Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
15:1 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."
15:2 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?" 15:3 And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir."
15:4 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." 15:5 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."
15:6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
15:7 Then he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess."
15:8 But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"
15:9 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."
15:10 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. 15:11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 15:12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 15:17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.
15:18 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...."
Right off, let me address a couple of issues which often arise when reading the Bible, especially the Genesis stories. Beginning with Abram (later renamed Abraham) and whether or not he is, in fact, historical. He is pre-history, that’s for sure. As to his historicity, frankly it doesn’t matter to me, because if he wasn’t we would have to invent him, if only to explain the persistence and insistence of Judaism and its offshoots, Christianity and Islam.
Secondly, Abraham’s conversational relationship with the deity: that strikes the modern mind as impossible and probably dangerous. I am not hesitant to dismiss those in our generation who claim to speak for God with the certainty of a patriarch. In our post-Cartesian age, the left hemisphere of the brain, the side associated with logic, math, and linear thinking, has gained dominance, to the diminution of the right hemisphere, the side associated with inspiration, intuition, and imagination. Hey, I am about as mono-dexterous as they come; right-handed all the way. I do math. I love crosswords puzzles. I do computer. But I am rational enough to know that there are a lot of things in this world that are irrational or super-rational. Just because I have never personally entertained an “opening of the skies” or an emotional visitation of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t mean such things aren’t. They may very well be a part of other peoples’ experience. Abraham, for sure, with a brain still undifferentiated by Rene Descartes and the modern obsession with all things technological.
Sure, God spoke to Abraham. And vice versa.
It’s the content of the conversation, God to Abraham and Abraham to God, that catches me. Especially the verse about counting the stars in the heavens. That’s what the deity promises this Iraqi ancestor, that if he would get up and go, God only knows where!, his descendants would be that numerous, as all of the stars in the night sky. Which surely seemed to Abraham a number so vast as to be unthinkable… and old Abraham lived long before the Palomar telescope and our knowledge of that number as all but infinite.
Abraham, like so many others who by God get a job to do (think Moses, Jonah, Isaiah, even Jesus) initially hesitates as a big problem comes to mind: he has no children and his wife is barren. How on earth can he be the “father of many nations”? He needs to be reminded of what John the Baptist learned, “that God can from these stones raise up children to Abraham.” Just because we can’t put our minds around it, just because something seems impossible to us, doesn’t mean it cannot be. As a young girl can tell us, from her experience as the mother of the Messiah: “with God all things are possible.”
A case can be made (and I think I am making it) that, on a strictly numerical basis, we are witnessing the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, better than he ever imagined. The Nile and the Euphrates were the extent of his vision of descendants. But in our moment people of faith around the world, far beyond the Nile to the west and the Euphrates to the east claim to belong to his lineage. About three and a half billion souls (Jews, Christians, and Muslims).
Which doesn’t necessarily make it a better world. Abraham’s children, just like Adam’s, kill each other. Abraham’s grandsons, you might remember, tried to get rid of their youngest, smart-alecky brother, Joseph by name; they didn’t let filial affection stand in the way of their jealousy and anger. Being children of Abraham doesn’t automatically make this world a happier place in which to spend our time. Witness what violence those children, in Abraham’s name mind you, do to one another far beyond the Nile and Euphrates, including, along the way, the Hudson.
Abraham represents faith and hope. Don’t take my word for it. Read Paul in Romans 4, how as a model of faith he hoped against hope (regarding all the aforementioned objections to his being the father of many nations). Faith and hope, that’s what the first of the great patriarchs stands for. But there’s something missing from this list of excellences, something every confirmand ought to be able to spot. You guessed it: faith, hope, and… right, love. The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, with old Abraham right in the center, needs a healthy (I should say healing) dose of love. Not just any kind of love: no greater love… than that a man lay down his life for his friends.
In these forty days before Easter, there looms near the end of the journey two crossed beams of wood on which that no greater love is lived and died. The ways are several by which that cross affects the children of Abraham and everyone else. I save their enumeration for another day. Enough now to claim that one child of Abraham, clearly within the old patriarch’s lineage, deeply honoring his faithfulness and hope, fills the family’s desperate need, to find a way and a will beyond the endless cycle of vengeance which continues to hold our world in thrall. We call it the cross, on which the hate of Cain is overmatched with the resolute love of Jesus, who as the victim, taking in the deadly poison of brotherly hate, becomes the victor.
Our victor. Let Abraham say “Amen.”