I had grand plans for this sermon. We were going to dive in deep and get messy in this crazy and complicated text. We were going to talk about the three C’s that I ever so creatively thought up: Covenant, Chosen-ness, and Community
What do these words mean? How do these three concepts relate to one another
in the context of this passage? If it had all gone my way then the title of this sermon that I had chosen (ha) early on would have made sense. But it didn’t go my way and now it doesn’t make sense. But that’s ok.
A sermon is more than a clever title and fancy word play. At the heart a sermon is about telling the Story, so that’s what I’m going to do, tell the Story.
Last Sunday we were with Jesus in the wilderness, this Sunday we are still in the wilderness, if you just rewind about 500+ years. Today we start with Noah, or Noah’s grandson, rather. Today we start with Abram, whose name means “lofty father”. Later, God re-names Abram as Abraham, which means “father of many.”
Which makes the Father Abraham song:
Father Abraham has many sons,
Many sons have father Abraham, etc.
—which I will probably never get out of my head now—
Father, father of many, has many sons
Anyway, before this passage, God came to Abram and the first thing God said to Abram was that he needed to pack up all his things and move. Why? Because God said so and Abram will get lots of sons and land.
So he did. I like to think that Abram was really bored, that he didn’t really know what was getting himself into, but this was the first exciting thing to ever happen to him, so he just went with it.
Then Abram had to go and save his son Lot from four kings, and accidentally ends up being a war hero.After this strange interlude God appears to Abram again, telling Abram not to be afraid because God was his shield and his reward will be great.
Without missing a beat Abram jumps into this accusation of sorts towards God. Basically he says, “What reward? My wife is old. I will not have children and I will end up with having a servant of my house as the one accepting my inheritance.
This is when I wish we had some indicator of Hebrew sarcasm. Was Abram being serious that a servant would take over for him? Or was he just being dramatic? Surely there was some other relative or qualified person that could accept the inheritance if there wasn’t an heir. But I guess we will never know just how sassy Abram was.
Either way God responds graciously; “Yes you will have an heir, a true heir of your blood. In fact,” God says, “come out and look at the night sky. You see the stars? Count them. That is the number of descendants you will have.”
And Abram believed God which, in God’s eyes, made Abram a righteous man. Then God started talking about land. God says that Abram was called to receive the land he desires.“But how will I know you will make good on your promises?” Asks Abram
In response God told Abram to collect certain animals and cut them in two. Lovely, I know. Tired, I guess, after all of the animal sacrifice, Abram falls into a deep, dark sleep where God continues to talk to him in his dreams.
God then tells Abram what the future of his people will look like, that they will be aliens in a land that is not theirs, slaves for 400 years. However God will free them and Abram will die in peace.
I am not sure if Abram was still dreaming or not, but next he sees fire pass between his laid-out animal sacrifices. I visualize this as a wedded couple walking down the isle
with their friends and family on either side of them. Which is a slightly different image than one of the poor, halved animals.
The point of all of this was for God to create a covenant with Abram promising him both descendants and land. The End.
Now that I told the story I can tell you that I don’t like it. Which is not really true.
More accurately I would say that I don’t like the way this story has been used.
For one, patriarchy.
This story has been used to defend the practice of passing down land and property through the male lineage, with the assumption that the man is the one with the power in the household. We see this today in the struggle many women face when they want to keep their last name.
Another struggle is the interpretation that Abram’s conquest of land, that wasn’t his, was God ordained. This has been the blueprint for European Christians who sailed their boats to the coveted “promise land” that is the Americas. Upon arrival they claimed the land as their own and killed the local people because they believed it was their God-given right to do so.
Finally, the concept of the “promise land” given to Abram has henceforth caused war over Jerusalem, resulting in the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am sure this is a simplistic way to put it, but there is no doubt that this passage has played a significant role in the ongoing discord.
So how do we wade through all the blood that this passage has shed? Patriarchy, colonialism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are massive problems. Where is the Light in this passage? The Divine Good news.
The turning point in my studies was when I stopped looking at Abram to find the good news. He confuses me. He is this accidental war hero who keeps giving up his wife to kings, desperately clinging to this idea that to have meaning in his life he must pass on his inheritance to a male son. Then when he then gets his male son, he tries to sacrifice him to the very God who gave him the son in the first place.
Abram trusted God, almost to the point of insanity yet at the same time he also argues with God a lot. And he makes God provide proof for the things God has promised. Yes he is a product of his day, yes there were many cultural and religious factors at play, but is this man really to be our model for righteousness?
I know that somewhere inside this story of Abram, there is a real model for faithfulness, but when I stopped pulling my hair out looking for a glimmer, a sliver, of something that can be useful and hopeful for us today, then I saw that the life of the text shines from God. Literally shining, burning, flickering in the form of a fire-pot (whatever that is) and a torch.
The strange ceremony that Noah and God went through was a common way for two or more parties to make a covenant. Covenant, a binding, a relationship, a promise. The sacrifice of animals, of cutting them in two, followed by the promising party walking down the middle, represented the consequence that one would suffer if the promising party broke their side of the covenant.
If you break the covenant you are sacrificed, split in two.
This is like a pinky-swear times a million, where there is no guarantee that you would get to keep your pinky. All of this makes the covenantal ceremony of marriage look like a cake walk (which is actually kind of what it is when you think of it…).
The point is that nowhere in planning for a wedding do you spend the time picking out what animals would best represent how we would be cut in two if we got cold feet. This is a deadly-serious ceremony.
But there is something strange about the way God and Abram went about making this covenant. Notice how God is the one who initiates the covenant. God is the active party, Abram the passive receptor of the promise.
The covenant is still a binding relationship between Abram and God, but it is God who will take the fall if the covenant is broken. This was not the only covenant made by God and God’s people. This was one of the first of many, many covenants. The theme of covenant in the Bible is multivalent and complicated.
There are some covenants that were considered conditional, others unconditional.
And people broke these covenants over and repeatedly. In various ways. Somehow this didn’t dissuade God from continuing making covenants. From trying again. Soon the mark of the covenant would be circumcision, which seems like a random, strange way of marking a promise, but we have to remember how serious these promises were.
The word “covenant” literally means “to cut”. So, to show that they were God’s people they would cut the covenant into their skin.
Their bodies were altered as proof in their faith. The women, of course, were obviously so faithful that they had no need to show it off, or prove that they were part of God’s people.
However this exterior sign wasn’t enough. God’s people needed it cut into their hearts. “I will cut my law, my covenant on their hearts.”The law, the way of life as someone chosen, someone who said “yes” to a life of relationship with God, was also supposed to set them apart.
It was supposed to be a blessing to shine the light for others. But then law became a god and the covenant, intended for relationship, became a means of exclusion.
These covenants became so twisted from their original intent in the hands of humans, that the light of the world—intended to bless others and light the way, was used to burn others to the ground.
Any semblance of the covenantal relationship God originally intended was shattered. Therefore someone had to take the fall, someone had to accept the consequences of breaking such a deep promise. To spare us this devastation, God took the fall. God was cut in half and made into a sacrifice. God took on the consequence, so we didn’t have to.
Jesus came and said at the Last Supper, “This cup is the cup of the new covenant poured out in my blood.” That covenant couldn’t be stopped by the sacrifice, by being cut in two. The fire of God could not be contained, extinguished. It lives on. It is all around us and in each of us.
This passage comes with dark, violent baggage that cannot be ignored. It has been used as a weapon, as an exclusive boundary marker, as fuel for entitlement. But that is what we humans have painted onto this ancient story. The very same humans who broke covenant with our maker.
When I realize that I have been wrestling with a particularly difficult text,
when I am twisting it and turning it and bending it and demanding that it bless me like Jacob did when he wrestled God,Then I stop “reading” the text and ask myself, “How does this text read me?” This is a vulnerable way to approach the Bible, because you may realize that you were forcing the text in the same way you judged those who have forced the text on others, those who have forced people out of their land, who have forced women to carry on their lineage.
When I let the text read me, it reads a woman on her knees, in awe of a God who listens to hearts, to dreams. A God who readily makes promises, who enters into relationship with fallible human beings.
A God who takes on the consequence of a broken covenant to spare us pain. A God who simply loves us too much to ever give up on us.
That is how the story reads me.
How does it read you?
“Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 by Ralph W. Klein.” Accessed March 13, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1599.
“Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 by Rolf Jacobson.” Accessed March 12, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4001.
“Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 by W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.” Accessed March 13, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=521.
“Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 by William Yarchin.” Accessed March 13, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2762.
Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli Palestinian Conflict
From Father to Son: Kinship, Conflict, and Continuity in Genesis
Genesis: A Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series)
Edited by Athalya Brenner
Believers Church Bible Commentary
Eugene F. Roop
Introduction and Commentary by A.S. Herbert: Professor of Old Testament Literature and Religion in the Selly Oak Collees
People of the Covenant: An Introduction to the Old Testament
Henry Jackson Flanders, Jr., Robert Wilson Crapps, and David Anthony Smith
Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible
The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis
Leon R. Kass
 I am referencing Jeremiah 31: 33 here.