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Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

This is an important passage in the story of Genesis. It is the first account of the covenant made between God and Abraham (cf. Genesis 17 for the second account). There are several duplications and difficulties in the story which suggests that maybe Genesis 15 has been developed from more than one earlier story. For example, while it is night in v. 5, evening is only approaching in vv. 12 and 17. Abraham believes in v. 6 but doubts again in v. 8. God introduces himself twice in v. 1 and then in v. 7. Such matters suggest that there is a long history behind the present form of our story.

The story falls into two parts, vv. 1-6 and vv. 7-20. In each part God introduces himself and Abraham responds. Both are concerned with the promise God has made to Abraham and how that will be fulfilled. In v 2-3 Abraham laments his lack of an heir and in v. 8 he requests a sign that he will inherit the promised land. In each case, God replies in a two-fold manner: with a further promise and a sign in vv. 4-5, and with a covenant and an omen in vv. 9-10, 17-21 and vv. 11-16 respectively. The omen section in vv. 11-16, which is another speech by God interrupting the scene, is omitted from our reading this week.

The first section (vv. 1-6) begins with God addressing Abraham telling him not to be afraid. However, what seems to preoccupy Abraham is the fact that Godís promise of a son (implied in Gen 12:1-3) has not come to fruition and he blames God for that (v. 3). What is the point of this delay? Abraham and Sarah seem to have been failed by the God who makes such great promises. This is only heightened by Godís statement that God is Abrahamís shield and reward (v. v. 1). We will only understand later the truth there but for now everything contradicts the promise made.

Abrahamís response to this situation is not pious acquiescence but a frank and honest confrontation with God (v. 3).  Godís response, however, is simply to renew the promise (vv. 4-5). Even the sign God gives, i.e. the innumerable stars of the sky, is enigmatic and gives no real assurance. It is not clear whether the stars offer any assurance other than their number being an indication of the number of the people promised. Moreover, how could Abraham see the stars when the sun does not go down until v. 12? Maybe the writerís point here is to get the reader of the passage to think about the nature of divine promise and to place stress on Abrahamís faith rather than the content of the promise itself. In any case, it is clear that this divine promise comes without proof of its future fulfilment. The faith of Abraham has to deal with a promise in the midst of uncertainty. Ultimately, then, the emphasis is on the one who makes the promise and on the risk, vulnerability, and uncertainty in receiving the divine promise.

Verse 6 is well known. However, its meaning is not as clear as may seem likely. Christian understandings of the verse, especially Protestant ones, are often influenced by Galatians 3 and Romans 4. Gen 15:6 is concerned with approval by God on the basis of faith alone, not by any cultic action. However, the ceremony described in the rest of the chapter contradicts this to a degree. On the other hand, Jewish interpreters have connected this verse to the idea of the Ďmerit of the fathersí. The life of obedience of the fathers is rewarded by God and blessings flow to later generations. One Jewish commentator (E. Speiser) translates the verse ĎHe put his trust in Jahweh, who counted it to his merit.í An intermediate understanding may also be possible whereby the faith of the ancestor can have lasting blessing but at the same time the text can be saying something about the nature of faith. In that case, Abraham can be portrayed as a model believer. Is Abrahamís righteousness in this verse to do with trust in a God who promises but gives no proof or in watertight assurance? Faith is never without uncertainty, but neither does uncertainty negate faith. In the end we are not told that Abrahamís fear, which is mentioned in v. 1, is removed.

The second section of the passage opens again with Abrahamís uncertainty (v. 8). In the remainder of the chapter two further acts of Ďassuranceí are given, neither of which gives Abraham the certainty he seems to crave. Godís first response in vv. 9-11, 17-21 is to establish a covenant with Abraham. The strange action of the fire passing between the halves of the offering (v. 17) may even echo ancient covenant or treaty ritual. Again, however, this is not proof beyond doubt. It places a committed relationship at the heart of faith and divine promise.

Godís second response, contained mostly in the section left out of the lectionary reading for today, is equally curious. In vv. 12-16 God speaks about the peopleís captivity in Egypt and their subsequent release. This might sound reassuring to us who know the story of the captivity in Egypt and exodus which will come in the end of the book of Genesis and the start of Exodus. But that is no help to Abraham. It is still a word about the future. But we should also remember that this story was not written for Abraham but for later generations of Israelites for whom Abraham became a model of faith. The memory of the Ďpastí experience of exodus becomes a word of hope for them. Thus in vv. 7-20, the two elements that are meant to reinforce Godís promise to Abraham are the covenant relationship with God and the word which tells of Godís past deliverance of the people. On one level neither of these is confirmation for Abraham that negates all doubt. On the other hand, both are things which shape the very life of the person of faith, who must in the end hold faith and doubt together.

Psalm 27

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