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Members of Congress commemorated the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks with a ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, singing “God Bless America.”
Politics of Scripture

Politics of Blessing (Genesis 27)

This week, on the heels of the 12th anniversary commemorations of the September 11th tragedy on US soil, many Americans have returned to the biblical refrain of divine blessing.

The Politics of Blessing in Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23 and 28:10-17

This week’s scripture (from the Narrative Lectionary) is actually taken from two chapters in Genesis—27 & 28. The plot of Genesis 27 is, broadly speaking, about Isaac granting final blessings to his sons. In essence, this is his will and testament and, following custom, Isaac intends to will everything to his eldest son Esau. However, as the story goes, God—and Rebekah—have other plans. Through their interventions, Isaac grants the blessing intended for Esau to Jacob instead.

The lectionary leaves Isaac’s actual words out, but they are recorded in vv. 28-29:

May God give you of the dew of heaven,
and of the fatness of the earth,
and plenty of grain and wine.
Let peoples serve you,
and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
and blessed be everyone who blesses you!’

Again, following tradition, Isaac is formulaically granting his son rights to all of the riches and power that he has amassed and praying that God, following the promise to his father Abraham, might multiply these blessings for this son—Jacob, whom Isaac believes to be Esau. In this very human way, Isaac’s blessing for his son is concerned with wealth and power—to the point that anyone who curses this new patriarch should himself be cursed.

In contrast, Genesis 28 is about—again, broadly speaking—Jacob living into this blessing and its subsequent role, which he has received by subterfuge. This chapter begins with Isaac giving a second blessing to his son Jacob, again, it would seem, at the behest of Rebekah, but now fully aware both of which son he is blessing and who is really in charge—neither Isaac, Jacob, or Rebekah, but God. Thus, the tone shifts in Isaac’s blessing for Jacob in Genesis 28:3-4. Rather than seeking to preserve power and possessions through a material heir, Isaac now prays,

‘May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien—land that God gave to Abraham.’

And, indeed, this is the blessing that is confirmed for Jacob by God’s own voice through his encounter at Beer-sheba. As Jacob dreams,

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. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (vv.13-15)

Through this encounter, God powerfully reminds Isaac (and through him, Jacob, Esau, and the rest of us), that an inheritance in God’s Kingdom is not about wealth and power.

The Abrahamic blessing is, of course, tied to the land. It is a blessing of abundance, but not of fatness. It is a blessing primarily concerned with the well-being of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their families, not with their lordship over everyone else. Moreover, it is a blessing through which “all of the families of the earth will be blessed”—not cursed as Isaac’s original prayer would have had it! To be blessed by God, the texts makes clear, is therefore, first and always, to be a blessing.

This week, on the heels of the 12th anniversary commemorations of the September 11th tragedy on US soil, many Americans have returned to the biblical refrain of divine blessing. Continuing what has become an American tradition, the United States Congress flanked the steps of the US Capitol building last Wednesday to sing, “God Bless America.” The lyrics to Irving Berlin’s famous song intone a familiar blessing:

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.

Over the course of its public history, this song has meant many things. Sheryl Kaskowitz outlines this history in her book on the song, discussed recently on NPR’s All Things Considered. She describes the song’s original debut on the first American celebration of Armistice Day in 1938, in which it carried an anti-interventionist rhetoric, celebrating the peace and stability still to be found on American soil despite brewing chaos on the European front, its use by civil rights and labor activists, and ultimately, the solidification of “its more conservative uses, as upholding the status quo” during its use in the Vietnam era to quash protesters.[1]

Despite what Kaskowitz rightly names as ambiguous lyrics, which have allowed for such multifaceted use, for my generation this national hymn has too often become a symbol of the “fatness of the earth” kind of blessings that we both too quickly celebrate as already ours and too blithely hope, pray, and believe will remain ours forever. This, I believe, was Isaac’s initial mistake.

Interestingly, Berlin penned his song 20 years prior to its 1938 debut on Armistice Day. At that time (1918), before it would have had any fascist undercurrents, the initial lyrics prayed that God might “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above.”[2] As we pray for God’s blessing on us as a nation, whether in America or in any other place across the globe, perhaps attention to this subtle difference might better shift nationalistic pride in and aspirations toward wealth and power towards God’s prayer for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and for us:

“All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” and “Know that I am with you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:14 and 15).

The Rev. Amy Lindeman Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to 40bicycles@gmail.com.]

[1] http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=216877219

[2] Ibid.

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