Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Genesis is the first book of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah is also called the Pentateuch (five books) in Greek. Genesis covers the period from Creation to the deaths of Jacob and his 11th son, Joseph, in about 1,650 BCE, if the accounts are historical.
Genesis (like the Torah as a whole) is an amalgam of religious traditions, some of which are dated by scholars to about 950 BCE and some of which were developed as late as 450 BCE. Since the late 19th Century, Biblical scholars have recognized four major “strands” or sources in the Torah, and they are identified (among other ways) by their different theological emphases, names for God, names for the holy mountain, and portrayals of God’s characteristics.
Today’s reading is one of the three accounts of YHWH’s covenant with Abraham to bless him with many descendants. It was written by the Priestly writers between 550 and 450 BCE. Although the readings today appeared to make an unconditional covenant with Abram about numerous offspring (v.2), the omitted verses (8 to 14) required Abram and his offspring to be circumcised. This made the covenant a conditional one in which both parties had obligations.
The reading is also about names. In the Hebrew Bible, one’s name described who you were. Abram means “exalted ancestor” and has the same root as “Abba/father”. He is renamed Abraham (“ancestor of a multitude”) (v.5). Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah (“princess”) when Abraham was told that she (at age 90) would conceive and bear a son (v.15).
The Priestly writers took the position that the name YHWH was not known to the Israelites until the Exodus (Exodus 3 and 6). In today’s reading, YHWH disclosed the divine name to Abram as “El Shaddai” – translated variously as “God Almighty” or “God of the Mountains” or even as “God with Breasts” (a fertile god).
Paul’s letter to the Romans was his longest, last and most complex letter. It was written in the late 50s or early 60s (CE) to a Jesus Follower community that Paul did not establish. Among other messages in the letter, Paul sought to encourage respectful and supportive relationships between the Gentile Jesus Followers and the Jewish Jesus Followers in Rome.
Nero’s predecessor (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 CE. During Nero’s reign (54-68 CE), he allowed Jews (including Jewish Jesus Followers) to return, and this created tensions within the Jesus Follower Community. (They were not called “Christians” until the 80’s.)
In today’s reading, Paul held up Abraham as an example of “righteousness” (being in right relation with God and man) who was blessed by God, not because of the Law (which wasn’t given until Sinai) but because of his faithfulness. Paul argued that through faithfulness to God who raised Jesus from the dead (v.24), both Gentile and Jewish Jesus Followers share in the faith of Abraham and are “justified” (i.e. in a righteous state with God and man as Abraham was).