Standing On the Promises – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2C (Genesis 15)

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night
Genesis 15:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. 

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that 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; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.

 

*****************
                A popular hymn of the church, at least in days gone by, invites to sing boldly:

Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my savior; standing, standing. I’m standing on the promises of God.  [R. Kelso Carter, 1891].

Scripture declares that Abraham stood on the promises of God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Whether it is Paul in Romans 4 or the author of Hebrews 11, Abraham is lifted up as an example of a person who stood strong in his faith despite the lack of evidence to support that trust. Abraham simply stands on the promises of God, and in time his faith, his trust, bears fruit.

                The reading from Genesis 15 marks another conversation about covenant. At this point in the story, Abram’s name has yet to be changed. The promise is made, again, that Abram will have many descendants, beyond the ability to count. This is a challenging proposition, as to this point Abram’s only heir is a slave. He has no children of his own, and God makes it clear that the promise will go through Abram’s descendants. God is intending to work through Abram’s biological descendants, who will be as uncountable as the stars in the sky. Despite everything, we’re told that Abram believed God, and this was credited to him as righteousness.

 

Abram will stand on the promises of God, but not without a word of lament. In fact, the chapter begins with God telling Abram not to be afraid, because God has his back. Abram responds, well that’s great, but what have you done for me lately? (my paraphrase). Abram is, after all, still childless and has as his heir a slave (regarding slavery, we should always remember that while widespread in the ancient world and not racially rooted, references to slaves in the Bible were used to defend modern slavery). He’d followed God’s lead from his homeland and still nothing.

 

I appreciated what Rolf Jacobson writes concerning the power of lament that’s present in this passage and in the rest of Scripture.

In the Bible, God does not desire followers who are meek and mild, compliant and quiet—at least not in relationship to God. God wants sufferers who fight back. God invites us to own and be in touch with the deepest hurts and brightest hopes in our souls. For Abram, this hope was to have a child.  And after all, the Lord has promised.  

Abram will stand on this promise, but not before making clear that God understood what is involved in a truly covenant relationship.

 

                Having heard Abram’s lament, God says to Abram: “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” In response to Abram’s question as to how he will know this to be true, God proposes a ritual to seal the deal. The directions are simple. Abram is told by God: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram does as he’s told, cutting each of the sacrifices in half, with the exception of the two birds. He lays them out as instructed and waits for God to act.

 

                The Revised Common Lectionary omits verses 13 to 16, though it retains verse 12, which seems to introduce verses 13 to 16. In verses 12 to 16, Abram falls asleep and has a bad dream. Though he is told he will die peacefully and have many descendants, he’s also told that his descendants will be forced to live in exile and experience slavery for four hundred years, though in the end, they will be blessed with an abundance of gifts. If verses 13-16 are omitted, it would be probably be best to omit verse 12, as there is some discontinuity between verses 12 and 17. On the other hand, there is a message here that is worth remembering—the covenant will be fulfilled, but not without times of trouble.

               If we choose to omit verses 12-16, we can move from the ritual in verse 11 to the culmination of the conversation about covenant in verse 17, we watch as the sun sets and a torch passes between the sacrificed animals, as a sign of divine acceptance of this offering of Abram. With that God makes the covenant with Abram, promising: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” It is worth noting that God requires nothing of Abram at this point. Normally, covenants involve mutual declarations and actions, but nothing is required of Abram. Abram does do anything to obligate himself. It is YHWH who self-obligates. It’s YHWH who makes the promises.

               Of course, this is not the end of the story. The author of Genesis will revisit this issue. As the story continues, Abram and Sarai will try to fulfill this promise through a surrogate. An heir is produced—Ishmael—and then rejected. Finally, Sarai will give birth in old age to a son, Isaac, who will be the accepted heir (at least in the biblical story, the Quran will hold on to Ishmael). While the promise of an expansive realm is made, Israel’s boundaries never reached the extent promised. Nonetheless, the descendants of Abram can claim that they are the fruit of God’s promise to Abram. They are the covenant people, though the promise isn’t repeated here, Abram’s descendants are to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). What this covenant promise means will be a subject of ongoing interpretation, as we see in the way in which the New Testament writers make use of God’s covenant with Abraham. The covenant made in Jesus is clearly rooted in the covenant made with Abraham.

 

              The question for us has to do with the nature of our faith. Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our faith journey. In what ways do we resist the promises of God, and in what ways do we cooperate. As the Psalmist implies, there is the possibility of living in fear, especially when enemies assail us. As with the promise made to Abram, we can take comfort in the presence of the Lord. After all, as the Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1). With that old hymn, which I took note of at the beginning, we can stand with Abram on the promises of God. 

               

Picture Attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Starry Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55396 [retrieved March 11, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

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