Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 13, 2022
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Commentary
Genesis 15 is full of curiosities and oddments. But right in the middle of this chapter is a verse that went on to exercise an enormous influence on the New Testament. “Abram believed Yahweh and it was credited to him as righteousness.” In Romans and Galatians this one verse became a linch-pin in Paul’s argument for salvation by grace alone. Even without that later use of verse 6, there can be no doubting that within the context of Genesis itself, this represents a key turning point in what we could call “the education of Abram.”
What we sometimes forget, however, is that this now-famous verse is nestled within a chapter that includes some material nearly as foreign to us as can be imagined. Before Genesis 15 is finished, God performs a ritual of blood, smoke, and fire, the meaning of which remains obscure (though it has for centuries provided grist for the mills of Ph.D. dissertations and scholarly commentary!). But I would suggest that a true understanding of verse 6 will come only if we take a good look at the whole chapter. We need to see that verse about Abram’s righteousness in its original setting of starry skies, sacrificed animals, and even those nettlesome birds of prey Abram chases off.
These events of chapter 15 follow on a series of other happenings, some of which seem to be a distraction from the main event of God’s fulfilling his remarkable promises to Abram. It’s not completely clear why Genesis includes all of that material in chapters 13 and 14, but perhaps it’s a way to convey the idea that despite Yahweh’s grand and glorious promise in Genesis 12, life for Abram simply went on. Time passed, things happened. There doesn’t appear to be anything particularly divine in and through all of this. There are no miracles, no major leaps forward in the direction of Abram’s securing the promised land. Above all, there is no child for Abram and Sarai. Whether or not they were “trying” to have a baby, one assumes the normal sexual component of their marriage continued but without any pregnancy.
The conclusion of Genesis 12 and then also chapters 13 and 14 provide a buffer of “normal life” between the call of Abram in chapter 12 and God’s further words in chapter 15. The ordinary flow of everyday life can test our faith just as surely as more dramatic events of suffering or loss. Abram sensed this, too. So when God comes back in Genesis 15 with words about being Abram’s shield and great reward, Abram is far more skeptical than he was reported to have been in chapter 12 when the promises were first spoken. In Genesis 12, God said “Go,” and Abram went. God said, “You’ll have a family and a big land for them to live in,” and Abram accepted it.
Now Yahweh comes back with more words designed to stir up faith, but this time Abram’s reply is more terse and dubious. “O Sovereign Yahweh, you cannot give me anything because so far you haven’t given me anything! Since you haven’t given me a child, I have myself recently taken steps to update my last will and testament, naming Eliezer of Damascus my heir.” Once again, as in Egypt, so here: Abram has taken matters into his own hands. The clock is ticking. He won’t live forever. He’s got his estate to think about and so has made the necessary legal arrangements to make sure the whole thing won’t end up in probate court after he’s dead.
Yahweh comes back at Abram with a mild rebuke. “Change the will again, Abram! Add another codicil about your heir because it will not be Eliezar! I’ve already told you that your own body will produce a baby and that’s final.” It is, at best, a difficult thing for Abram to believe. So to further substantiate what he just said, Yahweh directs Abram to look up into a night sky.
“Eventually your descendants will be as numerous as the stars you see up above!” It’s a marvelous and powerful image but does it really add anything to the promise? Did just seeing the stars and hearing the promise stated in an even more exaggerated form change things for Abram? Yahweh still hasn’t done anything (and won’t for another quarter-century). So what is it about seeing the stars that turns things around for Abram? Why does he go from star-gazing to a belief that leads to righteousness?
In one sense, we don’t know because the text doesn’t say. Some commentators think that the meaning has to do with a Psalm 8-like awe over God’s power in the creation. Maybe Abram thought to himself, “Well, any God who can make all those stars is surely powerful enough to make a baby for me and Sarai.” And that may be part of it. But I suspect Walter Brueggemann strikes closer to the truth when he suggests that the change in Abram from verse 2 to verse 6 is just one more example of the miracle of faith. Abram was not persuaded into belief by some proof. He was not a juror in a courtroom who was swayed by a lawyer’s argument based on the evidence. And it wasn’t just that Abram made the logical inference that if God could make a star, then he could make a baby, too.
This isn’t about proof, argument, or logic. No, what we see on display as much as anything in verse 6 is the gracious miracle of a faith God alone can plant into our hearts. Having faith means to trust God for your future, but the future is, by its very nature, unavailable for us to test and see now. The stars didn’t prove anything to Abram–if anything, the exaggerated way the promise is re-stated made it more difficult to believe. It’s one thing to hope for a single baby, but to embrace a great multitude of future descendants was another matter altogether. So just seeing the stars didn’t cinch anything for Abram. It was rather that God’s Spirit worked some kind of miracle in Abram’s heart.
As Brueggemann says, it is similar to that day when the disciple Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Son of the living God. Jesus responded by saying, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven!” So also in Genesis 15:6: the kind of faith Abram came to wasn’t earthly but heavenly in origin such that the righteousness God then grants to Abram likewise wasn’t an achievement that Abram could chalk up to his own credit. Instead, the faith Abram had and the righteousness that resulted from it were like Part A and Part B of a single divine gift. It’s finally not about Abram but about God alone.
Abram here becomes “a new creation. The old has passed away and, behold, the new has come. Not physically, not in terms of anything Abram could see, touch, or sense within his loins or body generally. But in terms of his heart, he had become altogether new sheerly because of the gracious touch of God’s Holy Spirit.
But we’re not finished with Genesis 15 yet. The promise of the child is just half of God’s deal with Abram. The matter of having a land to call home is still unresolved, too, and that’s what is taken up in the second half of this chapter. Strikingly, although Abram had already accepted God’s promise of offspring, nevertheless just one verse later when God reiterates the promise of the land, Abram is skeptical all over again. “How can I know that this part of the promise is true?” Abram asks God.
In reply, Yahweh issues those instructions about cutting up some animals and laying them out on the ground. Abram does so and then waits. And waits. Enough time passes that some crows and vultures sniff the already-decaying goat and ram and cow flesh and so swoop in for a bite. Since the first part of this chapter must have taken place at night (Abram had some stars to look at, after all) and since verse 12 talks about the setting of the sun, we assume a whole day has passed.
It was a long time to sit and watch animal carcasses deliquesce in the heat of the day. Finally Abram falls into what looks like not just sleep but some God-induced trance in what is described as a kind of “thick and dreadful darkness.” While in this state, Abram hears God preview the next few hundred years of history. Then, in the oddest twist of them all, God appears to pass between the animal pieces in the form of a smoking pot and a flaming torch. Apparently, this signified some form of covenant.
But what does it mean? What are we supposed to learn from this bloody, smoky, fiery vision? Possible explanations abound, and a few such theories border on the loopy. Some think Abram’s deep trance symbolizes his own death with the animal pieces on the ground standing for Abram’s descendants whom God will protect. Even the birds of prey are said to symbolize Israel’s future enemies who will be chased away by God’s providential protection! A more major school of thought is that this entire ritual was called “cutting a covenant” in which the party making the covenant vows that if he fails to come through on the promises, he himself will become like the slain animals. Walking between the carcass pieces was a way of saying, “May I become like these dead animals if I let you down!”
But God can’t die! So what would it mean to have God be the one who walks between the pieces of flesh? It would have to mean that this promise cannot fail. Or it would have to mean that God would find a way to die after all, at least if that’s what would be required in the long run to keep the promise. Most immediately in chapter 15 the part of the promise that is in view is the land for Abram’s descendants. But we also need to recall that last part of chapter 12’s cosmic promise to bless all the peoples of the earth through Abram. Somehow it’s all bundled together in the long run, and here God promises to put his own life on the line to make sure this bundle of hope gets fulfilled.
I don’t know how much of a theologian Abram was. Did he have in his mind the same kind of definitions of divinity we often think about? Did he assume, like we do, that God cannot die? Probably he did. And if so, then surely for Abram the punch of this ritual was that the promise was iron-clad. God says he’ll let himself be slain like a heifer before letting this promise go aglimmering. But since God is not a creature who can be killed, Abram could rest assured that it would all come to pass by the almighty power of God.
Of course, we believe that God did find a way to bring death into the divine experience, which is why this is a Lenten reading in the Year C Common Lectionary. We believe God himself became like a lamb who could be slain after all.
“Abram believed Yahweh and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It’s all from God, it’s all about God’s work. Good thing, too, because as future chapters in Genesis reveal, despite the righteousness of Abram in Genesis 15, Abram will still struggle. Genesis 15:4 is the first of three times in these stories when God directly tells Abram and/or Sarai that they will have a son. Two more times in the coming chapters this promise will get repeated, and yet on both occasions Abraham and Sarah find in this promise a cause for laughter, for cynicism, for doubt. Indeed, the very next chapter shows another act of impatience on the part of Abram and Sarai when Abram tries to force God’s hand by conceiving a son with his servant Hagar.
So how can God grant to Abram the holy status of righteousness only to have this same man continue to doubt and fail in future times? That doesn’t look like the deeds or words of a righteous person whose faith is so rock-solid! Again, however, isn’t that pretty much like most of us? We believe in God. We were once baptized into all his promises, we later stood up to profess our faith and so claim those promises. We pray, we work, we believe. But we also fail, we sin, we doubt. If the life of faith and the gaining of a righteous status before God were up to us, we’d all be in swift trouble! If, however, it all depends on a God who is so determined to save us that he’d put his own life on the line, then the universe starts to brighten up. Then hope may flourish again.
“Abram believed Yahweh and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It’s a very famous verse. But by the time you get to the conclusion of this chapter, you’ve seen a few other quite wondrous and mysterious workings of God. They come in the midst of a thick and dreadful darkness and yet through those events, you come to a kind of thick and dreadful clarity.” Abram believed Yahweh and it was credited to him as righteousness.” We can’t read that and then say, “Well, good for him! Way to go, Abram!” No, once you’ve come to the end of the chapter, and once you’ve gone through the thick and dreadful darkness of another day now called Good Friday, then you cannot say “Good for you, Abram,” but can respond to faith and righteousness only with the words, “Good for you, O Most Holy God! Thanks be to You for the gifts of faith, righteousness, and life.”
Note: Our special Year C webpage for Lent and Holy Week Resources is now available. Please check out additional sermon ideas, sample sermons, and more by visiting this resource page.
A few years ago the cover story of National Geographic magazine was about Abraham. The article’s author re-traces the steps of Abraham’s journeys through the Ancient Near East by taking a modern trip along that same path. He notes along the way the varying ways by which the Abraham story has been used and interpreted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. As is always true of National Geographic, the article was accompanied by some impressive photography.
The pictures alone remind us of the historical distance between Father Abraham and us. Too often we treat Abraham and Sarah as though they were just another older couple who live on our block. We forget that their story took place nearly 4,000 years ago in a place and at a time as different from our world and times as can be imagined. Indeed, pictures of even the present-day Middle East reveal a terrain and a culture quite foreign to us. Much of the landscape around ancient Ur and other locations Abraham is said to have visited resembles the hard-bitten, mountainous areas of Afghanistan with which we have become so familiar in recent years. Another photo shows the slaughter of sheep at a temple on Mount Gerazim where a small group of Samaritan Jews continues to follow the Old Testament’s laws governing animal sacrifice. It’s startling to see blood-spattered priests presiding over this ritual next to a large burning pit. It most certainly does not look like anything we typically associate with church, religion, or spirituality!
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