Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
The language found in the opening verse of the chapter shapes the reader’s perception of Abram.
The reader is told that “the word of the LORD came to Abram.” Such language typically records the experience of prophets (Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1). Later in Genesis (20:7), Abram is in fact labeled a prophet by God in a dream to Abimelech. Commentators often note this fact, but rarely suggest possible implications. Admittedly, it is impossible to know the “mind of the author,” perhaps leading to the reticence of commentators, but the close connection between Abram and the office of the prophet may prove suggestive.
A primary role of the prophet was to be the voice of God for and to the people of God. The events surrounding the life of Abram become more than simply ancestral tales; they become the voice of God to the people of God. The promises made to Abram and the faithfulness of God displayed throughout the Abrahamic narratives do more than note the origins of a people; they are testimony. Even as prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel embodied the message of God through symbolic acts, the story of Abram embodies a message to subsequent generations about this God who has called his people into existence.
The opening verses of chapter 15 cannot be heard apart from chapters 13 and 14. In chapter 13, Lot and Abram divide the land between them, with Lot taking a land that is described in ways similar to that of the Garden of Eden (verse 10); Abram’s parcel is described only as “the land of the Canaanites.” In chapter 14, Abram rescues Lot and defeats Chedorlaomer, among others, leading the King of Sodom to offer to Abram the riches of his conquest. Yet, Abram announces that he will take nothing. In both cases, Abram has the possibility of securing his future–in the first instance with land and in the second, with riches, yet he acknowledges that his future can be secured only by “the LORD God Most High” (Yahweh El Elyon).
In chapter 15, the declaration made by Abram in chapter 14 is realized. God promises to be his shield and promises a reward, a reward which Abram assumes refers to an heir. Abram retorts that he has in fact identified Eliezer to be his heir, but God responds by indicating this heir will be from Abram’s offspring. There is no doubt; God promises to secure the future for Abram.
The reader is told, almost nonchalantly, Abram “believed the LORD.” The faith of Abram exhibited in the two preceding chapters leaves the reader with little doubt that Abram would in fact believe. The narrator then explains that God “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The notion of “righteousness” is less about an ideal norm, and more about right relationship. Abram believes in the God who has called him and continues to call him. Despite the insecurities that abound, Abram is convinced the future has been secured by this covenant God. Rather than some forensic announcement, God announces that the faith of Abram is indicative of one in right relationship with him, and more importantly, one who has taken seriously the covenant relationship that exists between God and his servant.
Abram is in fact a prophet for us in the Lenten season. Abram’s commitment to his God, despite all appearances to the contrary, challenges us to ask whether we have in fact believed in the LORD with the kind of belief that should be reckoned as righteousness. Our faith must be rooted in the One who dares make our uncertain future secure, but our relationship with this One is contingent upon whether we can believe, even as Abram believed.
Attention is frequently given to the declaration made in verse 6 and such attention is rightly deserved. An overlooked element in this narrative, however, may have significant implications for the Lenten season. The announcement that Abram believed in verse 6 elicits a promise from God. Embedded within this promise is the claim that Abram’s offspring will indeed be numerous, but they will become aliens in a distant land–not the land of the promise–and further, they will be oppressed for four hundred years.
Coupled with these somewhat bleak words is the promise to Abram that “you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (verse 15). The following verse begins “They shall come back here.” The circumstances become quite clear. The promise of land made in 13:14-17 to Abram and his descendants loses its sense of immediacy. The horizon has shifted forward–four hundred years forward–when “they shall come back.” The horizon has shifted forward to a time when Abram is no more.
A cursory reading of chapter 15 might appear to substantiate claims of those who preach prosperity gospel in all its manifold forms. After all, Abram believes, God deems him righteous, and Abram has a multitude of offspring, followed by an abundance of land. Yet what is lost in such a reading is the four hundred year hiatus, and more significantly is the fact that Abram will not be around to enjoy the “prosperity.” And yet despite this, the text is clear: Abram remains faithful, as evidenced most fully in chapter 22 with the near sacrifice of Isaac.
This text reminds us all that being shaped into a faithful life is not about immediate gratification or even for our own benefit, but instead, living a faithful life is about leaning forward into the vision of God for the world even when the horizon extends far beyond our own lives. Such a life is comprised of a deep sense of expectation coupled with a patient belief in the faithfulness of the God we serve.
The Lenten season provides us with time for reflection and introspection; it is a preparatory time, moving us towards Passion Week. But is that all? Do we linger in the Lenten season only in the hopes that somehow Eastertide will be more meaningful this year? Perhaps the Lenten season affords us the chance to reflect upon our own lives and in so doing, it allows us to hear the beckoning of God to live a faithful life–one that is leaning forward into the vision of God for the world, knowing full well that such a vision may extend to a horizon far beyond our own lives.