Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 13th of Second Month, 2022
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-20
Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18, NRSV: 1 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.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But 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.” 5 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.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 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.
Good morning, Friends!
Most of you probably know from personal experience what it is to turn your ankle, yes? Most of us know that sick feeling when you put your foot down, thinking that you have solid footing, and then something goes wrong—the ground isn’t level, or your foot has gone into an unseen hole, or the stair tread that you thought would support your weight gives way—and the sole of your foot tilts, and your ankle grinds into other bones, and muscles and ligaments
stretch in ways they’re not supposed to, and... ouch.
It may be a bit weird, but that’s what I think of when I sing the opening lines of the hymn that we sang together earlier this morning: “Great is thy faithfulness, O God our maker*; there is no shadow of turning with thee..” I’m pretty sure that the hymn writer was thinking of God’s turning—or God’s not turning, actually—that God will not turn from God’s intended purposes, because the next few lines talk about God as unchanging, unfailing, and eternal. But I think it’s OK to read it another way: there is no turning your ankle when God ensures your footing. We are reminded that God’s faithfulness is something solid we can stand on, and not slip, or fall, or risk being injured.
When we read about God’s faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible, it often shows up with a couple of other important words or ideas. This is true of the Psalm reading that we heard at the beginning of worship this morning. In the first two verses, the Psalmist proclaims:
1 I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
2 ...[these things are] established forever... as firm as the heavens.
And then in the next verse, the Psalmist gives us God’s words, speaking of the “covenant made with my chosen one,” which “will establish your descendants forever.”
So three important things are braided together in this poem: faithfulness (in Hebrew, ‘emunah); steadfast love (chesed); and covenant (berit).
Now the first one, faithfulness, we’ve already talked about a bit; part of the connotation that comes with that word is steadiness, firmness, solidity, as in the ground that one stands on without fear of turning. It’s the sense of something that is there and will always be there, so that it can be relied upon; that is ‘emunah, faithfulness.
The second, chesed, is one of those words that is difficult to translate, and so it has a variety of English renderings. In some translations it’s “mercy,” or “goodness”; but many translators end up using two English words, so in the version we use at WRF, it’s “steadfast love”; and elsewhere, it’s often “unfailing love”, or even “lovingkindness”. It’s not just mercy, or goodness, or love, but a compounding of all of those qualities, and probably more: steadfast-merciful-loving-good-kindness. That is chesed.
Now, some of those things—loving-ness, goodness, kindness—are things we could say about God in the abstract; we could say, these are simply what God is like, and we could list those qualities. But especially in the Hebrew Bible, the Psalmist and other writers are testifying to what they have seen God do, in Israel’s history and in the present; they testify to God’s action on behalf of God’s people. (And when the word is used of people, this is also generally the case: when people are said to have chesed for one another, it is because they have shown it in what they have done.) So the people sing of God’s faithfulness because of God’s action; God’s lovingkindness expressed in God’s saving deeds.
There’s one other way that I’ve seen chesed translated, which is “covenant love”; and that brings us to the third idea: covenant, or berit. I’ll say more about this in a few minutes, but first let’s look at the passage from Genesis 15, and that will lead us back into berit.
We might need a little refresher on the context of Abram’s story: we are in the early stages of the middle part of Genesis, the part that tells the story of the fathers and mothers of the people who would become Israel. It starts with a family—not even a family, really—it starts with two people, a man and a woman: the one here called Abram, who fairly soon becomes Abraham, and his wife Sarai, who fairly soon becomes Sarah. They have been called away from their people in another land, in Ur of the Chaldeans, and into the land of Canaan, by a god who speaks to Abram seemingly out of nowhere. This God promises Abram that he will become a great nation (when, by the way, they have no children and they’re quite aged); and then once Abram arrives in Canaan, God promises that the land will belong to his descendants (this is in chap. 12). Abram acts on this mysterious promise and follows this mysterious God, although as you might remember, when it seems like the promise isn’t happening right away, he falls back into his own conniving and manipulation, and tries to figure out how to make the promise happen on his own power.
So the promise is yet unfulfilled when we get to chap. 15. So when God speaks to Abram in a vision, Abram is ready to complain: “God, what will you give me, for we still don’t have a child? I don’t have any offspring to inherit what I have—my only heir is a servant, someone not even related to me!” He goes to God twice with this complaint, in successive verses. God, rather than rebuking Abram, responds with reassurance, telling Abram that his own descendants will be numbered as the stars.
One thing I notice about God’s faithfulness here is that God doesn’t respond to complaint as many of us might. A faithful God responds with steadfast love even when the objects of that love complain, or don’t listen, or run off into plots and plans of their own devising. In response to complaint, God speaks to Abram to reaffirm the promises of descendants and land, and then goes on to solemnize them in a formal agreement: a covenant. This is the first covenant God makes with Abram, although it isn't even the first in the Hebrew Bible, and it's certainly not the last. (There are probably others you can think of.)
One way to understand a covenant is as a contract: a formal promise or set of promises that binds the person or persons who participate in it. That might be a sufficient definition in a legal sense. But the covenants that God makes are primarily about relationship: here is how God will relate to a person or a people, and how the person or people will relate to God.
Although some of the Biblical covenants really are one-sided; some of them are only about how God will relate, and place no claim on the behavior of the person or people. This first covenant is one of those. Notice that while Abram sacrifices the animals and arranges their parts as God dictates—in a rather elaborate display—Abram is passive for the rest of the proceedings. He’s actually in a deep sleep when God enacts this covenant. God is the one who passes through the middle of the sacrifices as a torch and a firepot. Commentators point out that there were covenant ceremonies in the acient Near East very similar to this one; usually these were the kind where a ruler—a king, queen, or emperor—was making a unilateral promise to those that he or she ruled over.
Whether unilateral or mutual, the God of Abram is surely a God who makes covenants; a God of berit. This is the way that Abram and Abram's descendants will find that the Lord is faithful—by seeing how God adheres to what God has promised in these covenants. Time and time again, God expresses covenant love, chesed, for the people of Israel by remaining in relationship with them, despite their many failings and rebellions.
Today I’ve been focusing on God’s faithfulness, so I haven’t said much about our response to that faithfulness. I do intend to say more about our faithfulness over the next several weeks. But in today’s passage, it’s important to observe that Abram is not just complaining, and not just passive; he does respond, in v6, when it says that he “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Here is another place where translation is somewhat tricky: often when we think of belief or what it means to believe something, we are thinking of a set of ideas or propositions that we need to grasp with our intellect—for example, in the way that the church has expressed beliefs in various creeds over the centuries. But when it says that Abram “believed the Lord,” Abram clearly wasn’t engaged in abstract reasoning to grasp a set of universal truths; rather, he simply believes what God has told him. It’s much more about trust here; so we could translate this part of v6, “Abram trusted the Lord...” Abram trusted what God had promised and was here re-promising; he was trusting that God could be relied upon, that God’s faithfulness was something solid he could stand on, and not slip, or fall, or risk turning his ankle.
I trust that our God is the same as the one that Abram knew; so the God that we know today is also a God of covenants. However, as God is a God of infinite creativity and steadfast love, we have a different covenant. God has not made a covenant with us because we are a particular chosen people. Ours is not an agreement that stipulates that a particular part of the Earth will be ours in perpetuity. Ours is not an agreement that has anything to say, really at all, about future prospects for material prosperity or even survival.
But the covenant made in and through Christ Jesus is an agreement open to all who would turn towards God. It is an agreement in which all the peoples of the world—every tribe, nation, and tongue—shall be blessed, as an extension of that first promise God made to Abram. The promise that we inherit is a promise of abundant life regardless of our material circumstances, because of the fellowship we have with God. This is a fellowship that begins here and now, whenever any of us turns away from self-directed ways, and says, “not my will, but thine, be done, O Lord.” It is a fellowship in which we can, like Abram, ask probing questions of God, express our frustration and anger, and complain if we need to, yet remain in covenant relationship. This is a covenant on which we can rely; “Great is thy faithfulness, O God our maker; there is no shadow of turning with thee...”
*Original language inclusivized
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/. You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.