The Reading: Genesis 15.1-12,17-18
This kind of ceremony is an ancient Hittite method of forming a contract. The participants in the covenant walk through the animals’ blood as it runs in the ditch. The one who breaks the covenant will forfeit their own blood – their very life.
Likewise, the smoking fire-pot and flaming torch are also Hittite images of gods. God, who figuratively walks through the blood twice, is guaranteeing both sides of the contract. For many this brings to mind how Jesus, God incarnate, lived out the covenant with the offering even of his own mortal life.
What I find interesting, however, is the reason for the covenant in the first place. Abram expresses concern over two things.
First, there was no offspring as God had previously promised. No one but a servant to inherit Abram and Sarai’s wealth. They were promised progeny, not just an heir. But God promised descendants like the stars, and Abram believed completely.
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 and Sarai’s 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 and Sarai, obviously, already had considerable presence in the land.
In the absence of any evidence whatsoever, they believe they will have offspring.
Already in receipt of considerable evidence, Abram and Sarai have a hard time grasping that their descendants will possess the land – there needs to be assurance – a guarantee from God. “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
God’s answer – the covenant. Hmmm. Could the covenant be all about possessing the land?
I’d love to know how Abram and Sarai understood the covenant. Did they understand that they and their descendents would possess the land – or inherit the land? There is a difference, but not in the word that’s used in the Hebrew text. The verb yarash is used both to mean possess or inherit.
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 and to honor the original giver. Abram’s and Sarai’s understanding of the word “yarash” would seem important.
Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what they 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. First, the Israelites were to be slaves in Egypt. We know that on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land with Moses, the Israelites were waylaid for forty years – due to their 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 – so, they 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.
We must remember that Genesis was written many hundreds of years after it is said to have occurred. It seems that the final narrator or compiler of this story was aware of two things, in particular. First, there were descendents of Abram and Sarai – after all the writer, presumably, was one of them. Offspring was a given. In the writer’s time, however, the land still represented an unfulfilled opportunity – the Israelites had yet to occupy it.
The Older Testament is interesting to me. It is a compilation of voices that, many times, conflict; stories that give different accounts of events or reasons for them happening. Many of the accounts blame the failure to possess the land on other people – the most common being Canaanites. Problems were caused because the Canaanites remained in the land, by the Canaanites tempting the Israelites with domestic gods, and because of intermarriage between Israelites and Canaanites. The fault was always with, “those other people.”
But many stories unfold that seem to show a little different story. These accounts show that the other people in the land didn’t get the Israelites in trouble – the Israelites did that themselves. The problem was what they did in and to the land, and to the people in it. There may, it seems, have been an expectation associated with God’s covenant – an expectation that wasn’t fulfilled.
Perhaps the Israelites 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?
How about the prophets?
Jeremiah said, “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.” Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Zechariah, to name but a few, exhorted, pleaded with or warned the Israelites to the same righteous behavior with very similar language.
Jesus repeated these sentiments time after time after time, even identifying himself with the oppressed when he said, “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.”
There’s a basic problem with taking possession of something – someone else has to be dispossessed. This is particularly true with land or territory, and the natural resources that are found within it. The vast quantity of the world’s impoverished live in areas once colonized or controlled by imperial powers that claimed to be Christian. Many of those populations that have, over time, emigrated or been relocated into the realm of the dominators – Europe and the US primarily – continue to be the poorest, hungriest, most overlooked, most unwelcome portions of our own societies. Historically, the church – the very entity charged with furthering the message and mission of Christ in the world – has participated in the manipulation and oppression of vast populations for the benefit of governments, individuals and, of course, itself.
I have overheard ministers being reminded that issues of dominance and oppression are political and economic, and, as such, they are not the domain of the church or Christians. “Yes, we should help with financial aid and even support missionaries, but to actually try to change the situations of the largest segment of the world’s population would take risky, political action and that’s not what the church is about.” Besides, the arguments go, I do not participate in the inequalities and injustices of the world – I do not have that kind of power. What can I do?
Ultimately, I believe, these arguments represent a different kind of self-interest than that represented by governments or businesses. They are the self-interests of maintaining our own comfort, protecting what we have, ensuring our own security. It all falls under the category of maintaining life as we know it.
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.
To whom were the prophets talking when they made their declarations about living righteously – doing justice, giving mercy and living in right relations? To whom was Jesus talking about taking risks for furthering the work of God? Yes, there were the economically and politically powerful – but they were the minority in terms of numbers. The messages were for all believers – those in the pews as well as those in the pulpits.
The church collectively is called to be the beacon of righteous behavior to the world – to actively engage in remedying the plight of all poor, sick, oppressed and downtrodden people – to actively pursue justice for all people – to encourage and engage in just and equitable transactions in its daily life. But the church is the people of faith – it is each of us individually, as well the whole lot of us collectively.
The biggest problem is not just those who actively engage in the activities that oppress or impoverish other people. Even more problematic behavior, in the time of the Israelites and now, is that demonstrated by those who sit back and allow injustice, inequality and oppression to happen. Complacency, inaction and preoccupation with comfort and security are the enablers of injustice, and are the bane of the message of Christ.
As Christians, we recognize a different covenant that God has cut with us. We understand our “promised land” to be the Realm of God – the time when the Kingdom of Heaven is lived out in a world characterized by justice, mercy and living in right relations. We know that Christ fulfilled the cost of that covenant, but do we really think that there is no expectation for living into it?
For many in church, salvation has become something we accept and righteousness something we possess. But Christ’s messages are full of imperatives – commands to actively engage in the work of God – to inform the ethics we use in our everyday lives – just as were the messages of the prophets. These messages point the way to inheriting the Realm of God. And, for Christians, the Church was provided as a means of doing just that.
Comfort, accumulation, and inactivity are not the rewards of a Christian’s life work, but are, in fact, the antithesis of the message of scripture. The reward of Christian life is found in the fact that there will always be a way in which we can further the work of the Christ in the world – the call of God will change with our life’s circumstances, but will rarely be heard as, “Good job, sit back, let someone else fight the good fight. It’s time just to see to your own security and wellbeing.”
What if – just what if – the Realm of God is not upon us 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 consistently demonstrate what acting righteously in the land looks like, the Realm remains just another distant possibility like the Land promised to Abram and Sarai?