The stage on which God’s action takes place in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is the whole world. In the beginning all of creation is declared good but wickedness and violence raise their ugly heads and God determines to have a “do over” in the form of a great flood intended to wipe away all the wickedness and violence.
However Noah, and all who survived the deluge, held tenaciously to the past. God realizes that the wickedness and violence of human beings was not going away and instead of providing blessing for individuals in the world by working through humanity in general, God adopts a new approach: working through a particular individual to bless all the families of the earth. That’s when we meet Abram, aka Abraham.
Without any introduction to Abraham’s native abilities, personality or his previous connection with God Genesis 12:1-3 reads: “Now the Lord had said to Abram: Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Maimonides, (my mon a dees), the preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, scholar, astronomer and physician wrestled with the same question that still bugs us today. Why did God choose Abram? The scholar’s conclusion is paraphrased in the famous exchange between the British anti-Semite William Norman Ewer who wrote, “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” and the response of American poet Ogden Nash who wrote, “It wasn’t odd; the Jews chose God.” Maimonides maintained that even as a child Abraham entertained new ideas with a willingness to explore and think until, as a result of his own correct understanding, he reached the truth. His conclusion: Abraham chose God.
He figured out that there must be one Power above all powers, one Lord above all lords who is the Master of the Universe and therefore he traded in his native paganism for monotheism. He realized that this Unity behind the apparent diversity that fills the world is an ethical and moral force that insists on righteousness and compassion. But he also came to realize that it is not sufficient to be just a monotheist. It is necessary to be an ethical monotheist. In Genesis 18 the Bible says God chose Abraham “Because … he commands his children and his household after him to observe the way of the Lord to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice.”
This reality became the driving force in Abraham’s life. He built altars and called people to accept his ethical God. Rather than offer sacrifices on any of the altars Abraham calls out to others to join him in his faith and ethical actions. It’s like reading a prologue to the views of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and even the Psalmist. The binding of Isaac, which occurs much later in Abraham’s life, is a testimony to how unthinkable human sacrifice is to God. Maimonides continues in his description of Abraham’s mission: “Once Abraham recognized and understood the ethical God, he began to tell the idolaters that they were not pursuing the true path; he broke their idols and informed the people that it is only proper to serve the one God in the entire universe and it is only Him that they must serve. Reading this is like jumping ahead in the story to Exodus and the Ten Commandments. Maimonides asserted that the commandment to love God includes “making God beloved to all the people of the earth.” According to Maimonides, our primary call is to convert the world to ethical monotheism.
In the 12th chapter of Genesis God makes three sweeping promises to Abram: land, descendants and that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed. In response, Abram builds altars at Shechem, Bethel and Ai and invokes the name of the LORD.
God had a great deal at stake in all this; with this new approach God has taken blessing of the whole world rides on this one fellow and his family. So what Abram did next must have seemed like having a monkey wrench thrown into God’s plan. A famine having driven the family to Egypt, in order to protect his own skin Abram shoves Sarai, his wife, into the arms of Pharaoh: “Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you…” So much for ethical monotheism. The Bible repeatedly scorns those who abuse their power by shoving the vulnerable, here women, into danger. In the Christian tradition Abraham becomes known for his great faithfulness, but at this point you have to admit he’s not off to an auspicious start.
In the 13th chapter God elaborates on the promises of land and descendants and asserts that Abraham’s children will be like the dust of the earth: that is his offspring will be innumerable, a great nation. If God has concerns about Abraham due to the unsavory my-wife-is-my-sister maneuver, then we might conclude that Abraham has some serious concerns about God, too. Everyone knows that Sarai and Abraham have no children and that there is no prospect of any children that promise of innumerable progeny is starting to sound pretty empty. Abraham’s response to God’s promises is not recorded–no assent or disbelief, or anything else. How do you imagine Abraham processed these seemingly ridiculous promises of land, progeny and a blessing to all people?
The narrative tells us that Abraham and Lot go their separate ways although Abraham rescues Lot from the big battles raging throughout chapter 14. At the very end of the chapter, Abram refuses the spoils of war from the king of Sodom. Abraham does not take wealth from the king of Sodom or anyone else because God will reward him (literally, “your wages will be very great”).
To this point in the narrative we’ve not been privy to the thoughts of either Abraham or God on how this fledgling relationship is going. God has made grand promises, but we have not known until now what Abraham thinks of those promises or of the promise-giver. Given that the story itself gives us a mixed picture of Abraham’s moral character, God has some reason to wonder whether choosing Abraham was such a good idea, whether he is really able to be the bearer of the promise to the nations. This is in keeping with all other significant Old Testament characters–the “heroes” of the faith were all flawed and broken in one way or another, just like us. So our text for today, Genesis 15:1-6, is a significant moment in the narrative when we are told that God and Abraham are developing a level of trust, and that each is encouraged by the promises or actions of the other.
Gen. 15: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.”
Then Abram takes this as an occasion to finally burst out with the question that must have surely been weighing on him since chapter 12: what about those kids you promised me? 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But 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.” 5He 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.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Responding to Abram’s statement “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” God offers significant additional information, more information than has been previously revealed: it will not be through the adopted slave Eliezer of Damascus that God will make a great nation of Abraham it will be through a biological child of Abraham’s. While not quite full disclosure Abraham is reassured that his offspring will be numbered like the stars in the sky.
The Jewish Study Bible points out “the pointlessness of all Abram’s recent financial and military success in the absence of a son from whom the promised “great nation” can descend”. What is success if you have no successor? Finally, after three chapters, we are told how Abraham responds to the divine promise of descendants: “And he believed (or trusted) the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This got me to thinking about our malaise and our lack of a sense of promise as a Meeting. Like Abraham we are getting older. We’ve had no children for several years. As a Meeting and a denomination, and as a faith community we are declining in numbers in worship as folks drift away, age out or die. It got me to thinking about my constant struggle to remain positive… and hopeful about a future for us.
Like a childless Abram and Sarai we have no one to whom to bequeath our faith. God told Abraham “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” But in our generation we are suffering from light pollution and are unable to contemplate the magnitude of the innumerable stars in the heavens. I’m told that the majority of children in the United States may never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. Tonight eighty percent of U.S. residents and a third of our global neighbors can’t see the celestial landscape of which we are apart. What is the promise – for us? For Spokane Friends? Are there too many other attractive lights which block out our being able to see the promise? Are the street lights which give us a sense of security in a world we perceive as dark and dangerous actually just more light pollution? Sharing the predicament with Abraham we find ourselves stewing about God’s promise. Not being able to see the stars we forget that it is God who will provide the heirs in our old age even if in this moment it seems unbelievable.