New Medieval Bible Meditation: Abram and Christ

March 11th, 2014

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12:1-4 (Roman Catholic); Genesis 12:1-4a (Revised Common); Genesis 12:1-8 (Episcopal)

At the literal level, this Scripture shows God’s election and call of Abram. To answer this call, Abram must leave familiar things: his country and his kindred and his father’s house, trusting that God will indeed show him his destined land. The Lord promises Abram (1) greatness, (2) blessing, and (3) a great name which will be a blessing. Presumably this last refers to the way Abram’s name – once changed to ‘Abraham’ – is used to refer to and bless God in Scripture and the speech of Israel, as in “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” For since God has worked through Abram, Abram’s name is a tool for blessing and thanking God. The Lord promises further (4) that those who bless Abram will themselves be blessed, and those who curse Abram will themselves be cursed, and (5) and that by Abram all the families of the earth will bless themselves. This last promise seems to refer to the kind of ‘blessing-function’ described in (3) above, but is also pregnant with meanings beyond the literal. Taken separately, each of these promises is huge; taken all together, they are beyond comprehension. How amazing that God would choose and bless a previously-pagan sinner so richly, and with a view to blessing and redeeming all humanity.

In the Vulgate, the word used in v. 1 for Abram’s kindred is (cognatione); and in v. 3 the Lord promises to bless all the kindreds (universae cognationes) of the Earth “in him.” From this we see the way the Lord has chosen to redeem all the peoples of the world. God does this through a particular trajectory and directionality: his redeeming work begins with the particular and extends out to the universal. By choosing one man (Abram) the Lord will extend salvation to all. In the Lord’s fulfillment of this, one particular name (Jesus) will be preached for the salvation of all the nations.

In Romans 4, St. Paul teaches that Abram’s obedience (and so his “faith”) begins before “the law” of circumcision is given. Abe is obedient in Gen. 12 – he goes when God calls him, though he doesn’t see the future clearly. Circumcision, St. Paul expects us to know, is not given until Gen. 17, while Abram is said explicitly to have faith in Gen. 15:6, “And he believed the Lord, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Hence, St. Paul shows us that Abram’s obedient faith is more primary than the law (of circumcision).

In the allegorical sense, this passage brims over uncontainably. The main allegorical relationship is between Abram and Christ, but there is also an allegorical relationship between Abram and Mary. For where Abram has faith and a general obedience, intermixed with moral lapses back into paganism (i.e. immediately, as in Gen. 12:10-20, through which God is still faithful to his promises to Abram), Mary’s obedience is full, and she is said to be “full of grace” (Lk. 1:28). God is born into the world through her obedience, as she freely responds: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). Hence, Mary, the exemplary daughter of Abraham, is the obedient fulfillment of the Lord’s call to obedience to which Abram responded willingly but often imperfectly.

But the primary allegorical relationship in this passage is between Abram and Jesus Christ. Hence St. Paul teaches that the blessing the Lord promised to all nations is through his offspring Christ (Gal. 3:16). Christ is the one in whom is superabundantly fulfilled each of the 5 promises God makes to Abram. The universal extension of these promises happens in and through Jesus Christ.

Further, v. 4 reads, “So Abram went.” Thus Abram represents Jesus Christ, not absent his body, but inclusive of his body (the Church). For just as God called Abram to “Go”, God calls the Church to “Go.” Abram “went” when God called, and in the same way Christ’s body the Church is called and commissioned by the risen Lord to “Go” into all nations, make obedient disciples, and baptize (Mt. 28:19-20). Abram’s mission prefigures the Church’s mission, and each disciple’s mission.

Further, the greatness of Abram’s “name” which God promises – and the fact that by Abram’s name the families of the earth will bless themselves – points forward to the even greater “name” of Jesus Christ, before whom every knee will bow (Phil. 2:5-11). Jesus is the only name given among men that they may be saved (Acts 4:12).

That Abram’s name is later changed to Abraham points to the fact that Jesus’ coming brings a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), for at the resurrection, when we have our glorified bodies, “we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51).

Further, Abram is very old when this call takes place, and yet God calls him to a new thing. This points to the irreducible and inexhaustible newness we find in Christ, in the one who sits on the throne and says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Gen. 12:3’s teaching that “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” points forward to the fact that in Christ we must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in [us]” (Phil.12-13). God is at work by the grace of justification and sanctification in Jesus Christ, and we must respond and cooperate with this grace. And this point leads naturally to the moral sense.

At the moral level, this passage calls Christians to conform themselves to the mission of the Son of God. It follows the logic that since God sent Abram, God too sends us in Christ. Hence in 2 Tim. 1:8 the Spirit exhorts us, “Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord… but take your share of suffering for the gospel in the power of God.” So we can be obedient to (1) testify of Jesus Christ unashamedly, and (2) accept our share of suffering in doing this, and in living the Christian life, relying on the power of God for sustenance. Just as Abram had to “leave” many familiar things to obey God’s call, so the Christian must in many and diverse ways do the same.

Part of this ‘leaving’ is that the Christian must leave sins behind. But even more, a Christian must often renounce even good distractions, in order to focus on participating in the mission of the Son of God. For the Son of God said to good fishermen who were doing honest work, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mk. 17). If Christ calls some away from honest work, how much more does this apply to frivolous entertainment. For Abram left behind some kindred whose company he enjoyed.

At the anagogical level, this passage shows two mysteries: the first is that, as we see God call Abram and see Abram go to an unknown land, we see Jesus Christ’s paschal mystery: his passover from this life, through death on the cross, to eternal life, which we celebrate at Easter. For Abram is called, then he dies to himself through all he must leave behind, then he goes to toward the unknown country. An important difference is that Jesus Christ knows he is returning to the Father through his obedience, whereas Abram does not know where he is going, only that he is being obedient. So the central mystery by which the Holy Trinity saves us is shown dimly in these verses where God calls and Abram goes. Furthermore, this paschal mystery is repeated in the life of every Christian, both through the Eucharist, and in the particular callings God reveals to him or her. We share in this pattern because we are mystically members of Christ’s body which died and rose.

The second mystery shown in Gen. 12:1-3 is even more difficult to speak about, since it refers to things we can see only very dimly and through a glass darkly. But, hearing ‘Abram’ as a type of the Son of God, one can read these verses and listen in, faintly and in prayer, to a mystery within the eternal trinitarian life of God. It is a moment within the Father’s eternal generation of the Son, and it is a moment (or whatever other inadequate word we might choose here) in which we glimpse the Father communicating to the Son (in the midst of eternally generating him) the temporal mission given him “for us and for our salvation”: his incarnation, his ministry, his love, his courage, his suffering, his death, his resurrection and ascension. For the Father sends the Son from eternity to earth; and the Father gives the Son a great name, and makes of him a great nation (the Church in all nations), and his name is a blessing to us, and those who bless him are blessed and those who curse him are cursed by the very evil in which they curse; and all the families of the earth are blessed in him. So, insofar as Gen. 12:1-3 refers to Christ, we are able to faintly listen-in to the Father’s eternal communication to the Son.

Glory to you, O Christ! Glory to you, O Son of God, carrying us in your ascent into the everlasting fellowship of the Father and the Spirit! Now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


New Medieval Bible Meditations: Scripture Interpretations for Preachers, Nuns, and other Guilty Bystanders is Clifton Stringer’s contribution to the renewal of the Church’s reading and teaching of the Holy Bible. I try to pick a passage from the lectionary for the coming Sunday, ideally one shared by both Roman Catholic and Protestant (both Revised Common & Episcopalian) lectionaries.

The premise of this method of interpretation is that Sacred Scripture, because it is divine revelation, has wondrous depths. That Scripture is ‘divine revelation’ means that Scripture is divine truth and wisdom graciously shown to us by God. Scripture is thus a created participation in the divine Word (Jn. 1:1) who is the second person of the Holy Trinity. Sacred Scripture is thus, and ultimately, a participation in God’s own knowledge, the very joyful eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture is shared with us out of love that we might become wise and good, and be saved.

Since the infinite God is the author of Sacred Scripture, in addition to Scripture’s “literal or historical” sense, many passages of the Bible will have mystical senses (or spiritual senses). The literal sense is, as it were, the fountain and foundation of these mystical senses. These mystical senses are usually reckoned at three: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.

Here is how St. Bonaventure describes these three mystical senses: “Allegory occurs when by one thing is indicated another which is a matter of belief” – like when one thing in Scripture prefigures another later thing, or builds on an earlier prefiguration. “The tropological or moral understanding occurs when, from something done, we learn something else which we should do” – like when Christ or an apostle does something holy that we must imitate. “The anagogical meaning, a kind of ‘lifting upwards,’ occurs when we are shown what it is we should desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the blessed” – that is, when we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Aquinas even notes that, since God understands all things through one infinite act of being, God can intend for there to be more than one meaning of a scripture at the literal level.

All four senses (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical) are effective for preaching, teaching, and training in righteousness, as the Spirit leads.

To reflect further on these senses consider, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae 1.1.10 or Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, Prologue, section 4.

Also note that, in writing these meditations, I do not do any ‘historical critical’ research into the passages. If you would like to do this, it can add to your understanding of the literal sense, and even sometimes spur your imagination among the other senses. But many modern scholars focus on ‘historical critical’ questions almost exclusively; read their works, insofar as it is helpful for knowing and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ; there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

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