bible blog 1263

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings, along with a headline from world news:


Radovan Karazic in the Hague yesterday

Radovan Karazic in the Hague yesterday

Genesis 15:1-21

Good News Translation (GNT)

God’s Covenant with Abram

15 After this, Abram had a vision and heard the Lord say to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I will shield you from danger and give you a great reward.”

But Abram answered, “Sovereign Lord, what good will your reward do me, since I have no children? My only heir is Eliezer of Damascus.[a] You have given me no children, and one of my slaves will inherit my property.”

Then he heard the Lord speaking to him again: “This slave Eliezer will not inherit your property; your own son will be your heir.” The Lord took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Abram put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.

Then the Lord said to him, “I am the Lord, who led you out of Ur in Babylonia, to give you this land as your own.”

But Abram asked, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that it will be mine?”

He answered, “Bring me a cow, a goat, and a ram, each of them three years old, and a dove and a pigeon.” 10 Abram brought the animals to God, cut them in half, and placed the halves opposite each other in two rows; but he did not cut up the birds. 11 Vultures came down on the bodies, but Abram drove them off.

12 When the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and fear and terror came over him. 13 The Lord said to him, “Your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land; they will be slaves there and will be treated cruelly for four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and when they leave that foreign land, they will take great wealth with them. 15 You yourself will live to a ripe old age, die in peace, and be buried. 16 It will be four generations before your descendants come back here, because I will not drive out the Amorites until they become so wicked that they must be punished.”

17 When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch suddenly appeared and passed between the pieces of the animals. 18 Then and there the Lord made a covenant with Abram. He said, “I promise to give your descendants all this land from the border of Egypt to the Euphrates River, 19 including the lands 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 promised land

the promised land

This story contains very ancient material. Abram sets up a sacred space between separated sacrificial animals and the Lord appears to him as a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot. When the parties to a covenant walk between the torn animals they invoke a similar fate on themselves if they break it. 

God has promised Abram a son and numerous descendants and he in spite of all contraindications has placed his trust in God, who is pleased at this response. He should be, since His plan to restore his blessing to the world rests on Abram’s cooperation. St Paul uses this story to illustrate the faith which he believes to be more important than the obedience to the religious Law. The great Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, picked out Abram as exemplifying the absurdity of faith which overcomes the reasonable  world. How could I quarrel with interpreters like these? Yet there’s something in their humourless piety which ignores the context that the Genesis author has been at pains to set up: the Creator’s problem in dealing with his human creatures, which he can only solve by persuading some of them to trust Him and his way. There is always a subversive sense in Genesis that the problem is as much God’s responsibility as humanity’s; and that they can only solve it together. 

In this story God shows his profound desire for Abram’s cooperation by himself coming between the separated animals. What Paul calls the folly of God is seen here in God’s willingness to play the part of the initiator of a human covenant. 

So far so splendid. But note the content of the covenant; the land which presently belongs to a number of tribes will belong to Abram’s descendants. How can this represent justice? The weak excuse that the Amorites’ behaviour will be so wicked that they deserve to be expropriated is not really credible. We have to remember that the Genesis author was living in the “promised land”  looking back on his people’s successful conquest of it, which had been justified by their God’s choice of them as his people and his liberation of them from slavery in Egypt. (a justification so similar to that offered for the creation of modern Israel as to make us look at it carefully.) Here the author takes the promise of the land back into the history of the Bedouin ancestors of his people. We don’t know if he was the first so to do or if the story was already traditional in his time. We do know, however, that here the ancestral right of Israel to conquer the land’s inhabitants and chuck them out is enshrined in the story of its founding father.

Cortez, believer in God-given conquest

Cortez, believer in God-given conquest

Now of course the history of many nations, my own included, records conquests, in some cases by successive invaders, which formed the mixed population of their land. This kind of “conquest” is very different from the wholesale extermination of native populations by European invaders in the Americas. In fact it appears from modern scholarship that the “conquest of the promised land” was more like the former than the latter. The Canaanite population was not exterminated and continued to live alongside their “conquerors”. Why then is Israel’s settlement of the land always represented as conquest and expropriation? It’s a piece of theology, or ideology, which expresses the view that “gentiles” are contaminant communities with their polytheism and idols, with whom Israel and its leaders should have no truck. This view is then read back into the history of the people, to be made sacred in covenants and supported by “facts.”

Ancient Israel may not have expropriated and expelled its non-Jewish population but there are certainly powerful groups in modern Israel who want to do so today. When cherished theology goes hand in hand with racist ideology there is always danger, as the Israelis above all nations should know. Good bible study can help prevent such dangers by refusing to by-pass the more offensive content of the biblical texts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: