He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, ‘I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’ (Genesis 15.5-12,17-18)3,000 years of trouble in the Middle East starts right here, Abram is promised the land of Canaan.
Or maybe not. The trouble was there a long time earlier. That little patch where the King's Highway leads through - all the way from Egypt to the Euphrates. The control of the trade routes was always key - and Palestine / Judea / Israel / Whatever it was called at the time - it was always right in the middle of it. Forget religion causing the trouble - geography was what kicked it off. Though a little nation, that was always being kicked about, did manage to develop a theology of a God so supremely powerful that other gods didn't even count. Which must be a consolation as you're being dragged off into exile. Again. But that knowledge of a God beyond the circles of our imagination must have come from encounters like this.
I've always found this one of the weirdest pieces of the Bible. Abram questions God's promise and says "how will I know?" And God's answer is to make a fire-pot and a torch pass between a series of bisected animals.
I'd like to drag in at this point the Genesis song "Harlequin". It has a certain similarity - a common eeriness.
Came the night a mist dissolved the trees
And in the broken light colours fly, fading by.
Pale and cold as figures fill the glade
Grey is the web they spin, on and on, and on and on.
Through the flame still summer lingers on
Though her pictures soon shatter.
There's something so edgy in deserted places as the night falls or as dawn breaks in. Goes back to the depths of evolutionary time, I reckon. There's a Moody Blues line in their song "Question":
But in the grey of the morning
My mind becomes confused
Between the dead and the sleeping
And the road that I must choose.
A dawn or a dusk is a changing time - one where the living and the dead maybe aren't so far apart, When the mundane can be charged with the sacred - a time, when the sky goes dark and the Dead One is put away, supposedly for good - or an early morning, when it is barely light, when somebody walking in the cool of a garden can confuse an angel with a gardener, and then a piece of news so surprising that it changes the course of history.
Then there's that other famous encounter that always reminds me of Abram's meeting with God just as night has fallen. It's from the other end of night, again. and it's from Wind in the Willows:
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
'Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. 'Are you afraid?'
'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!'
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.Rat and Mole see the Piper at the Gates of Dawn - and their encounter brings them to worship - but those words - "Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet - and yet - O, Mole, I am afraid!" That's maybe Abram's experience in the night of the one who spoke to him - and made immense promises - then proved it - if that's the right term - by passing through his camp with a burning torch. That's Jacob at Bethel - seeing the ladder, hearing his grandad's Lord making the same promises to him as to Abram - and being afraid.
Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.
That's the disciples, seeing Jesus walk towards them on the water just before sunrise - convinced he's a ghost. That's the realisation I can occasionally get - now and then - at the edge of my consciousness - that God is just so immensely other - so incredibly strange - so way beyond my understanding - that I want to cry out in terror and knowledge of my own weakness like Isaiah or react like the Gerasenes when Jesus threw the demons out of the man called Legion - and they went to him and begged him to go away. They couldn't cope with that much goodness.
It's that divine depth of goodness they can't cope with - that we can't comprehend with our minds. The depth of goodness that goes way past "nice" to a depth of love that conceives a universe that will contain you and me - with our good aspects and our bad ones. That will see all the good and evil that will ever happen in the world. Will see a cross and an empty grave. Will see a terrifying end, and a fantastic resolution. Will see the light of a thousand setting suns and their beauty, and a million acts of mundane cruelty and evil. Can see individual human sacrifice, and selfishness. Pleasure, pain, and the hundreds of billions of years that this universe will eke out into heat death. Will weigh all that and then, despite the risks, say "Let there be Light".
And it's that primal goodness - the Fear of Israel - that underpins this universe. No wonder it's scary, having an encounter with the Living God.
But it's that divine goodness way beyond us that promised one childless man - and him half-dead with age - an incredible inheritance. Built up that man's nation and then, when it fell away, when it turned to hoarding riches, or when society got slanted against the poor, when they decided that religious observation was more important than the widow and the orphan - that divine goodness wept over the City that was promised, and came like a mother hen, to gather her chicks into one place and keep them safe under her wings.
That Thought behind the Universe that wept for Jerusalem still gives itself again and again - in every creative morning and restful night, in the edges between day and night. In bread and wine, in water and oil, in the love between two human beings, in the everyday and in the special moments when heaven opens just a little and we see God's glory,
All, all is not lost,
And light appears in the shades of dawning
When your eyes can see
Order the pieces, put them back, put them back.