The Book of Genesis is a series of origin stories.
Creation, how we came to have different languages; the history of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob, Leah and Rachael. Genesis means “Beginning.” It attempts to lay the groundwork for all that will follow.
The history of the Hebrew people starts with Abraham. He was a shepherd who felt a call to pick up his possessions, flocks, and extended family and migrate from what we know as modern Iraq to what they called Palestine, a land of milk and honey. Abraham felt that God wanted him to undertake this journey, and he would be the progenitor of a vast family. This is described in the first part of last Sunday’s reading from Genesis 12:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Once they arrived and settled in—as settled as wandering shepherds can ever be—there was a problem. Abraham and Sarah had no children. How were they to start a family that would become a great nation with no heirs? The story winds along a crooked path that finally brings us to today’s Hebrew scripture when three visitors—three angels—arrive with the message that Abraham and Sarah, in their old age, will bear a son, Isaac.
So now, with an heir in the picture, the origin story can proceed . . . even to the detail of the practice of circumcision for the male decendents of Abraham and Sarah.
We use origin stories to help us with our identity: where are we from, who were our people, our genealogy, what were/are our traditions, culture, heroes/heroines/villians? What are the stories that developed along the way that say something about us, our traits, our character? Or the stories that we’ve been running away from and the family has been trying to hide or change?
For instance, I come from a long line of wet-nurses. Some of us in the family have been trying to suppress that information while others of us are intrigued. How did that come about? What does it say about us? I’ll leave that particular story for another day.
But suffice it to say that many of us have origin stories that help us to define and think about who and what we are. We can line out our family trees along with dates and places going back for many generations.
For others of us there’s a lot less clarity. As the parent of adopted children, I can tell you that some of my children have no knowledge of their families of origin—or very little. And what we do know often isn’t pleasant. It’s also a problem when it comes to medical care—because we have no family history when it comes to things like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or other possible inherited conditions. So what our adopted children do is “adopt” the origin stories of the Paddock and Wilhelm families.
For still others, the problem of history, of origin, was interrupted by slavery. Vast numbers of people were kidnapped, stolen, sold from their homes in Africa and brought here to the West—losing their families, languages, traditions, their very origins. And then many had their families divided again and again as they were sold off in different directions – as the fictional Tom of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “sold south” several times. Seeking lost origins was the theme of Alex Haley’s famous 1976 novel and mini-series, “Roots.”
I bring this up today, the weekend of Fathers’ Day and the Juneteenth Holiday. For most of us our origin stories are traced back through our parents and the generations that preceded them. For our fathers, we are grateful—and we especially honor those fathers who provided their children with great upbringings and meaningful family stories.
But for too many others their story begins in a court adoption proceeding or at most a forced labor camp on a plantation in 1865. It officially began for all slaves in what is now The United States on June 19, 1965, when U.S. Major General Gordon Granger arrived in the Port of Galveston and issued General Order No. 3, declaring that all slaves are now free. This was the first official word in Texas that the Civil War was over. That date marks the last day that slavery was legal in this country . . . except as provided in the 14th Amendment. (That, also, is a story for another day).
Juneteenth was a restart . . . a mark in time to which some can point and say—here—this day—this date—this time is the beginning for me, for my family, the start of our origin story, our beginning as a free people.
Obviously, we’re not all the same, and we trace our family stories to different roots. We can point to various events or dates in history as markers in our communal stories – like July 4, 1776 – whether or not our ancestors were actually there or even here. Many of us (or our families) have come to these shores long after the days of the Founding Fathers. But we find ways to adopt their stories into our own.
This summer our lectionary will provide us with multiple tales from the origin of our faith from the Book of Genesis. Our Hebrew ancestors were not all saints in the way that we commonly use that term. The genius of Genesis is that it shows them—warts and all. And so in them we can discover the basic humanity that we share with so many others in the human family who trace their roots to Abraham as well: the so-called Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
We will hear of their longings to be faithful to the call to be God’s people. We will witness some of their failings. And along the way, I hope and trust that we can find our identities more firmly rooted in the origins of our faith, and to understand the Divine ambition that in us “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”