Abraham, Faith, and the Hope Deferred

I ended the article, The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I Am, with a promise to come back to the story of Abraham and Isaac one more time. Recall that Abraham had the intuition to tell Isaac “God would provide” when Isaac asked him where the lamb was for the sacrifice.

We do not know whether Abraham really believed what he told Isaac, whether he was simply being hopeful, or whether he was merely dodging Isaac’s question. We learn in Sunday school that Abraham truly believed it. Perhaps, that is the right answer.

I say that, not because of a Sunday lesson, but because of Abraham’s experience and particularly his experience with God in moments of great doubt and angst. One such moment was described in Genesis Chapter 15. The set up is interesting.

Four kings conspired together to attack Sodom and Gomorrah. They attacked and routed the inhabitants, seizing their goods and carrying off Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his possessions. (Genesis 14:5-12) Abram (as he was still known at the time) responded immediately with “318 trained men in his household”. He pursued them, routed them, pushing them all the way to Damascus, and recovered Lot and all the goods. (Genesis 14:13-16

Melchizedek, “priest of the God Most High”, pronounced Abraham blessed by “God Most High”, and Abram tithed a tenth to him. (Genesis 14:18-20) After this great victory and blessing from Melchizedek, we read that the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield [sovereign],
    your very great reward.”

Genesis 15:1

We might expect Abram to be exalting in the afterglow of his decisive routing of the four kings and blessing by Melchizedek, but he wasn’t. Abram appears to be struggling with the lack of fulfillment of the promises God gave him so many years before.

Abram is human. He has held onto the promise, but his faith is waning. The doubts are rising. Though God had just given him an encouraging word, Abram is focused on the unfulfilled promise:

“But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?'”

Genesis 15:2

The text continues with Abram still talking. That means God hasn’t responded, and so Abram continues:

“And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.'”

Genesis 15:3

Finally, God breaks in, telling Abraham that his legacy would come from his own flesh and blood, taking Abram outside to look at the sky and telling him his offspring would be like the stars. (Genesis 15:4-5)

We are told that Abram believed in that moment, and God, who sees the hearts of men and knows the thoughts and the intents of mean’s hearts, credited that belief to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6) God also reminded Abram that He brought Abram out of Ur to the land Abram stood on to give it to him. (Genesis 15:7)

Though Abram believed, and though God had just given him more assurance, Abram kept pressing:

But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?’”

Genesis 15:8

It wasn’t for lack of belief that Abram kept pressing God. We were just told Abram believed. In fact, this was the very moment that God credited Abram with righteousness for his faith!

At the same time, Abram was pressing God for something more than a bare promise. Doubt is not the absence of faith, and pressing God for assurance is not a lack of faith. I hear echoes here of another father who cried out for his son when Jesus promised deliverance, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

God doesn’t rebuke Abram, and he doesn’t take away the righteousness God had just credited to Abram. In the same vein, Jesus didn’t rebuke the father who asked for help in his believing unbelief. Jesus commended him, and God tells Abram,

“Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Genesis 15:9

If you are scratching your head right now, that is good! God’s response begs for some understanding and insight. Just as Abram pressed God, we should be pressing right now for understanding.

God told Abraham to go get five different animals, without further explanation. The text provides no explanation of what Abraham should do with this assortment of animals, yet Abraham immediately gathers the animals.

Then he proceeds to cut them in half, and sets them opposite each other. (Gen. 15:10)

We should be asking, “Why did he do that?” It turns that a little knowledge of Ancient Near East covenant practices shines some light on what is going on here.

I have been listening to the BEMA Discipleship podcast in which the hosts bring to bear ancient Jewish thought and knowledge of the Ancient Near Eastern culture and practices to explain some of the nuance in the stories in the Old Testament.

Lois Tverberg of the En-Gedi Resource Center observes, “When God reveals Himself to humanity, He uses images and customs that are already known rather than asking people to do something they don’t understand.” Thus, we need to understand what Abram knew and the culture in which he lived to understand more completely what is going on here.

Abram’s unquestioning response suggests he knew exactly what God was asking of him when God identified those five animals. When Abram asked God, “How I will know that I can count on what you are saying?”, God responded by asking Abram to set stage for the making of a covenant.

God was prompting Abram to make (literally “cut”) a covenant that was well known in the Ancient Near East and is still observed in some Middle Eastern areas today.

The animals would be cut in half and placed opposite each other on either side of a depression in the ground. The blood of the animals would drain into the depression, and both parties to the covenant would walk through the path of blood to enter into the covenant. Then, the animals would be cooked and eaten to celebrate the new covenant between them.

Such a covenant involves a greater party and a lesser party. This type of ritual covenant was often used for a pledge of marriage. The covenant was entered into between the father of the bride and the groom. The father of the bride is the greater party. He has the upper hand. He has what the groom wants, and the groom is the lesser party.

To consummate the covenant, both parties would don white robes. The lesser party, the groom, would go first. He would stomp through the blood filled trench, splashing blood up onto his robe.

The meaning of this act is to demonstrate a commitment to respect and honor the bride with the groom’s very life. The groom is basically saying, “May it be so done to me if I do not honor and respect her.”

The father of the bride would go next, stomping through the blood path in the same way. The father would be representing to the groom that his daughter is a virgin. He would be saying, essentially, “May it be so done to me, if you find that she is not a virgin as represented.”

This may seem like a strange ritual to us, but I am told that groups of Bedouins in the Middle East still perform these kinds of covenants. Regardless, the covenant ritual was familiar to Abram, and it had meaning that he was able to associate with his interaction with God.

Abram knew what to do without asking a question when God instructed him to gather the animals. He “cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other….”(Gen. 15:10), but then the text takes a curious turn.

The next verse jumps strangely (without interruption or explanation in the text) to Abraham driving away “birds of prey” that “came down on the carcasses. (Genesis 15:11) We might be tempted to gloss over this odd entry, but we shouldn’t do that.

The text suggests that substantial time had elapsed. The animals lay there long enough that Abram had to drive the birds of prey away! The next thing we know the sun is setting and Abram falls asleep. (Gen. 15:12) We should be prompted to wonder, “What is going on here? “

Abram was obviously the lesser party. He should have gone first, but nothing is happening. Either Abram went first, and God remained unmoving, or Abram didn’t go.

The text says nothing of Abram going through the blood path, as should be expected. This is the common interpretation, but what was Abraham waiting for?

Certainly, he shouldn’t have expected God to go first. That would be the height of arrogance – to consider God the lesser party!

According to the BEMA podcast, Abram may have been second guessing this covenant he was about to make. The significance of the commitment may have weighed heavily on him as he went through the motions of preparing the covenant, giving him time to think through what he had asked God and what God was asking him to do.

A person don’t enter into commitments with God lightly!

We get a clue to Abram’s state of mind in the description of, “a thick and dreadful darkness” which “came over him”. (Gen. 15:12) Perhaps, Abram hesitated to initiate the covenant because he was not confident he could keep it. Perhaps, Abram was counting the cost of his own failure. Perhaps, he wasn’t sure what his part of the bargain would be.

One thing is sure: whatever the bargain would be, Abram would be committing his life to it. Abram would be saying, “May you kill me and stomp on my blood if I don’t do it!” It’s understandable that Abram would be hesitant.

We are told he fell into a fitful sleep, and dreamt. In the dream, God came to him and said:

“Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old  In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

Genesis 15:13-16

Is this the greater assurance Abram was looking for? God says 400 years would pass before the promise is fulfilled! What kind of assurance is that?!

Maybe the detail provided some assurance, but Abram surely wouldn’t have taken much consolation in that. He would be long dead and gone!

I am sorry to keep a reader in suspense, but this article is a bit long in the tooth already. I suppose delaying the conclusion is in keeping with the theme of a hope deferred. You could read forward to the end of Genesis Chapter 15 on your own, but I will get there if you stick with me and read the next article.

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