Just a bit of a diversion to begin with….This passage includes some very bizarre language about cutting up animals and separating them. So just a brief explanation. This was a way of making a valid contract in the Ancient Near East. Each contractual party would walk between the pieces of cut flesh and would, by doing so, invoke the same fate for themselves as had happened to those animals, if they did not stick to their side of the bargain. God passes between these bits of flesh in the form of a burning torch. This is how he makes his covenant with Abraham!
But that is really beside the point. Next to this rather gory language is one of the most important sentences in the whole of Scripture : ‘and Abram believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness’.
What is Abram (who later is renamed by God ‘Abraham’) believing?
Some history…Abram had been called by God to leave his own country and set off to Canaan a land about which he knew nothing…..but the Lord continued to promise Abram that the land of Canaan would belong to Abram’s descendants. He had trusted God and prospered on the way.
But there is one area in which he is completely lost in which God’s promise is getting more and more unlikely. We see in it verse 5; Abram has been appealing to God because of his childlessness; not even one child, how could he possibly be the father of generations?
In a society and culture in which your significance depended not just upon your wealth and possessions but on the number of your children, particularly your sons. Abram has no children at all…..
But God asked him to look towards the heavens…
What could make us feel more insignificant than looking at the sky at night…the thousands of stars, as we hurtle through space on our tiny mud planet?
God says “look toward the heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them”. Then he said to him, “so shall your descendants be”.
An astonishing prophesy; but very unlikely for an elderly man with an elderly wife with no children
but the key is that Abram believed God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.
This Genesis passage is quoted by St Paul in Romans and Galatians and by St James in his letter.
It is in many respects a foundation stone of Christian belief that the good things we do do not earn our way into God’s affections; into getting into a right relationship with God because we can never do enough….but by believing God, by trusting him….the Lord treats us as if we had cloaked ourselves in righteousness more comprehensively than we ever could by doing good things for other people, by living well….
But why does God work in this way?
St Paul explains in Romans 4:2. If Abraham had made himself righteous by his own efforts, by his works, by the good things he had done, he would have had something to boast about…..It would have been Abraham who was in control. Not God. Abraham would have had a claim against God because of what he had done.
In fact, this was the way that in the ancient world people engaged with their gods. They thought ‘if we sacrifice animals or even our children’ if we sacrifice them, as the Canaanites, the worshippers of Molech did, then our god is obligated to send us rain for our crops or bring the famine to an end…’
But the God of Abraham, the true God, has a very different standard from those imagined by the peoples in the Ancient Near East for their gods. The one true God’s favour towards us is not dependent upon what we sacrifice, what we do, but is just grace; just his love…..something he gives us even though we don’t deserve it. And the way that we access that grace is by repenting of our sinfulness and by trusting him; by believing his promises. This is how we please him. This is how we can draw close to him.
When we grasp this, everything is different. As it was for Abram, so it can be for us.
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.” 2 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?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 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.” 5 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.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 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; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 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, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ge 15:1–21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.