Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Love endures

37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” 39 Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they no longer dared to ask him any question (Lk 20:37-40).

This passage has puzzled commentators. They aren’t clear on how Jesus derives his conclusion from his source material.

I suspect the explanation is hiding in plain sight. The problem is that commentators need to use a wide-angle lens rather than a close-up shot. They need to back up.

Scripture calls Abraham God’s friend or God’s beloved (cf. 2 Chron 20:7; Isa 41:8; Jas 2:23). The point is not that Abraham was a friend to God, but that God was a friend to Abraham. God befriended Abraham. God took the initiative.

When God called Abraham out of Ur, God was befriending Abraham. Making Abraham his friend. When God entered into covenant with Abraham, God was being a friend to Abraham. When God forgave him and justified him, God was showing love for Abraham. Had God not called Abraham out of Ur, Abraham would have lived and died in paganism. Ignorant of the true God. Sunken in sin. Mired in idolatry.

Was God merely using Abraham as a means to an end? No. God cared about Abraham.

God uses some people as merely a means to an end. Pharaoh is a case in point. But Pharaoh never was God’s friend. Rather, he was God’s foil.

What does it mean to be a friend to someone? You care for them. You’re concerned for their welfare. You care about what happens to them. You try to spare them from harm.

What kind of friend would God be to Abraham if, after coming into his life, awakening him, making himself known to Abraham, he let Abraham suffer the ultimate calamity of oblivion? What kind of friend would God be to Abraham if he allowed Abraham to pass into nothing, like dry, burning grass? Why befriend Abraham, only to let that goes to waste?

In human relations, we can’t anticipate the outcome. Some friendships end badly, in betrayal. Animosity. We feel worse about them than if we never got to know them. If we’d known that’s how it was going to turn out, we wouldn’t befriend them in the first place. Wouldn’t invest all that emotional capital in a doomed relationship.

Some friendships end sadly. We may have known a person since kindergarten or first grade. He lived just up the street. We used to be so close.

But then, in junior high, he got hooked on drugs. He was in and out of rehab, but never able to shake the habit. We watch him commit slow-motion suicide. We watch him self-destruct, as we stand by helplessly. We see him cease to become the person we knew, except for painful moments when his old self briefly emerges. If we’d know that’s how it was going to end, we’d keep our distance. Unfortunately, the best we can do is often not enough. Not nearly enough.

But God knows, when he befriends someone, how that will come out. Indeed, how that comes out is up to God. God can prevent Abraham from perishing. Save Abraham from annihilation.

Would God permit his friend to face the Last Enemy alone? Defenseless? Would God permit the Last Enemy to win?


  1. Why wouldn't Christ's argument be based on the verb being in the present tense? Abraham had been dead over 300 years. Yet God did not say I was the God of Abraham, but rather, I am the God of Abraham. Obama is not the president of George Mason, because Mason is dead. But God is the God of George Mason.

    God be with you,

    1. For one thing, the Hebrew doesn't use a present tense verb. And even if it did, there's such a thing as the historical present. You can't get everything you need out of grammar. You have to bring narrative theology to bear.

    2. In addition, there's no eimi in the Markan and Lukan versions. Moreover, it's unlikely that Jesus was speaking Greek in a public disputation with the Sadducees. More likely Aramaic. It's very tenuous for you to hang your entire argument on Matthew quoting the LXX, especially when eimi isn't singled out in Jesus' argument.

    3. Steve,

      Even if the present tense is implied rather than stated, the implication is sufficent. That fact that the bulk of translations supply the present tense in Exodus 3:6, as does the LXX and Matthew 20:32, and most translations supply the present tense in Mark 12:26, is strong evidence that the present tense is correct. Is there some evidence that the present tense is incorrect?

      God be with you,

    4. Translations try to render Greek into idiomatic English, with the addition of helping verbs. You can't retroengineer English back into Greek, any more than we should base our exegesis on the Vulgate.

      If the present tense verb is key to the argument, why is that absent in the Markan and Lukan parallels? And even in Matthew, Jesus doesn't say the patriarchs are still alive because a present tense verb is used. You can't demonstrate that Jesus is drawing that inference. At best, that's an inference which some readers have drawn.

      Moreover, the grammatical argument is terribly superficial. Why are you so resistant to an argument based on the nature of God's covenantal provision for and covenantal fidelity to the patriarchs? Why do you immediately reach for a thin grammatical shortcut rather than grounding Jesus' statement in OT narrative theology, which is a much firmer basis for the claim.

    5. Even if you press the significance of eimi (which is nonexistent in the other Synoptic parallels, has no counterpart in the original Hebrew text, or Jesus' Aramaic statement), that wouldn't imply the immortality of the Patriarchs, for that's a statement about Yahweh rather than the Patriarchs. It means that at the time Yahweh was speaking to Moses, he was the same God who made a covenant with Abraham. He is still the same God.

      By contrast, Exod 3:6 evokes Exod 2:24, which is reinforced by Exod 6:2-8. So the broader context deals with patriarchal history and covenantal promises.

      Not that Yahweh explicitly promised to resurrect the Patriarchs. But what does it mean for God to be their friend? What does that imply? That's the larger point. That's what my post elaborates.

    6. Steve,

      You might be right but it's hard to say overall.

      Interestingly, the singular for father in Exodus 3:6(as opposed to fathers in Acts 7:32), may well included Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and therefore eternal life for the Patriarchs.

      God be with you,

    7. "Why are you so resistant to an argument based on the nature of God's covenantal provision for and covenantal fidelity to the patriarchs?"

      Mainly because that reading is indirect and subtle. OK, God was Abraham's friend and he made a promise to Abraham. Does that imply Christ's conclusion (that Abraham is not dead but alive and that all are alive to God)? Is that implication so clear that the Sadducees were making a silly mistake?

      On the other hand, if Exodus 3:6 is saying Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive, then we can see why Christ would reason, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live unto Him. That's a connection the Sadducees should not have missed.

      I think I have said this to you before, but I tend to use Occham's razor in cases like this. I see the connection between your reading and Christ's conclusion as a bit more complex than is needed.

      God be with you,

    8. One advantage my interpretation has over yours, in addition to being right, is that it gives a reason for the immortality of the patriarchs. It doesn't merely indicate that they survived the grave, but also explains why God preserved them from oblivion.