Genesis 15

A promise, a doubt, a dark sleep with a troubled dream, the pledge renewed, and a gift: we break from the narrative and read instead an accounting of Abram’s inner life and how he responded to the incredible theophanic instances the text describes. There is of course nothing we might place our trust in as far as the historicity of these characters – and especially of these events – goes, but naturally we relate: who among us does not doubt, does not dream? Let us then follow the emotional and aspirational lines Abram demonstrates, looking to ourselves as we co-travel, keeping a watchful “conscious of” eye of introspection along the way.

The chapter opens with God/“God” repeating a promise of reward to Abram, to which the stark reply given is (verse 2a): “But Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless’”. (Note, incidentally, that the NJPS translation we are citing has “Lord” in lower case letters with “GOD” entirely capitalized, indicating to me that the underlying Hebrew is not the Tetragrammaton but rather El, a much broader term for divinity; were it the Tetragrammaton the upper case usage would, I think, be reversed.) This is the existential cry of “What is the point?” and it is one that many of us can identify with; certainly I can, and even having my own (wonderful) children I will admit to quite often looking at how the human world is unfolding and feeling a strong measure of despair. Abram has recently attained great wealth and power (related in chapters twelve to fourteen), yet he anticipates the author of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) in declaring it all vain, bereft of any inherent meaning. There is beauty, and there are sparks of joy in life, but in the end it is merely a passing of breath, of time. Where is the value in that?

A more specific promise of offspring ensues, and again communicated directly from God/“God” itself. No proof, no explanation, no lengthy delineation nor analysis, but Abram recognizes his place in the whole and thus (verse six): “And because he [Abram] put his trust in the LORD [capitalized now], He [i.e. God/“God”] reckoned it to his merit.” Abram simply trusts; he chooses to look at the world and think that whatever circumstances exist now such are not bound to always be, that things might – indeed will – improve, that the promise can be realized. There follows the extraordinary accounting of God/“God” passing between a series of halved animal carcasses, which scholars tell us was an ancient method of declaring an oath, calling a curse on oneself if one does not fulfill what is being promised, and moreover enacted in a way that bestows no obligation whatsoever on the other party: a purely one-sided pledge of fulfillment (verses eight to ten, and culminating after the dream interlude with verse seventeen). This is stunning storytelling.

Experiencing this chapter from within the lifeworld I inhabit – the fullness of my situational “nows” – I find a tremendous amount of peace in these words. There is little objective reason for me to presume any great beneficial change, but I am also very aware of how fortunate my neighbors and I are, how good we have it: and not just as compared with other nooks and crannies on this planet of ours but from the point of view of history and even biology. The human mind may be a machine prone to dissatisfaction but we have merely to plant our feet on the earth, gaze up at the sun, and feel the breeze on our faces to sense the awe which dissipates every petty complaint. There is real, brutal, horrid suffering in the world, and it is our call as fellow human animals to do what we can to ease the burdens of those we are able to reach – entirely irrespective of what we do or do not make of God/“God” as a being, a beckon, a force, a challenge, a what-have-you – but the potential is always there that things might yet be better, that we might make them better, that whatever is “out there” has guaranteed our ability to bring comfort and warmth to one another; and that this is something in which we can place our trust.

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