Lent II, February 21, 2016
Book of Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
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.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’* 3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him,‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ 8But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ 9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terror and darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant [literally cut a deal]] with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.
Well here it is. For those of us who like to know where the beginning is, it is here. The seed of the claim. The start of the conflict. The crux of roughly four thousand years of religious tradition. The trunk of the tree is planted right here in today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible. It is the very source of the three mainstream Western tributaries of Judaism, Christianity and Islam….the three Abrahamic religions claim their divine authority from today’s reading from the Book of Genesis (and God’s promise in chapter 12). They all trace their roots back to this exchange between the God of Creation and the ordinary man named Abram; who, at the tender age of roughly 75, packed up his wife Sarai and his father Terah and his nephew Lot, and left his home and extended family in Ur (a land a bit southeast of modern day Bagdad) to travel through Syria and Jordan and Egypt to the land of Canaan where the God of Creation became the God of Abraham.
As we heard this morning, God spoke to Abram in a vision. And in that vision was the promise, The promise, with a capital T: ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Said the God of all Creation to the childless senior citizen. ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as justice. And just like that the covenant was cut; the covenant that ties all three of the so-called Abrahamic religions to God, and so too, to each other. God promised Abram a universe of descendants, all the people of the earth. And so Abram stopped worshiping the gods of his ancestors. And our monotheistic traditions were born.
Well, not just yet. But they were soon to be born. Abram and his wife Sarai were both in their senior years and they had no children. But Sarai had a young handmaid named Hagar, and she became the mother of Abram’s first descendant. And this first born son of Abram was named Ishmael. Ishmael is the branch of the Abrahamic tree that is claimed by the tradition of Islam. But Ishmael was not to be Abram’s only heir. Fourteen years after the promise made in this morning’s passage, Sarai, then almost 100 years of age, bore Isaac, Abram’s second son. Isaac is the branch of the Abrahamic tree that is claimed by Judaism. Please note, it took fourteen years for God to deliver on God’s word to Abram and Sarai. And, both Abram and Sarai were nearly 100 years old when Isaac was born. So where ever you are in your own span of life, God is likely not finished with you just yet!
The Islamic claim is Ishmael. And the Jewish claim is Isaac. But how do we Christians claim our own covenant with God through Abraham? The Christian claim to the Abrahamic tree – as it is articulated in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians- is directly through the Word of God first spoken in chapter 12 of Genesis and reiterated in this morning’s vision. The promise that God made to Abram that he would be the father of all of the nations of the world and that all people would be blessed through him. In Galatians, Paul addresses a quarrel in that community that stems from the notion that the gentiles needed to convert to Judaism in order to become Christians. This is apparently what the churches in Galatia had been told by a troupe of unnamed Christian missionaries. And Paul assured them that no such conversion to Judaism was necessary, that their fitness for Christian life was not grounded in the Jewish law or lineage, but rather in God’s promise to Abraham and all of the people of the earth; they were as worthy to follow Jesus Christ as was…anyone who descended from Abraham. And they had God’s Word on that. And so we are heirs to Abraham through the Word of God.
I am about half way through my second semester in my doctoral program in biblical theology. And this semester, in my Hebrew Bible class, we have been talking a lot about the various ways of understanding biblical inspiration, and infallibility, and inerrancy, and authority. What do we mean when we say that the Bible is the “Word of God?” As our professor Joel LeMon expounded in last week’s lecture, grammatically speaking, the construct “Word of God” is a genitive; the grammatical case in which one noun modifies another. A genitive is generally two nouns connected by the preposition “of.” But that does not tell us much about the particular relationship between the nouns, exactly how one modifies the other. Does the phrase “Word of God” describe what sort of Word it is, – like bird of prey or day of reckoning? Does the phrase “Word of God” mean that this Word is a superlative Word like Song of Songs? Does the “Word of God” mean that this Word is an inalienable possession of God’s like Jack’s smile….. the smile of Jack, as particular to Jack as the biblical Word is particular to God? A Word that belongs to no one but God? Is the “Word of God” a Word that is actually a part of God, like a piece of pie is part of the whole pie? Is this Word subjective genitive, or partitive genitive, or nominative genitive, or any one of a dozen other types of genitives? What exactly do we mean when we say that our holy scripture is the “Word of God?” It is an equally interesting and confounding exercise. Because there simply is no right answer.
Although, in this morning’s reading, I think the Word of God is God’s word, as in the promise of God. God has given God’s word to Abram. And Abram has believed it. Abram has faith that God is good for God’s Word. But if we are going to take Abram’s faithful story as the Word of God, I think it is not all there is of the Word of God.
Because just as the Word of God is translated through human agents, we do not hear all of the voices. We hear the voices that the scribes hear, but that does not mean that God is not speaking through the other voices in the stories. And that is true even for this foundational story of Abraham and his fantastic faith. True this is the story of Abraham. But it is also the story of Hagar and Sarah. They are not just tools in the telling of Abraham’s story. They are living, breathing agents of God’s Word and transformation in this world, albeit less vocally in our canonical scriptural account.
In the rich tradition of Jewish midrash, I imagine that Sarai’s telling of this morning’s story might have been quite different from Abram’s telling. I suspect that Abram’s steadfast faith in God’s word might have had a balance through Sarai’s lens. I imagine that Sarai might have embodied some of the doubt that feels more familiar to some of us than Abram’s unquestioning faith.
So here is what I imagine Sarai might have written to her dear friend and sister-in-law, Milcah, the wife of Abram’s brother Nahor, after Abram’s encounter with the Word of God in today’s passage. I invite you to hear Sarai’s words through your own life’s lens. Have you felt her desperation and desire to believe in something or someone about which you are unsure, or uncomfortable, or unprepared? Have you felt her loneliness? Have you felt her hopefullness? And knowing how Sarai’s story ends, does her likely doubt at this juncture give you hope for your own future? What do you imagine Sarai might have been feeling? Here is my imagining of the part of the Word of God that is left out of our canon:
My dear Sister-in-law, it’s been such a long time since we have spoken. And it feels like we are so far away. I hope you are well and that this letter finds you where ever you are. I assume that you are still in Ur, but who knows. We left there so long ago, and we have wandered so far, and so much has happened. I don’t even know where to start.
Abram and I are in Canaan, but it has been an incredible journey to this point. I am still not quite sure why we left Ur, and you and Nahor and the family and our home and everything we had built there. We left everything to come all of this way for….whatever it is for which we have come all this way. It seems as if we have been traveling, wandering, for lifetime. And although I think we are finally where we were going, I’m not at all sure why we are here. Canaan seems no more fertile than Ur.
I miss you Milcah. And I have heard that you have been blessed by God with sons….eight of them. Is that right? What a joy, Milcah. I regret to report that I have not been as fortunate. I remain childless. And honestly, Milcah, I don’t know what I shall do. No matter how far we wander, no matter how much I pray, we have no…future, no gift to leave the world when we go, no comfort for our old age. You, with your eight boys, could not begin to understand my sorrow. But it weighs me down. Not all the time, but it would be nice to have a family…..here in Canaan. I do get lonely.
And it’s not enough that we do not seem to be able to conceive, but, and I know this sounds outrageous, but Abram has apparently been talking to, wait for it…..God. Directly. My dear husband says that he hears God’s voice in his ears and not just in his head. God comes to him in visions and dreams. Abram insists that he hears God Almighty speaking to him – repeatedly! And here is the kicker. God is apparently telling my childless husband that he will be the father of all of the nations of the world. I am not making this up. I couldn’t make this up. And, as Abram tells it, God has confirmed this…promise, on more than one occasion. And the promise comes not only with offspring but includes land as well! All of the land from Egypt to the Euphrates River, says Abram, will belong to our as-yet non-existent children. This is not even a dream, my friend, it’s closer to the size of a delusion!
I want to believe my husband, and I do believe him, mostly, sort of, somewhat, sometimes. But, Milcah, you must admit that this is a bit hard to swallow, that God will make a “great nation” of my Abram. And I am thinking, what about me?…that all of the families of the earth will be blessed in my Abram, whatever that means, but again I am thinking, where does that leave me? Does God mean that I will be the mother of all of the nations of the world? And Abram assures me that God would not leave me out of this promise. Abram says that God tells him that his offspring….our offspring says Abram, will be as numerous as stars of the sky. But to me it just sounds crazy. You do see my concern don’t you, Milcah? Because, either God is not really talking to Abram and he is going crazy, or God is really talking to him (I suppose it could happen) and Abram is going….to need another wife, because, well I don’t seem to be able to muster even one star in my womb, let alone a constellation or a galaxy to populate the sky. So if Abram is truly hearing God’s voice and I am to remain with Abram (and those are two big ifs!) then either God is blind or God is about to pull off the miracle of all miracles. Abram is pushing 100 and I am…also. And I just don’t know what to do, not that there is anything that I can do, or necessarily want to do. But I am worried. Not that I do not trust Abram or God, but I just don’t see it in those stars. I mean, I look at Abram, Milcah. He is not the wisest or the strongest or the best suited for anything really, except that he seems to be willing to go (and drag me with him) where ever God wants him to go. I mean, if you were looking for a favored one would you choose Abram? So….if God is looking for a favored one, what are the odds that God would choose Abram? I have more than a few doubts.
And so my dear sister-in-law, I am hoping that you might send some wisdom my way. I am thinking of suggesting a surrogate to Abram, maybe Hagar the one of the Egyptian handmaids that came from my dowry from Pharaoh. But I don’t know. A surrogate would cut me out of…everything. It would give us the chance at a family, but what use would I be to Abram if he populates the earth and the sky through another woman’s womb? We have wandered so far together, Abram and I. We have left you and the others and our home. And now we have nothing but each other. But, if I can believe that God is speaking to him, I find it hard to believe that God has a plan for Abram and not for me. So far, God has sheltered me from harm…..even the harm that might have come from Abram’s stupidity in promising me to Pharaoh. But Milcah, what could God possibly have in store for me?
And so I close with a hope and a prayer for your good health and wellbeing my dear sister. Give my best to your boy. Pray for me. You are such a cherished friend. And I miss you. I especially miss how we used to laugh. But I know in my heart that we will laugh again.1
© February, 2016 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
1 Genesis 18: 9-15 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 10Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ 13The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” 14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ 15But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’…..Genesis 21:1-7 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ 7And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’