It’s been a while since God promised Abram several extraordinary things in today’s reading (Genesis 15-17) from The Daily Bible – long enough that God’s first words to him in a vision are, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
Abram reacts as if he’s not afraid at all, but anxious: “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” (apparently the head servant in his household; perhaps a distant relative).
God tells him that this man will not be his heir, who will come from his own body and his own genes … and his offspring will be as countless as the stars he sees outside his tent. That’s His plan.
That is a very great reward; a promise God seals by what seems to be a custom of the time: a sacrifice of several animals, between whose halved carcasses He passes in the likeness of a smoking firepot with a blazing torch. (Or maybe as an unseeable Person carrying the firepot and torch!)
A very important fact is then shared in the next verse:
“Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” ~ Genesis 15:6
It is a verse that will be quoted by Paul (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6) to illuminate that faith in Christ trumps circumcision and by James (2:23) to illustrate that faith and works of obedience go hand in hand.
For Abram was credited before he obeyed; before he was given circumcision as his part of the covenant to obey; before he was asked to give his own son as a sacrifice before God.
At this point, Abram has no son.
Sarai, still barren and in her seventy-fifth or -sixth year, urges Abram to take her handmaiden Hagar to wife and to bed, since their attempts to bear a child together have yielded no success. Abram accedes to her plan, and Hagar becomes pregnant … and spiteful toward her mistress, co-wife and rival.
Abram gives Sarai permission to “do with her as you like,” and Sarai mistreats her to the point that Hagar runs away. An angel appears to Hagar and tells her to go back and submit to her mistress, promising lesser blessings on her child. She does so, and bears Ishmael (“God Hears”) to 86-year-old Abram.
Once again, it’s worth noting that these are not perfect people. They are not blameless and innocent heroes and heroines of infinite wisdom and cleverness, certainly not of the type that populate Greek myths or Babylonian legends like the Gilgamesh epic. But it’s also worth noting that these are people who live in an era long before Moses’ law. We’re not told that He has commanded them not to lie or not to take matters into their own hands. Their instructions from God so far have been simple. As far as we know, Abram’s sacrifice is the first one God has specifically requested, and it is for the purpose of sealing a covenant – and He alone walks between the halves to accept responsibility for it. There is nothing for Abraham to promise in return. He can only receive the promise as a gift – in God’s good time.
It is thirteen years before the next recorded conversation between God and Abram, to confirm His covenant. No further plans are carried out. Now God has an unusual request: circumcise each male under his authority, eight days or older. The literal cutting off of the foreskin is a sign of what would happen if the request was disobeyed: that man would be cut off from his people.
God changes the name of Abram (“Exalted Father”) to Abraham (“Father of Many”), and the name of Sarai (“Princess”) to Sarah (“Princess”), promising that His covenant will be fulfilled through her child.
(Okay, her name’s meaning didn’t really change. She was still a princess in God’s sight, whether she had tried to make His plans happen through hers, or not.)
“Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Abraham laughs. (From all we can tell, he’s pushing for immediate fulfillment – God still hasn’t said when!) He may laugh with doubt, with joy, with disbelief, with giddiness, with hope, with persuasive cajoling … we’re not told. It’s one of the many passages of scripture reported with the classic straight-journalism “just-the-facts-ma’am” style of the 1950’s and 60’s. As an adoptive father who lost – in his early twenties – his ability to father children of his own or to give them to the wife he cherishes, I have no doubt that he wanted very, very much to believe.
I don’t know that wanting to believe is enough to be credited as belief, and therefore righteousness. But I do know that believing and doing go hand in hand. That’s what the apostle James said.
So Abraham confirms the covenant with this sign of circumcision, with himself, with Ishmael, with every male under his tents. (But not before pleading before God on behalf of his son with Hagar – and receiving His reassurance of a blessing, though lesser, for Ishmael.)
And maybe – just maybe – Abraham regained the sparkle in his eye, picked a few wildflowers for Sarah, went into her tent and kissed her lovely face and said, “Guess what? I have a new name.
“And so do you.”