2015 Bishop’s Bible Studies
Starry Night (Genesis 15:1-21)
Please read this passage before exploring this Bible study.
Getting In A Word Edgewise
We human beings spend about a third of our lives asleep. It’s startling simply to say that out loud. Our tendency is to think of “our lives” as our active engagement in the world around us; we tend to discount our “down time.”
More happens when we’re asleep than we often realize, though. We may be “out” for roughly eight hours a night, but there is One who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4). Truth be told, sometimes God gets through to us best when we’re not fully conscious, awake, seemingly in control of things.
During 2015 I’m offering the people of our synod a series of Bible studies on dreams and visions in the Bible. As we consider the faith practice of creatively imagining the contours of God’s promised future we will do well to stop, look and listen to what God is doing in the world. Where is God leading us? How might we best align our own plans and energies with God’s dream for the whole creation? This is what “mission planning” looks like for congregations filled with people of faith who believe God is always out ahead of us.
But it’s not easy or automatic to “stop, look and listen” for God in this noisy, busy, hectic world. That’s why God is always on the lookout for opportunities to get a word in edgewise with us. Often such opportunities arise when we aren’t trying to manage the universe by ourselves. God seeks out times when we’re vulnerable and open to what God wants to share with us. This Bible study series will lift up eleven of such “holy intrusions” that marked key turning points in the scriptural story.
God Starts Over With Abram
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are often called the pre-history (or primeval history) section of the first book of the Bible. These chapters (focused on creation, fall, and flood) set the stage for all that is to follow.
Starting with Chapter 12 Genesis narrows the focus to God’s method of choosing one nation—Israel—to be God’s chosen people, the instrument of God’s rescue and redemption of all humanity. Even though God could have taken any number of nations already in existence and made them God’s chosen people, God decides to start afresh with a man and his wife and to fashion from them a people.
So in Genesis 12:1-3 God focuses the story on Abram, a nobody-in-particular who lived in “Ur of the Chaldeans,” probably located in present-day Iraq. Out of the clear blue—for no reason other than God’s own free act of choice—Abram is commanded to leave his homeland and strike out for a land that God will show him. There God will make of Abram a great nation by whom “all the families of the earth will bless themselves.”
In Genesis 15 God reiterates and expands upon this in the context of a vision that Abram receives at night. Enjoining Abram not to be afraid, God proclaims, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” God meets Abram where he is at—vulnerable, uncertain—and pours gracious promises into Abram’s hungry ears.
But Abram is not utterly passive in this vision. He responds honestly to God, naming the obstacle that seems to block his path: “I continue childless.” God, it seems, has chosen an empty vessel, ill-suited for becoming a “great nation.”
So God beckons Abram out into the night and directs his gaze toward the heavens: “Number the stars if you are able….So shall your descendants be.” Abram drinks in God’s promise of fertility-in-the-face-of-barrenness, and in this fashion Abram’s trust in God is “reckoned to him as righteousness.” That is, God counts Abram’s assent to God’s promises as constituting a life-giving relationship with God.
Then, in a somewhat bizarre scene of slaughtered animals and a floating fire-pot and flaming torch, God enters into a solemn agreement (God literally “cuts a covenant”, v. 18) with Abram in which Abram is promised
· A land that he will possess (the boundaries of which correspond to the extent of Solomon’s kingdom at the period of its greatest extent, cf. I Kings 4:21),
· A deliverance of his descendants in the distant future, after a time of sojourning in a “land that is not theirs” (i.e. a reference to the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and the Exodus), and
· A long life for Abram that will see him “go to [his] fathers in peace…buried in a good old age.”
What’s remarkable about this strange dream is that in it “God himself enters a communal relationship with Abraham under the forms which among men guarantee the greatest contractual security.” In other words, God “comes down” to earth, via this covenant with Abram, and is bound to Abram in the same way humans in that time made covenants with one another.
Holy Intrusions—Then and Now
God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12 and the vision of Abram in Genesis 15 illustrates well some of the characteristics of God’s “holy intrusions” throughout the Bible and in our own lives:
1. “Holy intrusions” always reflect God’s surprising initiative in our lives. There isn’t even a whiff of a hint that Abram did anything to deserve God’s intervention in his life! God simply seized the moment to start something new in the world, when Abram and his wife Sarai were singled out for a great and glorious future.
2. “Holy intrusions” often come when things look dark or uncertain. Abram is keenly aware of a huge problem that makes God’s promises seem so improbable: his wife Sarai is barren. In his vision (Genesis 15:2-3), Abram is not passively mute but gives voice to the predicament God’s promises must confront: “I continue childless…a slave born in my house will be my heir.” Abram may have been asleep or in a trance-like state, but in his mind’s eye he was still trying to work things out, make things add up. God seeks out times like this to get a word in edgewise with Abram—God is always looking for such opportunities to address us, too. As Walter Brueggemann observes: “We do well in our management while we are awake, and we keep the light, power and control on 24/7. Except, of course, that we must sleep…Unbidden communication in the night opens sleepers to a world different from the one they manage during the day…[and] this unbidden communication is one venue in which the holy purposes of God, perplexing and unreasonable as they might be, come to us.”
3. “Holy intrusions” mark key turning points in the story of God and God’s people. Starting here with God’s call to Abram, the biblical story transitions from pre-history to the history of God with the people Israel. An unexpected future is opened up. From our perspective as Christians, the remainder of the Bible tracks the twisting, turning but always progressing adventure of how God made good on his promises to Abram and Sarai. This adventure continues beyond the pages of the Bible, into the ongoing history of God’s people in Christ. To cite an example closer in time to our own day, Brueggemann calls Martin Luther King Jr. “perhaps the greatest dreamer of the mid-20th century,” whose famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 “was a gift of imagination from beyond the realm of political realism…the product of study, of suffering and of long-term nurture in the black church.”
In these holy seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, we recall with great joy all the ways God has made good—and continues to make good--on his promises to Abram and Sarai. Through them and their greatest descendant Jesus the Christ, “all families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Lawrence R. Wohlrabe serves as bishop of the
Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
For reflection and discussion:
1. 1. When is the last time you had a sense that God was “getting in a word edgewise” with you?
2. 2. Recall a time when things looked dark or uncertain for your congregation (or another congregation you’ve been part of). What was that like? How did the congregation come through that time? How do you think God might have been involved?
3. 3. Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad says, regarding Abram’s call by God, that “one must always remember that to leave home and to break ancestral bonds was to expect of ancient men almost the impossible.” Are there any ways in which your congregation might need to “leave home” to travel to a place God wants to show you? How might God be calling your congregation to leave its comfort zone and change for the sake of a new way to “be church” for the sake of God’s mission?
This is the first in a series of monthly bishop’s Bible studies during 2015 on the theme, Holy Intrusions. These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry. Feel free to use each column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.
 I’m indebted to Walter Brueggemann for this pungent phrase. See his wonderful article from the June 28, 2005 issue of The Christian Century at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3218.
 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, Revised Edition (1972, Westminster Press), p. 187.
 If the names “Abram” and “Sarai” sound strange to you, see Genesis 17:5, 15.
 Von Rad, p. 161.