This is now the third repetition of the covenant with Abraham. In the first encounter, Abram lost his home. In the second, he lost his security. And here in the third, he lost his name. Of course, that is not the view we take of this encounter. Instead, we want to focus on what he gained. Yet, without an acknowledgement of sacrifice, we run the risk of misrepresenting the call. Yes, there are promises to claim, but there is a necessary rending in order to claim these promises. Abram was called to leave the familiar and to venture out, without a clear direction, only trust. He was called to believe he had a home, a place despite being surrounded by enemies. And now he is called to take on a new identity and to live that identity with his whole life.
Rending of the hearts, or what we have come to see as giving something up for Lent, has become somewhat anemic these days. Abraham gives an example of a true rending, a true sacrifice. It makes our no chocolate or coffee for a few weeks seem kind of meager. Yet, a sign is a sign. It is about our willingness and our patience.
The Genesis story seems compact when we run through it all at once. But reading the margin notes reveals to us that this was years, decades, for this promise to be fulfilled. In Abram’s first encounter with God, the text tells us he was seventy-five years old. Today’s text tells us that he is now ninety-nine years old, and still the promise is not fulfilled. There is no son, Isaac; there is no multitude as numerous as the stars in the heavens or the sand in the desert. Yet, God still comes and asks for an investment. God asks for a rending of flesh as a sign that Abraham is still on board, twenty-four years into this— is he still on board?
Oh, sure, he’s had his moments when he wasn’t so sure; when he felt a need to save that skin that God now wanted a piece of; when he had to count his chickens before God was ready for them to hatch. You can’t blame him, really. He was getting on in years. He and Sarah were seeing gerontologists rather than pediatricians. It’s a long time to hold on to hope; a long time to see a future that was so far from the reality in which they were living that it became laughable.
And how long in between conversations with God did Abraham have to last? Had it been days, months, years since the voice came to him? And now here it is saying that covenant word again. But now there seems to be another condition. Walk before me and be blameless. Or is that two conditions? Walk before God and be blameless.
Blameless. What does that include? This is only the second time that this word has appeared in the Bible. The first time was when Noah was introduced. Blameless means, then, good enough to save humanity. No pressure there. Genesis 6:9 says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”
Maybe the blameless and the walking are tied together somehow. Maybe the covenant-maker God is saying to Abraham, “Keep moving forward. Keep moving forward with me; don’t give up on the promise. Even as the years pass and the body ages, keep walking with me, walking before me.”
Notice the shift? Noah walked with God. Abraham is told to walk before God. Is it the same? Yes, probably. Before means on display, it seems. Before means to represent, perhaps. But perhaps most significantly, before means that Abraham had to walk without all the answers for most of his life of faith. He had to walk before God gave him specific directions. He had to decide for himself how to follow the path of faith. And guess what, he got it wrong sometimes. He made decisions that got him into trouble, and he put loved ones at risk. He messed up, in short. But none of that precluded him from continuing to walk before God. Sure, sometimes he had to pick himself up and go a different direction. Sometimes he hurt those around him by making the wrong choices. But he kept walking. He kept seeking. He kept asking for God’s guidance. And when it came, he changed direction. He changed identity.
Or rather, God changed his identity. He was Abram, exalted father, but he became Abraham, father of many. What’s the difference? Well, perhaps the exalted one needed to be God, and what was needed from Abraham was a sense that there were others who would follow his example. Yes, there was the literal interpretation, a nation of people would come, slowly. But there is also the spiritual interpretation. Abraham’s faithfulness spawned a multitude of children as we who come after seek to walk before God with as much faith, albeit in fits and starts, as did Abraham.
Let’s not forget Sarah, because God didn’t. She was included in this story in a way that women often weren’t in the biblical saga. Sarai is sometimes translated as contentious or quarrelsome. But now her name would be Sarah, meaning princess. She takes her place as a leader, as a ruler, in shaping this nation to be.
But do not discount the importance of time in the story of Abraham and Sarah. Our culture is one of instant gratification. If we don’t see the change we want immediately, then we are likely to abandon that path. Twenty-four years into the journey with God, Abraham and Sarah are still in the dark, still waiting for fulfillment. And yet, somehow, they are still willing to believe. They are still willing to walk before God, step after step after step.