Genesis 15:1-18:God’s Covenant with Abram After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’* And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord * reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him,‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 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 judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards 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.’ When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates *************************************************
A quick catch up: Abram has heard the call of God, has left his homeland, God showed him the land his descendants would inherit, and Abe built an altar. They traveled a bit further, God showed up again... he built another altar. But there was a famine in the land, so Abe brought the family down to Egypt to stay there for a while! Maybe it was the heat- maybe it was all that family bonding time in the Escalade- maybe he really was that hungry- but our friend Abe sends his wife Sarai (who is a knock out, by the way) to Pharaoh's place. Now, Abe knows that if Pharaoh finds out she is Abe's wife, and wants Sarai for himself, all he has to do is have Abe killed and Sar becomes his. So Abe has Sarai lie and say she is Abe's sister- this way Pharaoh has to "deal" with him in order to keep Sarai. Sarai ends up as a part of Pharaoh’s harem- Abe, in exchange, gets a whole bunch of livestock and money and stuff. Now, if you're questioning- 'who does that to their wife???' and wondering about Abram's moral fiber, you are not alone. Even God isn't happy about it. And God sends a plague on Pharaoh’s house! Pharaoh figures out that he has taken another man’s wife to be one of his wives and throws Sarai out of the palace and back to Abram. And, big surprise-they move again.
By this time, Lot, (remember nephew Lot?) has become quite the herdsman (He’s got lots of flocks and livestock and stuff… of his own) and it’s getting a little bit crowded for everybody under one roof. So Abe takes Lot to the top of a hill and says: “Look- pick half of this land to call your own- I’ll take the other side to live on, and this way we can both have lots of room.” And Lot looks to the left, and then to the right. On the one side he sees lots of lush green grass, fertile black soil, and the City of Lights on the horizon, and on the other side he sees sand, cactus and Arizona desert… so he thinks for 3 seconds and says “I’ll take Vegas!” And they part ways right there on the hill. Now, the city that Lot actually saw on the horizon was Sodom- and Lot, as it turned out, takes quite a fancy to city life. He gets into some trouble sometime later gets taken captive by a bunch of hoodlums-(ok, so it was a war) and Abe, good old Abe, who up until now had been a pacifist, gets a few hundred trained men and goes and rescues Lot, and sets him back on the straight and narrow, at least for the time being.
Now, all these things have Abe, (who, as an aside was now considered a political force to be reckoned with,) in kind of a stressed and harrowed state of mind. This "following the call" thing was not turning out as planned- Between the jaunt in Egypt, the constant travel, the war, not to mention that God hadn't come through with God's end of the bargain.. Abe still had no children of his own and if Lot was it?... then… DANG!… and this is where we pick up today’s passage.
Abe is sitting back in Starbucks, in that little corner by the window he likes so much, mindlessly stirring his mocha latte and watching the cinnamon sink deeper and deeper into the foam. And he hears the whisper of God’s voice- you or I might call it a vision- a daydream- a thought... “Don’t be afraid Abram. I’m watching out for you- and your reward will be fantastic” And by now, Abe has lost patience... “Sure, God... what reward? Did you see me back there God? I almost died- I almost died! Lot, has turned out to be a nightmare! It’s been ten years and Sar and I have only gotten older since you gave me this promise of an heir of my own. The only one who stands to inherit anything from me is my butler, Eli! Is that how it plays out? The butler gets it???" And God (patiently) says “No- not Eli- you are going to have a child of your own…Come with me- I want to show you something…’
And God brings Abe outside- it was dark... the night air soft and cool- and God says, ‘Abe, look towards heaven and count the stars; if you are able to count them. That’s how numerous your descendants will be.’
And Abram looks up- - and he blinks... and it is as if he has never seen the night sky before…stars…everywhere- "My God- so many stars!' ...and Abe is overwhelmed and his eyes fill with tears… and he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. In other words- Grace happened, right there, right then- total forgiveness, total redemption, total acceptance and salvation… And God puts a hand on Abe’s shoulder and says, “Remember me? I’m the God who brought you here- to give you this land…”
And here is something interesting... even though Abraham believed God, he still questions… he said, ‘O Lord God, how can I be sure…’
That blows my mind! Because we are always taught that if we believe, we accept- and we don’t ask- we wait for things in God’s time and we don’t challenge, and we don’t ask for signs or reassurance … but here is Abram doing just that. And no bolt of lightning from heaven takes him out! Abe is asking for a sign- (remember he is the king of the physical marker, all those altars…) he wants something concrete! Now Abe wants a physical marker from God! And our omnipotent, abundant, extravagant, loving, giving God brims over with excitement and says “Oh Abe! You want a covenant? You got it! Watch this!”
And God says to him, ‘Bring me a female cow three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a dove, and a young pigeon.’ Abe goes out and gathers them all up and by morning, brings them out to the place God tells him, and prepares for an ancient ritual covenant ceremony. He takes the animals- cuts them in half and lays them out in halves; everything except the birds- those he left whole. And between the rows of animal halves is a river of blood... this is all part of the ceremony. Both parties making the covenant will walk in that river- and the blood stains their clothes and feet and binds them into their promise to one another. And the significance of the animals halved meant that if either party should break this covenant, they should end
up like one of these animals- in fact, if one party broke the covenant, then by law, the other had permission to kill him. Pretty strong stuff!
So it's all set up... and Abram waits... and he waits... and it's hot, and there is so much blood, and the buzzards go from circling to dipping toward the carcasses, and Abe spends the rest of the day driving away the birds of prey.... seriously? God makes him wait all day like that?
And finally, as the sun begins to go down, God puts Abram into deep sleep… the word actually means a state of lethargy or trance... sense of heaviness and dread that covers him that the text calls a deep and terrifying darkness… (absolutely...)
And God said to Abram, "Know this for sure: your descendants will live as outsiders in a land that isn’t theirs; they'll be enslaved and beaten down for 400 years. Then I'll punish their slave masters; your offspring will march out of there loaded with plunder. (loaded with stuff, with riches) But not you; you'll have a long and full life and die a good and peaceful death. In fact it won’t be until the fourth generation that your descendants return here; cause they still have much to learn."
Not exactly happy news for Abram- (now we know why there was a sense of dread) But we’ll get back here in a second-
Now comes the covenant- this is the cool part of the ritual- it’s totally dark, and a smoking firepot and a flaming torch moved between the split carcasses. And God says- "I'm giving this land to your children, from the Nile River in Egypt to the River Euphrates in Assyria—the country of the Kenites, all the way to the Jebusites."
But let’s take a closer look at our little ceremony. Remember we said that both parties making the covenant were supposed to walk through that river of blood. But in the covenant between Abe and God, there weren’t two parties walking through the center. Only one- God- symbolized by a smoking furnace or pot and a flaming torch. Do you know what that means? That God made both sides of that covenant- in essence God promised God- that what God said would happen, had to happen- that Abe would indeed have children, that his children would inhabit that land that was promised and that this covenant would be binding from generation to generation… And, if it you haven’t gotten this already, it means that there was nothing that Abraham OR any of his offspring or descendants could do to break it. That’s huge!
But as great news as that is for us- because, as it turns out, we are all children of Abraham- and that God has this covenant with us that is unbreakable- the news isn’t exactly stellar for Abram.
He learned that day that the promises of God were not going to be realized by him. That he wasn’t going to be the one to inhabit the land or even to see his kids or his grandkids, inhabit the land. He learned he would live to a ripe old age…great… but he also learned that future generations would be enslaved and be oppressed…slaves… for 400 years- they would be beaten, and treated as animals until finally, after 400 years, God would free them.
So-Abe takes the news- but he takes it with the realization that everything he does now, is for the generations to come. All of his life, all of his actions, all he would give from this moment on, wouldn’t have a lot to do with him- but would have everything to do with the future- whatever he thought he was going to get out of it for himself- as great and famous as God would make him, and Gods plan of building a great nation through him- all that would be realized long after his death. Reassurance…with a twist…
This hits home- we can learn from our friend Abe on this- because we are in essence, just like him- we know that God has called us…each of us… to do something- to follow God’s lead, even though we may not be clear as to where we will end up- we know that God has made a covenant with us, to provide for us, to keep us always as God’s children- but when it comes right down to it, this call doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what we are going to get out of it for ourselves- and answering doesn't even guarantee that we will enjoy the place where we may end up. But it does have a lot to do with trusting and acting and giving intentionally like Abraham did… like the generations before us did- with the future generations in mind.
“Remember me? I'm the God who brought you here! You want a sign?” And our fabulous, abundant, extravagant loving giving God brims over with excitement and says, “You got it! Watch this!”