For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 2 – Genesis 15:1-21
There are probably many things you want from God, and, I’m guessing, many which you haven’t received, despite your yearning for them, perhaps over many years. But this passage about unanswered prayer isn’t quite in the same league as that. It isn’t just about something Abraham and Sarah wanted: it is about something which God had promised. Back in Genesis 12:7 God had specifically promised a new land for Abraham’s descendants. As far as they were concerned this was nothing short of a promise of a miracle, because they had never been able to have children (Sarah is the first of several significant women in the Bible who were unable to conceive) and now they were getting on and well past the normal child-bearing age.
Genesis 15 begins ‘After these things …’ There had certainly been quite a few ‘things’. Abraham had continued his travels, had lived in Egypt as famine drove him there, had seen Pharaoh plagued, moved into the desert, fell out with Lot, then rescued him. He had met with the mysterious Melchizedek, and disputed with the King of Sodom. He had been through so much, but God’s promise had still not been fulfilled. This is the nature of his interaction with God in our reading. This wasn’t merely about God not answering prayer, or answering it negatively. This was about God breaking his promises. We might from time to time feel peeved because God hasn’t given us something we want, but when he has promised to but then reneged on that promise, things move onto a whole new level of hurt.
It is interesting that God breaks the angry silence, and allows Abraham to speak out his pain. He seems more concerned that a slave will get his inheritance than he does about the lack of a child, but underlying this is a serious beef with God – you promised something to me, so where is it? Or will my slave get it instead of me? What an indignity that would be!
So God reiterates his promise, and spells it out very clearly – your heir will be your natural son, not an adopted one. And Abraham believed him. He chose to believe what God said over the natural circumstances, which is a pretty good definition of faith. All the evidence points one way, but I choose to believe God instead. But then comes the supplementary question: I do believe this, but how can I know? Faith is one thing, but knowing is something very different. I love the somewhat cynical definition of faith as ‘believing what you know isn’t true’, but the saying has a point. How do we turn faith into knowing? That’s the $64,000 question.
Well for Abraham faith moved to knowing because God moved from a promise to a covenant. The Hebrew literally means ‘cutting’ a covenant, and it was the custom then literally to cut an animal in half, and walk through the blood and guts between the two halves. It was a bit like ‘cross my heart and hope to die’. If I ever break this covenant, may I be cut in half just as this animal has been. God, invisible as so often in smoke and fire, passes between the two piles of bloody meat, and makes the solemn deal: I will give all this land to your (I can hear it in italics: your) descendants, all of this land, or I’ll die. At least until the next chapter, where Abraham takes things into his own hands and decides to help God out, he seems satisfied that God’s promise will come to pass.
Our lectionary omits some key verses, 13-16, which it is important that we put back in, because in this prophetic look into the future God subverts any idea that Abraham’s prayer will be answered any time soon. Your offspring will be given this land, but not before 400 years of slavery and oppression. You think you’ve had to wait a long time to have your promised son? Well that’s nothing compared to the wait before this promise of mine comes to birth.
This is a strange passage, but I reckon it does tell us two important truths about unanswered prayer. Sometimes we don’t get what we want so much because God has never said we will get it. That isn’t so much unanswered prayer as unfulfilled wishful thinking. In an age when ‘the word of the Lord is rare’ we find it hard to hear his promises to us, but we can’t complain if something we fancy doesn’t happen. If God hasn’t promised, who are we to ask? But even when we know he has spoken, it’s human nature to want it now. God needs to remind Abraham, and perhaps us too, that he works on a different timescale from us. Frustrating, I know. But a really important lesson for us to learn.