Connections 03.17.2019: If They Only Knew

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

The opening verse of Genesis 15 intrigues me: “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.’”

What intrigues me is that God spoke these words right after the events recorded in Genesis 14 in which we see Abram, for the only time, as a victorious military hero. He has waged war against a coalition of Canaanite kings, and he has won. Abram is a mighty warrior.

So what does Abram hear God say immediately after his great victory that displayed his might and demonstrated his power? He hears God say, “Don’t be afraid, Abram.”

I remember a conversation I had with a church member back when I was a pastor. He had two adult daughters. He told me that they thought he could handle anything. He had tears in his eyes as he said, “If they only knew.”

God knew what caused my church member fear. God knew that he was afraid. And God stood with him.

God knew what caused Abram fear. God knew that Abram was afraid. And God stood with him.

I suspect that most of us, and probably all of us, know what it’s like to live with a divide between our public persona and our private reality. We may be accustomed to putting forth the appearance that everything’s all right even as we struggle to be strong.

The circumstances of my early life, in particular the death of my mother right before I started college and the death of my father right after I finished, presented me with some challenges. I’ve had people commend me on my strength. When they did, I thought, “If you only knew.”

Yes, I made it. But it is by God’s grace, which inspired me to have faith. I didn’t endure by my own strength, of which I didn’t have much.

God doesn’t ask Abram to be strong. God calls Abram to have faith.

But having faith isn’t easy either.

The flow of our lesson text intrigues me too. God promises to protect and reward Abram. When God first called Abram, having a great nation descend from him was part of his promised reward (Gen 12:1-3). Abram wonders what kind of reward he can have when he and Sarai are childless. In response, God promises to give him many descendants.

And Abram believes.

Then God reminds Abram of the promise of the land. Abram, who has just expressed great faith, questions how he can know God will keep the promise of the land. God’s answer is the strange ceremony that dramatically binds God to the promise.

So for Abram, having faith isn’t easy even as he has faith. He simultaneously believes and doubts; he simultaneously trusts and questions.

Did Sarai and others close to Abram know of his struggles? Did they commend his strength? When they did, might he have thought, “If you only knew”? The Bible doesn’t tell us. But it does lay Abram’s struggles right out there for us to see and to learn from. It makes it clear that God knew.

From Abram we learn that it’s not about being strong but rather about having faith. We also learn that having faith doesn’t mean being free of doubts, questions, and struggles.

That’s what I want to know. And it’s what I want them—and you—to know.

If we only knew it, we’d be better equipped for the journey.

Discussion

  1. What does it mean for Abram to believe the Lord? (v. 6).
  2. What does it mean for the Lord to regard Abram’s belief as righteousness? (v. 6).
  3. What does the ceremony of the divided animals signify? What ceremonies do we have to remind us of what God uses the one in our lesson text to assure Abram of?
  4. God promised Abraham descendants and a land. What does God promise us? What are we looking forward to God giving us?
  5. What challenges do you face in trying to live in faith?

Reference Shelf

One aspect of Abram’s character in
 Genesis is that he believes quickly. In 
this chapter, God reckons him as righteous “because he believed the Lord”
(v. 6) who promises him descendants 
more numerous than the stars of the sky. Believing surely means trusting, seeing the 
world afresh in a way that opens confidence for the future. Two verses later, however, Abram resides in darkness, asks 
for evidence, and wants to know how he
 will “know” that he is to receive the land. He wants intellectual content, concrete information, a way to gain confidence in the promise, and he does not know how to find it. He cannot see the future and everything looks impossible. In this chapter, his faith is anything but stable, marked by questions and demanding proof.

Abram believes the way many of us do, trusting one day, fearful and doubting the next. Faith does not stand against reason, but neither is it based on intellectual knowledge, insight into the future, or certainty that things will turn out as hoped. It is based on relationship with God, trust in the Lord, and hopeful confidence that there will be new life, no matter the form it takes.

Underneath Abram’s anxiety in this family narrative lie the profound doubts and fears of the book’s audience during and after the Babylonian Period. Like Abram, Judean survivors of the Babylonian invasions fear that they have no future. They require children to replenish the decimated population (cf. Jer 30:18-24). They, too, doubt that their children will again have a nation of their own. Abram embodies an unsteady faith, and, as the stories unfold, he does not always seem to deserve divine approval for it. The design of Genesis 15 has rhetorical purposes beyond interest in the ancestral past. It seeks to persuade later generations to put aside their own real doubts and fears about the future and to trust God to bring them children and land. It mirrors to them the darkness and difficulties of the present, the questions that reflect hopelessness about the future, and provides a steady assurance from only one place: the presence of God who relates to them in covenant loyalty.

Contemporary readers may ask if such trust is even possible for human beings who live in fear, doubt, and uncertainty in its many manifestations. To me, it is a comfort that Abram’s trust is not very solid. Strong at one moment, weak at the next, his doubt-filled faith wobbles and shakes. We never learn if his fears abate as the startling events of the covenant ceremony unfold in chapter 15, but we later see that he and Sarai keep trying to settle matters on their own, as if their trust was shallow and haunted by doubt.

For these reasons the chapter’s presentation of darkness as a state of mind that is also a backdrop for divine presence has pointed significance. The darkness itself becomes the place where God’s presence is manifested. In such spaces, all human constructions fail, proofs and intellectual knowledge are not up to the task, and powerlessness takes over. Yet it is exactly when human resourcefulness fails and powerlessness seems to control us that we can be most acutely able to receive help from beyond and become open to God and joined with other broken humans. In these conditions of fear and doubt, Abram meets God. That is the point at which we, too, are most open to the flaming torch of divine presence in our lives.

Kathleen M. O’Connor, Genesis 1-25A, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2018) 231-32.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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