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
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 can’t.
|Me, with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.|
Now I have a daughter and am expecting a granddaugher.
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....
To be continued....