Believe it or not, God’s promises are a sure bet. Believing or not believing doesn’t change this basic theological truth: God’s promises are a sure bet.
That is at least partly what this Genesis story, and others like it, is about. Believe it or not, God’s promises are a sure bet. At first blush – and there is a lot in the Abram stories to blush about – Abram and Sari didn’t believe the promises of God, had no faith in them. This story is the first of three in which God tells Abram he will have a son of his own, presumably with Sari, although she is not mentioned in this story. Later, in Genesis 18, God repeats the promise to newly renamed Abraham, and this time Sarah is listening and laughing on the other side of the thin skin of the tent wall. But now, in this story, Abram is still Abram – don’t ask me the significance of that, but there it is, no name change yet, still Abram – and God promises Abram, the man from Ur of Chaldeans, that he will have many heirs, and again, presumably the son who will be the leaven for all these descendants will come through his cousin/wife Sari. However, Abram and Sari don’t believe it.
Well, you say, yes Abram did believe the promise of God. It says right here in Genesis 15:6 that Abram believed and God put a mark by Abram’s name for this right response – this response of faith.
However, if actions speak louder than words alone, then Abram’s actions speak of one who might have trusted the promise of God to be a shield, a defender, even one who rewards loyalty, but Abram did not believe God could be trusted with the details. Which, of course, raises the whole issue of whether or not God can be trusted with the details in life, or only with the big picture. Abram believed that God could be trusted with the larger scheme of things, but the little matters need to be schemed out for oneself. I mean that’s why God gave us a brain, right? And thumbs? It is clear from the Genesis stories themselves, that Abram/Abraham – a name change doesn’t change the man – Abram/Abraham didn’t believe a son would come from barren Sari’s/Sarah’s womb, or at the very best, he believed it to be a long shot – which it was. A promise against which, at the very least, you ought to hedge your bet – which he did.
You know the story, right? I’m not making this stuff up. The very next chapter of Holy Writ tells how Abram is quite easily, it seems to me, talked into physical relations – alright, let’s just say it, sex – with slave girl Hagar, the result being Ishmael. A son whom, Genesis implies, Abraham loved. A son, who is in fact, one of the large, bright stars in Abraham’s progeny sky – Ishmael, seed of Abraham, out of whom God made many great nations. And in fact, Ishmael was a son that Abraham was quite comfortable with as being his heir.
Of course, in typical fashion, the rabbinic tradition blames Sarah for Ishmael, and the trouble his presence caused, both then and now. The Talmud claims that Abraham was a reluctant participant at best. You can just see Sarah having to drag old, spry Abraham over to slave-girl Hagar’s tent, can’t you? “Okay, now go in to her.”
“You sure you want me to do this?”
“Positive. Go ahead, go in to her.”
“Okay then, honey, but only for you, honey.”
Sorry, but I’m not buying that, because from the stories of Genesis, that is simply not sellable, and not even a Talmudic spin on the matter will convince me. Abraham didn’t trust God with the details in life. At least partly, he left those to Sarah.
Abram might have believed the overall promise of God’s presence and friendship, but Abram didn’t buy into the particulars in the promises of God, or perhaps it was God’s slowness to act that slowed Abram’s faith in this matter of an heir. The point is, and the point is sharpened by the fact that this story was recorded in the 9th or 8th Century BCE at a time of exile and the crisis of faith that comes along with exile, that it is the credibility of God that is in question in this story, and in so many like it. Are the promises of God a sure bet? Is God committed enough to follow through on what God promises? Does God have the power to keep his word? And here’s a biggie: If I don’t believe the word of God, will God then abandon that word, and me along with it?
See? Believe it or not, the promises of God are a sure bet. True or false?
Believing that God can be trusted even with life’s details – and I’m not talking about the-finding-a-parking-place kind of detail, but matters like cancer, barrenness, injustice, straying children, starving children – believing God can be trusted with working out these details in life is, at best, a gamble. And let’s be honest here, just as the stories of Genesis are honest, most times, betting on God leaves you betting against the infamous facts of the ground. Don’t be so hard on Abraham and Sarah. Women in their late 60s or 70s, with a history of barrenness, are not likely candidates for child bearing. These are the facts on the ground that are staring Abram straight in the face.
The hideous Separation Wall surrounding places like Bethlehem, and in fact most of the West Bank, is a barrier that, like a cancer, is growing, and along with it the number of Jewish settlers illegally living on confiscated land around it. This Separation Wall is not coming down in any of our lifetimes. These are the concrete-hard facts of the ground staring Palestinians in the face. If you can identify, then be grateful for Abraham and Sarah, for they are us, you and me, along with any others like us, or maybe not so much like us at all, but who believe that the word of God is to them, who see visions and dream dreams. And who also struggle to trust God in the face of insurmountable odds against the promises of God that under gird the purpose of God to redeem the whole world through a people who will follow him no matter what.
Come on now, you people of God struggling your way through this article, tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about here and now. Of course you do. Let’s just say it, the situation in Israel/Palestine, like so many situations like here, is not “no-win;” it’s “can’t win.” We can’t win. The Palestinians can’t win. Justice, peace, these are barren ideals, that can’t win. Can’t win. So what are we doing here? Do we really believe that we can make any difference that matters, really matters? You’re kidding yourself if you do. What gets you and me up ever morning is not any faith in our abilities to change this situation of injustice, but our faith in the promises and power of God to work in the details of our lives, and the lives of the people here on all sides of the conflict. If you don’t have faith in that fundament theological truth, then you will burn out in short fashion, and perhaps you have, or you’re awfully close. You will also wear out trying to do it all yourself, not trusting the tireless work of God’s Holy Spirit, alive and well, and active in this place, and for the matter, in every place on earth, and even beyond.