Reading just the snippets of text provided by the Lectionary or the Daily Office gives me the chance to focus my attention on a small part of the bible. This frees up my mind to look closely at the text instead of skimming over entire sections.
However it can also be confusing or remove important context from my view. In the readings for Friday, 26 January about half of Genesis 17 is used for the reading.
The first part starts out clearly enough– we see God telling Abraham about God’s plan to give Sarah a son and Abraham’s reaction (verses 15-22).
In the second half of the reading we have Abraham suddenly deciding to circumcise all the males in his household including his 13-year-old son Ishmael and all of the slaves in his house.
The reading as presented gives no context for Abraham’s actions. The text says that God had said for him to do this, but that instruction is not included in this section so it seems to come out of the blue.
I ended up skipping back to the beginning of chapter 17 in order to find out what was going on.
This is not a bad side-effect of reading a small portion of the text. For me, the bible can be a bit mind-numbing to read. If I try to approach it like a modern book my eyes start to glaze over. Reading a small snippet and then expanding my reading to text on either side helps me engage with that text. I go in search of answers questions the original text has raised instead of passively absorbing the words as I go.
In the text for Friday reading just the text provided encouraged me to read further and to really think about what I was reading.
I ended up wondering about the choice the writer of this section of Genesis (and all the editors who came after) made to focus on the idea that the child-to-come would be first and foremost Sarah’s child. Several times in this short passage the wording points out that the child that God will make a covenant with is the child that Sarah will bear, Abraham is almost an afterthought. If anything, Abraham spends his time in this passage pleading that Ishmael, his son by Hagar, not be forgotten.
And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!”
Ishmael was Abraham and Sarah’s idea and solution to the problem of their barrenness. God does not accept their solution. I find it interesting that the child God wants to make a covenant with must be the child of both Abraham and Sarah. Sarah must be included as far as God is concerned. God is willing to listen to Abraham’s plea and to make a place of Ishmael but God’s focus is on the coming child by Sarah.
I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’
If I had read through all of Genesis in one go, I might have skimmed over this passage. I would have missed the opportunity to think about the exact words used and to come up with my own interpretation.
A year or three from now, I might re-read this section of text and come up with a new interpretation, a new understanding of the words presented for that day’s reading.
Like a rich dessert, I find it helpful to take the Old and New Testament in small bites.
The interest, the joy even, of reading a short passage and really thinking about my own thoughts and feelings about that passage and seeing how they change over time as I learn and grow.
All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.
A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.
Image: Great British Chefs