Wednesday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Today we read about the first of the formal covenants between God and Abram and later between God and the Israelites. It begins with a general promise from God in a vision to Abram:

Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; your reward will be very great.

“Shield” here signifies “King” and “Fear not!” is a phrase repeated again and again throughout Scripture.

But this does not reassure Abram. He has heard these promises already, but so far nothing has happened. What good are all God’s blessings if Abram remains childless and without an heir and has to bequeath his property to his steward, Eliezer?

You have given me no offspring, so one of my servants will be my heir.

It is known that in Mesopotamia a childless man could adopt one of his own male servants to be heir and guardian of his estate.

But God reaffirms his former promise:

No, that one [Eliezer] will not be your heir; your own issue will be your heir.

He tells Abram to look up at the night sky and try to count the stars, if he can. His descendants will be just as numerous. It is said that on a clear night 8,000 stars can be seen in a Middle Eastern sky but, for most people, it means a number beyond counting.

And, in spite of the unlikelihood of that happening,

Abram put his faith in the Lord, who credited to him as an act of righteousness.

It is an act of trust in a promise which, from a human point of view, could not be realised. God then acknowledges that Abram’s act of trust is worthy of reward based on his ‘righteousness’, namely, on his integrity and humble submission to God, which makes a person pleasing to God.

Much later, Paul will use this text to prove that justification before God depends on our faith and trust in him and not on the external observance of the Law. At the same time, because Abram’s faith was the source of his carrying out God’s wishes, James in his Letter cites the same text to show that faith which does not result in good behaviour is ‘dead’. There is no contradiction here: we do not ‘earn’ salvation by the ‘good works’ we do or by observing regulations and laws, but a genuine commitment in faith to God and his teaching naturally overflows into acts of love and care for others. Paul, then, makes Abram’s faith a model for all Christians (see Rom 4:1-25 and Gal 3:6-9).

As an encouragement to Abram, God reminds him that:

I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.

But again, Abram is not fully convinced. He is living in this land, but how can be sure that he will gain full possession of it?

Abram is then instructed to prepare to offer a sacrifice. He is told to bring animals from his flocks: a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtle dove and a young pigeon. At three years an animal was regarded as ritually mature.

The animals were cut in two and each half facing the other; the two birds, however, were not cut. Birds of prey came down on the dead animals, but Abram drove them away. As the sun set, Abram fell into a kind of trance and “a deep, terrifying darkness” overcame him – a sure sign of the awesome presence of God coming down on him.

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch passed between the two rows of animal offerings. As often in Scripture, the smoke and fire represent God’s presence. Although the text does not mention it, Abram may also have walked between the two rows of split carcasses, although it could be that God alone, as the one initiating a unilateral agreement, walked between them. As the Bible and also contemporary inscriptions make clear, agreements were sometimes ratified by walking between the divided pieces of animals. While they did so, the contracting parties would call down on themselves a fate similar to that of the slaughtered beast, if they should fail to keep their word. Here the two partners to the agreement are God and Abram, although the chief initiator and implementer is God.

The covenant consisted of a promise to Abram to give him land in perpetuity – from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates. It was this covenant which would guarantee Abram’s possession of the land he was occupying, but also a sign that the promise of an heir would also be fulfilled. We are very close now to that happening.

It is this total trust of Abram in God’s promise which will be retold again and again down the ages and on into the New Testament (Paul’s letters and the Letter to the Hebrews).

In Jesus, of course, we have a new covenant and it is for us to be part of it. Let us pray for that faith and trust of Abram, when against all hope he continued to hope.

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