Landless, childless Abram finds answers in the night

in the beginning
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

Mysterious things happen at night. Cloaked in the darkness, all kinds of weird beings can lurk about.

The creaking of tree branches, the howling of a dog, can make our imagination run wild.

That is the setting for Sunday’s first reading, Gn 15:5-12, 17-18. It tells us: “As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.”

In the midst of that darkness, Abram witnesses a strange sight: “There appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces.”

Abram has cut up several animals as a sacrifice to God. The fire pot and torch pass through the cut-up pieces of these animals as a sign of God’s presence. 

The flaming torch anticipates the burning bush that Moses will see on Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire that will eventually guide the Hebrew people at night through the desert, the tongues as of flame that much later will descend upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost.

Fire, a form of energy, represents God’s power at work.

The cut-up pieces of animals are intended to be a sacrifice, to seal the covenant between Abram and God. Ordinarily, they would be consumed by fire.

Strangely enough, the narrative in Genesis does not describe that precise moment, even though we can assume it.

The covenant confirms the promise that God has made to Abram, to give him the Promised Land and to make him the ancestor of a huge number of people yet to be born:

“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he (God) added, “shall your descendants be. . . . I am the Lordwho brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.” 

Keep in mind, that when God says these things to Abram, Abram is an elderly man with no children, a nomad with no permanent residence. He owns no land and has no family.

God makes the promise to Abram at night, just as the sacrifice sealing the covenant takes place at night, although not evidently the same night. After all, nighttime is when mysterious things happen.

Perhaps it is then that we are more willing to believe in mysterious things happening. And it is then that Abram believes what God has told him:

“Abram put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.”

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