March 11, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18 (NRSV)
He brought him outside and said, “Look toward 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 turtledove, 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. . .
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.”
Read all of Genesis 15 here.
The Lenten journey teaches us pretty quickly that we are going to screw up. But it also teaches us, through sometimes difficult and terrifying stories, that God will keep covenant, no matter how much we screw up.
Genesis 15 has always fascinated me. You know those Bible stories that are uplifting, Sunday-School safe, and easy to understand? This isn’t one of them. (I would argue that there are fewer of them than we think, anyway.)
As we are on our Lenten journey, we meet Abraham—Abram, at this point—on a journey. He set out from Haran in Genesis 12 with the promise from God that “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (12:2). But it’s not been an easy road, and there have been various screwups (for lack of a better word) marking the journey.
He and Pharoah had a serious misunderstanding when he tried to pass Sarai off as his sister rather than his wife (Genesis 12:10-20). He and his nephew Lot found they could no longer travel together because there was strife between their entourages (13:1-8)—but then Lot got into trouble and Abrahm had to rescue him anyway (14:1-16). He had a strange encounter with the King Melchizedek of Salem, who behaved much more like a priest than a king and served him bread and wine (14:17-24).
When we arrive in Genesis 15, despite more promises about his descendants from God (13:16), he still doesn’t have any. In Genesis 16, he will take that problem into his own hands, with disastrous results as the birth of Ishmael turns Sarai against her handmaiden Hagar. But first, there is this brief moment of peace, prophecy—and also terror.
The chapter begins reassuringly enough, as God promises Abram once again that yes, he really will have descendants. But when Abram presses him, he responds not with more words but with a request for an animal sacrifice. We find this request more odd than Abram would have; animal sacrifice was a common method of worship in the Ancient Near East, and walking between pieces of cut-up animal parts was a way that people made covenants in those days.
It’s the next part that suddenly feels a bit like a horror movie. Everything gets dark. Abram falls into a deep sleep. And then a flaming pot and torch—which somehow are also the Lord—pass between the cut-up animal pieces. And the Lord declares that he has given this land to Abram.
There are two Lenten lessons from this passage, I think. The first one is that God is the only one that passes between the “pieces.” Normally, both makers of the covenant would walk in between. But God makes a covenant with Abram and promises to give him land and descendants without any action on Abram’s part to reciprocate. God’s covenant with Abram depends on God’s character of everlasting love, not on anything Abram can do about it.
Which is good, because the second Lenten lesson is that Abram almost immediately screws up—in Genesis 16, as we’ve noted—rather than continue to trust God for the promised descendants. Great sorrow ensues, for Abram’s family and for many generations to come.
Both of these lessons are important during Lent. The Lenten journey teaches us pretty quickly that we are going to screw up. But it also teaches us, through sometimes difficult and terrifying stories, that God will keep covenant, no matter how much we screw up. We’ll have even more to say about that tomorrow.
How has God kept covenant with you?
How have you kept covenant with God? How have you not kept covenant with God?
“The God of Abraham Praise” is attributed to a 13th-c. Jewish liturgical poet, Daniel ben Judah, and expresses a thoroughly monotheistic trust in the promises of God to Abram/Abraham. Allow it to express your trust and belief in Abraham’s God as you worship today. (This version is another pandemic-era recording by members of the choir from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.)
Lord, I thank you for keeping covenant with me. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: God’s Covenant with Abraham
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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