An Episcopal priest now engaged in a nationwide ministry of preaching and teaching, Fleming Rutledge is author of And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament, a collection of fifty-five Old Testament sermons ideal for both homiletical and devotional use. In the following sermon, excerpted from the book, Rutledge explores the Genesis account of God’s covenant with Abraham.
Many people are attracted to anything that is ancient, primitive, primordial. I’ve always envied a man named John Noble Wilford. He writes articles about archaeology for The New York Times. Everybody around him at the paper is writing articles about collapsing banks, Ponzi schemes, drug cartels, suicide bombings, and other features of modern life, while Wilford writes about the tombs of Pharaohs, ancient lost palaces, Neolithic caves, and other cool topics that take us out of the mundane daily round into a realm of adventure and discovery. The sense of being connected with ancient civilizations casts a potent spell. My mother and I once took a trip to the region of France where we were able to see some of the famous cave paintings from the Stone Age. I’ll never forget the sensation I had as we stood in the narrow corridors and imagined those remote ancestors, carrying their rudimentary torches into the frightening blackness of the uninhabited caverns in order to draw their beautiful pictures, with greatest difficulty and without live models. I was stunned by the sense of kinship I felt with the prehistoric artists.
Wilford accompanied a group of fossil hunters into the Gobi Desert. He wrote that hunting fossils is “grinding, gritty work,” and yet there is a glamour about it for those who have the tenacity to endure it. He describes an evening around a campfire after a day of successful digging. “Away from the fire, [our] voices fade into a night of silences . . . the sky is awash with stars, whole galaxies of them spilling down to the horizon. . . . Fossil prospecting is primordial, hand-and-knee stuff [and] our fire is primordial too. . . . Sitting before the flames, our backs to the enveloping darkness, we are not far removed from the Stone Age hunters. At night they must have sat around fires exulting in the success of the hunt, happy in their survival to hunt another day. It is much the same with us.” I can’t speak for you, but that account gives me goosebumps.
You are about to hear one of the most remarkable passages in the entire Old Testament, from Genesis 15:2
The word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision, “Fear not, Abraham, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abraham said, “O Lord, I continue childless. . . . You have given me no offspring.” And behold, the Lord brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. Your descendants shall be as many as the stars.” And the Lord said to Abraham, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But Abraham said, “O Lord, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” And God said, “Bring me a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon.” And Abraham brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other. And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abraham drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abraham; and lo, a great dread fell upon him. And when the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates. . . .”
When I first studied this extraordinary text, it made my hair stand on end in the same way as the trip into the Neolithic caves. In this passage from Genesis, a ceremony is described which is of such great antiquity that one has the sense of going back as far as it is possible to go in biblical history. In this passage, we are in touch with a tradition so old that even the most skeptical interpreters agree that it originated in the time of the patriarchs, two thousand years before Christ. Few portions of the Hebrew scriptures meet the critical test quite so well as this one; it bears the marks of time immemorial. It carries with it a feeling of awe and mystery which still grips the reader over the millennia.
At the beginning of Genesis 15, we discover Abraham in his tent at night, a very old man with an elderly, barren wife and not a single legitimate child. He has been trekking through the Near East for decades, trusting in a promise for which there was no evidence whatsoever. We can hardly blame Abraham for complaining to God that he was having a hard time trying to believe that he was going to have an heir who would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. God is patient with Abraham’s skepticism; he leads the old man out through the tent flaps into the desert night. Imagine it: “The sky is awash with stars, whole galaxies of them spilling down to the horizon.” And God says to Abraham, “Look toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able. So shall your descendants be.”
Now we come to the eerie part of the story. When it is still daylight, God instructs Abraham to bring three animals and two birds. Abraham slaughters them according to the ritual traditions of that primitive time. Then he cuts each of them in half, and lays out the pieces in two rows, one portion of halves over here, the other halves opposite, forming an alley in between. This ritual is said to survive in some form in the Middle East even today. It was the first step in a very ancient covenant-making ceremony. After the carcasses were laid out, the second step was the two covenant partners passing through the bloody passageway as a sign of solemn commitment to one another. The point of this was that, if either partner violated the terms of the covenant, he was leaving himself open to suffering the fate of the slaughtered animals: “Thus let it be done to me if I ever break the terms of this compact.”
Abraham did all the things he was told to do, and then, not knowing what would come next, he waited. Buzzards began to come down to eat the carcasses, and Abraham kept busy driving them away. As evening draws near and darkness begins to fall over the strange scene, the biblical narrator begins to cast his spell with the extraordinary economy, emotional reserve, and narrative skill for which Old Testament storytelling is admired around the world. “As the sun was going down,” we read, “a deep sleep fell on Abram, and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him.” That is all we are told of Abraham’s state of mind; the psychological details that interest modern people are omitted. All the emphasis is on the solemnity of the event that is about to occur, the action of God, which causes the human being to feel dread:
And it came to pass that when the sun had gone down, it was dark. And behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces. And on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates. . . .”
We should pause for a moment and let the narrative have its way with us before we move to interpretation. We feel something of the awe and dread that Abraham felt as he waited for — he knew not what. We sense the darkness coming on, and we are aware of the spookiness of the dead animals laid out in preparation for some sort of solemn covenant. We feel the impotence of Abraham, a truly aged man with no strength left in his loins, performing yet another task at God’s behest but altogether unable to imagine what it might mean or where it might lead. We note that once Abraham has laid out the pieces and driven off the vultures, there is nothing more for him to do without a signal from God. And so Abraham falls into a profound sleep.
Now, recall the purpose of the bloody passageway. If the two partners making the covenant are equals, they will each pass through. That will be a sign from one to the other, both of them, that they intend to keep their covenant or else call down a curse upon themselves. However, if one partner greatly outranks the other, then only the weaker partner would be required to pass through — it begins to sound like a ceremony of initiation, like a Mafia ritual, doesn’t it? The suspense in the story is built up with utmost simplicity, but it’s palpable; the atmosphere as night falls over the bloody alley is heavy with foreboding. Human activity, human wishing, human willing has come to an end; indeed, the human agent has fallen asleep. The only actor remaining on the stage is God.
And then, in the darkness, Abraham awakens from his premonitory sleep and he sees — what does he see? Behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch move through the aisle of blood. It is the living presence of God.
And in that ceremony, we read, God made a covenant with Abraham. The Creator of the universe has come down into the human story and has bound himself in blood to his mortal creatures. He has condescended to us. But do you get the amazing revelation here, the missing piece that means everything? God passes through the bloody alley. Abraham does not. Abraham does not do anything. The Lord alone passes through, acting in the role of the weaker party. God has made God’s own self the vulnerable partner in the covenant. In this extraordinary event, God attaches himself unconditionally to his fallen human creatures and ratifies his commitment unilaterally. God has invoked the bloody curse upon God’s own self.
This, indeed, is a story to raise the hairs on our head. There is nothing else like this in the history of religion: the Almighty Lord of the universe enters into a relationship with his chosen human partner under the conditions of human liability. Here in the opening pages of the story of salvation, God lays himself open to the full consequences of everything that will come after: the disobedience, the idolatry, the folly, the greed and cruelty, the vanity and selfishness, the pride and deceit that fill the following pages of the Bible. The world had never seen anything in religion like this before. In the ancient world, the gods were arbitrary and capricious. Therefore the unconditional nature of the covenant that God made with Abraham sets religion on “a bold, new, independent course.” Our inheritance from the Hebrew Bible represents, intellectually and morally, a decisive break with primitive religious thought.
And so you know how the story continues with the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, and how it comes to its appointed culmination two thousand years later, when God keeps his word and takes the bloody curse upon himself. After the people of God have flagrantly disregarded their part in the covenant for thousands of years, God at last steps forward and, on a hill outside Jerusalem, ratifies the covenant for once and for all in the blood of his Son. The fiery presence of Yahweh in the midnight spectacle of the bloody alley becomes the pouring out of the last drop of blood of the Son of God.
Every single one of us here today, no matter how prosperous and glossy we may look, is carrying some sort of baggage. Human life is a bloody affair. If it is not the blood of war and murder, it is the blood of illness and death. If it is not literally blood, it is the burden of disappointment, doubt, anxiety, depression, fear. Some of us hide our inner conflicts more or less successfully behind a polished surface; others are publicly betrayed by the outward and visible signs of inadequacy, decline, failure, disgrace. We must lie down, wrote the poet Yeats, “where all the ladders start/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
Here indeed is the link between ourselves and our Stone Age ancestors, between the Hebrews of old and ourselves of today, between yourself and your neighbor in the next pew. Here is the link. We are all terminally afflicted with the human condition, incapable of making or keeping any kind of agreement with a righteous God. Here is the news today: it is precisely to us in our affliction that the Lord comes, blazing his way with galaxies across the sky, trailing clouds of glory, writing his name in fire. He comes to us in our insensibility, in our stupor, in our impotence. He comes without conditions and without requirements. He comes down from heaven into the bloody mess of human history, laying himself open to the worst that we can do, taking the curse of our condition upon himself. He takes it and he carries it all the way.
This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; this is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let him take you by the hand this very day and lead you out where you can see the stars, where the flaming splendor of his appearance dispels your darkness, and above all where he lays himself down in the corridors of death, so that the children of Abraham might, by his blood, attain to the promise of eternal life and a celestial inheritance in the Kingdom that fadeth not away.