The stars of a Serengeti night are enough to take your breath away. I had the privilege of going on safari in Tanzania several years ago.1
One of my most vivid memories of that trip is of staring into the sky with my husband in the middle of the night, no electric light obscuring our view. The dark velvet sky was simply blanketed with brilliant stars from horizon to horizon. An astronomer friend of ours told us later that we were staring into the center of our own galaxy, and indeed, over our heads was a wide band of milky white punctuated by countless stars, a part of the sky so dense with stars that there was no visible space between them.
I like to imagine that it is this kind of night sky that Abraham sees in our reading for today. Abraham (who is still called Abram in this chapter) is doubting God’s promise given to him back in chapter 12, the three-fold promise of land (Genesis 12:7), blessing (12:2-3), and many descendants (12:2).
It is this last part of the promise that is especially difficult to believe. It is impossible to be the ancestor of a “great nation” if you don’t have even one child. And Abraham and Sarah have no children. They are advanced in years — Abraham is 75 years old when he is first called by God in chapter 12, and the intervening years haven’t made him any younger. And Sarah is no spring chicken either; plus, she is barren.
So, when the LORD says in this reading, “Do not be afraid, Abram,” one can’t blame the old man for being frustrated. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? … You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (Genesis 15:2-3).
This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable response to what appears to be a broken promise. After all, as Paul later puts it, Abraham at this point is “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19). He has left home, family, and land in response to God’s outrageous call and promise. He has come to a new, unfamiliar land and now, it appears, his lineage will die there with him. God’s promises have not held true.
Now, to understand the depth of the problem, a few things must be said. Infertility is a heavy burden for anyone who experiences it. Longing for a child and not being able to have one is one of life’s greatest sorrows. But in the ancient world, infertility was made worse by the fact that children were one’s insurance policy for being cared for in old age. “Honor your father and your mother” was aimed not at confirmation students but at adult children of elderly parents who depended on them for life itself. Having no children meant a bleak future.
Children in the ancient world were also the means by which one’s name lived on. In a world where the idea of resurrection had not yet developed, the only kind of life after death that was possible was that one’s name lived on in one’s children and their descendants.
For Abraham and Sarah, then, who had left behind everything familiar in order to step into God’s promised future, the continued barrenness of their situation mocked their hope.
That is the situation described in today’s reading. God has promised, but God’s promises look empty in the face of barrenness and hopelessness. “Fear not,” God says, but Abraham responds, “You have given me no son.” You have not kept your promises.
The preacher might do well at this point in the story to ask the congregation members about their own hopes and fears. What promises to them have been broken? Where are their places of barrenness and disappointment? What present reality keeps them from being able to hope?
Because it is not just Abraham, of course. There are people in every congregation for whom the future looks empty. Present reality has a way of overwhelming future hope, and the promises of God too often seem to remain just that, promises. As a friend of mine said, “God is often subtle to a fault.”
But that place of hopelessness is not where the story ends, of course. God speaks God’s promise again, that Abraham will have a son. And then, to illustrate that promise, God brings Abraham outside into the night.
“He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:5-6).
Outside, under the glory of the endless night sky, Abraham is able to believe what seemed impossible in the close confines of his tent. The God who created the heavens and scattered the stars in radiance across the sky is the same God who promises him that he will have a son and, indeed, descendants to rival the number of the stars.
Under the glory of those countless stars, Abraham believes the Lord. He considers God trustworthy. He holds onto the promise despite all evidence to the contrary. And it is that faith that God counts as righteousness (an important concept for Paul later in Romans 4 and Galatians 3).
This text lays the foundation for the continuing story of Abraham’s family, the children of Israel. The narrative continues next week with the story of Joseph and his brothers, Abraham’s great-grandchildren. In them, the promise of countless descendants begins to be fulfilled. But the foundation is laid here, in God’s promise and in Abraham’s trust in that promise. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” sings the psalmist (Psalm 19:1). Abraham, it seems, would agree.
God of the covenant, As you promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars, you have also promised us that we might live under those stars as your people, faithful and loved. Show us how to live as your people, and how to nurture all your children with whom we share the same canopy of sky night after night. Amen.
Creator of the stars of night ELW 245, H82 60, UMH 692, NCH 111 Many and great, O God ELW 837, NCH 3, UMH 148 Open your ears, O faithful people ELW 519, H82 536
Be not afraid, Knut Nystedt (Walton)