The Reading: Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
Setting The Theme:
God cut a covenant with Abram. While I realize much can be made of the nature of this covenant, I also know that I am addressing people who have already wrestled with these implications. Some have expounded on the unilateral nature of this covenant – that God is the only participant. Some have gone further and said that God has taken all the risk of the penalty – an utterly humiliating death – for both parties in the contract. From there it is not difficult to see the trail being blazed to Christ on the cross.
If I had the definitive answer to this conundrum, I think I would still be unlikely to change the minds of many people. Since I don’t have the answer, I am not even going to try.
The reason for the covenant is rather more interesting. What prompted it?
Abram expresses concern over two things.
First, there was no offspring as God had promised. No one but a servant to inherit Abram and Sarai’s wealth. He was promised progeny, not just an heir. Abram, however, believed when God reassured him that his descendents would be numerous like the stars. A man in his eighties, with a wife in her seventies – childless. While we aren’t told specifically, we can assume they’ve tried at least a few times. No results. But Abram believed, nonetheless. Immense faith? Or a really healthy male ego? You decide.
Second, there was the land God promised. Abram and Sarai have wandered here and there, picking up more livestock in the process. For the second time, they were in the neighborhood of Bethel with so many animals that Lot, who had traveled with them, had to separate from them. Genesis 13 says, “The land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together.” They go on to Hebron.
In chapter 14, Abram, with 318 trained warriors from his household, defeated various kings. Now, whether this was a battle as actually described or skirmishes to retain control of land and trading routes, doesn’t really matter. Abram, obviously, already has considerable presence in the land.
In the absence of concrete confirmation, Abram believes he will have offspring. Already in receipt of some evidence, Abram does not believe he will possess the land – he asks for assurance – he questions God.
“Lord God, by what will I know that I am to possess it?”
God’s answer – the covenant.
Hmmm. Could it be all about the land?
“I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”
“O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
Wouldn’t you love to know how Abram understood the covenant. The story took generation upon generation to develop into its current form, and picked up cultural preconceptions in the process, no doubt. Did Abram understand that he and his descendents would possess the land – or inherit the land? There is a difference, but not in the word that is used in the Hebrew text.
The verb yarash in Qal is used variously to mean possess, inherit, dispossess, disinherit and impoverish. In the Septuagint, the Greek verb used (khleyronomeo ) means take possession of, share in and receive.
The word “possess” has the connotation of “own”, “control”, “do what one sees fit with”. “Inherit” can have more of a sense of obligation attached to it – a responsibility for the care of what is inherited – for, if nothing else, future generations.
But, in any case, we don’t know exactly what Abram understood.
What do we know?
We know, at least from the books that appear later in our Bible, that the possession of the land was a long time coming. We are told that even Abram knew this – although it was left out of the lectionary reading today. Verse 13 reads, “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.”
We know that on their way to the promised land, the Israelites were waylaid for forty years – due to some decidedly unrighteous behavior.
We are told in Judges that once they reached the land, the Israelites did not do all God commanded them to do, and their hold on the land was tenuous. They didn’t drive out or eradicate the Canaanites, and so were punished by God.
We know there was a repetitive pattern of “Israel doing evil in the sight of the LORD” and being oppressed or enslaved by various powers as a result.
And we know that eventually, after finally becoming a united kingdom, Israel was divided and both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms were exiled. Why? Because “Israel did what was right in their own eyes.”
So why did words of faith and belief come out of Abram’s mouth when talking about progeny, but only uncertainty when it came to the land. It seems that the final narrator or compiler of this story was aware that there were descendents of Abram – after all he or she presumably was one. Offspring was a given.
The land, however, still represented an unfulfilled opportunity. It appears that God had expectations of the Israelites when it came to the possession of the land, even if failure didn’t result in the actual people of Israel being cut up like the sacrificial animals in our text today. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see Israel as a nation suffering the ignominious treatment of the creatures. An Israel cut in half, left bleeding and ready to be picked at and carried off by the carrion and wild beasts (Jeremiah 34). Although, the leaders of Babylon and Assyria may have objected to this caricature.
The narrator of the story presumably knew all or most of these things, as well. If they understood the covenant to be about possession of the land, how might they have depicted the causes of the problem. You can’t just blame it on your ancestors unrighteous behavior – you have to maintain some national pride. Maybe it would be someone else’s fault.
Of course, if we were to write the story we’d need someone else to blame. A good scapegoat, so to speak. Would it go something like this:
[“Acted” by volunteer] You know, we were given this land by God to own – to use as we see fit. But something went wrong. We acted in ways that rejected God and God’s commandments. But we did the best we could. I think it was those other people who caused this.
[Andy interjects] – Let’s give these other people a name – how about Canaanites?
[Volunteer continues] If we had driven off or killed all those Canaanites, we wouldn’t have this problem. They were the bad apples that spoiled the bunch. Just think, they were here worshipping those other gods. Of course, we were curious. And you know, when things weren’t so good and God seemed to have left us, the presence of these other people and their gods was just too much of a temptation. Then whammo – another penalty. We should have killed those people right in the beginning. I bet that’s what God would have wanted. Okay, how’s that sound? Good, let’s go tell everybody.
But the stories that unfold seem to show a little different story. The land and the other people in the land didn’t get the Israelites in trouble -the Israelites did. The problem was what they did in and to the land, and to the people in it. Israel’s behavior may be the other side of this covenant. Perhaps they should have been more concerned about how they conducted themselves in the land. Well, if that’s the case, wouldn’t there be some kind of consistent message in the Bible about behavior.
Let’s here from Isaiah:
[Isaiah 58: 7 – read by Greg] “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
[Jeremiah 7:5-7 read by Allison] “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”
[Ezekiel 22:29 read by Eduarde] “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.”
[Amos 5:11 read by Helen] “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”
[Zechariah 7:9-10 read by Sang Cha] “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
Jesus in Matthew:
[Matthew 25: 40 read by John C.] “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'”
And, lastly, Jesus in Luke:
[Luke 4:18 read by Kay] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
There’s a problem with possessing something – usually someone else has to be dispossessed to accomplish it. This is particularly true with land or territory, and the natural resources that are found within it.
This is not a foreign concept to our culture. Just ask the aboriginal inhabitants of the countries and territories that Western powers have, at some point, controlled. Ask the peoples of Central and South America, the Aborigines of Australia, the Moaris of New Zealand, the Indigenous Americans, the many, many nations of Africa. The list can go on and on.
This is not unusual with aliens inside our own countries. Ask the Mexican, Asian and African Americans, the boat people of Vietnam, the asylum seekers here in Britain. They have run up against the many who see the need to protect what is theirs from competitors. “The NHS would be healthier if we didn’t have so many asylum seekers – so many foreigners in our midst.” “The American economy would be stronger if we didn’t have so many illegals.”
A vast quantity of the world’s poor live in areas once colonized or controlled by the First World. The interest was economic – an effort to control and appropriate resources for the benefit of the few, or to control transit and labor of usurped resources.
Consider this edict from Pope Alexander VI in 1493: “Among all the works offered to the divine Majesty & most desired by our hearts, without doubt the most preferable is the exaltation of the Catholic faith & Christian religion which…seek the salvation of souls, the dismantling of barbarian nations & the subjugation of the same to our faith.” Does not this attitude still hold true, except that the religion is now capitalism in its current form of unrestrained self-interest.
In areas where development is slow or non-existent, or comes at the high price of the further loss of freedom, people try to escape and find refuge in the realm of the First World powers. If they manage to get there, the reception is at best cool and they are, many times, relegated to the ranks of the poor and marginalized all over again.
I have overheard ministers being reminded that issues like these are political and, as such, they are not the domain of the church or Christians. “Yes, we should help with financial aid and even support of missionaries, but to actually try to change the situations of the largest segment of the world’s population would take risky, political action.” “Our hands would get dirty.” “Economically we cannot tackle issues like the forgiveness of Third World debt because First World economies would fail.” If those economies are based to any extent on extracting advantage on the backs of poor populations, perhaps they need to fail.
In Matthew 16:25 and 26 we heard, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” Is that a message for just some individual Christians of a bygone time, or might it just apply to Christian peoples, churches, nations and economies today.
As Christians, we recognize a different covenant that God has cut with us. We understand our “promised land” to be the Realm of God. We know that Christ fulfilled the cost of the covenant, but do we really think that there is no expectation for living into the Realm.
What if – just what if – the Realm of God is not coming close because we are not doing what is expected of us. We can’t bring it about – only God can. But what if God is waiting for some indication that we actually understand what it means to be God’s people. And what if, until we step out and act righteously in the land, the Realm remains just a distant possibility?