2.3 A call and a promise
It has already been argued that discipleship is introduced through the spoken word of the triune God at the point of creation. Even in light of that which occurred in the garden and humanity’s failure to trust in that word, God graciously initiates a second call to discipleship. In the words of Derek Kidner, “the history of redemption, like that of creation, begins with God speaking.”1
Thus, in Genesis 12, we read that God said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make 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, New Revised Standard Version). The nature of this call is seen in the first words that God spoke to Abraham; it is the verb ‘go’, literally translated, in this case, as a strong imperative command, “You must go!”2
This command is qualified in three different ways: Abraham was to leave his country, his people and his father’s house. He was called, therefore, “to leave behind the past, everything and everyone familiar to him, all the previous supports and influences he has known, and to depend on God.”3 For Brueggemann, this is a call to “abandonment, renunciation and relinquishment. It is a call for a dangerous departure from the presumed world of norms and security.”4
The call of God to Abraham, then, is one that is characterized by a specific directive, and in order to for Abraham to respond adequately and meaningfully, it would require a change, a move from the old to the new. Simply put, those called by God cannot remain as before; they must move away from perceived norms and securities and into the Way of faith.
Brueggemann further qualifies the call of Abraham by placing it within the context of his wife’s barrenness, as described in Genesis 11:30.5 For as he notes, “the summons is not law or discipline, but promise. The narrative knows that such departure from securities is the only way out of barrenness … to stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.”6 The call is not a burden of rules and regulations, but rather a promise of hope.
Abraham could have stayed in his present situation and in so doing ignored the promise of God; he chose rather to embrace the unknown and receive the hope of life in the promise that through him, all nations would be blessed. It was a promise not only to Abraham, but also to the world around him; a promise that God had not forgotten his creation and his special relationship with humankind. Thus, it is at this point in the biblical story that “God calls an alternative community, an alternative to the cold barren ones who have ceased to listen and have therefore ceased to live and ceased to hope.”7
Through Abraham and his descendants, the divine-human conversation would continue, and all people would be reminded of God’s loving concern and continual presence among them.
This call, therefore, demanded an answer from Abraham in regards to the question of whether or not he wanted to step “out of the barrenness” and into the realm of promise. 8 While this call is indeed predicated on the imperative ‘to go’, Brueggemann notes, “With Jesus, as with Abraham, the call is dangerously open-ended.”9 Abraham’s story, then, is one through which “we become acclimated to the word ‘faith’ – trusting obediently in what we cannot control, living in obedient relationship to the One we cannot see, venturing obediently into a land that we know nothing about.”10
The disciple is one that embraces the unknown – “faith is a trusting obedient life on the road, the way. Faith is a resolute ‘Yes’ to the promise and commands of the living God, God as present.”11 As Abraham embarked on this new life of faith in response to the call of the living God, he literally had no idea where he would be led; he simply heard the word that God had spoken, and responded with a resolute ‘yes.’
With that in mind, a discussion on God’s call to Abraham would not be complete without addressing a later and more specific call. In Genesis 22, God spoke to Abraham and told him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. God had indeed kept his promise and had begun the process of forming a people through Abraham; and yet God proceeded to direct Abraham to kill one through whom his family line would continue.
This was a call to constantly remember the one who speaks; “Abraham had to learn that the promise did not depend on Isaac, but only on God.”12 This, in Bonhoeffer’s words and according to the Abraham story, is the nature of discipleship: “[Abraham] takes God at his word and is prepared to obey. Against every natural immediacy, against every ethical immediacy, against every religious immediacy, he obeys God’s word.”13 It is a call to hear, trust in and obey the word that God has spoken and continues to speak, no matter what the cost. Indeed, “the Abraham story narrates a way of living in which God is personal and immediate, in which God is embraced and followed, in which God speaks and is obeyed.”14
The nature of the call of and promise to Abraham, therefore, is placed against the backdrop of barrenness, and is offered by the only one who can offer to Abraham and his wife the promise of a new beginning; “there is no real Genesis, no new beginning for barren people, apart from the reality of this God.”15 To answer the call and place one’s hope in that promise “requires a decision and a radical repentance”; it also requires “a rejection of all posturing, a recognition that the world revolves around and is powered by this other one who will be trusted and praised.”16 This is a call, then, to return to the tree – Luther’s first church – and hear, trust in and obey the word that God had spoken.
It points to the ongoing reality that God is to be trusted and obeyed, even in the midst of a call that forces the hearer to renounce old comforts and relationships and pass along an unknown road. Kidner points out that “the call to forsake all and follow” is one that “finds its nearest parallel in the Gospels.”17 Brueggemann also makes this point, that this call is “echoed in the invitation of Jesus” 18; it is a call to constantly tune out and turn away from all other competing stories and return to the divine-human conversation which constantly offers the promise of new life. It is to be noted, however, that the promise of new life is rooted within the scope of human history; it is a promise to bless Abraham with descendents through whom the world would be blessed.
It is a call to come out of an old situation and enter into a new one, and it is a call that will have an impact on the present realities of the world; this is the call placed on Abraham, and it remains the call to discipleship.
1 Derek Kidner, Genesis: an introduction and commentary (London: Tyndale Press, 1967), 113.
2 David W. Cotter, Genesis (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 89.
3 Ibid., 90.
4 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 118.
5 “Now Sarah was barren; she had no child” (NRSV).
6 Brueggemann, Genesis, 118.
7 Ibid., 118.
8 Ibid., 118.
9 Ibid., 118.
10 Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation in Following Jesus (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009), 44.
11 Ibid., 46.
12 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. IV (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 97.
13 Ibid., 97
14 Peterson, The Jesus Way, 47.
15 Brueggemann, Genesis, 119.
16 Ibid., 119.
17 Kidner, Genesis, 113.
18 Brueggemann, Genesis, 118. Brueggemann here references this key Gospel verse: “For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35)