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Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” 2Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, a son of my house is my heir.”

‘Son of my house’ is a euphemism for ‘one born of my servants/slaves’; typically considered more trustworthy than other servants/slaves, because they, by custom, are a permanent member of the master’s house. For that reason they were often given leading positions in the household: steward, treasurer, emissary, tutor; and occasionally they might even be adopted if no biological heir is produced.

This isn’t the best setting or occasion to discuss the vast differences between slavery in the ancient world, and American chatel slavery; but just generally, know that American chatel slavery was by far one of the most cruel and inhumane systems ever imagined in the long, cruel, and inhumane history of human evils. Ancient slavery was no jewel of a just society either, but ancient slavery practices where slaves still had some rights and privilages, status, and a potential to work their way to freedom, should not be confused with the perpetual, race-based, chatel slavery that was so recently practiced here.

Getting back to the topic at hand, the thing I want to focus on is the importance of having an heir, biological or otherwise, in nearly every society ever other than the post-industrial west. And we’re talking ‘ever’, like Çatalhöyük, a 9000 year old city in modern-day Turkey, was already developing these customs during its heyday. Basically from as far back as we can tell, humans have been performing some version of funerary rights for their ancestors; typically some form of excarnation would be performed to reduce the body to mostly dried bones; then those bones would either be buried in the floor or entombed in the wall of the family’s dwelling, or they’d be gathered in a natural structure or cave nearby along with tokens either commemorating the person, or preparing them for the journey to the underworld.

Commemorations of some sort would then be made, and housed in the family dwelling, or carried along with the family’s belongings during migration. Those commemorations typically involved either an image representing the ancestor; a piece of the ancestor’s body; or in the case of Çatalhöyük, the skull of the ancestor with a plaster reconstruction of the person’s face built up over the skull. All post literate societies that practiced rights of this kind considered it one of the most important filial responsibilities a man had, because the burial of the ancestor with appropriate rituals ensured two things:

1) that the ancestor would have peace in death, whatever that meant for that particular culture, and

2) that the presence of the ancestor’s remains in the land of your habitation would strengthen your connection to, and claim over the land.

Dying without an heir meant the potential of suffering torment in death; and left the legacy of your life, the land you dwelt in, the tribe you built, the legacy of all your ancestors before you, to fall prey to those with no responsibility to honor you or your ancestors; people who, by desecrating your remains, and exhuming your ancestors, could erase you from history, and secure your torment in death.

Abram has every right to be terrified of what will happen to him and his family if he has no proper heir, and he’s getting old. If he doesn’t name Eliezer or someone else as his heir soon, then no one will have any obligation to perform the funeral rights for Abram. It’s all well and good that God is making Abram all these promises, but without an heir none of it matters. God answers his concerns:

4Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

I don’t want to spend too long on this, because it’s not our main focus right now, but a lot of times this verse gets pulled out of the larger context of Abram’s story, and paired with some things Paul has to say about it, which are also taken out of context, and twisted to mean that the only thing that matters is believing in God and His promises. It’s an argument of Antinomianism (anti, meaning against, nom, meaning law; Antinomianism is Christian heresy that claims that all moral and ethical standards in the bible were made moote by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross). But one of the first things a lot of Antinomians are quick to do is to throw out the book of James; because James, when talking about Abraham’s faith making him righteous, he has this to say: James 2:15–24 (NASB95)

15If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Basically, James is connecting this story to the later story where Abramham, after finally receiving the promised heir that would ensure his legacy, has to put his belief that the Lord would fulfill His promises of an heir to the ultimate test, by being willing to sacrifice the heir he had, with the hope that God would repeat His miracle. Abram’s faith isn’t faith at all if he makes it to that mountain top, and screams at the sky “No Takesies Backsies; the kid’s mine!” Faith that doesn’t lead to action is not faith, it’s no more than the simple ascent to reality that demons have towards God’s authority. They believe and are yet disobedient. But I’ve already spent more time on this than I intended, let’s get back on track. God continues:

7And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” 8He said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” 9So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. 11The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.

Abram doesn’t need to be told how to perform this sacrifice, because it’s not, strictly speaking, a sacrifice. This is the preparation phase for a covenant known as ‘walking the bloody alley.’ The covenant involved two parties, a superior, and an inferior, making a deal of some sort in which the superior party pledges to perform their duties as sovereign; protect the land, see to the infrastructure, etc. And the inferior party pledges to follow the rules and requirements of their new sovereign, giving the sovereign permission to do to them what has been done to those animals if they should fail. They’d make these pledges as they walk between the pieces; the sovereign saying something along the lines of; “if you should fail, these animals will be better off that day than you will be.” And the new subject would say something like “May the gods see to it that such as this or worse happens if I should fail you.” But that’s not how this covenant is going to play out:

12Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him… 17It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces.

God, the sovereign in this situation, manifests with smoke and fire, as He will again with Abram’s descendants in the desert following the exodus, and while Abram remains on the ground, unable to move, God takes responsibility for both the duties of the sovereign, and the consequences of the failure of the subject. God promises Abram land, and in being the only one to walk between the pieces, promises to suffer and die Himself if the covenant fails. This covenant may be explicitly about land, but implicit is the expectation that Abram, his descendants, and those they represent will all abide by God’s way of doing things; that’s how these covenants work. But we’re barely a dozen or so pages into the story, and we already know they’re going to fail, because everyone fails!

And beyond their own failure, God’s named Abram as His priest and representative through whom the world will be blessed, so Abram and his descendants, who God will name as a nation of priests, are representatives of the world, and even if they don’t fail, the world they represent does constantly. This covenant is as sure to fail as humanity is sure to sin. There is no scenario from this point forward where God doesn’t have to die, because He just implicitly took responsibility for human failure.

God. The power and lifeforce that produced creation. The one being capable of bringing Chaos into an ordered plan. The deathless, ageless, immutable God. He has consigned Himself to the fate of humanity, to our righteousness or unrighteousness. Humans, the literal reason the created order has already fallen apart once, and on a smaller scale, will do so again at least a hundred times more. God sets His fate in the hands of humans!

This story only ends in Jesus; His life, His death, and His resurrection.  Only the death of God can atone for the sins of humans, because starting here on, what… like page 13? God’s already put His life on the line as payment for our failure. [1] All Scripture References come from the NASB(95)