Monday, January 21, 2008

Genesis 30: A Postpropositional Attempt Part II

Admittedly it is easier to smell a rotten egg (propositionalism) than lay a fresh one (postpropositionalism). Kevin Vanhoozer is helpful in the realm of doctrine, but what about exegesis? If there is any miscarriage between the theory and a responsible reading of the text it must be scrapped.

Genesis is notorious for vociferous narratives seemingly disproportionate to their content (67 verses on finding Isaac a wife – more than the Fall and Flood combined!). Unless we are willing to enter the story on its terms and not a search and rescue effort for timeless truths, few are fit for the fifty-chapter marathon that lies ahead. True to the exacerbating promise made to Abraham where people and land never seem to join hands to jumpstart a “great nation”, Jacob finds himself hundreds of miles from home on the verge of fostering a massive family. What ensues is a 30-verse account of a fertility war waged between sisters of one husband.

Because the Word employs such violent metaphors concerning itself, we ought not expect stepping into its world will be a costless, comfortable endeavor. Our modern world of egg donors, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood is subverted by the opening line: “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb…” This Creator God has developed a habit of breaking into his creation-set-in-motion (“sprout”, “yield”, “seed”, “fill”, “multiply” in Genesis 1) to act.

The characters at least acknowledge, if they are not always in agreement with, God’s interaction with the created order. Rachel’s barrenness is God withholding fruit of her womb (30.2) and her fertility is God’s remembrance (30.22). The names of Leah’s sons become Ebenezer’s to this seeing and hearing God: “Because the Lord upon my affliction…Because the Lord has heard…” Imagine a world in which the birds and the bees is still the rule of the day but all stands or falls by the will of God. The relationship that follows between God and the sisters is not unlike Brueggemann’s dialectic of self-assertion (complaint) and self-abandonment (praise) – sinful motives not withstanding, neither woman is slavishly self-effacing nor ignorantly self-determining. Both lay claim to God’s ability to provide and give thanks when he does.

God’s outpouring of blessing on Abraham’s seed is effectual but not efficient – effectual because he has a chosen nation in view, but not efficient because in his mercy he remembers Rachel. On paper her fertility is expendable. Judah, the royal offspring, is born along with nine other boys. Leah, Bilhah, or Zilpah seem perfectly capable of producing another two for a rounded twelve. But despite the tinge of idolatry Rachel carries with having children (or her overt idolatry elsewhere, 31.19), God graciously ‘remembers’ her and grants her two strong tribes. Rachel acknowledges this as nothing less than God removing her reproach.

More than just a reminder of the reality of our world, this reproductive explosion is a building block in a nation that will culminate in the Messiah. Rachel and Leah’s walk with God is only partially exemplary. There is covenantal ambiguity here – the promise to Abraham stands but remains unfulfilled, the Law has yet to come. An age is inaugurated in this Messiah with a new paradigm of God’s breaking into the created order. We have received lavish, ludicrous promises that the believer’s self-assertion has the ear of the King (Jn 14.13-14) in a way that has never been done before (16.23). His effectual but still not efficient answering now follows not the trajectory of building a nation Israel but bringing a kingdom. In that day, the Messiah declares, “you will ask nothing of me” (16.23, interestingly our present sorrow turned to that joyful day is compared to a woman giving birth).

If we love by obeying (Jn 14.21), we demonstrate faith by working (Jas 2.18), we walk in deed and truth (1 Jn 3.18), where else do we expect to gain understanding except by doing (Lk 11.28; Jn 7.17; 13.17; Rom 12.2; Eph 4.15; Heb 5.14; Jas 1.22)? To file this devotional on a cognitive shelf, even an easily accessible one, is to fail to grasp what it says. Faithfully inhabiting such a world, sharpening one’s longings by it, disciplining one’s prayers for it, imagining new ways to obey in it requires “constant practice” (Heb 5.14). Embodiment is the purest form of exegesis. This is why the author to the Hebrews commended the flock to “imitate their faith” (Heb 13.7; 6.12) – i.e. a flesh and blood performance of what the text says.

How do we believe, obey, and practice Genesis 30? My world is not the closed system crafted by my fog of unbelief. My Creator sees, hears, and remembers and then moves to act. One facet of such a world highlighted here is the role of prayer – appealing to God both for what is scientifically inevitable (conception) and improbable (overcoming barrenness). What materializes in the Christian life is a dual-dialectic of prayer. I approach the throne for that which is effectual but not necessarily efficient. Do my requests keep the mounting momentum of time in view – “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn 13.13)? Do they also vigorously defend the Son’s delight of granting abundant life (Jn 10.11)? The road from the cross to the eschaton is not a straight one. God liberally takes leave of it to deliver blessing and suffering that may fail to amount to any direct kingdom fruit. But I also approach the throne with self-assertion as well as self-abandonment. Refusing to make my requests known is at best faithless, false humility and at worst outright disobedience. Refusing to lay them down however is faltering under the weight of the cross.

Above all the chapter as well as the book is a solicitation to believe. Eight of the ten stories of faith told in Hebrews 11 are found in the book of Genesis. Inasmuch as I acknowledged my alien status and bank my life on the heavenly country, I walk the road of Genesis.


John Paulling said...

Well done, David. Could you explain what you mean by, "I approach the throne for that which is effectual but not necessarily efficient"? I understood what you meant when you said it with regard to God's blessing of Abraham's seed, with regard to Rachel's fertility being expendable on paper, but had a harder time in the next to last paragraph.

jim thompson said...

i'm excited to read this stuff. i have an epistemological crush on vanhoozer.

propostionalism will never die. get it? at least it won't if its defined rightly.

david said...

I was really ambiguous trying to keep things brief. By effectual but not efficient I mean we may ask for things we need or even want even when we cannot draw a direct kingdom function from it. I know that sounds like it opens a door that the American church doesn't need right now but its all about balance.

Jim its good to have you on here. I hope you write a proper definition of propositionalism.

david said...

John and I talked about stream-lining our discussions on here. Its worked out really well that we are all talking about hermeneutics rather than chasing eight different tangents. I suggest we largely stay in this realm for Jan-Feb and then introduce something (I vote "kingdom") for Mar-Apr unless we're despairing of meaning and can't read our Bibles. Just a thought...

jim thompson said...

me too.

jim thompson said...

i guess i was implying that a good definition of propositionalism must include the experience [and not necessarily depend on the experience]. it must have relate-ability. you know... truth cant exist in a vacuum; all truth is somebody's truth; and other adages as such. but the modern and post-enlightenment definition of propositionalism [which divorces the expendable categories of objectivity and subjuectivity] cant hold water any more. I read this book on epistemology by a lady named Esther Meek and it really helped me to view reality and/or knowledge [or in this case, propostionalism] as the marriage between "bare facts" and the experience. i think this is part of the reason Jesus is full of grace and truth.

this is probably ridiculous sounding because i'm joining this chat way late int he game.

kingdom, yes.