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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 61, 2013

HEMCHAND GOSSAI, Barrenness and Blessing: Abraham, Sarah, and the Journey of Faith (Cambridge, UK: The Lutterworth Press, 2010). Pp. xiii+122. Paperback. £15.00.

In this slim volume, Hemchand Gossai develops a biblical theology/spirituality based on the ancestral narratives of Genesis. Noting that the journey of Abraham and Sarah begins with barrenness, he considers barrenness as a metaphor for the way in which God proceeds from points of challenge to bring hope. To explore a tension between challenge and hope, the book is divided into six chapters: the first three explore challenge (around themes of barrenness, wilderness and wrestling with God and self); the second three explore hope (around themes of promise, blessing and fulfilment).

The first chapter begins with a focus on Sarah, Rebekah, Hagar and the daughters of Lot then considers Genesis 15–16. Although barrenness appears to be the end of the story, or certain possibilities within a story, it is not the end of God's story. Although rightly noting the links between barrenness, dislocation and landlessness in the migration narratives, Gossai tends to overextend the metaphor of barrenness and claims for its Genesis usage universal applications. Some aspects of the text of Genesis 12, such as the land’s prior habitation, are noted, but there is no comment on their problematic aspects for other than Abraham and Sarah. At times, it feels as though Gossai imports an idea of God into the narrative rather than allowing the character of God to emerge from the ancestral story. While the discussion of Abraham’s passing Sarai off as his sister ignores questions of endogamy versus exogamy, Gossai’s reading of the consequences of Abraham’s action for ‘the other’ is well nuanced.

The second chapter focuses on wilderness and offers a good treatment of the Hagar narratives, showing an understanding of the relations of power involved between Sarah and Hagar. Gossai focuses on the action of God, “that God will function in any and all settings, environments, and circumstances” … “not dependent on the structures and constriction created and concretised by humans” (24). The discussion of the daughters of Lot, also well nuanced, is not dismissive of the daughters’ unorthodox actions in Genesis 19, but offers a sensitive reading of the “lack” (and violence) that characterises their experience of Lot’s fatherhood.

The third chapter works with the idea of wrestling, suggesting that wrestling with God and with self pervades the ancestral narratives, not only Jacob’s encounter at Bethel. God wrestles with God prior to Abraham wrestling with God on behalf of others (Gen 18:16–33). In Gen 19, where Lot wrestles for himself, his lack of discernment leads to disaster. Gossai argues, “the alternative to wrestling with God is more devastating and costly than wrestling with God” (56). Toward the close of the chapter, he considers Genesis 32 and sets this briefly in dialogue with Levinas: “a face-to-face encounter with God brings with it ethical obligations with the human other” (59). In the end wrestling with God “is not to know fully the mysteries of God” (62).

The remaining chapters move from challenge to hope. Under the title of “the hope of promise” Chapter 4 looks at Genesis 20, ‘hope in the midst of mistrust,” Genesis 21, “hope in the right season,” and Genesis 32–33, “hope in reconciliation.” Gossai notes the way Abraham’s words and actions, the promise and his response to the promise, impact on others. Interesting is Gossai’s reading of the characterisation of Abimelech as unsettling expectations. In considering the hope for both brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, there is telling juxtaposition of the threat to each, with Ishmael’s dying of thirst in Genesis 21 juxtaposed with Isaac about to be sacrificed in Genesis 22. The discussion of the hope of promise ends on the cautionary note that it is futile to attempt to “circumvent God” (80).

The fifth chapter considers the “hope of blessing” through “blessing for the journey,” focusing on Genesis 12, “blessing that divides” (Gen 25:19–34), “this and other worldly blessing” (Gen 26), and “longing for blessing” (Gen 27). Blessing, Gossai argues, “compels us to trust God more than we distrust the ‘other’” (87). Subtly, Gossai challenges those who imagine that blessedness can be earned or controlled. He writes: “The biblical story reminds us that, finally, to be blessed is not necessarily to have ‘stuff’” (81).

There has been a recurring focus on two things: the efficacy of the word and the future. The final chapter “the hope of fulfilment,” however, is largely a reflection on “being put to the test,” through a consideration of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Gossai remarks on the shocking nature of the narrative, the voicelessness of the servants and Isaac, the failure of Abraham to speak back to God, and the inscrutability of God. In the interplay of challenge and hope, the hope of promise and blessing is interrupted by further challenge.

Gossai’s Barrenness and Blessing covers well-travelled ground in readings of the ancestral narratives of Genesis, but does so with some awareness of issues of power and voice and with a critical ear to certain problematic assumptions of Christendom. The book has no footnotes or endnotes, but includes a very short bibliography at the end. It is less a book for scholars than for an educated lay readership and perhaps entry level undergraduates.

Review by
Monash University and MCD University of Divinity, Melbourne