Column: Abram’s ‘sleep’ foreshadows Gospel events

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Infants deprived of sleep can feel very cranky. Prisoners deprived of sleep can break down under interrogation. Sleep is necessary to restore our bodies and our spirits. It gives us new life.

Sleep plays an interesting part in Sunday’s first reading: Gn 15:5-12, 17-18. Under instructions from God, Abram has sacrificed some animals and cut them in two. Then, as evening falls, something strange happens: “As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.”

The Hebrew word “tardemah,” which is translated here as “trance,” is not the usual word for sleep. Significantly enough, the same word occurs earlier in Gn 2:21: “So the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.” This sentence describes the creation of woman as a kind of surgical procedure.

In both cases, a deep sleep or trance proceeds a life-changing event. In the first, God makes a covenant with Abram, whose name eventually becomes Abraham. In the second, the first man, whom we sometimes call Adam, enters into a marriage covenant with the first woman, Eve. Genesis explains that covenant in this way: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”

The trance that Abram experiences in Sunday’s first reading anticipates the deep sleep that overcomes Peter, James and John in the Gospel reading: “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep” (Lk 9:28b-36). Once again, their deep sleep proceeds a life-changing event. They witness the glory of Christ in his transfiguration.

At the same time, they do not understand what they are seeing. Peter impulsively blurts out a comment that reflects that ignorance: “‘Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But he did not know what he was saying.’”

This slumber anticipates the sleep that the disciples will experience while Jesus is praying in the garden at the Mount of Olives the evening before he is crucified: “When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief” (Lk 22:45). Once again, their sleep proceeds a life-changing event.

Sleep can be restorative. But too much sleep can interfere with life, prevent us from experiencing it fully. In the Scriptures, sleep can also symbolize spiritual drowsiness, a lack of energy and consciousness.

We are called away from that, to be fully awake, alive in God. “Awake, O sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Eph 5:14).

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