On a recent Sunday in our reading from Hebrew scripture we heard the story of God covenanting with Abram and granting Abram land as an inheritance for him and his descendants.
The problem is, there aren’t any descendants.
This entire episode takes place during a dream or vision. God promises Abram a great reward, and Abram kind of grumps like Han Solo in Star Wars: “What good’s a reward if you ain’t around to spend it?” Instead, Abram’s spin is “What good’s a reward if it will go to people outside my family?”
We can forgive him for being grumpy. Every other time that God has told Abram to do something, Abram has done it without a single question. Get up and pack everything and go to Canaan, a land you’ve never seen? Sure, God. Ten years before, in Genesis 12, God had promised that Abram would be made a great nation, and a lot has happened since then: famine and a trip to Egypt; his nephew Lot captured, forcing Abram to go to war (Genesis 13). Abram is rich, yes, but he has no direct descendants, and a slave from Damascus is his heir. Abram is a very old man; he moved to Canaan at age 75, and had been living there 10 years when this promise was made to him. He had been married for a very long time, and his wife was considered to be barren— and yet, when God tells him that his blood descendants will outnumber the stars, for the first time, instead of just doing whatever he is told, he asks for clarification.
Here’s what was omitted—a dream in which God tells Abram that his descendants will be slaves, will eventually triumph:
‘Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”’
I think this omission is actually important and changes the story considerably—it adds a darker note, and shows that there will be suffering even in the midst of all the good things. That’s real life.
As it is, in the version we have, Abram receives the promise, he sacrifices as God commanded him to do to seal the covenant, and he falls asleep into “a deep and terrifying darkness,” then suddenly there is a smoking fire pot and torch going in between the pieces of the offerings. Supposedly, it is God passing between the pieces, thus binding Godself, and assenting to follow through with giving the land between the Nile and Euphrates to Abram’s descendants and giving Abram children.
And you know, Abram really wasn’t a notable person—he wasn’t from an influential family, or anything like that. However, he did have one great thing going for him, and it is indicated here in this reading: he had faith, which was accounted to him as righteousness.
That faith certainly may have looked foolish in the eyes of the world. Who was this man who uprooted his family and traveled hundreds of miles from Ur, hear the Persian Gulf, to go live in a place he’s never seen near the Mediterranean? He probably appeared as a madman—and one wonders what Sarai made of this. Because we never hear of her protesting—which indicates that she, too had great faith, and that’s a fact that gets overlooked, or perhaps overshadowed by her laughter at the news she would bear a child in old age. Nonetheless, even though both of them at times express skepticism, both Abram and Sarai go through great changes out of their faith in God’s promises.
As St. Paul will later use this story to remind us, it is faith rather than heritage alone that admits us into membership as disciples in the family of God. The path before us is probably not clear, and requires us to live in ways that run counter to the values of the world. Just as with Abram, living and acting out of our faith—embodying it in word and deed—may certainly make us seem foolish in the eyes of the world. Yet, still, we too are called by God, who pursues us with an everlasting love and calls us into relationship again and again.
In this season, may use this opportunity of simplifying and attentiveness to focus on fasting and deprivation, but on deepening our faith and trust in God. May we remember promises made and kept, and give thanks to God, answering faithfulness with faithfulness and renewal.