Is God really travelling this journey with you, and will God be there at the end? You might begin to wonder whether God’s promises can be relied on and whether this journey really has a point.
At the beginning of the chapter Abraham has a problem that is causing him to doubt God’s promises. How could God give him many descendants, and give the land to them, if he doesn’t have even one?
The kind of flagging energy, or niggling doubts, to which we can be prone in week two of Lent can, of course, arise at many other times also. In particular, they can occur at times when it seems to us that God hasn’t taken care of the prerequisites (page 20). Abraham, who had been promised a future by God but who lacked the resources to live it, and whose confidence, in himself and in God, had taken a hit.
Christians tend to think of Abraham as something of a champion of faith –a man who is exemplified by his extraordinary faith in God (21).
‘And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ (Genesis 15.6)
For Paul, according to this interpretation, Genesis 15.6 expresses something of the very essence of Abraham, and also of the very essence of the idea of ‘justification by faith’. According to this tradition, the true descendants of Abraham, and the truly righteous, are those who believe what they have been taught, and not those who are focused on keeping the law or on attaining righteousness for themselves through their own deeds.
There has been recent scholarship often referred to as ‘new perspectives’ on Paul’s epistles (22). Is this highly influential tradition of Abraham as a champion of faith is really supported in this chapter?
If you are a person to whom belief comes easily, then this Pauline model of the believing Abraham may be a great encouragement and a confirmation of your sure faith. If you are not one of those blessed people, you might find the traditional Pauline Abraham more difficult.
How helpful do you find it to be told simply to have faith and to believe? Can you ‘be like Abraham’ if you have in the past experienced deception or betrayal at the hands of people you believed or trusted?
Genesis 15 is really more about God than it is about Abraham, and more about God’s faithfulness than it is about Abraham’s faith (22).
Having an heir was vital in the Canaan of Abraham’s time. It was through descendants that a man made his mark on the world, and God’s promise, in Genesis 12, to make Abraham a ‘great nation’ reflects this reality.But what is the point of God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s offspring if Abraham doesn’t have any?
Abraham’s story was probably edited in the years after Judah’s return from exile in Babylon in order to reflect something of Judah’s own situation and concerns. Post-exilic Judeans were able to see in Abraham’s adventures and dilemmas their own experience, and the biblical editors wrote with this in mind (24). The reality they encountered on their return, however, was not as they had imagined it.
Judah turned out to be not the well-to-do home they remembered but a small, struggling backwater when seen in the light of the Babylon experience. Such disappointments and dashed expectations inevitably lead to bouts of soul-searching (25).
Judah’s prophets, however, had preached that these military defeats were actually signs of God’s strength and fundamental commitment. This theological reading of their situation had served the Judeans well in exile. Now they had returned to their ordinary lives, however, the cracks were beginning to show. If God had failed to keep that promise, who was to say that any of God’s promises would prove to be reliable?(26)
Abraham responds to God’s promise of a multitude of descendants, not with thanks, but by voicing his worries about his lack of a son.
God responds in return by telling Abraham that he will have a son to be his heir.
This is the point at which the text gives us the celebrated statement of Abraham’s belief, and the reckoning of it to him as righteousness. But the story is not over here.
God repeats the land promise, telling Abraham that he is the one who brought Abraham out from Ur of the Chaldeans, and that he did so in order to give him ‘this land’ to possess.
‘O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ asks Abraham – not the kind of show of faith that St Paul suggests is reflected in verse 6.
God responds with another practical demonstration, this time a very odd one indeed.
For twenty-first-century readers this story is very strange. What are we to make of this antiquated and frankly unsavoury ritual? And what are we to make of the complaining, uncertain Abraham?
There is a great deal going on under the surface of Genesis 15 that is mostly unintelligible to us but that would have conveyed important information and messages to its first audiences. Familiarity with the necessary background context can be vital for making sense of text.
The action of passing through the parts of the calf is part of a curse that befalls the covenant partners who break the covenant. The smoking fire-pot and flaming torch that pass between the pieces in Genesis 15.17 are symbols of God.
It is God who is depicted as passing through the parts of the animals, and God who takes upon himself the curse of non-fulfilment of the covenant (29).
This is a unilateral covenant. Here the promises and responsibilities are all on God’s side.
It is Abraham who drives away the wild birds with his breath (‘ruach’) - the roles are completely reversed – God takes on the role of vulnerable covenant partner while Abraham assumes the role of protector.
God takes every step possible to reassure Abraham that God is trustworthy and that the promises are reliable.
Judah’s disillusionment in light of the failure of the Davidic monarchy, and God’s broken promise that there would always be a descendant of David on David’s throne is not forgotten. Something not obvious to a twenty-first-century reader of Genesis 15 is that the chapter is full of royal language that alludes to David and the Davidic promise (30).
‘Walking’ before God is what is required of kings. God promises David that when he dies God will raise up offspring after him, who will come forth from David’s body (i.e. your very own issue) and to whom the kingdom will be given. By alluding to the failure of God’s promise to David, the narrator implies that God’s promise to Abraham will not fail. By using royal language and incorporating phrases and images from earlier biblical texts, Genesis 15 acknowledges the failure of the Davidic promise at the same time as it revitalizes and renews the promise by addressing it to Abraham (31).
Genesis 15 is not so much about Abraham’s extraordinary belief or trust as it is about the measures taken by God to assure Abraham that belief or trust is the right response. The focus of the chapter is not Abraham’s faith but God’s faithfulness. Ironically, it is Abraham’s uncertainty, or even doubt, that makes this possible. His doubts and questions allow God the opportunity to show the lengths to which he will go to assure his chosen servant that he, God, is trustworthy and that his promises are reliable (32).
And for us?
The driving force of the story is not Abraham’s belief but, rather surprisingly, his fears and vulnerabilities. Our fears and vulnerabilities are also driving forces in our lives. If we are able to understand that Abraham is like us in this regard, and that God remained faithful to him not because of his great faith, but despite his rather ordinary limitations, then Genesis becomes for us a wonderful story of God’s faithfulness and reliability. What is extraordinary here is not Abraham’s great faith, but the lengths God goes to in order to make his love known to his chosen one (33).
This story reminds us that our relationship with God is not wholly dependent on us. God is faithful to all his people, no matter if they lose sight of that for a while. The crucial elements of the story are God’s promises to Abraham and his response of love to Abraham’s fears and vulnerabilities.
Like Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans, God chooses us simply because we are his creatures, and not because of our attributes. This is something we all need to remember, because there are times when God just seems to be absent. Sometimes, however, quite unexpectedly, God shows up.
1. What Lenten discipline have you set yourself? How is it going? Have you been experiencing ‘week two’ syndrome? If so, has it led you to lose faith in God?
2. Can you remember a time when you thought that God had forgotten you, and when neither your own efforts nor prayer seemed to help? What happened?
3. Which Abraham is more a helpful journey companion for you –the Abraham who is a champion of faith, or the one who is a mixed bag of strength, doubt and vulnerability?
4. Have you set up any rules for your group –such as rules about confidentiality (not speaking of the details of group conversations with outsiders, for example)? What would the group do if a group member broke these rules? Would that member be asked to leave the group or experience some other punishment? If not, how is the integrity of the group to be maintained, and its rules upheld?
5. How does Question 1 relate to Genesis 15 and the covenant agreement between God and Abraham?