This week’s readings are here.
One of my most memorable worship experiences is connected with this story from Genesis. I was still a layperson at the time, member of an Episcopal Church. I remember looking around the congregation and as the description of the covenant ceremony was being read, catching the eyes of a parishioner on the other side of the church. Her eyes grew wider and wider, a look of puzzlement on her face. She wanted to know something about this strange story. The reading ended. The service continued, and the preacher got up and had nothing to say about it, or as I recall, any of the other lessons read that day. That experience cemented for me the conviction that one of the preacher’s greatest obligations is to engage directly the hard questions raised in or by a text.
The story tells of the covenant Yahweh made with Abram. It’s a promise by God to give Abram a son, to make of his descendants a mighty nation, and also to give to them the promised land. Although covenant is a key theme in scripture, it’s almost as strange a notion to moderns as the subsequent description of the ceremony. We might think of it as a treaty, for in many cases, biblical covenants share a great deal with ancient treaties that have been discovered. At its heart is God’s promise. As we see in this text, Abram has a hard time trusting in that promise. He wants to work out his descendants on his own (here in c. 15, later with Ishmael, too). Here, Yahweh shows him the stars in the sky, and says, “So shall your descendants be.” And in that powerful verse used later by Paul, “Abram believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Then comes the ceremony. Abram splits animals in half, lays them out, and “a smoking fire pot and a torch passed between these pieces.” In ancient covenant ceremonies, parties to the treaty passed between similarly-killed animals and promised that if they broke the covenant, the offender would be destroyed as these animals were killed.
In this eerie story, we encounter both the otherness of the text and the otherness of God. Various details contribute to its spookiness–Abraham falls into deep sleep, there’s a terrifying darkness. The story’s ambiguity contributes to its strangeness. Does this take place in a dream, a vision?
In spite of all of that strangeness and other-ness, relics of a far distant age, there is also reassurance. There is God’s promise, and those wonderful words, Abram believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Here “righteousness” doesn’t have to do with holiness, but rather with being in right relationship with God. Whatever his doubts now or in the future, Yahweh’s promise to Abram will remain true, and Abram will know that God is with him, and he with God.
It’s a reassuring message in Lent as well. Invited to reflect on our lives, we are also encouraged to encounter and experience God’s promise to us of salvation, and the grace that is offered us in Jesus Christ.