Imagine the thing you most want in the world, and God promised you would get that very thing, and then God didn’t deliver. Or God didn’t deliver…right away. Abram uprooted his entire life, his extensive wealth and his family and his servants, and moved to the place where God told him to go. Abram kept his side of the bargain—so what about God?
Abram couldn’t begin to imagine how God would follow through on God’s promises to provide him with descendants, and the best he could do was to interpret that Eliezer, a slave in his house, would inherit Abram’s wealth. From what Abram says, his concern is not only that he has no children but that a slave would inherit his legacy. Abram barely recognizes Eliezer’s humanity, calling him a “son of my house”—not a child of a father, which is the way people were usually identified in that time, but a child of Abram’s property.
Oof. There’s a sociologist named Orlando Patterson who has this idea of that enslaved people are “socially dead,” meaning they are alienated from their bonds of kinship and lineage. For Abram, the urgency for an heir is about protesting before God: “What happens to everything you’ve given to me? What if a slave gets it all, someone who doesn’t deserve it, someone who isn’t even fully a human being?”
Hebrew Bible professor Justin Michael Reed writes in a commentary on this passage, “I wish that childless Abram would develop a special connection with Eliezer whom he describes as fatherless. They could complement one another well. It would be nice if God pointed this out to Abram, but that is not what happens in this passage. God seems to conform to Abram’s degrading worldview.”
God points Abram’s face to the sky—count the stars, if you can, God tells him, and that’s how many descendants you will have. And Abram was satisfied with that—he trusts God’s righteousness. But God goes on, I brought you from your homeland to this land you will possess, and that’s when Abram questions—how do I know this land will be mine?
And that’s when we get this weird story of God telling Abram to cut up animals as sacrifices—this is why ancient sources use the phrase “to cut a covenant.” Swearing on the life of these animals that whoever breaks the promise will suffer the same fate as the slaughtered animals.
To me, it’s not so strange that when making a promise, you’d want the other party to put up some kind of guarantee that they will deliver. I imagine this is what’s going on when you’d prick your finger alongside your friend and touch your fingers to be “blood brothers” or when you’d link pinkies to seal your promise…because whoever breaks the promise breaks their…pinky? But these are promises made between humans.
How does one get the Almighty to swear? Cut up some animals, and a smoking firepot and flaming torch pass by—which is God’s way of signing on the dotted line? But anyway, God indicates agreement with this situation and then…if God doesn’t follow through with the covenant then God is gonna…kill…God’s self?
We might think that, because God has all the power, God owes Abram nothing and doesn’t need to negotiate with him at all. God doesn’t need to play Abram’s games because…what does God have to prove, anyway?
But it seems God has made a choice to engage with Abram, and God has chosen to seek the flourishing of all humanity. God indeed makes a covenant with Abram and promises him descendants and a land. But you may have noticed that in this Scripture reading from Genesis, there’s a little section cut out. And it’s kinda important. This is what God says to Abram while Abram is in a deep sleep: “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation…”
So: while Abram feared that his worldly wealth would rest in the hands of slaves, but God let him know that, uh, it’s Abram’s own descendants who will become slaves. Abram may have thought slavery meant inferiority as humans, but his own descendants will tell a different story.
In the words of Professor Justin Michael Reed, “God does not make enslavement an immediate circumstance for Abram’s children, but enslavement, perseverance through it, and salvation from it become the banner of God’s people. Abram was not ready for a radical change in his perspective on enslaved people. In this passage, God gave him comfort. But for the majority of the Torah, God will show that an enslaved people are the right people to carry on the legacy of what it means to be the children of God.”
There’s nowhere you can go that God will not meet you there. Whether you are enslaved and your freedom is cut off, or whether you are imprisoned in an ideology that sees no problem with some humans being more valuable than others—in our culture, we call that white supremacy. God won’t abandon humans, even when we have wrong ideas. There is always room to grow, to learn, to redeem, to be resurrected. You are never beyond God’s reach. There’s nowhere God will not go.
Jesus shows up with healing power, caring for the vulnerable and teaching about God’s expansive love, and that’s still too threatening for people with political power, like Herod, who came from a family where people murdered their own family members just to consolidate their own power. Herod has no problem with murder—if he feels threatened, he’ll kill you, too, Jesus, so you should probably just move along.
But Jesus doesn’t stop reaching out, refusing to be stopped by fear, likening himself to a mother hen who wants to gather her chicks—you can hardly imagine a less threatening scene. No more sacrifices of cows, goats, rams, small birds—this time the sacrifice will be Jesus Christ himself, his blood to seal the covenant. There’s nowhere God won’t go, even to death. And beyond.
Human beings are messy creatures, but God still loves us where we are. Gail Ramshaw notices in the readings today images of our human needs—"no children, no homeland, enemies around, a hungry fox—and each presents us with an image of salvation—descendants, a home, citizenship, protective wings.”
Like baby chicks, we would rather scatter ourselves! Could we possibly humble ourselves, imagine ourselves like defenseless baby chicks, seeking only the comfort and safety we know under the wings of our mother hen? Could we possibly imagine these wings are big enough to cover all of us, that we don’t need to fight for our own space, that we don’t need to crowd others out, that we don’t need to report to the mother hen which chicks are worthy and which are unworthy?
God’s love is big enough to cover the whole world, even our own messy selves. Imagine if we could allow ourselves to accept God’s love, really understand that there is indeed enough for me and an abundance for everyone else too. Imagine being content with the idea that enslaved people can be ancestors and heirs, fully realized human beings who belong to God.
As many as there are stars in the sky, we too are descendants of Abraham, with all the beauty and all the challenges of that history. God still chooses to engage with us, to bless us through the Holy Spirit, to promise life and a future, to provide healing.
 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-genesis-151-12-17-18-5  Ibid.  Sundaysandseasons.com, Augsburg Fortress Publishers.