What’s the strongest promise you can make? In feudal Europe, a vassal would kneel before his lord and place their hands in the lord’s hands and promise to risk life and limb to defend the lord from any threats. In court we see ask witnesses to swear upon a Bible or another book of their choosing. At the bowling alley they take your shoes as collateral.
Other people might make an oath on their mother’s grave, or promise to eat their hat, though I don’t think most people keep their hat-eating promises, and I can’t imagine what you’d do with someone else’s mother’s grave. In modern, regular people society, what’s the strongest promise you can make? What do you say or do if you want to convince someone to believe you, or believe in you? If you want to say, without a doubt, I will do everything in my power to make this a reality? If you want to assure someone that your promises are valid, that you are trustworthy? It’s the pinky swear, isn’t it?
Abram’s story is the story of a promise. It’s a story about Abram and Sarai who trust, and God who can be trusted. The story of Abram and Sarai(who later in the book will become Abraham and Sarah) is one of the most important stories in the Bible, because it’s a story about how God interacts with people in history. God interacts with people in call and covenant. Today’s story is about God making a big promise – “I will make of you a great nation” and Abram and Sarai believing that promise, even as its outcome becomes less and less likely with every passing year.
The first contact that Abram gets from God is a command and a promise—call and covenant. “Go from your family to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.” And Abram goes. But he doesn’t get land, he lives as an alien, a foreigner in a strange land. Nor does he have any children who could someday become a great nation. As the story progresses, Abram and Sarai get older and greyer, and God’s promise is no closer to being fulfilled. And every time God shows up in the narrative, instead of getting what they’ve been promised, Abram and Sarai get more promises. Abram and Sarai have lived up to the call, but will God keep the covenant?
That’s the gist of Abram’s complaint to God in the beginning of our story. Can God deliver? Or should Abram just give up and live out his days in peace? And God says “Yes, of course. Count the stars—your descendants will be greater in number.” But Abram has heard this promise before, and it’s no closer to reality. And so God does something to convince Abram to keep holding on to faith. “Go get some animals, Abram, and get them ready.” And the next thing that happens is bizarre, gruesome, and hard to understand. For modern ears, all animal sacrifice is weird, so it’s easy to write this off as some aspect of animal sacrifice. But this isn’t a sacrifice (that will come later). This is something different. Normally animals were sacrificed in two ways—either burnt as a whole offering, the idea being that the smell of the smoke was a pleasing gift to God in heaven. Or the animal was presented at the altar and then served as an offering at a feast in God’s honor, sort of a way of inviting God to a meal. To cut them in half and walk through them doesn’t really fit either of these categories, it is a truly bizarre thing to do.
To get a better understanding, we’re going to jump all the way to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 34 is a Biblical antislavery text. Babylonian armies are bearing down on Jerusalem, and the slaveholding elite of Jerusalem release their slaves, most likely, sadly, because they don’t want to be responsible for more mouths to feed during a siege. But they perform the ritual of making a covenant, recommitting themselves to not hold their own compatriots as slaves. But when the threat passes, they force them back into slavery. And God (speaking through the prophet Jeremiah) says, “C’MON, GUYS? You made a covenant.” I’m paraphrasing Jeremiah 34:18-20. “Because you broke the covenant, I will make you just like the calf you cut in two and walked between.”
Cutting an animal in two was an ancient way of making a covenant. It originates in Assyria, where kings would force their vassals to walk between the animal parts, saying “this will happen to me if I break my word.” Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.
God has made the promise to Abram when God first called him out of Haran. But now God commits Godself to that promise. Abram cuts the animals in two, and when darkness falls, Abram falls into a deep sleep. A smoking pot and a torch, a cloud of smoke and a pillar of flame, pass between the two animals. And thus God makes the oath on Godself. May this happen to me, if I do not fulfill my promise to make of you a great nation.
What God is telling Abram is that God would rather die than break the promise. It is odd, because God takes the vulnerable position. God passes between the animals. God is the one who is obligated. God is the one who is at risk. In the covenant they make, God commits once again to this incredible promise and asks nothing more of Abram than to keep having faith. While other ancient Near Eastern gods were fickle and unpredictable, who treated humans as dispensable playthings, this story tells us that God is different from anything or anyone else we might give our devotion to. As Rolf Jacobson puts it, “God does not mind being held accountable to God’s promises.” God’s word can be trusted because God would do anything for you, even die rather than break a promise.
But having faith is not always easy. God tells Abram that the promise will be a long time in coming. Before your people will become a great nation, they’ll be enslaved for hundreds of years.
This seems to be a pattern with God, waiting until it is absolutely impossible before miraculously coming to save. God could have rescued Daniel before he went into the lion’s den. God tells Elijah to soak the bulls in water before God will burn the offering. Jesus waits until Lazarus is dead in the tomb four days before he brings him back. Perhaps it is God’s way of ensuring that we could not write these occurrences off to chance or take responsibility for them ourselves. Or perhaps it is God’s way of telling us that the journey will not always be smooth, that God’s plans are not always the same as our plans, but that even in those moments when we are terrified and hurting, God is still with us. God’s promise is that God is bound together with us in life and through death. God will walk through fire for us, God will go down to the dust of death with us, and God will bring us to the other side. God will do anything for you. Even give up God’s own life.
There is one more way that you can show yourself trustworthy. Perhaps stronger than any of the oaths we’ve talked about. Stronger even than pinkie swears. It is to do it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
This goes on for so long that it becomes a joke to them, and Abram and Sarai (renamed Abraham and Sarah as a sign of God’s promise) both laugh at God when God announces that they will bear a son. God’s promise seems more and more ridiculous until it comes true, and they name him Isaac, which means, laughter.