Tuesday, January 24, 2012

High-Stakes Promises

How often do you make promises to God? Most of us, I think, do that less as we get older. As an adolescent, I found myself promising God a litany of things I never could have given him, trying to secure any number of girlfriends or good grades. “Dear God,” I would say, “If you will give me X, I promise I will never again do Y.” When you’re 13, those variables are pretty fixed. Nowadays, I don’t say those words as often. I may still silently attempt to barter with God, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often.

As an old man, Abram made a promise to God, but he wasn’t offering something on which he could not deliver. Perhaps that’s because the promise was initiated by God. In today’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 15:1-11; 17-21), Abram is made a promise by God—that he will have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. Promising that to a 75+-year-old-man is a pretty bold thing to do, but believing that promise—as Abram did—might be even bolder. It’s a remarkable moment of faithfulness on the part of Abram, which is why the author is so bold as to write that Abram’s belief in God’s promise was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” The ability of Abram to take God at his word is pretty remarkable, but the terms of the agreement are even more interesting.

As a sign of what they had agreed to, Abram took a cow, a goat, a ram, and a pigeon and killed them all before the Lord. Other than the pigeon, he cut them each into two pieces and laid them out top of each other—perhaps propped up like a meat-tent. Then, he sat and prayed, only getting up to shoo away the vultures who tried to pick at the substantial carcasses. In the middle of the night, Abram had a vision of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passing between the pieces of cut-open flesh. In that moment, the promise was sealed.

I’ve read some secondary literature about this text, and other authors suggest that this would have mimicked a familiar ritual for enacting a promise. An animal is slain in a sacramental way to suggest that whoever breaks the promise might end up like the dead beast. Both parties would walk past or around the sacrifice to signify that each was willing to be killed if he broke his word. In other words, Abram performed this animal slaughter to suggest that if he failed to keep his end of the bargain he would be cut in two and left for the vultures to pick apart. Not very nice, but it’s one heck of a way to make a promise.

I don’t know this for sure, but I doubt Abram ever thought he’d have the chance to cut God up and lay him out on some rocks for birds of prey to eat. That means that he was laying it all out on the line and saying to God, “If I fail to follow you like I’ve promised, I’m in big trouble.” I think Abram fully expected to be killed by God if he didn’t keep his end of the bargain. As a teenager, I made promises to God that I knew I’d never keep. What would it be like to put your life on the line when making a promise to God and really believing in the consequences?

Faith is a funny thing. For me, it’s fickle. For Abram, it’s life or death. We are called to have faith like Abram—not to seal covenants we’ve made with God by passing between flayed-open pieces of meat but to put it all on the line and trust God. Abram’s relationship with God was real. Abram put his life in God’s hands and trusted God to take care of him. Whether we realize it or not, we have done the same: our life is in God’s hands. Whether we know it or not, we have trusted him to take care of us. How might we remember that relationship as more than a passing fancy? How might we discover the same all-in, high-stakes relationship with God in our own lives?

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