"In You All The Families of the Earth Shall Be Blessed": Some Initial Thoughts on Mission in the Old Testament

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 4 »In You All The Families Of The Earth Shall Be Blessed Some Initial Thoughts On Mission In The Old Testament

By Helen R. Graham, M.M. 

Helen Graham, M.M. holds an MA in Theology from the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, California and a PhD in Philosophy of Theology from the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. She is a faculty member of both the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies and of Maryhill School of Theology, Manila. The author of many scholarly biblical articles, she frequently lectures in Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan. Her most recent publication You Shall be Handed Over: The Persecution Prediction in Mark 13:9-13 was published by Claretian Press, Manila.


Half a century ago the preparation of this talk would have been considerably easier. What was included in the concept "mission" would have been relatively clear and relatively easy to extract and comment on a variety of so-called "mission passages" from the Bible, especially standard New Testament passages such as Matthew’s Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (28:19-20). But both of these realities—the meaning of "mission" and the understanding of the Bible—have undergone much change, even paradigmatic change, in the last several decades. In a way I am grateful for the challenge you threw at my doorstep as it forced me to do some serious thinking and research in the area of mission studies, an area where I have been somewhat lax for several years! I was forced to ask "What does the Bible really say about mission?" In order to come close to an answer to that question, it is first necessary to come to some sense of how our understanding of both "mission" and biblical interpretation have changed.

A Changed Landscape for Mission

Forty years after the close of Vatican II1 it is good to look back and see what was written about mission in the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes) [Abbott 1966:584-630]. At that time it was said that humanity was being led "into a new stage" by the present historical situation (AG 1). The decree was promulgated two years before my own assignment to the Philippines. As I recall, it was an exciting time to be a member of the Church. I carefully underlined phrases such as "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature" (AG 2) and "the Church must become part of all these groups for the same motive which led Christ to bind Himself, in virtue of His Incarnation, to the definite social and cultural conditions of those human beings among whom He dwelt" (AG 10). "The mission of the Church, is fulfilled by that activity which makes her fully present to all men [sic] and nations" (AG 5). It was an optimistic ecclesial and missiological moment. I went forth with great optimism in 1967 to live my missionary calling.

But by the end of 1990 Pope John Paul II felt it necessary to write Redemptoris Missio, an encyclical subtitled "On the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate," in which he expressed a concern that "Missionary activity specifically directed ‘to the nations’ (ad gentes) appears to be waning" (RM 2).2 He stated that with the development of new theological thinking in modern times some people are asking



"Is missionary work among non-Christians still relevant? Has it not been replaced by inter-religious dialogue? Is not human development an adequate goal of the Church’s mission? Does not respect for conscience and for freedom exclude all efforts at conversion? Is it not possible to attain salvation in any religion? Why then should there be missionary activity? (RM 4).


The encyclical was written to provide a definitive answer to such questions and to "invite the Church to renew her missionary commitment. . . . [through] an interior renewal of faith and Christian life. For missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive" (RM 2). The encyclical goes on to offer an understanding of mission, mission ad gentes in particular (Chap 4), and to emphasize the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ (Chap 1) stressing that "for all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—salvation can only come from Jesus Christ" (RM 5).

I read the encyclical as soon as it was reprinted in Origins in early 1991 and frankly it did not sit comfortably with me. It seemed to me to be a retrogression from Vatican II’s document Nostra Aetate on the relation of the Church to non-Christian peoples which spoke so positively of the other religions.3 Consequently, I did not read Redemptoris Missio again until recently when I came across an article by Robert Schreiter in which he states that "Redemptoris Missio was certainly the most important encyclical letter on mission in the twentieth century" (Schreiter 2001). What had I missed, I wondered? I sat down and re-read the entire encyclical carefully, but I still do not feel as comfortable with Redemptoris Missioas I felt with Ad Gentes after reading it back in 1965!

What was wrong? Well for one thing, the encyclical seems to have reverted to a pre-Vatican II apologetic-type appeal to Sacred Scripture which used biblical passages as proof-texts to shore up predetermined dogmatic positions. I resonate, therefore, with Stephen Bevans’ critique of the manner in which RedemptorisMissioconstrues scripture. He writes, "For Redemptoris Missio, scripture contains certain teachings, certain doctrines, which must be faithfully safeguarded by the church. . . . The pope seems to presuppose that there is a truth in scripture which needs to be taught" (Bevans 1993:39-40). It is as if the great advances in biblical studies since the ground-breaking encyclical of Pius XII Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) had never happened. Bevans continues:



Despite the plethora of biblical citations, the basis for John Paul II’s strong Christocentric motive for Christian mission seems to be more magisterium/doctrinally based than really rooted in the Bible. . . . Given the pope’s understanding of scripture as basically doctrinal content and given hisuse of scripture in the encyclical, he has not provided much of a biblical basis other than an appeal to scripture to illustrate his retelling of the biblical stories or to confirm prior dogmatic beliefs (Bevans 1993:43).


Yes, Bevans articulated for me what I was feeling as I read Redemptoris Missio. I feel much more comfortable, for example, with the thinking of Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis found in two of his important books: Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism and Christianity and the Religions,4 and summarized in a series of three articles in The Tablet in 2001. Dupuis calls for "a purification of theological language and thinking." Theologians today, he says "ask whether Christian and Catholic theology can affirm that the religious traditions have in the eternal plan of God for humankind a positive significance and are for their followers ways, means and channels of salvation willed and devised by God for their followers" (Dupuis 2001:1485).

A major problem affecting our understanding of mission is how we read and interpret Scripture, and in particular, how we use scripture. The old apologetic proof-texting approach which regarded Scripture as the "handmaid of theology" has long been overtaken by modern biblical criticism.

A Revolution in Biblical Interpretation

It was only in mid-century, with the publication of Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), that biblical scholars of the Roman Catholic Church were given the green light to employ the historical-critical method in biblical interpretation, an approach that had been in use among Protestant biblical scholars since the time of the Enlightenment.5 But it did not take long for Roman Catholic scholars to catch up! By 1968 three of our best biblical scholars had edited and published the Jerome Biblical Commentary which James A. Sanders, Presbyterian who was then scripture professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, deemed "the best one-volume commentary available" (Sanders 1968). After about two decades it was deemed necessary to produce a new commentary and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary was published in Great Britain in 1989 under the editorship of the same three scholars. According to the editors’ preface, the NJBC is estimated to be "two-thirds new."

Today a plethora of approaches and methods of biblical interpretation are available. The days of only one method and one meaning are over! Biblical interpretation has been greatly enriched by contact with methods of literary interpretation and philosophical hermeneutics.6 In her book, The Revelatory Text, Sandra Schneiders emphasizes that a contemporary approach to the interpretation of a biblical text must include what she calls "three moments"—the exegetical, the literary, and the hermeneutical moments. In the central chapters of her book (Chapters 4 through 6) she elaborates on these three moments which include what she calls the world behind the text which deals with historical questions, the world of the text which is concerned with literary questions, and the world in front of the text which concerns the specifically hermeneutical or spiritual dimension of the text. This third moment, which is the goal of interpretation, results in appropriation of "the world of meaning that the text projects and is thereby changed." Such a transformational approach to biblical interpretation "by which we appropriate the meaning of the text by a fusion of horizons [is] within the area of spirituality, that is, of the conscious effort toward life-integration through self-transcendence toward the horizon of ultimate value" (Schneiders 1992).

Forty years ago, Vatican II promulgated Dei Verbum ("The Decree on Divine Revelation"), which spoke profoundly of the Church’s "veneration" of the sacred Scriptures (Abbott, 111-32):



The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since from the table of both the word of God and of the body of Christ she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life, especially in the sacred liturgy... all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture (DV 21).

Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study.... This cultivation of Scripture is required lest any of them become "an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly.... "For [as Jerome said] ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (DV 25).


While it is true that there was a great increase of interest in sacred Scripture among Roman Catholics after Vatican II, it seems that this interest was and is largely restricted to the New Testament, even though our Bible consists of both an Old and New Testament. The loss of the Old Testament to the Church is like "losing a friend," to borrow a phrase of Ellen Davis (2000:83-94). Davis, speaking to the Academy of Homiletics, claimed that "For many Christians, profound friendship with the Old Testament is no longer a live possibility" (Davis, 83). She further states that "the pulpit [is] the primary place where such friendship can be fostered in the church and the first place where the deterioration of that friendship is widely felt" (Davis, 84). In the course of her address, Davis suggested and demonstrated three kinds of willingnesses that are involved in "cultivating a friendship with the Old Testament:"—willingness to risk being "taken in" (to its imaginative world), willingness to change, and willingness to deal with the extreme difficulty of the text. Most, it seems, are just not willing!

For the remainder of this talk I would like to focus on some selected portions of the Old Testament which, I believe, have something to say to us about contemporary mission. As Donald Senior expresses it, "an authentic Christian theology of mission should take its inspiration and validation from the word of God expressed in the scriptures" and by "scriptures" he necessarily includes the Old Testament (Senior 1997:44). The working hypothesis of both Carol Stuhlmueller and Donald Senior in their foundational book Biblical Foundations for Mission is that "the entire Bible, not just the New Testament, lays the foundations for mission" (Senior and Stuhlmueller, op. cit., 315). So hopefully we can begin to regain our lost friendship with the Old Testament! In Lucien Legrand’s opinion, if "we understand the concept of mission as coextensive with that of universalism, then we shall find a missionary teaching sketched in scores of Old Testament texts" (Legrand 1990:3). It is to the universalism of the Old Testament that we now turn.

The Mission of Israel

The Bible begins not with Israel but with the entire cosmos—with the creation of the universe—with "the heavens and the earth" (Gen 1:1). There has been much scholarly discussion concerning the second verse, which modern translations treat as a parenthesis. This is especially clear in the Jewish Bible translation: The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.7 This parenthetical verse suggests that chaos lurks in the background waiting to overcome the created order which is detailed in the verses which follow the creation of light in verse 3 and which is concluded in chapter 2:4a with God’s resting on the seventh day. This cosmic vision is followed immediately by a more earth-focused series of accounts of humans and their relationship with God, with earth, and with one another.

The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis are concerned with all the nations of the earth. In Genesis 1:1-2:4a we are told (six times!) that all that God has created is good (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and the seventh time that it is "very good" (v. 31). But it is not long after this seven-fold affirmation that we begin to observe that there is, what Brueggemann terms, "a profound problematic that is inherent in creation... which is said to be recalcitrant and resistant to God’s good intentions for the world" (Brueggemann 2003:32). Story after story attests to the growing disorder, disobedience, arrogance, and violence which is profoundly contradictory to God’s plan for the universe.

The succession of stories describes a growing chasm between humanity and God. Brueggemann calls these stories "the four narratives of contradiction—Genesis 3, 4, 6:5-9:17, and 11:1-9—[which] articulate a steadily intensifying recalcitrance against the will of the Creator that each time evokes God’s harsh response" (2003:33). Thomas Mann captures the mood of the texts when he writes:



The narrative of the Primeval cycle takes us from human beings as the "image of God" to human beings as alienated from God, from humankind’s dominion over the earth to its "scattering" over the earth, from the garden of Eden and the communal unity of the family to the fragmentation of the nations. From blessing to curse (1988:27).


But even as the Primeval cycle ends in pessimism with God responding in judgment, we also see God performing acts of graciousness: clothing the man and the woman (3:21), placing a mark on Cain (4:15), and remembering Noah with unexpected divine promises after the flood (8:22; 9:8-17). It is only after the Tower of Babel story (11:1-9) that there seems to be no act of graciousness on God’s part, "no word of grace" (Von Rad 1972:153). But we again have an assurance that God intends to continue what Brueggemann calls the "family line" of humanity as the line of Shem is traced to "the line of Terah [who] begot Abram" (11:10-27).

Genesis 11:27 thus signals a transition in the story—the beginning of the story of Abraham and Sarah (11:27-25:18). But after a long line of "begots," which recount the birth of new life and raise our expectations, we are brought up short by the announcement that "Sarai was barren, she had no child" (v. 30). "The creation and blessing of humankind in Genesis 1, with its accompanying motif of fertility, has come to sterility" (Mann, 27). It is into this world, seemingly devoid of divine presence and hope, that God speaks once again and, from among all the nations, chooses one human being to be an object and source of universal blessing in a context in which curse seems to predominate. Abraham is selected by YHWH to become the ancestor of a people chosen for the purpose of witnessing to the unity and universality of YHWH among the nations, to the divine will of bringing blessing upon all humanity/creation, and whose mission it will be to "repair the world."8

The Lord is One

According to Jewish midrashic tradition, Terah, who was the father of Abraham (Gen 11:27ff), was an idol merchant. From his youth, Abraham questioned his father’s belief and was a truth-seeker. Abraham came to believe that the entire universe was the work of a single God who was the creator of all things. Abraham began to teach monotheism, and tried to convince his father of the foolishness of worshiping idols.9

A well-known Jewish midrash tells how Terah went out one day and left the young Abraham in charge of the idol shop. While he was gone, Abraham smashed all the idols with a hammer except for one large one which he left in a corner. He placed the hammer in the hand of the remaining idol. When his father, Terah, returned he was shocked and asked Abraham what happened. Abraham explained that the idols began to fight and the big one smashed them all. To which his father replied "Are you making sport of me? They can't do anything!" Abram replied, "You say they cannot. Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying!"10

Traditionally, this revolt of Abraham marks the beginning of Jewish faith, "one that has evolved and grown over the course of three thousand years or more.... the faith that Y-H-W-H is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is nothing else" (Green 2003:12-13). We find this confession of faith in the oneness of God in the Shema (Deut 6:4ff) which has been recited twice daily since ancient times. "The privilege of proclaiming God’s oneness is the essential gift of Israel and that which gives meaning to its own uniqueness" (Green 2003:185). In the words of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, this confession that God is One is "The strongest affirmation of the Jewish faith.... God is ONE: this proclamation points to the language of love (cf. Sg 6:5). The God who loves Israel is confessed as unique and calls each one to respond to that love by a love ever total."11 The PBC further notes that this profession of Jewish faith is repeated in the New Testament by Jesus himself in Mark 12:29 (quoting Deut 6:4-5).12

However, universal acceptance of God’s oneness is considered to be a matter for eschatological realization. "Only in the Messianic era will all humankind acknowledge the oneness of God" (Lamm 1998:39). As we read in the prophet Zechariah: "And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one" (14:9). The passage foretells a universal monotheism, a time when God’s Name will be proclaimed by everyone. Jewish commentators point out the similarity of the last phrase of the Zechariah passage with the final phrase of the Shema’ proclamation (Deut 6:4), which states that "the Lord is one" or, as in an alternate translation, "the Lord alone." Perhaps the prophet is citing the ancient formula here and giving it an eschatological dimension (Fishbane 2002:402). In the meantime the mission is to bear witness in history to the oneness of God (Isa 43:1-12; 44:8) because "without human testimony the reality of God and the wonder of [God’s] ways would have no social significance" (Fishbane, 155).

The Pontifical Biblical Commission points out, in an important correction for Christian thought, that "Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain. It can become for us Christians a powerful stimulant to keep alive the eschatological dimension of our faith. Like them, we too live in expectation. The difference is that for us the One who is to come will have the traits of the Jesus who has already come and is already present and active among us."13 Thus, do we share with our Jewish siblings, as children of Abraham, the mission to witness to and proclaim the oneness and universality of God in hope of that day when "the LORD will be one and his name one."

Be A Blessing

God’s promise to Abraham as well as Abraham’s mission is given expression in a programmatic passage that forms a bridge between the so-called Primeval narrative and the story of the ancestors of the people of Israel.



12:1 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.
12:2 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.
12:3 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."
12:4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him


It is clear that blessing is the major theme of this passage as different forms of the word blessing appear five times in only three verses. We actually have to read the rest of the Book of Genesis to be able to grasp the full impact of this programmatic passage. By the end of Genesis, it strikes us that this family that issues from Abraham proves to be a dysfunctional family—and yet the paradox is that it is this family that is the bearer of the blessing. Nehama Leibowitz observes that the opening theme of these three verses "is characterized by an extreme particularism, placing a barrier between Abraham and the rest of the world . . . but their closing theme is precisely the opposite—that of a ‘generous universalism’." And further that "Abraham . . . was . . . the only glimmer of light wandering through a world of thick darkness, eventually spreading, illuminating the whole of humankind, enveloping the whole world with its glow."14

Some 40 years ago, Hans Walter Wolff provided a careful analysis of this passage and, in spite of developments in biblical interpretation since then, his insights into the meaning of this text within the ancestor narrative are still quite relevant, even profound. His analysis led him to conclude that verse 3b forms what he calls the kerygma of the writer (Wolff 1975:41-66). "Yahweh . . . wills to make Abraham into a great and mightly (sic) people, so that they themselves may be a blessing" (48). "The received catchword becomes the key word for Israel’s relation to the peoples of the earth and for their relation to Israel" (51). As Wolff observes, "The so-called primal history explains beforehand why all the families of the earth need the blessing" (53). A retrospective glance back over chapters 2-11 reveals that the word for blessing "which has five distinct variations in the key passage, does not occur" in those chapters. "Instead, the root ‘rr (curse) appears five times: 3:14, 17; 4:11; 9:25 and 5:29" (54). All of the curse stories are linked together through the addition of a genealogy.

So important is this theme of the blessing of the nations through Abraham and his offspring that it is repeated four more times in the Book of Genesis (Gen 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). The next time this theme appears is in the Mamre-Sodom narrative which depicts Abraham sitting "at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day" (18:1), when the Lord visited with him. Toward the conclusion of that visit YHWH muses on the consequence of the covenantal relationship that was forged with Abraham (see Genesis 15 and 17). YHWH cannot hide his plan from Abraham "seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him" (18:18). YHWH feels obliged to clue in the covenant partner concerning what is about to happen to Sodom because of Abraham’s mission to bring blessing to the nations. A further reason is given in that Abraham is also to be the teacher of justice to his descendants: "No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him" (v. 19).

Then toward the end of the Abraham cycle, God again speaks to Abraham with the exact same command in Hebrew as in Genesis 12:1, lekh-lekha—translated with the imperative "go." "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go (lekh-lekha) to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you" (22:2). Concerning this passage, Gerhard von Rad comments that "Abraham had to cut himself off from his whole past in ch. 12:1ff; now he must give up his whole future" (von Rad, 239). It is in this well-formed and terse narrative that Abraham’s obedience is demonstrated. In a conversation following the event, YHWH recalls the original promise of Genesis 12:



By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice" (vv. 16-18).


There is one change in the repetition of the promise of blessing to the nations. It is now not by Abraham alone, but by his offspring. It is by Israel that all the nations of the world are to know blessing.

The reference to Abraham’s offspring is reiterated in YHWH’s conversation with Isaac who is commissioned to take up residence in the land of the Philistines and the key theme of our programmatic text (12:3b) is again repeated:



Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws (Gen 26:3-5, emphasis added).


By concluding a solemn covenant with the Philistines, in spite of their prior hostility, Isaac brought blessing upon Abimelech, the "king of the Philistines," (2 Sam 8:1) and an archenemy of Israel.

In the Jacob cycle we also have a repetition and augmentation of the blessing of 12:3b in the famous scene of Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel:



And the Lord stood beside him and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring" (Gen 28:13-14, emphasis added).


Wolff suggests that the intermingling of Israel among the nations would be the manner in which YHWH would bring about the fulfillment of the blessing. Even in the Joseph narrative, which does not explicitly cite the blessing formula, we find what Wolff refers to as a "capsule drama" showing how blessing came even upon the powerful Egyptian empire through Joseph. And this narrative is like a prelude to the exodus plague narrative where Pharaoh "the one brought under the curse turns to find blessing in Israel" (Wolff, 59). At the moment of the 10 plague when Pharaoh had summoned Moses and Aaron in the middle of the night to tell them to depart from among the Egyptians, the text concludes with a plea from Pharaoh, "And may you bring a blessing upon me also!" (Exod 12:32).

This theme of God’s all-encompassing blessing is an indication of the centrality of God’s purpose to bring blessing to the nations. It represents the Missio Dei, God’s purpose and goal in creation. And it is to be carried forth through the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. "The blessing carried and embodied by Israel is to counter and overcome and nullify the curse. In this juxtaposition, the role of Israel, according to God’s intention, is in order that the other nations and the whole world will be blessed, that is, enjoy the abundance and well-being that was from the outset intended in the blessing of creation as in Genesis 1:22" (Brueggemann, 46 –introduction).

The kerygma of Genesis 12:3b finds an echo in two passages from the New Testament:15



You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, "And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Acts 3:25).

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you" (Gal 3:8).


These New Testament passages suggest that Abraham and his descendants—and that includes us—are called to a lifestyle geared to bringing a blessing upon all living creatures. In today’s world one cannot help but be conscious that the children of Abraham include the members of the three great monotheistic "religions of the book"—Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Therefore, if this gospel has indeed already been declared beforehand to Abraham, as Paul says in the passage cited from Galatians, then this gospel, this good news preached to Abraham and his descendants, must speak to the world through all three faiths, even if each will interpret it differently.

In addition, all three faith traditions refer to Abraham as "friend of God":



But you, Israel My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham My friend (Isa 41:8; see 2 Chron 20:7).

Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God (James 2:23).

Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to God, does good,

And follows the way of Abraham the true in faith?

For God did take Abraham for a friend (Qur’an 4:125).


Friendship is a special kind of relationship which, unlike the relationship of master and servant, is built upon mutual acceptance of one another as equals. The blessing of friendship conferred on Abraham was considered unique, placing before us an enormous task. The question is whether all of us—Abraham’s children—can one day become friends of God and of each other in Abraham in whom "all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

Repairing the World

Another aspect of Israel’s mission might be phrased as "to repair the world." This ancient phrase, which does not appear in the biblical text as such, is attributed to the 16 century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria (1534-1572). In attempting to capture in a brief phrase humanity’s task in the restoration of the cosmos to its primeval perfection, Luria first used the phrase tikkun ‘olam usually rendered in English as "repairing the world." In its verbal form is found in the Jewish alenu prayer which forms the last part of the daily liturgy.16 The phrase appears in the second part of the alenu prayer which is solemn in its beauty. The entire section is worth quoting:



It is our dream that the world be
perfected (le-takken ‘olam)
under the kingdom of the Almighty,
and all humanity will call Your name;
forsaking evil, all will turn to You.
All who live on earth will come
together and know
that to You alone every knee must bend.
To You, O Lord our God, all will
bow in humility.
all will give honor to Your glorious Name.
All humanity will accept the yoke of
Your kingdom.

"In such solemn language (drawn from Jer 10:6-16; Isa 30:7, 14:23, 11:13; Deut 4:39) the congregation gives expression to its faith in the One Universal Ruler of the World, and to its hope for His universal kingdom when all the idolatrous nations around Israel shall have been converted to His truth."17

The phrase has taken on new meaning among contemporary Jews (particularly of the Reform synagogues) and "refers to the betterment of the world, including the relief of human suffering, the achievement of peace and mutual respect among peoples, and the protection of the planet itself from destruction."18

As I write, BBC radio is announcing in the background that the death toll in the wake of the earthquake-induced tsunami in the Indian ocean last 26 December 2004, could well exceed 150,000.19 This disaster is of epic proportions. In the words of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, the people of South Asia "were stricken by a disaster so brutal, so quick and so far-reaching that we are still struggling to comprehend it. A disaster that has registered deeply in the consciousness and conscience of the world."20

This last catastrophe, coming as it did at the conclusion of 2004, brings us to reflect on the past year as well as on other tragic events that have happened since the turn of the century and which stand out because of the suffering and grief they have caused to countless numbers of people. Words like 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, Dafur, Beslan, Infanta, and tsunami conjure images of untold suffering, some the result of human interaction and some of nature’s fury. Such human suffering on an epic scale highlights the urgent need for the mission of tikkun ‘olam, the urgent mission of repairing the world.


These initial reflections on mission in the Bible—actually limited to the Book of Genesis—are merely a beginning. As we come to the conclusion of these reflections we feel we have come full circle. We are taken back to the early chapters of Genesis, as we contemplate the dimensions of inter-human violence and the fury unleashed by natural disasters in our contemporary world. The mission of Abraham and his descendants to be a source of blessing and healing among the nations looms even more urgently before us as a mission that the world is profoundly and desperately in need of in our time.

Certainly, since the Second Vatican Council, great strides have been made in promoting greater understanding between Christians and Jews. Jesus, after all, was born and died a Jew. Clearly at the outset of his gospel, Matthew traces the ancestry of Jesus the Jew back to Abraham our common father in the faith when he writes: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Mt 1:1). As we Christians learn to appreciate this fact, our relations with our Jewish brothers and sisters grow deeper.

But at the same time, recent events have highlighted the great divide that still stands between Christians and certain extreme forms of Islam. An important part of our mission as children of Abraham is, in whatever ways are open to us, to work toward overcoming this painful situation. We are all children of Abraham. The question that faces us as we move further into the 21 century is: How can we, Abraham’s family—Jew, Christian, and Muslim—become a blessing among the nations?




* A talk given to Dominican Formators, Tagaytay City, Philippines, February 2005.

1. The solemn closing of the Second Vatican Council took place on 8 December 1965.

2. Redemptoris Missio (Pasay City, Phil.: Daughters of St. Paul, June 1992) was presented to the public in a press conference on 22 January 1991, but it was dated 7 December 1990 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Vatican II’s Decree on Missionary Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes.

3. See "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" in Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, 660-68.

4. Both published by Orbis Books, 1997 and 2002 respectively. See also the series of three articles in The Tablet: "The Storm of the Spirit" (20 Oct 2001); "God is Always Greater" (27 Oct 2001); "The Work of the Potter" (3 Nov 2001). [Jaques Dupuis died 29 Dec 2004].

5. See Divino Afflante Spiritu issued by Pius XII in 1943.

6. A recent document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (published by Origins in their 6 January 1994 issue), provides a summary of a good number of these contemporary methods with some pros and cons of each.

7. TANAKH (Phila: Jewish Publication Society, 1985)

8. "Repairing the world" or tikkun ‘olam in Hebrew "is an ancient Hebrew phrase that has taken on new life in the past few decades. Its verbal form is found in the ‘alenu prayer, which concludes ever service in the traditional synagogue. There le-takken ‘olam means ‘to establish the world in the kingdom of the Almighty (shaddai),’ or to bring about God’s rule on earth. In contemporary usage it refers to the betterment of the world, including the relief of human suffering, the achievement of peace and mutual respect among peoples, and the protection of the planet itself from destruction" (Green 1999:175).

9. Some OT texts are critical of idol-makers and idol-worshipers, such as Isa 44:6-20; cf 40:18-20; Jer 10:1-17.

10. Bereshit Rabbah 38:13; A similar tradition is preserved in the Qur’an Sura XXI:51-70.

11. "The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible" (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2002), 65.

12. Ibid.

13. "The Jewish People . . ." 59.

14. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis): In the Context of Ancient and Modern Jewish Bible Commentary (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, 5733), 112.

15. The reflections that follow are a slightly reworked version of my commentary on the weekly Torah reading Lekh Lekah for the Bat Kol Institute, Jerusalem, 23 October 2004. The commentary can be found in the archives of the Bat Kol Institute http://www.batkol.info.

16. "The Alenu prayer has a unique solemnity. It was originally composed for the Rosh Hashanah (New Year) service, and is a central feature of that section of the service known as Malchuyot—God as King. Its expressiveness as a prayer was felt so deeply that it was made the concluding prayer for all of services of worship. It is in two sections: in the first, we look into our hearts as Jews; in the second, we consider (hu)mankind as a whole" (Raphael 1985:74).

17. Kaufmann Kohlar, "The Alenu Prayer" is part of the Sabbath evening service.

18. Green 1999:175. Rabbi Michael Lerner, chair of the Tikkun Community and editor of Tikkun Magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. See his website. http://www.tikkun.org.

19. According to UNICEF, as many as 50,000 children were killed, and more than a million have been hurt or lost families in the disaster (BBC News, 5 January 2005).

20. United Nations Press Release SG/SM/9662 IHA/977, 31 December 2004.





Abbot, Walter M., S.J. (ed.)

1966 The Documents of Vatican II (New York: America Press).

Bevans, Stephen B.

1993 "The Biblical Basis of the Mission of the Church in Redemptoris Missio" in The Good News of the Kingdom: Mission Theology for the Third Millennium, edited by Charles van Engen et. al (Maryknoll: Orbis).

Brueggemann, Walter

2003 An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox).

Davis, Ellen F.

2000 "Losing a Friend: The Loss of the Old Testament to the Church" inJews, Christians and the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, edited by Alice Ogden Bellis and Joel S. Kaminsky(Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature).

Dupuis, Jaques

2001 "The Storm of the Spirit" in The Tablet (20 Oct).

Fishbane, Michael

2002 The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (Phila: The Jewish Publication Society).

Green, Arthur

2003 Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology (Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing).

1999 These are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life(Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing).

James A.

1968 At a seminar on "Canonical Criticism," The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall). Unfortunately, two of the three have since died. R. E. Brown on 8 August 1998 and R. E. Murphy on 20 July 2002.

Lamm, Norman

1998 The Shemá: Spirituality and Law in Judaism" (Phila: Jewish Publication Society).

Legrand, Lucien

1990 Unity and Plurality: Mission in the Bible (Maryknoll: Orbis).

Mann, Thomas W.

1988 The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch(Atlanta: John Knox).

Raphael, Chaim

1985 The Sabbath Evening Service with a new translation and commentary (New York: Behrman House, Inc.).

Senior, Donald

1997 "Bible" in Dictionary of Mission: Theology, History, Perspectives,edited by K. Müeller, Theo Sundermeier, Stephen B. Bevans, and Richard H. Bliese (Maryknoll: Orbis). English translation and edition from German original 1987.

Schneider, Sandra M.

1992 The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (San Francisco: Harper; second edition 2000).

Schreiter, Robert

2001 "Redemptoris Missio in the Development of Missiological Thought" given at a symposium held at the Pontifical University Urbaniana, Rome,19 January.

Von Rad, Gerhard

1972 Genesis. Rev. Ed. (Phila: Westminster).

Wolff, Hans Walter

1975 "The Kerygma of the Yahwist," in The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions, edited by Walter Brueggemann and Hans Walter Wolff (Atlanta: John Knox). This article originally appeared in German in 1964, and an earlier English translation appeared in Interpretation 20 (1966:131-58).

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