Second Sunday in Lent

Our lesson from the Old Testament is not the first occasion in Genesis where God speaks to Abram, but it is the first time that Abraham responds so that a back-and-forth exchange takes place.

Why Are You So Angry? (No Te Aha Oe Riri), 1896
Detail from Why Are You So Angry? (No Te Aha Oe Riri). Painting by Paul Gauguin, image by JR P via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

February 21, 2016

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Our lesson from the Old Testament is not the first occasion in Genesis where God speaks to Abram, but it is the first time that Abraham responds so that a back-and-forth exchange takes place.

In every previous occasion, God had promised to give Abram progeny and land. What is the issue that, this time, brings Abram to speech?

In this chapter Abram has two visionary experiences. The first one takes place at night, while the stars are visible (Genesis 15:1-6), and the second one takes place later (perhaps the next day), as the sun sets (15:7-21).

The question at issue in the first vision episode is: who will childless Abram’s inheritor(s) be? The answer is, his own biological descendants, innumerable and several generations down.

The question taken up in the second vision episode is: what will be the inheritance that estateless Abram will hand down? The answer is, this land, so much of it in fact that it will include the domains of many other peoples.

But this chapter poses a different question as well, expressed directly in v. 8, when Abram challenges the divine with the demand for certainty, “How am I to know?” A hermeneutical rendering of Abram’s question to God would be: in what sense am I to understand your promise of inheritance? This is essentially the same question Abram posed in vv. 2-3: how am I to interpret this promise about inheritance?

These questions in every case follow a divine self-revelation to Abram as his shield and reward, as the one who brought him to this land for an inheritance. When Abram asks “what?” (v. 2) and “how?” (v. 8), he uses specific Hebrew terminology that usually appears in prophetic texts such as Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. In virtually every case where the phrase is uttered on human lips, it is part of a plea directed to God, particularly with reference to something that is hard to believe or accept.

Abram’s “what” and “how” questions are necessary because the divine self-revelation in itself was not sufficient; it was in need of clarifying interpretation. Given his present circumstances, he reasonably did not understand how he could pass on an inheritance — even though God had told him directly that he would.

In the second episode (vv. 7-21), Abram receives clarifying certainty in two forms:

  • a prophetic word about Abram’s personal future and the ultimate fate of his descendants;
  • a covenant in which God utters a promise to give this broad expanse of land to those descendants.

We see, then, that Abram is brought to a better understanding of what God means, through an additional divine word that clarifies and interprets the initial revelation. Salvation (tzedeqah, “righteousness,” v.6b) comes by relying on (he’emin, “believed,” v. 6a) God in the light of God’s disclosive revelation (“the word of the Lord came in a vision,” v.1) as clarified and interpreted by the further prophetic word (“the word of the Lord came to him,” v. 4).

If there is any plot movement in our Old Testament lesson, it is a movement from Abram’s need for understanding to God’s provision of understanding.

Through these nuances we see the more fundamental issue that underlies our lesson: the problem of making sense out of divine revelation when it doesn’t make sense in the actual life of the recipient. Possessing no actual heir, Abram is given not a substitute or even a son, but rather a prophetic experience of promise that there will be one. Owning no actual estate to pass on, Abram is given no possession but a covenant commitment that the vast land will ultimately go to his descendants.

Our lesson reflects a characteristically Old Testament prophetic view on the deep existential problem of God’s people in the world (Israel among the nations), a problem that became acute after the demise of the monarchy. For the prophetic mindset, salvation lies in what God has uttered, and until the lived reality arrives, the present generation has only God’s utterance as concretized in covenant.

The present generation, then, relies on that covenant word, and that faith is its tzedeqah, its righteousness, its place where salvation is found. In order that there might be trust in the divinely revealed sufficiency, there is offered prophetic interpretation of the initial revelation, directing to better understanding of what the revelation means for the present generation.

Our lesson bears the markings of a prophetic mindset that wants to take the ancient covenant traditions seriously, and aims to grasp what those traditions might mean for a later generation. According to our Gospel reading, the generation to which Jesus ministered in Judea disputed what the older prophetic revelation might mean for them. Was persecution under the Roman regime a sign of divine displeasure (Luke 13:1-4)? What are the boundaries of faithful Sabbath observance in the face of suffering (13:10-17)?

The various of responses to Jesus’ ministry we find in Luke 13 bring him to illustrate parabolically how the ways in which God’s work in the world is hidden yet unstoppable — not unlike what God reveals to Abram.