Against the Data
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
In Genesis 1 and 2 there are two “creation” accounts. The first is the majestic poem whose meter and verse we have known since childhood: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1-2). Later in the text, later in creation week, comes the second account: how God kneels down in the garden God had planted, scoops up the damp earth, and forms the first human. God’s fingerprints have covered us from the start; forever since we stained God’s palms. God breathed divine breath into the little mud man and there was life as bright as the light, but Adam was a lonely soul until God made Eve. Once together, they populated the world.
What we have before us in our text for today is nothing other than a third creation account—this time, the forming of the holy people Israel. The story begins in Genesis 12, when God first appeared to Abram with the promise of land and offspring and the benediction that Abram’s soonto- be extended family would be a blessing for the entire world. Time and familiarity, for us, knock the sharp edges off the incredibility of what God said, but for a truth, each of God’s promises was as incredible as the other. God would give the nomad Abram land? God would give the aging and childless Abram and Sarai children? God would make them a blessing to others when, in many ways, they were without blessing themselves?
But Abram did what God told him, went toward the land, and the promise waited.
We do not know how much time has elapsed since Genesis 12, but when God appears in Genesis 15, God’s first words are “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield” (v. 1). That this word, of all possible words, is what God chooses to speak is indication that in fact Abram is already afraid, that he needs a shield.
Later in the text, the writer of Genesis will offer valediction to our exalted ancestor: “[Abram] believed the LORD” (15:6), which is to say Abram trusted God’s outrageous promises (the promises in chapter 12 and the renewed promises here in chapter 15), “and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (v. 6). It is a crucial moment for Abram, Israel, the world—and indeed, as evidenced by Paul’s citation in Romans, for the church’s confession of faith as well.
But even righteousness has questions and doubts. “So shall your descendants be” (15:5), God said to Abram as he gazed up at the stars. “[I] give you this land to possess” (v. 7).
Abram replied, “[But] how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (v. 8), suggesting that in Genesis 15, even as God does that famous “faithful” accounting regarding Abram, the patriarch is doing some accounting of his own and fears the red ink he sees. The years are adding up, after all— he and Sarai are withering away. Yes, they are in the new land, but whatever God means by “possessing” it, they surely do not.
God has given them little else, and least of all children, offspring, sons as the foundation of this great nation. There was nary a glint in Sarai’s dimming eyes, and a slave born in Abram’s household, Eliezer of Damascus, was father Abram’s beneficiary. However long it has been since Abram’s original vision, time enough has passed for Abram to have his doubts. What or who can shield him, his wife, even the promises themselves, from the ravages and impotencies of old age? Abram has faith, but he also has questions. An army of data encamped against the near outposts of God’s pledge.
We now have privilege to witness one of the most mysterious and ancient of rituals: the ratification of covenant: God’s signing with the divine presence the promissory note of land and children and blessing. It is such a strange scene—God commands Abram to slaughter and arrange dismembered pieces of heifers and goats, rams and uncloven birds into a kind of pathway, a line in the wilderness sand where God will sign. Birds of prey, surely the most unpleasant of creatures, descend like agents of doom onto the carcasses to disrupt the moment, devour the promises. But if all that is mysterious to us—what do the animals signify, other than prefiguring temple sacrifices? Does this ritual have antecedent or is it unique? For Abram it was a terrifying experience.
When the sun had gone down, Abram fell into a deep sleep and had night terrors as the Lord, in the form of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch, passed between the pieces. This time God does not tell Abram to “fear not,” as if to suggest that there are times when fear is an appropriate attitude as we encounter God. This is God, after all—who binds the divine presence to Abram, and the rest of us, by grace and not by right, by choice and not by compunction. “To your descendants I give this land,” God says yet again (15:18), but there is still that matter of children.
Soon will come the unhappiness with Hagar and her son Ishmael (an unfortunate episode born of haste and self-determination whose consequence we are still sorting out all these generations later). But for now, Abram and Sarai trust what God has told them—this is their best moment as they believe against the available data—and surely God never loved them more; nor they God.
For God too believes against the data, trusts that this old groom and his shriveled bride can do what he has called them to do: possess the land, have the children, bless the world. It is the kind of divine trust we account to God as righteousness, even as God seems to continue to call us to go, to do, to be what God alone can make us.