< August 08, 2010 >

Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6

 

To understand the divine promises to Abraham here in Genesis 15, it is helpful to step back and look at what has been happening in Genesis up to this point.

In Genesis 1-11 the "set" for God's action is the whole world. All of creation (including but not limited to humanity) is declared good in Genesis 1. But as the result of violence, mainly human violence (6:5), but apparently also, the violence of the wider creation (6:11, 13), God generates a flood to wipe away all the wickedness and violence. In effect, then, Genesis 6-8 functions as a kind of divine mulligan, a "do-over."

Of course not all is effaced; Noah, his family, and the representative animals connect the past to the future. But beginning in Genesis 12, the story moves decisively away from the cinemascope perspective of the whole world, and zooms in on one man and his family. Instead of pondering the wickedness and violence of human beings, that, as God realizes, is not going away (Genesis 8:21), and instead of trying to work blessing for the world through humanity in general, God takes a new approach: working through some particular individuals to bless all the families of the earth (12:3).  It is a decision to work universal benefit through particular individuals--a strange idea for many moderns, but one that God repeats in the incarnation of Jesus. 

God makes three sweeping promises to Abram (later Abraham) in Genesis 12: land (12:1), descendants (a great nation, 12:2), and that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed (12:3). In response, Abram builds two altars, one at Shechem, and one near Bethel and Ai (12:8), and invokes the name of the LORD, which all bodes well (though the rabbis observed that Abraham did not sacrifice to God--a glaring omission they thought).

But with so much at stake for God (the blessing of the whole world rides on this one fellow and his family), Abram's next actions must have been dismaying: a famine having driven the family to Egypt, he shoves Sarai, his wife, into the arms of Pharaoh in order to protect his own skin: "Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you..." (Genesis 12:13). Oh gee, thanks, honey. The Bible repeatedly scorns men who abuse their power by shoving the vulnerable, here women, into danger: see Genesis 19, 20, 26, and Judges 19, for follow-up incidents. Abraham is, of course, known in the Christian tradition for his great faithfulness, but he is not off to an auspicious start.

In chapter 13 God elaborates on the promises of land and descendants (13:14-17), asserting that Abraham's children will be like the dust of the earth: so that if one can count the dust of the earth, his offspring also can be counted (13:16). This implies, of course, that they will be innumerable, a great nation, indeed. If God has concerns about Abraham due to the unsavory my-wife-is-my-sister maneuver, then Abraham must have some serious concerns about God, too, since everyone knows that Sarai and Abraham have no children and there is no prospect of any children; she's barren (11:30). Unlike his grandson, Jacob, later in the story, Abraham's response to God's promises is not recorded--no assent or disbelief, or anything else, leading one to wonder how Abraham processed these seemingly ridiculous promises.

Abraham and Lot go their separate ways, though Abraham eventually has to go rescue Lot from the big battles raging throughout chapter 14. At the very end of the chapter, Abram refuses the spoils from the king of Sodom because he does not want the king to say, "I have made Abram rich" (14:23). Abraham does not want to profit, or give the appearance of profiting, from the whole ugly episode.

This is the backdrop for the divine promise in Genesis 15:1: Abraham does not need wealth from the king of Sodom or anyone else because God will reward him (literally, "your wages will be very great"). Then Abram takes this as an occasion to burst out, finally, with the question that must have surely been weighing on him since chapter 12: what about those kids you promised me? "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir" (15:3).

God proceeds to give more information than has been revealed previously: it will not be through the slave Eliezer of Damascus that God will make a great nation of Abraham (15:4); it will be through a biological child of Abraham's. While not quite full disclosure, Abraham is getting significant additional information here, along with the reiteration, as before, that his offspring will be innumerable (15:5).  At last we are finally told, after three chapters, how Abraham responds to the divine promise of descendants: "And he believed (or trusted) the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness (15:6)."

We have until this point in the narrative not been privy to the thoughts of either Abraham or God on how this fledgling relationship is going. God has made grand promises, but we have not known until now what Abraham thinks of those promises or of the promise-giver. Likewise, God has had some reason to wonder whether choosing Abraham was a good idea, whether he is really able to be the bearer of the promise to the nations. So this is a significant moment in the narrative when we are told that God and Abraham are developing a level of trust, and that each is encouraged by the promises or actions of the other.

But as we will see, the road of mutual trust is neither straight nor smooth for these two--there will be other obstacles and tests before both are satisfied in the character and trustworthiness of the other. Abraham's reputation in the tradition is one of unparalleled virtue, but the story itself suggests more ambiguity; it gives a mixed picture of Abraham's moral character. This is in keeping with all other significant Old Testament characters--the "heroes" of the faith were all flawed and broken in one way or another, just like the rest of us.