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September 10th, 2017

Abram believed only because what God said was what GOD said. 

Genesis 15:1-18

 

The first believer

What firsts do you remember? Your first teacher? Your first car? Your first kiss? The first time you held your baby? The first time you dropped that baby off at college? Firsts are memorable, and Genesis is a book of firsts. Genesis means “beginning.”

Genesis 15 is a chapter of firsts. This is the first of many times in the Bible that God or one of his messengers says “Do not fear.” It’s the first time anyone in the Bible addresses God with the title Adonai Yahweh, or Lord LORD – “Sovereign Lord” in most versions. It’s the first time we read that “The word of the LORD came” to someone.

Perhaps most significantly, Genesis 15:6 is the first time we find the word “believe” in the Bible. It’s not the first time anyone believed God – think of Adam and Eve, Enoch, Noah, and others. But it’s the first time the word “believe” appears in the Bible, so there’s something new happening here.

The Apostle Paul will later call Abraham “the father of all who believe”[1] (Romans 4:11). Abram is also the father of all who doubt. Abram is the father of all who say, “I believe.” He’s also the father of all who say, “I believe, but….”

I believe, but I don’t understand (1-3)

The chapter begins with the phrase, “After this,” which leads us to ask, “After what?” Chapter 14 is notoriously mysterious, but here’s the bottom line. Abram finds himself involved in a large-scale military conflict. A coalition of kings from the north and east comes into Canaan to re-establish dominion over the region around the Dead Sea. Abram would have stayed out of it, except the raiders captured and carried of his nephew Lot. So General Abram took his band of 300, rescued his nephew, and also brought back all the people and possessions the foreigners had stolen.

The Dead Sea coalition was in awe of Abram and his God. The king of Salem, named Melchizedek (his name will appear several times in the Bible), blessed Abram and Abram gave him a tenth of everything. The king of Sodom wanted to reward Abram with all the other stuff he brought back. Abram answered, “Keep it. I don’t want you guys thinking you’re the ones who made me rich. I don’t want your reward.”

Why is all that important? Because when you humiliate a military coalition much larger than your army in a surprise raid, you realize on the way home you just ticked off a bunch of people who can crush you like a grape. It was “after this” that “the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision” (15:1). No wonder God says, “Fear not.”

Let’s paraphrase the exchange between Abram and God. God says, “Chill, Abram. I’ve got your back. Your prize will be immense.”

Abram’s reply can be summarized like this: “I believe, but I don’t understand.” His response to God seethes with sarcasm: “Lord LORD, what good is your reward? My servant Eliezer is going to inherit everything I have.”

There’s a dramatic pause, and neither Lord LORD nor Abram says anything. So Abram finishes his thought: “I don’t have a son – did you forget what you promised? Reward – who cares? A servant’s going to get it all.” He’s angry, bitter, resentful.

I asked a couple of Bible study groups this week, “Is this response of Abram one of belief or unbelief?” The answer is “Yes.” Abram believes in God, and calls him “Lord LORD.” But he’s also convinced God has let him down. He is the first person in the Bible to express out loud to God how disappointed he is in what God has done.

We have an entire book of the Bible that models for us that faith is often – maybe usually – intertwined with doubt. We call it Psalms, and it’s the prayer book, the song book, of the Bible. The psalmists are raw in their emotion and brutally honest with their struggles. If we sang our songs in their style, instead of “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” we would sing this –

 

Save me, O Thou slow Jehovah, can’t you see I’m drowning here?

I am tired, so tired of waiting, get yourself down on this sphere!

Where are you, God? Where are you, God?

You’re not doing anything! You’re not doing anything!

 

Surprisingly, God seems to be OK with that. To be sure, there are times in the Bible where God responds with discipline to incomplete faith, but those are the exceptions. Most of the time, as is the case here, God tenderly responds with reaffirmation. He knows the life of faith is tough when we can’t see the big picture.

 

I believe, but I’m not good enough (4-6)

Again in verse 4 we have the phrase, “The word of the LORD came to him.” God clarifies what he has said before: “This man (Eliezer) will not be your heir. Your own son will be your heir.”

Another dramatic pause, as if Abram is taking it all in.

“Abram, come outside. Now look up.” It’s been years since I’ve been out in the country far enough away from city lights. This scene takes me back to my childhood in Pakistan, when blackouts were required due to the war with India. If there’s truly no artificial light at all, the Milky Way is spectacular. “Start counting, Abram. How many are there?”

Abram is stunned into silence. “That’s how many offspring you will have.”

Notice that God isn’t really arguing with Abram. If I had been God, I would have launched into a discussion of how many light years away those stars really are, how big they are, of how some of them are actually galaxies that appear to the naked eye as a single star. I would say there are hundreds of billions of them out there in nothingness, and that if I had the power to set them in place I think I can handle you fathering a son.

God doesn’t do that. He just lets Abram stand and stare as the hot desert night wind blows sand gently across his face as he ponders those stars. Do you know that you and I are represented in one of those stars? David Lowry pointed that out the other night in Bible study, and I responded, “And one of them is the Star of David!”

The text says, “Abram believed God, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

We think of Abraham has a pretty good guy, but he was in serious need of some righteousness. It’s not just that he has insulted God with sarcasm. Abram is still learning what it means to believe in one God. He probably still thinks of Yahweh as his “divine sponsor.” His moral character has been less than stellar, lying about his wife when they went to Egypt. In the next chapter, he’ll sleep with his wife’s servant as a surrogate mother for his heir. Abram does a lot more questioning than believing.

But now, for this moment, he releases control. Looking up at white polka dots on a black canvas, Abram lets go of his need to understand, and God responds, “When I look at you, I see righteousness. I see faith. I see courage. In my eyes, you’re good.”

That is why Abraham is Exhibit A for true faith – without merit, without reason, without evidence except for what God said. We say, “I believe, but I’m not good enough.” Neither was the father of all who believe. He just had to let go of the idea that he could change the world, or even change his own destiny.

The writer of Hebrews loves Abraham as a faith-model. He says faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). I’ve long ago let go of the idea that I need to cajole or manipulate or argue or persuade people into faith. I can’t. There’s a certain mystery around the origin of faith, and only God can produce it. I can be his spokesperson (and so can you), but the whole point of faith is that it’s not something you can force.

Abram believed only because what God said was what God said.

I believe, but it’s SO dark (7-19)

The rest of the chapter gets really weird from a modern perspective, but it’s the best part. Hold on. God speaks again: “I am Yahweh, who brought you out of Ur to give you this land.”

“Lord Yahweh,” Abram answers, “How can I know that?”

The Lord says, “Bring me a baby cow, a goat, and a sheep, each three years old.  Also bring a dove and a pigeon.” Abram does as he is told. Without being told, he then cuts the larger animals in half and lays the open halves across from each other.

I’ve often said there are many parts of the Bible that, if made into a film, I wouldn’t want to see. I’m not much for blood and gore, but that’s what this is. It’s a bloody scene. When the animals are split open, their guts are exposed.

Apparently this process takes the better part of a day. The starlit sky has given way to sunshine, and now we’re approaching dusk again. It’s long enough for the vultures to become attracted to the carrion, and Abram has to drive them away.

What’s this all about? How in any sense is this weird ceremony connected to Abram’s question, “How can I know that my descendants will have this land?”

If I were to make a deal with you in our world, and you weren’t sure I would keep my end of the bargain, you might have a lawyer draw up the agreement in writing and then ask me to have my signature notarized. In Abram’s time, if a Big King and a Little King wanted to make a deal, they would “cut a covenant” – that’s literally the verb that’s used. The technical names for them are suzerain and vassal. The Big King might promise protection if the Little King paid him taxes, for example. If the two wanted their deal to have greater force than just words, they would use this ritual with animals.

But what did it mean?  Hundreds of years later, after the children of Abraham had broken a covenant they had made with God, this is what he said to them through Jeremiah –

Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.[2]

What this is, then, is their ancient way of saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” That’s from an old Catholic saying where the sign of the cross is a binding oath (like swearing on the Bible), but the “stick a needle in my eye” part is from a poem of English origin and still finds its way on to children’s playgrounds.  The idea is a self-curse if I’m not telling the truth or I don’t keep my word.[3]

In the ancient ritual, both parties would pass between the pieces of the animals, saying, “If I don’t keep my end of the bargain, I curse myself to be as these animals, split in two.” Big King goes first, then Little King goes next, and that’s much better than a pinky swear.

This story gets even better than that. Abram falls into a deep sleep, and verse 12 says “a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” Can we just pause there? Sometimes believing is exactly that, and in a sense, it’s surprising that it still surprises us four thousand years after the first believer believed. It’s normal to live the life of faith through what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” Maybe you’re there right now.

With Abram in a deep trance, God speaks words that are both comforting and distressing. “Your descendants will be strangers in another land and will be enslaved there for four centuries. (He’s speaking, of course, about Egypt, and the darkness of slavery there would be real and horrible.) You will die in peace, but after those generations have passed, your descendants will come back here. Why the delay? Because I’m not giving you this land due to your goodness. I’m taking it from the Canaanites because of their badness, and they’re not yet as bad as they will become.”

Now here’s the really good part of this story. In his dream, Abram (the Little King) doesn’t pass through the pieces of the animals. A blazing torch, representing God, the Big King, passes between the pieces. God swears out loud to Abram, “I will give this land to your descendants” – and he gives the boundaries.

Once again, don’t get caught up in the details. This isn’t a story about dreams or carcasses, or boundaries, or even Abram. This is a story about God. God passes through the animals, making this a unilateral and unconditional covenant God makes with Abram. He doesn’t require Abram to do anything. God is going to do it. He’ll do it on his own timetable and his own way, but he will do it. Most shocking of all, God says, “Curses on me if I don’t keep my promise.” He walks through the pieces, not Abram.

And Abram believed. To be sure, it was a “believe, but….” I believe, but I don’t understand. I believe, but I’m not good enough. I believe, but it’s SO dark. That’s what faith is. It’s not “blind faith,” as if you have nothing to base it on, faith that goes against reason. It’s faith in what God said, because of who God is.

God word for us

As we said last week, don’t make Abraham into a good Christian. He not only doesn’t have the Gospels and Letters from the New Testament, he doesn’t even have the Law of Moses. He hasn’t even been circumcised yet. That’s precisely the Apostle Paul’s argument – that he was the father of true faith because his faith came before the act of circumcision. Don’t try to make him fit into whatever mold you have in your head of a mature believer.

But there are seeds here that are more fully developed in the rest of the Bible. This passage is such a beautiful picture of faith. Faith is not about what you can see, especially now. Faith is trusting in God’s word and God’s character.

You may say, “Well, I would believe if God showed up and spoke out loud to me.” Don’t make Abram’s experience seem so simple. Remember that God first promised Abram a great nation when he was 75. Would you believe God if a decade passed and nothing had happened? As far as we know, God hadn’t spoken to Sarai. So he’s having to convince her, “God said we need to keep doing this, so we can have a nation.” “Uh-huh,” she answers, “God said so. Right. Men!”

Would you rather have a handful of appearances from God separated by decades of silence and problems, or a guidebook full of thousands of case studies, hundreds of which parallel your own experiences? God speaking out loud might be nice, and there was certainly a time in my young life as a believer when I longed for that.

Four decades later, I have learned through experience and observation that when I have the Bible, and when I take the time to wrestle through what’s really in there and why, it is enough. This is God’s Word for us, and I can trust it because I trust him. Amen.

 

[1] The more complete quote is “the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised.” Paul’s primary point is that Abraham is the prototype for salvation by faith apart from works.

[2] Jeremiah 34:18-20.

[3] http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/20/messages/731.html

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