The saga of Israel begins with stories about the ancestors held in highest regard as the mother and father of the nation: Sarai and Abram. The command that they heard is set out at the beginning of their story: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). The saga of this couple will reach fulfilment, many chapters and many centuries later, when their descendants enter the land and settle in Canaan (Joshua 1–6).
For the moment, Abram set off, with his extended family: “his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran” (12:5). Haran was a strategic city in the upper reaches of the area we know as the Fertile Crescent, far from the land of Canaan (over 12,000km). The call was to travel that distance, to Canaan.
That call, to enter the journey and remain persistent along the way, is a call that we do well to recall each Lent, as we navigate the journey of this season, calling us towards the climactic story of the Christian faith, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
For support and sustenance along the way, Abram and Sarai were called into covenant relationship with God. The formalising of the covenant is reported later in this chapter, at 15:18, with a promise that the descendants of Abram and Sarah will indeed have the land that is specified. That, I would argue, resonates also with the Lenten journey; these current weeks of preparation for Easter beckon us to re-commit to our covenant, the one that we ourselves have with God. So these later verses are included in our reading for this Sunday.
(The question about the people already living in the land—those specifically identified in 15:19–21, merits separate consideration. The invasion of Canaan and conquering of these people by the people of Israel raises difficult questions.)
Abram and Sarah had left their homeland with some assured promises from God; they would be parents of a great nation, blessed by God, remembered as having a great name, and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them (12:1–3). Those promises were intended to hold Sarai and Abram to the journey, despite all that they might encounter. The end result would make the travails along the way bearable.
However, Abram expresses some doubt that the promises made by God would come to pass (15:2-3). God’s response is to provide further reassurance; the multitude of stars in the sky is testimony to that (15:5). Abraham’s resulting affirmation of faith leads to the famous phrase, so central to Paul’s later argument about righteousness: “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6; see Rom 4:3, 9, 22). In a way, this story sets the foundations for later Christian faith, as we see the grace of God at work in relating to Abraham.
The ceremony that follows adheres to the traditional cultic practices of the time. A collection of sacrificial victims, two animals and two birds, are offered and slaughtered, and the animals are cut in two (15:9–11). (The phrase, “to make a covenant” in Hebrew, can literally be rendered as ”to cut a covenant”.) Such practices signal the seriousness of the moment and send the message that each party will keep their word on pain of death.
Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah later alludes to this specific provision, when he warns recalcitrant Israelites that “those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts” (Jer 34:18, referring to Gen 15:10). The prophet continues, “their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth” (Jer 34:20, an allusion to Gen 15:11).
This ancient cultic sacrificial practice of cutting animals does not reflect modern practices and is, in fact, distasteful to contemporary sensitivities. That might prod current readers to dismiss this passage as archaic, irrelevant, obsolete. That would be a shame. It remains relevant to us in a striking way.
Abram and Sarai reveal both trust in the promises they have been given, but also articulate some uncertainty about whether God would continue to be faithful to those promises. How human this is! In this regard, they reflect the somewhat ambivalent way that each of us relate to the promises of God: living out our trust and hope in the midst of the challenges, changes, and obstacles along the way, yet still holding back, somewhat dubious, about the ultimate reality this all.
It’s a perfect vignette for Lent, for the period when we reconsider how God had been at work in our midst, when we reconsider our commitment to the covenant we have made with God, and how live out that covenant in the realities of discipleship. It reminds us of the call to full-blooded, whole-scale, all-of-life commitment to the covenant that we have with God through Jesus.