God’s goodness and God’s promises for future generations are prominent in this passage. God initiates and directs the covenant that God makes with Abraham. God’s promise of children for Abraham, with whom this covenant will continue, signals God’s intention to honour the covenant on into the distant future.
God’s goodness and God’s promises for future generations are prominent in this passage. God initiates and directs the covenant that God makes with Abraham. God’s promise of children for Abraham, with whom this covenant will continue, signals God’s intention to honour the covenant on into the distant future. The fact that God intends to fulfil God’s promise through Sarah shows that God is planning to work in God’s own way - a way that might well seem absurd and impossible to our thinking.
This reading is set for the second Sunday in Lent, and it might be helpful to think about it in relation to the Old Testament reading that was set for last week, the first Sunday in Lent. That was the passage in Genesis 9, in the aftermath of the flood, in which God assures the world (on God’s part) a safe future. God will not bring destruction to the world, although we seem to be doing a good enough job of that on our own. The passage we’re looking at today again follows this theme. It’s more than a promise of the assurance of friendship or solidarity - it’s the guarantee of a open-ended future. It’s preoccupied with Abraham and Sarah having a son and heir who can keep the promise alive and receive the land that has been promised by God.
The first verse contains a clash of 2 facts. Firstly we’re told that Abraham is 99 years old, but straight away a counter-fact is presented, straight from God’s own mouth. God throws God’s own self-announcement in the face of those 99 years - God says, “I am God Almighty”; that’s it, there’s no need to say anything else. There is nothing more fundamental than God’s identity, God’s good self. It’s enough to override the despair of this elderly couple who had probably longed for children for decades and thought it must be too late. In the face of such despair in the face of the facts of nature, God announces God’s self and basically says, “I can do anything.”
As soon as God has made this announcement, an instruction or a calling is given: “Walk before me, and be blameless.” The phrase, “Walk before me” could be interpreted as “Worship me,” but it’s more likely to be understood as “Present yourself before me like a servant before a terrible ruler.” In other words, God is saying, “You are to be available to me on my terms and not yours.” The second part of the command, to be blameless, may also be translated as perfect or complete. It does not refer to moral purity - God is not saying that Abraham can only present himself if he lives a spotless life - but rather it refers to being completely devoted to God, to having unqualified loyalty to God. The term might come from ritual procedure, meaning to be completely acceptable and without any disqualifying marks. God doesn’t give Abraham any specific commandments, but actually insists that Abraham’s whole life is to be given over to God in unqualified and unstinted devotion.
The third part of God’s decree is a big and unconventional promise, and it is exactly what Abraham wants to hear. God will make a covenant with Abraham, the result of which is that the family of Abraham will be “exceedingly numerous”. The same word (numerous) is used here as in the Creation account in Genesis 1 (verses 22 and 28) - the world will be teeming with living things. In parallel, in the context of covenant, the family of Abraham and Sarah will teem with children, heirs and descendants, and all of them will receive the promise. And the word “numerous” is intensified by the word “exceedingly” - we’re not just talking about a lot, but a lot of a lots! And all of this will happen to a 99 year old man and his 90 year old wife who have not been able to have children thus far. Their hopelessness is transformed by God’s identity, God’s summons to total obedience, and God’s intense promise. Abraham falls to the ground, speechless. No words on Abraham’s part are needed.
God speaks again in verses 3-7 which adds emphasis and explanation to all that God has already said. God changes Abraham’s name, signifying that Abraham now receives his life and his future from God alone. Abraham’s identity and destiny are dramatically altered, so that the desperate old man without an heir now receives a wonderful and unlimited future of power and well-being.
God goes on to talk about this new future. Firstly, the future is royal. It is likely that this passage was written during the exile, at a time when the royal dynasty has come to an end. So this is an amazing promise in this context. This is expressing hope for power in the future at a time when Israel feels powerless. Secondly, the covenant is of everlasting faithfulness. Nothing can disrupt it or turn God away from it. It is also striking to think about this in the context of exile in which it was written. The exile was a crisis of discontinuity and disruption, yet God’s love and faithfulness is for ever. Thirdly, in verse 8, the promise is for land. The family will have a good, safe place to call home.
The lectionary then skips ahead to verses 15 and 16. These include Sarah in Abraham’s future. She too has a change of name - a name which now means “princess” She is to carry a blessing, and to bear kings into a royal future.
This passage is about transformation. Those who are barren at the beginning are fruitful at the end. Those abandoned have become cared for. Those displaced have become royal. Those alone have come to covenant. There is a completely new future which was unspoken and seemed impossible at first. God promises a future way beyond whatever Abraham and Sarah could have imagined for themselves.
For further reflection…