Sunday, August 08, 2010

What did Abram see?

This is a long post about preaching, and more specifically, about Genesis 15. While not intended for a “technical” audience – it will only be of interest to those who might have vested interested in preaching/teaching/interpreting Genesis 15 for a faith community. Be advised.


What did Abram see?

Which view of the sky did Abram look upon?

Was it this?

Or this?

I have decided to take a few moments here to comment on a particular issue from a Biblical text. Why? Because this particular text in the Bible, Genesis 15 – is understood in Jewish and Christian communities as being uniquely important.

In Genesis 15 – just a few chapters after God has beckoned (“called”) Abram – to separate out from his family to become the unique extension of God’s blessing, God covenants with Abram. Several important chapters happen in the context of Abram’s life – each of which becomes significant – many of which have connections to other stories and theological issues in the rest of the Hebrew and Christian Scripture. Abram and his life become a kind of model for thinking about faith – for being a believer. I have explored in other settings the fact that in the stories associated with Abram, God only reveals details of Abram’s journey to Abram as Abe steps out in faith. That is, if you read across the story, God only gets more specific about issues in Abram’s life as Abram *acts* on his call. So, for example, notice God’ call is very generic with respect to place in Genesis 12 – but in Genesis 13 (and elsewhere, later) place and location become much more specific as Abram has acted and followed. (This, in itself is an important lesson from Abe’s life. God reveals God’s future Abe steps into that future with God.)

The story of how a “covenant” and even “The Covenant” with Abram is most particularly central in Genesis 15. This chapters marks a unique theophany – a vision of God where a unique covenantal act/event will demarcate God and Abram in relationship. In the stories associated with Abram, several enactments of covenant and theophanic encounters (conversations) that take place(note how later, in Genesis 17, a greater specificity to covenant takes place with circumcision – a cutting covenant – and, worthy of note – the expectation from human persons to be circumcised (cut) comes after God has already passed through the “cut” up carcasses here in Genesis 15. One might argue that God only expects the cutting/circumcision of human persons after God has already placed Godself in the space of having been cut for the sake of extending Covenant. Circumcision, then, on a minor level might be argued as doing nothing more (nor less) than what God has demonstrated in a kind of kenotic way for and toward relationship with Abram.)

The end of chapter 15 has received much space in the scholarly (and commentary) literature regarding what goes on between Abram and God – and how this “suzerain treaty” functions. This is important.

But I want to call our attention to the conversation that precedes the covenantal action - to the words of Abram and God in the first part of chapter 15. In conversation with an orthodox Jewish friend, we discussed this conversation between God and Abram and while he may not agree with my interpretation of this passage (as outlined here) – he did concede with me that the conversation that takes place between Abram and God is more than casual speech. As I characterize it, the speech between Abram and God is disputatious.” This does not have to mean that either party is “mad” nor that either party is “emotional.” Neither does it have to meant that either party is accusing the other of wrong or malice. But, the speech is more than casual, I would argue. It is contested and even an argumentative speech between Abram and God.

I believe this contested conversation between Abram and God has been too often passed over – and perhaps misread – in light of the entire context of treaty making and in the context of the larger “vision” (Gen 15:1). Perhaps, in light of interpretation that has decontextualized this passage, we’ve even mis-read and perhaps misinterpreted what it is that Abram sees when he is sent to count the stars. The issue of counting the stars “if you are able” is central to my reading here.

Let me qualify – when I say the text is mis-read, I have only a *nuance* of difference that I want to cite (and will do so here) – but that nuance is distinctive. Distinctive enough to justify this article.

We need, then, to better discern and re-read the context of Genesis 15.

In Genesis 14, Abram has acted in order to save Lot. The text makes no hint that what Abram does is because God inspired him or because God offered him any surety or strength. Rather, acting on his own merits – Abram takes his household men and three hundred and eighteen of them – and sets out to defend his extended family.

Abram and, yes, 318 trained men! Not just men. Trained men. “Born” in his household. Stop for a minute. Think. That is a lot of men! That’s at least 6 classrooms full of students – or about 3x the number of persons on a professional NFL football team! And these 318 trained men are born in his household! And with these trained men, they “pursue” or “chase” Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him!

This is quite an attack! 318 trained men, led by Abram, with no directive from God, pursuing 4 kings who had just been victorious! The text notes, as well, that 5 kings (each are cited individually) tried to defeat the 4 and were not successful, but Abram – (not a king!) with h is 318 men sets out after the four kings on his own – and he, Abram is able to defeat the four kings, though the five kings were unsuccessful. This is an important story! Talk about military success! And, note well, what Abram does – he does so without any injunction or instruction from God.

After his success - *then* God appears in the extended “vision” or theophany we read in Genesis 15.

Before I share more about chapter 15 I need for a moment to comment on this “vision.” This can be interpreted both as a kind of “dream” vision or as a theophanic sighting from everyday. That is, this could be something that took place in an everyday – but unique event in Abram’s daily life, as when he greets visitors who sit down for a meal before they head off to the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah. Or, this vision can be interpreted as a kind of “sleep” like “trance” that Abram experiences – in line with other visions sometimes given to other prophets or persons in other stories of the Bible. For me, because later in this extended vision, Abram is explicitly stated to go to sleep – and because he in this conversation both is taken outside and gathers animals (that seem to be real and not imaginary), I understand this vision to be of the former variety – namely, a vision of God that is theophanic and miraculous, but which nevertheless happens among the everyday events of Abram’s life. (Perhaps like Moses seeing the burning bush in Exodus 3 while he tends to the sheep near Horeb, here Abram encounters miraculous (the smoking firepot) alongside common events of the day, like going outside to count “if” he is able.)

Back then, to the context, after individually choosing to act with his own men – apart from any revelation from God – to save Lot and defeat kings – only *after* this does God come to Abram to say, “Do not be afraid. I am your shield your very great reward.” (This is the only time God tells Abram to not be afraid – and the same instruction given to Hagar, and later to Abram’s descendants.) What is curious in this passage is the fact that the commendation for Abram to not be afraid – comes *after* and not before Abram had acted with bravery and valor in fighting the kings – saving Lot and possessions. We should expect God’s promise for lack of fear to have come at the moment of threat – as for example it comes with Hagar in Genesis 16 or, with Moses in Exodus 14 or later with Joshua, or even later with Samuel or David. But, the provision regarding not being afraid comes only *after* Abram has acted without fear!

Taken in this way, then, we have to explore at some level, the motives or feelings or perspectives of Abram.

It is certainly possible that Abram had the thought or idea that God was his protector or shield prior to this announcement from God – but it is nowhere textually explicit. God had made notes of promise to Abram which may, certainly have given him a sense of courage – but nowhere had God promised to be Abram’s shield. In the story of Abram’s military conquest, then, Abram seems fully confident in his own strength and the strength of his 318 trained men. Abram does not need a promissory note from God to act, Abram seems fully confident in his own strength – and the strength of his own house for action.

This becomes important, then, as a prefatory note to reading the disputatious conversation between Abram and God, I argue, because it is possible to read Abram and bring this “strength” to his conversation with God as a form of conversational “chutzpah” – a tone and demeanor might characterize Abram whereby his feeling reflects, at some level, “I can stand on my own, God.”

After God indicates that God is the “shield” for Abram – one might expect (or even hope) that Abram’s reply would be something on the level of “Well, Thanks God.” Or, perhaps, even a simple, “Yes!” But, that is not what Abram says.

God’s promise of being a shield, too, is coupled with the note from God that Abram’s reward will be great. But remember, Abram, we have *just* been told, already has 318 trained men in his household at his disposal – and he has just successfully taken all the possessions (loot!) from the kings he conquered. Abram lets three named men who had gone with him, take their share, but the text asserts that Abram takes nothing. In the textual narrative, Abram does not need (or want) more stuff – whatever the reward might be – and Abram does not need God’s promise to be his shield to empower or en-courage him to fight. Abram, it seems, can well stand on his own.

That rightly understood, then, we can perhaps better interpret the *tone* of the reply that Abram gives to God – because Abram’s reply suggests (it seems to me) what I have asserted – that Abram does not need strength, household men, or possessions. What Abram needs, he voices!

Abram’s voice of appeal to God comes with force, “What will you give me? Behold! . . . childless . . . . You have given me no offspring!”

This, I would suggest is a disputation. Perhaps it is characterized in an appeal – but it is not casual nor light-hearted! This is a problem for Abram – and it invokes more by nature of argument or dispute than friendly salutation!

Understood contextually, Abram does not need possessions or courage, Abram needs a son/seed! And, this son/seed, says Abram is the one thing that Abram notes that God has “not given.”

The three statements of Abram might be truncated to better discern their verbal dispute! “Give? Childless! You have not given!” says Abram.

“Childless,” I am!

Whether or not Abram is “mad” or “emotional” is not stated in the text - and that tone cannot be read categorically. But, what is clear is the fact that Abram holds God to account for not having given! And for not having given what Abram wants/needs – a child/seed/son!

To this retort, God replies that “one of [Abrams] own issue[innards] will be heir.”
God, as it were, is responding to Abram’s complaint! Not a slave, but one of his own will be his heir.

God then sends Abram out. (My Jewish friend provided enlightenment to me regarding this idea of sending Abram out. Among other items he noted, include rabbinic tradition that God takes Abram “outside” the realm of normal human seeing to the place above the skies – to the great expanse. While intriguing and certainly not an impossibility – I explore the text differently here. I explore the text as though Abram and God are having a conversation in Abram’s tent. Though not explicit, it is from this place that another conversation takes place between Abram and God so is possible here. Further, in none of the other conversations that God has with Abram – from Genesis 12 to Genesis 22 – is it understood that Abram and God converse outside normal parameters of life’s circumstances – so it seems curious to interpret “outside” as outside earthly normalcy in this text.)

“Outside” – understood as being in the context of standing outside his tent, God commands Abram to count the stars, “if you are able.”

It is precisely this portion of the text, I contend, that is perhaps misread to appropriate nuance.

This passage, as it is commonly interpreted, claims that God sends Abram out to count the multitude of the stars in the sky – and, unable to count them in their multiplicity – God gives a promise to Abram. The text is most often interpreted, thereby to suggest that in their magnanimity – God has promised to Abram that God’s promise is sure – though the breadth and scope of it seem impossible to this childless man. Thereby, then, this passage is read and interpreted as being about God’s promise – God’s provision – God’s productivity for Abram – it will be countable, though ultimately uncountable because of size! But, it can be seen! Look at *all* of them. The promise, it is argued, is sure based on the shear scope of size! This passage then, is interpreted to suggest, then, that this text is about the surety of God’s promise that could be *seen* by Abram - and by others (like us) who are later believers. As this passage is commonly taught, then, later believers in this tradition can trust God’s promises even for our lives because God can “show” it in its largeness!

The next verse is important. “Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Understood as Abram stepping out to see all the stars – but seeing them he is unable to count them, this passage is interpreted as Abram “believing God” because of what Abram has seen in the sky. God can be trusted because God has given the grounds of belief – the proof of God’s claim – namely the stars in the sky – and therefore Abram believes and it is credited to him as righteousness – and God will now come in the suzerain treaty setting which follows.


What if this is not what happens in the passage?

What if we have failed to read the passage in its total context?

What if we explore the entire passage and read it with full integrity for what it does and does not explicitly say?

We must note carefully two items in the text. (1) God’s response to Abram’s terse and tense reply is for Abram to count the stars, “if you are able.” And I would suggest, this is a retort from God to Abram’s caustic “Give? Childless. You have not given” directed to God!

Imagine, if you can, the tone that comes with a parent saying to a child, “Because I said so!” It is a tone like that, I suggest, that is possible for reading the tone of God’s retort to Abram’s casuistic statement God.

And, (2), and crucial to this reading of the text in its context, we read later in this passage – in two places v. 12 and v. 17 – that after this conversation transpires – later but not in a separate day or separate vision – the sun was going down and the sun had gone down and it was dark. (This is a separate claim than the “deep and terrifying darkness” that descended upon Abram in his deep sleep.)

Understood in its context, then – the passage where God appears to Abram with the promise of shield and great reward, happens (at least as it is constructed in the text) during the day. Abram steps outside (perhaps the tent) in the full-light of day. The sun is out!

Now, I will admit that it is not an explicit statement of the text that the sun is out – but it is an explicit statement of the text – twice – that later the sun sets. What is more – in other passages where God appears in theophanies in the Hebrew Bible – the text is clear to outline the time of day when God does appear – so that we are told when it is a dream or when it is either mid-day or overnight. (Contrast, for example, the dreams of Pharaoh or the theophany at Peniel – Notice two other passages where God promises to “not be afraid” – in Genesis 21 it seems clear it is mid-day with Hagar – and with Isaac in Genesis 26 the text is clear that this happens “that night” – though we don’t know what time of day (sunset or before, explicitly). In Genesis 15 we at least have to honestly explore the possibility – that God sends Abram out at mid-day – to count the stars.

As already noted, traditionally this text has been interpreted as Abram’s inability to count the stars because they are too numerous. The text has been interpreted as demonstrating that what is beyond Abram’s ability to *count* is fully within God’s ability to count. This text has been interpreted as suggesting that what is, thereby “impossible” for Abram to do – namely count, God can easily do.

But, what if impossibility is discerned *differently* in this text and the nuance of that “impossibility” is different?

What if, as the text at least leaves open for interpretation, God sends Abram out at mid-day (say, noontime) to count the stars? At mid-day, for other reasons of impossibility, Abram is unable to count the stars. At mid-day Abram cannot count that which Abram cannot see! At midday no stars are within his vision. (While I am fully aware that the “sun” is a “star” – of course any ancient person would not have known this – so the persons who might contend that Abram could see “one” star is off-mark here.)

*If* the text is understood in this way – then the following verse in the passage – so important in Jewish and Christian practice is also understood in a new nuance.

“Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (This passage gets used again in important ways in Romans 4, Galatians 3, and James 2.)
This passage has been interpreted to mean that – in light of what Abram has been shown – that which he cannot count for its shear breadth and size – Abram believes.

But, understood in light of the time of day – and how faith more often functions in the Canon of the Bible – *if* it is mid-day – and Abram impossibly cannot count the stars, precisely because they are veiled from his sight. Abram cannot see, “if he is able” let alone can he count!

Yet, the text says that he believes! Abram cannot see. To believe, then, in light of this dynamic, means that Abram has to believe God not in view of the magnanimous expanse of God’s vision for him – but, Abram has to believe in *spite* of the ability to count or even *see* the stars. For Abram to believe, then, means that he believes in the *absence* of evidence!

One may argue, of course, that Abram “knew” the stars were out there. One may argue that Abram knew the stars would come within view later that night, when the sun set. But, in this contested speech where Abram has just come back as valiant and perhaps full of his own vigor, God does not invite Abram to count the stars “later tonight,” but “if” – “if” you are able. And, Abram is not able. Abram has challenged God – “Give? Childless. You have not given.” And to the challenge, God retorts with a challenge of his own, “If” –“If you are able, count them, so shall your descendants be.”

Later this “so shall your descendants be” may be used to mean numerous size, as I do think it means in Genesis 22 where it is used differently in the Akedah! But here, I would suggest Abram is *not* able to meet the challenge of God despite his chutzpah and valor in battle. In the text, Abram does not know all! Abram cannot see all. In fact, some things are outside of Abram’s ability to see!

Understood in this way, imagine the speech as I have outlined and then imagine this scene. Abram, who was valorous and victorious – who had 318 trained men and plenty of possessions – begins a conversation with God in his tent (or even under a tree) in the light of day. And, in the middle of this day, Abram steps out to look up into the sky to count the stars. And Abram cannot count them because he cannot see them. Abram stands there. Abram pauses. He waits. Standing in the presence of God (oh, and elsewhere Abram and God stand face to face and have another contest – but that is in Genesis 18 – but it supports the fact that Abram has disputations with God, we have examples of it!) Imagine Abram standing there. Perhaps he stands there for a minute – two minutes – twenty minutes. Like a person who knows they have been caught in an argument. Standing there, unable to count not for their scope and number, but unable to count because they are hidden – in that moment,
Abram believes God.

Abram believes God not in view of the largeness of what he sees, but in light of what he is fundamentally not-able to see. “So shall your descendants be.”
So shall your descendants be, then, is not here a promise of how many – but a note that the descendants for Abram is *not* something he can see!

His faith, then, to “believe” is now understood in a nuance that is importantly distinctive. In other interpretations of this passage, Abram believes because God’s promise is so large. Here, though, understood in this way, Abram believes the mystery of what Abram cannot see. His belief then truly is a credit to his righteousness. He is not righteous for not being able to count! He is righteous for being able to believe without ability to see.

This kind of belief, I would argue, is characteristic of Biblical Faith! Abram does not believe here because God overwhelms Abram with evidence, but in spite of evidence he can visibly see, Abram *trusts* that stars are there, that stars will come out, that the order of the universe is stable . . . even when Abram cannot see.

If, now, apart from evidence, Abram believes – his belief is utterly rooted in trust, hope, and perhaps even – abandon. An abandon that despite his own chutzpah, trusts God for that which he cannot acquire – namely, a solid and clear picture of the future.

These issues, I would note – the inability to discern the future – are central in the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible. Wisdom literature wrestles with the same issue that Abram wrestles with here with God. Wisdom literature, among other things, wrestles with – “How can I know?” “What does the future hold?” “What is your plan, God?” In the Book of Job, Job’s staunch hope is that God would show himself because God lies hidden. And when God does show *much* more and *much* different than what Job wanted to see, Job is overwhelmed.

And here in Genesis 15 – as in Wisdom Literature – God does not answer but remains hidden in the bright sunshine of mid-day.

After verse 6 – Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness – other things happen in this passage.

*After* this overwhelming hidden-ness – hidden in light – God then says that it is this God who has brought Abram out – and, in similar vein it is this God who will give Abram land to possess. But, despite his “believing” – Abram is still like himself –and he asks, “How can I know I will possess it?” Now God offers another kind of sign – itself mysterious and which I do not intend to explicate here. What God does is not really an “answer” to Abram’s question, rather it is a revelation about the nature/character/characteristic action of this God. Abram can know because God’s smoking firepot will pass through the place(s) of death as a guarantee of God’s fidelity. (This, too, has profound claims that Christians pick up in a Christology that connects to crucifixion and atonement.)

Genesis has traditionally been interpreted and understood that Abram believes God in light of the impossibility of size and scope. Abram sees the night’s fullness of numerous stars and believes the largeness of it. But, what if Abram sees the blue sky and white clouds of mid-day – and Abram believes God in light of the impossibility of seeing.

Understood in this way, I suggest, Abram’s faith is all the *more* (and not less!) remarkable. Abram does not believe because God has overwhelmed him with the expanse of what both God and Abram can see. Rather, God has overwhelmed Abram with the expanse of that which *only* God can see.

Abrams belief is a belief in mystery. It is a revelation – but it is not an answer. Abram believes *not* in “the stars” - *not* in his ability to count or not count. Abram believes *not* in signs or promises. Abram believes God in God’s hiddeness and mystery.

And, belief in mystery, it seems to me, is central to faith and “righteousness.”
*If* this is what it means for Abram to be “righteous” – to believe in the absence of evidence, then perhaps believers in our world ought to believe in the same way.

Perhaps we should believe God not for what God reveals in number, - but perhaps we should believe God in the impossibility of discerning that which is hidden.

(footnote, let the reader be advised that I am aware of the reference in Genesis 22 to God making Abram’s offspring as numerous as *both* the “dust” or “sand” of the earth and the stars. But, that seems to come *after* and *separate* from this text and, in Genesis 22, seems to demonstrate God’s fuller revelation in light of earlier references to *both* dust and stars which had come separately in Genesis 13 and here in Genesis 15.)

(images used with permission from Carl Zoch)

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