Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time, we were looking at the 15th chapter of the book of Genesis. There, we find God announcing to Abraham, or Abram, as he is more correctly known at this point in the story, that he is to become the father of countless descendants. We recognized that God’s ultimate intention for Abram is to draw his faithful servant into an experience of His own divine life. The promise of children is an instrument for accomplishing God’s greater desire. Abram does not yet realize exactly what God is up to. But by believing God, when He makes the impossible pledge of children to him and his barren elderly wife, Abram opens a door for God, and God imputes righteousness to Abram. That is, because Abram chooses to believe Him in the face of impossibility, God considers him a willing and uncoerced participant in the truth and righteousness of His divine existence. Abram gives God permission to become active in His life. But God’s reckoning Abram righteous does not, in itself, assure the fulfillment of the promise. It is only the necessary beginning. Much more has to happen in the life of Abram before he becomes the father of many nations.
We shall see, as we continue through the next few chapters of Genesis, that Abram has several opportunities to back out of God’s divine program for him, even though God has reckoned him to be a participant in it. Serious acts of obedience, some with excruciatingly painful demands, will be exacted of Abram. These will lead Abram on a path of transformation, a journey which he must traverse before God can fulfill his promise. But now, let’s pick up the story where we left off. God has just promised Abram a numberless host of descendants. Of course, all those generations of children need someplace to live, so God reiterates something he has told Abram before. He is going to give Abram the land of Canaan for an inheritance. It is interesting what happens next. This man whom God has just accounted righteous because of his willingness to believe the impossible, now asks the Lord for some substantial evidence that he and his descendants will actually possess this promised land. In Genesis 15:8, Abram inquires, “Lord God, how shall I know that I will inherit it?”
It is just as interesting that God does not hesitate to give Abram the confirmation he seeks. Contrary to what we might think, He does not hold it against him. The Lord does not look at this request for verification as contradicting or diminishing the faith Abram has shown just a moment before. Why not? You see, God created human beings as creatures who are both spiritual and physical. He made us with the capacity for interacting with the immaterial spiritual world of the Holy Trinity and of the angels. But we relate to that realm only as physical beings. That means that if God wants us to enter into, and live in, the truths of the heavenly light, He must present them to us in some physical manner. Or let me put it like this: We cannot experience anything of the spiritual life of God unless He provides us with some physical doorway into it.
The ultimate example of this, of course, is the incarnation. God desires that we become intimately one with Him, that we perfectly join our human lives with His divine life. But for us physical beings, that requires a physical portal, a material connection, with His immaterial and spiritual realm. So the God who loves us more than we can know becomes physical. He comes in the flesh, in the fully human, yet fully divine, Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through our relationship with Him, we material creatures may enter into the sphere of the purely spiritual.
And so, God doesn’t balk when this man of faith asks for some physical evidence of what He has promised. On the other hand, the Lord does balk when faithless men ask for that. For example, in St. Mark’s gospel, chapter 8, we read about the Pharisees who came to Jesus looking for some miraculous sign that would prove Him to be the Son of God, but even though they asked for it, the Pharisees were selfish, power-hungry men who would have found a way to reject any sign Jesus gave them. They had already turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the mighty miracles and powerful teachings that flowed from Him. So to them, Jesus says, “No sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12).
But faithful Abram is not asking God to give him evidence so that he can believe God. No, Abram is saying, “God, I do believe you, but could you give this poor, physical creature something tangible that will allow me to really grasp, to really lay hold of this physically impossible, entirely spiritual promise?” And God says yes. Beginning with verse 9 of Genesis 15 we read:
So He said to him, “Bring me a 3-year-old heifer, a 3-year-old female goat, a 3-year-old ram, a turtle dove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other, but he did not cut the birds in two. And when the vultures came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
Now, when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him. Then He said to Abram, “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them and they will afflict them 400 years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge. Afterward, they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace, you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation, they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
And it came to pass, when the sun went down, and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces.
On the same day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates, the Kenites, the Kenizaites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perezites, the Raphaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Gergashites and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:9-15)
We could get all caught up in an attempt to decode the symbolic intricacies of severed animals and vultures, of smoking ovens, and burning torches. When I was an evangelical pastor, I used to love that sort of theological exercise. But as an Orthodox Christian, I’ve learned that most of the time, drawing the really important point from a passage of scripture, does not require that kind of penetrating theological investigation, which, the truth be told, far too frequently leads to nothing more than very creative speculations. What do we need to see here? It is that God invites Abram into a powerful experience with Him. This experience is meant to confirm what God has promised him. But even more importantly, the experience also confirms that it is God who is doing the promising.
God, here, translates the scope of His promises into terms Abram can sink his teeth into. The patriarch had faithfully accepted them when God had expressed those promises in a very general, nonspecific manner. God simply assured him of many descendants and an inherited land. But now, for Abram’s sake, God flushes out those promises in very specific terms. He tells Abram that his descendants will go here and there, do this and that, for this many generations, and for these particular reasons. God defines the area they will inherit, not as some vague promised land, but as the lands bounded by the Nile and the Euphrates, the ones currently inhabited by Kenites and Hittites and Jebusites and others. What does this do for Abram? It makes God’s promises real. It expresses them in a way that allows a physical creature in a physical world to get his mind around them. God’s concrete explanation of His promises fortifies Abraham’s confidence in his Lord.
But something more than a better explanation of God’s promises happens here. The Lord reveals himself to Abram in new ways. By His words, He shows Abram that the God he serves is one for whom time is an open book who does not make things up as He goes along, but sees all eternity in a single moment. God also wants to show Abram that he takes his declaration of faith seriously. He paints for His servant the image of the promise fulfilled, even though the journey to that fulfillment has only just begun. But the culminating and most moving moment in this whole experience comes as God punctuates His words to Abram with a visible revelation of His presence. He shows himself in the oven and torch, the smoke and the fire, that miraculously appear. These spiritual, though at the same time, physical, manifestations, hauntingly move above and amidst the bloody, cleaved bodies Abram had distributed on the ground. This dramatic display reminds Abram that there is more to God and more to his life with God, than the attaining of children and lands.
The life of the Lord transcends the realm of the material. Though it expresses itself through the physical, it is above and beyond it. For Abram, children and lands will be a portal into the spiritual realm of God. These things God has promised him will form the physical backdrop against which Abram encounters the living God moving about in his life, just as the oven and torch moved about among the broken animals. And just as he had to sacrifice all those physical creatures to see God revealed among them, so Abram is going to discover that entering into the life of God requires the sacrifice of his material life and possessions. In fact, Abram is going to find out that to attain the true blessing of God, a life of intimate unity with Him, even the very things God has promised him will have to be yielded. As we shall see later, God’s promise to Abram is not actually realized until the moment Abram understands that.
We are looking for similarities between the life and experience of Abraham and the life and experience of Christians. We are trying to understand the relationship between the imputing of righteousness and the fulfillment of God’s promises. We are also looking to identify the connection between faith and works, between believing God and our actions toward God. This encounter between Abram and God that we have just discussed, has, I believe, a very important parallel in the Christian life. What is it? I am going to let you mull that over this week. If you think you have an idea as to what it might be, drop me an email.