February 21, 2016
Second Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Gen 15:5-12, 17-18
Doubt nags at us. Even when God tells us something straight, we have a tendency to backslide into doubt. Nothing in life feels sure; the sands are constantly shifting, so we tend to keep changing our minds, re-negotiating our view of reality. But when it comes to God, our savvy ability to recalibrate breaks down. That is, we expect God to change, and then he doesn’t. We expect his views, his statements, his promises to be tweaked or altered or shifted as is the case for human beings, but when he stays the same and his promises stick, we are surprised, or even worried.
Abraham Questions God
We find our friend Abraham in such a state, trusting in God and yet questioning his reliability, in this Sunday’s first reading from Genesis 15. Abraham has already pulled up stakes and moved from his home to the Promised Land. Yet things are still a bit unsure: Abraham doesn’t have any kids. He needs children in order for the promises of God to be fulfilled and it seems as though children won’t be coming. The chapter actually begins with Abraham complaining that his servant, not his son, will be his heir (Gen 15:3). But the Lord quickly contradicts Abraham’s complaint: “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir” (Gen 15:4). With that promise firmly plunked down on the table, God adds to it. Not only will Abraham become a father, he will be a father of thousands upon thousands of people. God tells him to count the stars. Now we know that’s impossible to do! But scientists have tried and they tell us that there are about one quintillion stars (See my blog post about this)—that’s a lot of descendants.
Abraham Believes God
Rather than persist in his doubt, Abraham makes an act of faith: “he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6 RSV). Against all the doubts in his mind, against the threat of disappointment, Abraham puts his trust in God and believes in his promise that he will have many descendants. He makes a choice to believe. Notably, St. Paul picks up on this passage and shows us that Abraham was justified by his faith, not by his deeds (See Rom 4:3ff, Gal 3:6). Abraham did not earn his state of righteousness (or justification), but received as a gift by his act of faith, of believing in God’s promise. Like Abraham, we too are justified by faith.
A Bloody Covenant
After Abraham’s act of faith, God steps in to re-affirm his promise with a solemn act. Abraham asks God “How am I to know that I shall possess it [the land]?” (Gen 15:8 RSV) In response, God initiates a special covenant-making ritual. When two persons were set to make a covenant in biblical times, they would often take an animal or group of animals and cut them in two. The covenant-makers would then walk together between the two halves of each animal as a symbol of accountability. Essentially, by walking between the animal-halves, one is saying “If I break this covenant, then let this happen to me.” We have evidence for this ritual from elsewhere in the Bible:
The men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts (Jer 34:18 RSV)
Other texts from the ancient Near East mention similar rituals, as in the Aramaic Sefire inscription I: “this calf is cut in two, so may Matî‘el be cut in two and may his nobles be cut in two.” The self-deprecatory oath implied by this dramatic covenant-making ritual is startling in its severity.
What is more startling is that when God shows up as a “smoking fire pot” (Gen 15:17), he passes between the animal halves alone! He does not require Abraham to make the covenant commitment, but instead, God himself offers his own commitment to Abraham unilaterally. God promises to be faithful to Abraham even if Abraham isn’t faithful to him. This is grace! We need a God who overcomes our imperfections with his generous mercy. He is faithful to us no matter what.
The dramatic covenant-making ceremony is bookended by God promising Abraham the land of Canaan. Land might not get most of us excited, but for Abraham it meant a future full of hope. Land was a source of income, prosperity, security, and longevity. If you had land, then your children and grandchildren would have a place to live. While we are not as concerned about physical land, the promises to Abraham get spiritualized in the New Covenant. We are no longer looking for a literal parcel of real estate to settle down, but we are looking for our ultimate homeland, eternal life. The deal God made with Abraham still stands for us today, albeit under a different order: God promises a heavenly homeland to us. If only we believe him, we will receive that great gift.