Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
This week’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 15 is a passage pregnant with promise (ironic pun intended) and almost literally dying to be preached.
In order to get into the lesson, the text must first be set in its context.
The Context: The Lord’s Promise of Many Descendants
At the end of Genesis 11, Abram and Sarai are introduced. It is notable that in a creation teeming with life and in which God had commanded the people to “be fruitful and multiply” that Sarai is the first person to be “childless” (11:30).
Now, according to the narrative of Genesis, the Lord had a problem. Having scattered people into many nations with many languages, so that people would not understand each other, the Lord decided to choose one people to become a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) — a nation through which the Lord might bless all the other nations.
So — in typical divine fashion — the Lord chose the most unlikely couple — an aging, childless couple — to become the ancestors of this priestly, blessing nation:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
And so, Abram and Sarai went. They journeyed to the land. They waited for a child — a child who would become the first of their many descendants, who would in turn become a great nation, blessed to be a blessing.
Time passed. They went to Egypt. They came back. No child.
They became prosperous, even wealthy. No child.
Their nephew Lot separated from them. Lot was captured. Lot was rescued.
And still, no child. And then, finally, the Lord broke the silence.
“Do Not be Afraid:” More Good News from the Lord
The first words of Genesis 15 are, “After these things” — and after a great deal of time — “the Lord spoke to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid.’”
The words “do not be afraid” (al-tira’ in Hebrew) comprise a stock phrase meaning, “You are about to hear good news.” Throughout the prophetic books and into the New Testament, when a message from God starts with “do not be afraid” it means that good news is about to be heard. (Correspondingly, when a message from God starts with “woe,” well, it is not going to be good news).
And what was the good news the Lord spoke? “I am your shield, your reward will be very great.” The choice to translate the Hebrew term sakar as “reward” is not ideal. The best way to translate the phrase would be, “What you will receive will be very great.”
To put it all together: “Good news, Abram! You are going to get something totally awesome!”
A second promise from the Lord! How cool is that? Well, Abram didn’t think so!
Abraham’s Response: Lament!
Abram’s response to the Lord’s second promise? Lament!
Rather than praising God for this new promise, Abram cried out in pain regarding the deepest hurt and unfulfilled hope in his life: He and Sarai were still childless. To put Abram’s lament in the form of a psalm:
O Lord God, what shall you give me?
For I am still childless!
And the heir of my house,
He is Eliezer of Damascus.
You have given me no seed,
Thus a “son of my house” will inherit from me!
Abram’s lament is personal, full of poignant symbolic language. Abram basically says, “What do I want from you? I have no child.” He’s already prosperous and wealthy, as we know from Genesis 13-14. Abram doesn’t need any more stuff. The term “son of my house” means a slave — one who comes not from the seed of one’s body, but is part of the stone of the house.
What Abram desires so deeply is an heir — a “seed.” A “seed” (Hebrew zera’) means “offspring.” But it means more. It is sperm. It is progeny. It is the continuation of creation!
Abram is looking inside himself, into the deepest hurts and hope of his body — where his “seed” comes from.
And in his pain, he accuses God and reminds God of the divine promises in Genesis 12:
“YOU HAVE GIVEN ME NO SEED!”
Lament: Making Our Problems into God’s Problems
Before continuing with the story, a word about the power of lament. In the Bible, God does not desire followers who are meek and mild, compliant and quiet — at least not in relationship to God. God wants sufferers who fight back. God invites us to own and be in touch with the deepest hurts and brightest hopes in our souls. For Abram, this hope was to have a child. And after all, the Lord has promised.
When we lament or “complain” to God — the word complain is better — we do many things. I will mention just three of those things here.
First, we make our problems into God’s problems. To tell God about our deepest hurts and unmet hopes is to implicate God in those hurts and hopes. It is — rhetorically — to align God’s desires with ours and to make our problems God’s problems.
Second, when we complain we cry out to God in the belief that God can and perhaps even will respond to our cries, our wants, our needs, our desires. God has the power and ability to respond. To complain to God is to have faith that God is faithful both to the creation and to the divine promises — in spite of present circumstances in which it certainly appears and feels from our perspective that God is not being effectively and faithfully present.
Third, in the context of matters about which the Lord has made a promise, to complain is to remind the Lord of those as yet unmet promises. In his lament, Abram was implying — and more — that God had not kept his promises. That God had not yet proven faithful.
The Lord’s Response to Lament: Expanded Promise
So how does God respond to rhetorical attacks that suggest the Lord hasn’t been faithful, to an angry servant who reminds God of certain unkept promises — such as many descendants? How does God respond to complaints that border on the aggressive?
God responds by renewing the promise of many descendants. In fact, God responds by expanding the promise! Again, translating the Lord’s response in the poetic form of a divine promise of good news:
This one shall not inherit from you,
Indeed that which comes from within you
He shall inherit from you!
Gaze up at the heavens
And count the stars if you are able.
So shall your seed be!”
As many descendants as there are stars! As there are galaxies! Abram had looked inside himself — to his “seed” — and gotten in touch with his deepest, buried hurts and hopes. The Creator responded by telling Abram to look up! To gaze outside of himself to the heavens, that the Lord had created. And then God renewed the promise and expanded on it.
God doesn’t mind being implicated in our problems. In fact, God welcomes it. Our problems are God’s problems. Prayer is in part a way of speaking to God that implicates God in our promises. And in prayer, we remind God that God has promised to be faithful to the divine promises. And this story tells us that God doesn’t mind being held accountable to the divine promises.
Keeping promises is kinda God’s jam.
Abram’s Response: Trust
“And Abram trusted.”
Abram believed and trusted the promise. Enough said.
The Lord’s Response to Abram’s Trust: Cutting a Covenant
The Lord evaluated Abram — both his act of complaining in prayer and the reality that Abram trusted the divine promises — and God said, “Righteous!” (Sort of like Crush in “Finding Nemo).
And then the Lord made a promise to Abram that is breathtaking in its commitment. A commitment that is so absolute that the Lord ritually commits to die rather than forsake the promise. The Lord repeats the promise of the land, then says,
“Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two …
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made [literally “cut” in Hebrew, carat] a covenant with Abram. (15:9-11, 1-18)
The ritual was literally the “cutting of a covenant.” To make a covenant in the ancient world, animals were cut in half, and then the one(s) making the covenantal commitment walked down the middle between the animals. Note that in the ritual, it was the Lord — in the form of a smoking pot and a flaming torch — who passed down the middle and thus was the one making the promise. It was the Lord who “cut a covenant” with Abram.
In order to understand the meaning of the ritual, a story of a covenant between groups of humans is instructive. In Jeremiah 34, slave-owning Judeans set their slaves free by cutting a covenant of freedom — they set their slaves free when the city of Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian armies. As part of the covenant, the slave-owning authorities cut a calf in half and passed between the halves.
But when the Babylonian army suddenly departed (temporarily as it turned out), the slave owners re-enslaved the free people. Against the freed people’s will, the slave owners proved faithless to the covenant they had cut.
The Lord was not pleased. The Lord said,
Those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts: the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf. (Jeremiah 34:18-19)
This scene shows that the symbolism of the covenant ritual is that the ones making the promise passes between dead animals as a ritual promise that should they be unfaithful to the terms of the covenant, they are to be cut in half just as the sacrificed animal.
In other words, when the Lord passed between the cleaved goat, sheep, ram and between the dead birds, the Lord was saying to Abram, “I promise to give you both descendants and the land. I pledge my very life — the life of God — as surety of this promise. If I fail to keep this promise, let me be slain just as the goat, the sheep and the ram were slain.”
The Gospel: A Promise That Requires the Death of God
My retired teacher and colleague Professor Patrick Keifert used to say, “The gospel, strictly construed, is a free promise that requires the death of God.” That is, the gospel in its most narrow and precise sense is an unconditional promise that requires the death of God.
In the Old Testament, we see such a promise in the Lord’s commitment to Abram in Genesis 15.
This promise — Christians believe — ultimately led to the very death of the Son of God, Jesus. In order to be faithful to creation, to Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, and to the promises to David, the Creator ultimately took on human flesh, walked down the lonely path, and died. He did so that we might have life.