Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6
In Genesis 1-11, the LORD struggled with all humanity to redeem a sinful and violent world. Beginning in Genesis 12, the LORD tried a new approach.
God selected and focused on one unlikely family among all the families of humankind: the family of Abraham and Sarah.
Abram (the name later changed to Abraham — Genesis 17:5) was 75 years old (Genesis 12:4), and his wife Sarai (later changed to Sarah — 17:15) “was barren; she had no child” (11:30). God chose to focus special attention upon this elderly man and this barren woman. God promised this unpromising couple that they would become a “great nation” (12:2). The LORD would give them the land of Canaan (12:7), and descendants as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth (13:14-17). The LORD would bless them so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3).
Abraham, a Model of Unquestioning Faith?
The New Testament portrays Abraham as a model of faith (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23; Hebrews 11:8-11). But what was Abraham’s faith like? Unquestioning trust? Blind faith? Never complaining? Is that what biblical faith looks like? Well, not exactly, if we take Genesis 15 as our example.
Faith Lesson #1: God Keeps Promising.
One consistent feature throughout all the stories of Abraham and Sarah is that the LORD keeps repeating the word of promise to them over and over again (Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 17:1-8, 15-21; 18:10; 21:12-13; 22:15-18). Thus, God’s promise in Genesis 15:1 is one of a long series of such reassuring promises, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” The central task of preaching the gospel promise Sunday after Sunday has its Old Testament roots here. Keep announcing God’s powerful words of promise over and over again.
Faith Lesson #2: Complaint and Lament are Part of the Life of Faith.
Abram hears the promise but is not satisfied. He laments that God has given him no child, no biological offspring. So how can his reward be great and how can he become a great nation if he does not have even one child to carry on after him? This lament tradition runs wide and deep in the Old Testament in times when God’s promises seem unfulfilled and remote (for example, numerous lament psalms like Psalm 13, 89; Lamentations; Job; Jeremiah 11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18 and many other texts).
The life of faith is a constant back and forth dialogue between God and us. God makes promises. We hope and trust. But we also get disappointed or impatient or desperate or angry when the promises don’t seem to be coming true. Lament offers a way to keep our relationship with God alive in difficult times.
Faith Lesson #3: God Gives Us What We Need to Carry On.
The LORD reassures Abram that he will have his own biological child as his offspring. More than that, God takes Abram out into the night air and invites him “to count the stars if you are able to count them” (15:5). Is there a little divine humor here? Go on, count the billions upon billions of stars, if you think you can! “So shall your descendants be.” God gives Abram the gift of a nightly visual aid, a tangible reminder of the promise. Every night, Abram can step outside his tent, raise his eyes to the galaxies, and be amazed that his descendants will be as numerous as all those uncountable stars.
Faith Lesson #4: There is a Complex Relationship of Faith and Works.
Our text ends with one of the most important Old Testament texts for the New Testament and its discussion of the relationship of faith and works, the relationship of believing and obeying. The NRSV translates the verse as “he [Abram] believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
The original Hebrew is somewhat more ambiguous, reading as follows: “he [Abram] believed the LORD, and he [the LORD or Abram?] reckoned it to him/for himself as righteousness.” The most straightforward way of translating the Hebrew may suggest that Abram believed God’s promises and then Abram [not the LORD] counted what the LORD had done as putting their relationship back into good order, into righteousness. Abram was now satisfied, given how the LORD had reaffirmed the promise.
This verse was translated from its original Hebrew into the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) as “Abram believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.” The Greek translation takes some of the ambiguity of the Hebrew away and opens it up to the way in which the apostle Paul (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6) and the writer of the letter of James (2:23) use this verse to discuss the relationship of faith and works. It was the LORD who reckoned Abram’s faith as righteousness.
Note how Paul and James use the same verse to come to somewhat different conclusions. For Paul, Abram’s trust in God’s promise and thus his righteousness before God in Genesis 15:6 comes sequentially before Abram obeys God’s command to circumcise his household (Genesis 17:9-14, 23). For the apostle Paul, the sequence demonstrates that righteousness through faith in God’s promises (Genesis 15) comes before and apart from works of obedience (Genesis 17).
For James, one should read the whole Abraham story from beginning to end as one piece. James argues that righteousness by faith (Genesis 15:6) is always accompanied by works and obedience (Abraham’s willingness to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice in Genesis 22). Same text in Genesis 15:6, but somewhat different conclusions!
Read the rest of Genesis 15 (verses 7-21) as further background for your sermon. Note that God makes another promise (this time, about the land of Canaan — verse 7). Abram raises yet another objection (verse 8). God offers a dramatic and one-sided covenant ritual binding God to make good on God’s promise, on pain of God being split in two like the animal carcasses through which the divine fire pot and smoke move (Gen 15:17; see Jeremiah 34:18).
Remarkably, God puts God’s own self on the line as assurance that God’s promises will indeed be fulfilled. That assurance will be important when God “tests” Abraham in Genesis 22 and asks him to give up his child Isaac who is the one link to the promises of God and Abraham’s future.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
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)