I’m working through the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark day by day. I started on January 1st: the series can be accessed from my archives. The news headlines remind me of the world in which I live.
PEACE IN COLOMBIA DOESN’T DISARM MINES
God said to Avraham:
As for Sarai your wife-you shall not call her name Sarai,
for Sara / Princess is her name!
I will bless her and give you a son from her,
I will bless her so that becomes nations,
kings of peoples shall come from her!
But Avraham fell on his face and laughed,
he said in his heart:
from a hundred year-old man shall there be children born?
Or shall ninety year-old Sara give birth?
Avraham said to God:
If only Yishmael might live in your presence!
Sara your wife is to bear you a son,
you shall call his name, Yitzhak/ He Laughs.
I will establish my covenant with him as a covenant for the ages, for his seed after him.
As for Yishmael, I hearken to you.
Look,I will make him blessed. I will make him bear fruit, I will make him beget many, exceedingly, exceedingly-
he will beget twelve leaders and I will make a great nation of him,
but my covenant I will establish with Yitzhak, whom Sara will bear to you at this set-time, another year from now.
When he had finished speaking with Avraham
God went up from beside Avraham.
God insists on paying more or less equal attention to Sarai, who also receives from God a new, honourable name and a special blessing. Indeed a very special, not to say ludicrous blessing, for she aged ninety is told she will bear a child and that she will have royal descendants as befits a princess.
Avraham falls on his face in laughter. This slapstick response is mainly directed at himself, man who has left sex behind and whose wife is ninety. He pleads with God to be serious and adopt Yishmael into his covenant. But God refuses to be serious: Sara will bear Avraham’s child and he will be called “He Laughs.” This merry one will be the child of the covenant. But Yishmael, the loser in this comedy, is also blessed and promised a future to match the twelve tribes of Israel (of which no-one except God knows as yet).
The reader notices that God comes and goes, just as people do. He is not an “abiding spiritual presence”. Doubtless he has business which concerns the rest of his creation; and human beings have to get on with life in the world. This is as it should be, a relationship in which differences are acknowledged and respected on both sides, where there is absence as well as presence. Still, a friend with whom you can clown around is a friend indeed.
The author’s characterisation of his hero, heroine and God is done so matter-of-factly that we hardly notice its extraordinary insight, sanity and skill. All who have a genuine faith in God will recognise the authenticity of his portrait which takes faith out into the clean air away from the smell of religion.
Mark 8 Darby Translation (DARBY)
8 In those days, there being again a great crowd, and they having nothing that they could eat, having called his disciples to him, Jesus says to them,
2 I have compassion on the crowd, because they have stayed with me already three days and they have not anything they can eat,
3 and if I should dismiss them to their home fasting, they will faint on the way; for some of them are come from far.
4 And his disciples answered him, How shall we be able to satisfy these with bread here in a desert place?
5 And he asked them, How many loaves have you? And they said, Seven.
6 And he commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground. And having taken the seven loaves, he gave thanks, and broke them and gave them to his disciples, that they might set them before them; and they set them before the crowd.
7 And they had a few small fishes, and having blessed them, he desired these also to be set before them.
8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up of fragments that remained seven baskets.
9 And they that had eaten were about four thousand; and he sent them away.
It’s a technique that Mark may have learned from the book of Genesis: if you can’t get all your meaning into a particular story, tell it again with differences. Mark has already told the story of the feeding of 5000 people, now it’s 4000. The details are the same: the crowd is drawn to Jesus because they recognise a true king. Jesus as a true king has compassion on them and wants to feed them. The disciples are reluctant but Jesus uses what they have. In this case the number 7 is significant, being the traditional number of gentile nations. Again Jesus takes, give thanks and breaks the loaves, a reminder of the Christian supper and a sign that the broken crucified Jesus will be able to feed not only Jews but Gentiles also.
The issues of true kingship and of what truly feeds people are very evident in this part of Mark’s gospel. He has shown Jesus as the bringer of God’s goodness into the lives of men, women and children; as the king who overrules the powers of evil; as the teacher who liberates his subjects from the burdens of a false law. He has already hinted that this rescuing mission comes at a cost. In the second part of his gospel he will reveal the shocking magnitude of that cost.