By the Rev. Darren Miner
This is only the second Sunday in Lent, but I am already longing for Easter, for that glorious celebration of the Resurrection. But that is in the future, and for now, I find myself lamenting. I lament not just my own sins, which are many, but the brokenness of this world. The news coming out of New Zealand about a mass murder weighs heavily on my soul. Such evil is a mystery, and it is hard to live with mysteries, with things we just can’t explain or understand. But, if the truth be known, evil is a lesser mystery. Fortunately for us, there is a greater Mystery, a countervailing Mystery, a triumphant Mystery, whom we call God.
We encounter that Mystery in the first reading from Genesis. Abraham, who has not yet received his new name from God and is known as Abram at this point, is the recipient of a divine vision. God promises Abraham a great reward. But Abraham laments to God that no reward has any meaning to him since he has no children. God responds by promising Abraham offspring, despite the fact that Abraham and Sarah are both far too old to expect children. And God further promises that, from his offspring, he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. To his great credit, Abraham believes the Lord.
What happens next seems bizarre to us. God commands Abraham to collect five animals and to cut three of them in half! Why? Well, this is where a little knowledge of ancient Near Eastern customs comes in handy. What is being proposed is a solemn oath-taking. In the ancient Near East, one way a person might make a solemn oath was to cut an animal in two and then to walk between the two halves while making the oath. The idea, whether spoken or left unspoken, was that the person passing through the cloven animal was accepting a curse upon himself should he fail to fulfill the oath: “May I die like these animals if I forswear myself.”
So, the cutting up of the animals is not all that strange after all. What is strange is that it is not Abraham who passes through the cloven animals and takes the solemn oath. It is God! At sundown, Abraham falls into a deep trance, and in that altered state of consciousness, he witnesses a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch being carried through the midst of the slaughtered animals by an invisible figure. A voice then declares this oath: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
God kept his oath to Abraham. He had children. And they had children. And some of their descendants did indeed inherit the Promised Land. Nowadays, we have DNA tests that you can take at home and mail in. And I suppose that it would be possible to try to trace one’s ancestry back to Abraham. But that would be missing one important point. Not only did Abraham have many descendants according to the flesh. He had even more descendants according to the spirit.