Rethinking Scripture, part 3: The Unborn

In a culture that can’t think
past the next 24-hour news cycle, religion still reads stories hundreds of
centuries deep. The Abrahamic faiths worship a God who shows “steadfast love to the thousandth
generation” (Exod 34:7).

Genesis 12 begins the story of
Abraham’s call by God. Every promise God gives Abraham

has a long horizon, to
be fulfilled centuries later.

In Genesis 15, God talks about
descendants four generations hence, and also four hundred years, saying:

“Your offspring
shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and
they shall be oppressed for four hundred years…. And they shall come back here
in the fourth generation” (Gen 15:13, 16).

It’s odd that in the same
speech God offers Abraham two different timelines. It’s not like God to be that
forgetful, so biblical scholars usually chalk up this discrepancy to the
Bible’s composite nature. We can take this strange speech as an opportunity to
appreciate the Bible’s interest both in those we can imagine and those we

Me, with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

Now I have a daughter and am expecting a granddaugher.

Six generations.

Four generations are
imaginable. If we remember our great-grandparents and expect to have
great-grandchildren, our minds already span seven generations. 

It’s almost impossible to
envision life four hundred years from now. Yet we look back to Abraham not four
generations or four hundred years, but four thousand years. We look backward
several millennia more clearly than Abraham could look forward even a few years.

This is an irony about the
past and future. On the one hand we can know the past, but we can no longer
change it. No matter how much we wish, we can’t change what ancestors did to
create the world we know today.

Yet by contrast, we can’t know
the future, but we affect it every day. Looking back at what we can’t change
helps us see ourselves through future generations’ eyes. We hope our
descendants will look back to us with gratitude.

So even though our culture has
an inch-long and inch-deep attention span, our faith calls us to lengthen our
horizons to centuries and even millennia. So let’s add a third biblical claim:
the interests of the unborn: According to the biblical story, “God directed our
ancestors to look to the flourishing of future generations.”

To be continued….

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