Saturday, September 30, 2006

Raising up children to Abraham from stones

John the Baptist said, "do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham" (Mt 3.9, Lk 3.8).

I've always taken John's statement to be that, if God chose, he could do a miraculous work and turn the stones themselves into children of Abraham.

And maybe that is what John is saying.

But a thought occurred to me: In the OT, stone (flint) knives are used to circumcise (Josh 5.2-3, Ex 4.25). Perhaps John the Baptist is saying, "Don't count on being Abraham's children to save you, God can always create more children of Abraham through circumcision." That is, John is saying that those stones there could be used to circumcise more people and so create more children of Abraham -- God's plans are not so tied to these individuals (or this generation) that he dare not judge them because doing so would frustrate his plans.

So the reference in the passage to using these stones to raise up children to Abraham is not that God would miraculously turn the stones into Israelites, but that the stones could raise up children to Abraham by being used for circumcision.

Recall, after all, that even in the OT, circumcision, not physical relationship with Abraham, made one an Israelite (Ex 12.48). Indeed, if a physical descendent of Abraham did not receive circumcision, then he was to be "cut off" from the people (Gn 17.14).

This also fits the context, as John admonishes those who are baptized to bring forth fruit in keeping with their repentance (Mt 3.8). John is telling them to receive what it means to be baptized, just as they must receive what it means to be circumcised. As Jeremiah said, "Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD, "that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised" (Jer 9.25). The rite does us no good if we reject its purpose. (Note, however, that God invites us to trust these rites to receive his grace -- to become a child of God through circumcision, at least in the OT, and to receive forgiveness through baptism.)

Nothing rises or falls on reading John's statement this way rather than the way I typically read it. And I see no compelling reason to read it this way (or the other). Still, it seemed an interesting, possible alternative to the ordinary reading.


Blogger The Presbyteer said...

Or, how about this: John is standing in the Jordan, from which Joshua was commanded to take twelve stones to set up a memorial that, when they saw "these stones", would prompt the people to remember the exodus and how God had created a nation by bringing them through the Jordan.

So: Jordan river, stones, exodus and new nation, remember and fear the Lord your God forever ...

October 03, 2006 3:09 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Relatedly, you might be interested in a comment that Rusty e-mailed:

"Justin Martyr reads Joshua 5 and the 'second circumcision' as a
foreshadowing of Christ -- stone = rock, and Christ is the rock of salvation
(Dialogue with Trypho). Origen does the same (Homilies on Joshua). I
wonder if either cites John the Baptist -- 'from these stones'?"

October 04, 2006 1:34 PM  

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