that idea.
The question I now had to grapple with was how I could be faithful to my Christian understanding of redemptive history (I am a Christian, not a Jew—even though my mother was Jewish), while respecting God’s desire to bless, not just the nations through Abraham, but Abraham himself—and his descendants, the people of Israel.
On the Way to a New Reading of Abraham’s Call
This required me to engage in a much more careful reading of Genesis 12 than I had previously done.
The result was that when I was composing my chapter on the plot of the biblical story for A New Heaven and a New Earth, I wrote a lengthy excursus on the call of Abraham that attempted to take into account Moberly’s analysis of the issues, while still maintaining (in the end) a missional reading of Abraham’s call.
Once I had completed the excursus, however, I judged that it was too much of a sidetrack from the flow of the chapter and so I ended up simply summarizing the fruits of my analysis in two brief sections—one about the call of Abraham (pp. 61–62), the other about the place of the exodus from Egypt in the larger biblical story (p. 63). Although I did not abandon a missional reading of the role of Abraham/Israel in the story of salvation, I did affirm God’s purposes for the flourishing of Abraham/Israel—on the way to this larger purpose.
Ever since writing this excursus, I intended to work it up into a published essay on the subject, but never got around to the task. I was, however, recently encouraged to do this by New Testament scholar Andy Johnson, who drew on my unpublished analysis for his chapter on the call of Abraham in Holiness and the Missio Dei (2016).
I was further motivated to work on this material by my participation in an ecumenical Jewish minyan in New York City called the Hadar Institute, through which my respect has been greatly enlarged for Jews seeking to respond in faithfulness to God’s covenant.
My connection to Hadar (formerly called Mechon Hadar) came through one of its founding Rabbis, Shai Held. Having had email correspondence and an initial phone call with Rabbi Held (in 2015), and then reading many of his writings. I have twice participated in the week-long Executive Seminar sponsored by Hadar (in 2016 and 2017). I blogged about my first experience of the Executive Seminar here.
At my request, Walter Moberly, along with other Christian Old Testament scholars, joined me in writing endorsements for Held’s recently published two-volume commentary on the Pentateuch, entitled The Heart of Torah. I then organized and chaired a panel discussion of The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2019. I blogged about the collection of essays that came from the SBL panel here.
Beyond a Supersessionist Reading of Abraham’s Call
Most recently my engagement with Genesis 12 and the question of supersessionism led to an essay called “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei: Reframing the Purpose of Israel’s Election in Genesis 12:1–3.” In this essay, I tried to be faithful to the text of Genesis 12:1–3 (paying attention to its details), while understanding the role of this text in the larger biblical canon—in a way that honors both the Christian and Jewish traditions. At the end of my analysis, I interacted specifically with Martin Buber’s understanding of Israel’s election and the blessing of the nations.
The essay has now been published as chapter 4 in Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis: Essays in Tribute to Paul Livermore, ed. by Douglas R. Cullum and J. Richard Middleton (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2020), 44–64.
This is a volume of twenty-five essays that I co-edited with Doug Cullum, the Vice President and Dean of Northeastern Seminary. It is a Festschrift in honor of our retired faculty colleague Dr. Paul Livermore, one of the charter faculty members of the Seminary—indeed, the person who first came up with the vision to start Northeastern Seminary.
Although I have been moving towards a new reading of Genesis 12 for a while now, the decisive impetus to work on the essay “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei” was my participation in this Festschrift. I am delighted to offer the current essay in tribute to Paul Livermore, who has always been interested in how the New Testament and the early Christian tradition (articulated by the Church Fathers) are related to the Jewish context in which they were birthed.
I have written a follow-up blog with more details about the fascinating essays in the book, along with an introduction to the incomparable Paul Livermore, whose life of teaching generated these essays from faculty colleagues, church leaders, and past students.
I’m just this minute catching up on all of this – saw your 8/05/20 email a few moments ago. I have been going through Job with my congregation, and the contrast/comparison with Abraham occurred to me, especially as we are also re-reading Hebrews, and have arrived at ch. 11. So again, I find us understanding the protest of Job, whilst at the same time, admiring the fortitude of the martyrs. Many thanks for all your teaching.
Thanks Dr. Middleton,
I enjoyed you blog and look forward to reading the essays in tribute to Dr. Livermore.
You are a true inspiration.