Let’s begin with this week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, from Genesis 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.” 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?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 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.” 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. –Genesis 15:1-6 NRSV
This was not the first of God’s many promises to Abram (God would later on change his name to Abraham), but it is not only one of the greatest but precedes one of my all-time-favorite Bible passages, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The covenant between God and Abram/Abraham was initiated by God, a key fact we need to remember throughout the entire story with the ancient patriarch and his wife Sarai/Sarah. We 21st-century folks probably don’t fully appreciate the depths of Abram’s despair regarding the lack of an heir. Almost three months ago I finally became a grandfather for the first time, but that doesn’t approach the same issue for people several millennia ago. They did not have a well-developed concept of the afterlife, other than that in a way they would “live on” in their children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations. To be without an heir, then, for Abram meant a horrifying sense of finality, an end to existence and, thereby, ultimate meaning.
By this time Abram and Sarai were already far beyond normal childbearing age, so they were without hope. A slave would inherit his wealth but he and she would, in a very real sense to them, be no more. How cruel for God to have taken them out of their homeland (see Genesis 12 for the start of the story), only to abandon them in a foreign land. God would open Abram’s eyes to a future he couldn’t imagine: not just an heir, a natural-born son, but something far, far greater. And so Abram was challenged to look into the night sky and try to count the stars. But as high as he could count he still wouldn’t approach the number of his eventual heirs. We Christians believe the one, true spiritual heir of Abraham would be Jesus Christ, the one through whom great blessing would extend throughout the world.
As great as this promise of blessing was, God provided more: a covenant ceremony to confirm and seal the promise. Covenants were a part of the ancient world. Perhaps the most widely used format involved the two parties slaughtering animals, laying out the cut carcasses on the ground, and then each party to the covenant would walk through the dismembered limbs and other body parts. Symbolically they promised that if either broke the covenant, then their own body should be sacrificed just as the animals had been. The ancient Hebrew words literally mean “to cut a covenant.” Incredibly gruesome by today’s standards, but not by theirs!
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. Then the Lord said to Abram, “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; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 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, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” –vss. 7-21
On the first Sunday of each month in my Christian denomination (Community of Christ) we share in Communion. You may know it as the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. It recalls the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples the night he was arrested, which led to his trial, crucifixion, and eventually his resurrection. A primary reason we do this is to remember and renew the covenant we, as disciples, made with Jesus Christ at our baptism. Christian baptism, involving water (whether by sprinkling or full immersion, as is the case in my faith tradition) reenacts symbolically the death and rising to new life experienced by Jesus two thousand years ago. This is a long way from the ancient practice of cutting up animals as a covenant ceremony but the two are not totally unrelated.
As strange as this story of Abram in Genesis 15 is to us today, we can much more easily relate to the idea of divine blessings and promises, not just in that moment, but for generations to come. From the time of Abram through the Hebrew prophets to Jesus of Nazareth to the early Christian church to today, God’s promised blessings have been carefully kept and handed on to future generations. In that sense they and we have been stewards. What God began so long ago with promised blessings as numerous as the stars in the night sky are every bit as relevant now as then. And they will be for our heirs, if we are wise and dutiful stewards.
Note: It’s my turn to preach in my home congregation, Colonial Hills Community of Christ, this Sunday morning. If you’re anywhere near Blue Springs, Missouri, please come join us at the Lord’s table (it’s open to all who follow Jesus Christ, by the way).