The God who retcons

If you’re a Millennial, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard the term “retcon” before. If you’re not a Millennial, or if you are for any other reason unacquainted with the word, it is short for “retroactive continuity.” What’s that? I could give a definition, but examples are easier. Probably one of the craziest examples is from last year. Captain America (in the comics) was revealed to be secretly on the side of the evil organization HYDRA which he had ostensibly spent years fighting. Obviously, for the first several decades of Cap’s existence, no one thought of him like that. The character wasn’t invented to be that. But suddenly, his backstory was drastically rewritten with a single comic. The old, settled meaning of hundreds of comics was transformed by this new declaration. They changed the past. Thus “retroactive continuity,” or “retcon.”

The cool thing about God is that He invented retconning, at least if you believe the Bible. This probably sounds strange, so you may want proof. Very well; I can provide it. I think we all remember Hagar, but if not, try reading this passage from ye Old Testament:

Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan 10 years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she realized that she was pregnant, she treated her mistress with contempt.

Genesis 16:1-4

Pretty good move on Abraham’s part, right? He’s waiting for God to give him a son, as promised, and so when his wife (for whatever reason) suggests he use her slave for that purpose, he jumps on it. As we find later, the son he has through Hagar, Ishmael, ridicules Sarai’s son, Isaac, who was the true promised child, and Hagar’s life is ruined, and in the end Ishmael’s descendants hate Israel. The story reaches into the present day as the source of modern Israeli/Arab conflict. So, this little debacle is pretty much responsible for 9/11 and modern Middle Eastern terrorism more generally. Thanks, Father Abraham!

From our perspective, this looks like a catastrophic failure. Abraham was given a promise and told to wait, but he ran out of patience and faith. So he created chaos for everyone. Not quite the most honorable legacy.

Except that’s not how God remembers it. Let us turn to Romans 4, where Paul recalls Abraham’s story as the background for his teaching about justification by faith. Here’s how he describes Abraham’s faith:

He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness.

Romans 4:16b-22 (emphasis mine)

See, when Abraham is remembered in the New Testament, nothing is said about him letting his faith or his patience slip up with Hagar. Instead, Paul says under inspiration that Abraham did not waver but was strengthened in faith. He was fully convinced of God’s promise. That seems strange to us, but it’s how the Bible sees it.

How do we understand this? Is there some kind of contradiction? Does Romans 4 pretend that Genesis 16 never happened? To steal a phrase from Paul, by no means! See, we don’t know Abraham’s psychology. We don’t know what made him think it was actually a good idea to impregnate his wife’s slave instead of waiting for Sarai to conceive. But we do know one thing: God remembered him as righteous, not unfaithful. Whatever this little episode was, it somehow fell into a story of Abraham as a hero of faith.

The same goes for other Bible characters with massive flaws and failures. David had Bathsheba, but he was gladly upheld as the ideal king who points to the Messiah. Moses was, for sin’s sake, barred from the Promised Land, but good luck finding a negative word about him in the New Testament. He’s called instead “faithful as a servant in all God’s household” (Heb. 3:5).

This isn’t just exaggerated hagiography, as though the later Bible writers felt embarrassed and wanted to brush over the flaws of their favorite forefathers. This is the divine retcon: when God takes the mixed and cracked lives of His saints and reworks them into something beautiful, something, well, righteous. God justifies us, declares us righteous, by faith, and in declaring us righteous, He makes our whole story a story of righteousness, even the gross parts. It is just another aspect of how God works all things for good.

So for us, even in our worst moments, we can know this: if we continue in faith, our story ends with “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We may not feel good or faithful now, but God is writing the story, and He has given us a glorious sneak peek into the ending. Whatever happens in the meantime, He will fit it all into that ending. For the God who justifies the ungodly is the God who retcons.

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Faith grows

Everyone familiar with Genesis knows the story of Abraham and Hagar. God promised to give Abraham a son. But it was taking a very long time, and his wife Sarah seemed simply barren. Eventually, they reason that he should try the common practice of taking his wife’s slave as a second wife. So Abraham slept with Hagar and got Ishmael. Impatience and perhaps some lack of faith created another line, outside of the promise, which led to lots of trouble down the road. God promised Abraham children, and he didn’t know what to think about that promise based on his life situation, and he messed things up by trying to fix it himself.

Abraham, however, did not stay this way. In Genesis 24, another stage has come to the story of Abraham and God’s promise. Abraham is old and about to die, and Isaac is all grown up. Isaac needs a wife if he is to continue the line of promise. So Abraham sends his servant back to his extended family to find a wife for Isaac. The reason for this restriction is obvious: Abraham’s family worshipped Yahweh, but most other people were idolaters.

But if Abraham’s family is to provide a wife for Isaac, and they don’t live in Canaan, what happens if they don’t want to send a daughter into a distant land to marry Isaac? The servant asks Abraham about this possibility, and the conversation goes as follows:

The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?”

“Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.”

Genesis 24:5-8

Abraham has certainly changed. He is no longer worried about how God will fulfill His promise to give them descendents. If Isaac can’t get a wife from Abraham’s family without leaving the promised land, then Isaac will just have to wait. They will not leave the land. They will simply have to trust God that He will provide for Isaac as He provided for Abraham. There is no doubt here, only faith in God and His promises.

This, of course, is by the grace of God. God worked on Abraham, trying and refining him over the years to hone his faith. He brought Abraham from faith to faith, and the growth brought about great good. So if our own faith is weak, and it tries to fail, we must persevere. We must keep holding on, despite the difficulty, for God will work on us and teach us to trust Him. Abraham’s faith grew, and so may our own.