In the First Reading, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be innumerable, and Abraham trusted him and believed the promise. God counted that trust as an act of righteousness on Abraham’s part.
Then God promised to give Abraham the land around him. In response, Abraham asked, “How am I to know that I will possess it?”
That doesn’t sound like a trusting response, does it? If you promised me that you would give me some CDs, and I said, “How do I know that you will give them to me,” you would be insulted, wouldn’t you?
If you were actually willing to honor my question, then you might try to allay my skepticism in some way. But here is what God did. He had Abraham sacrifice some animals, and then he sent Abraham a terrifying darkness and a vision of fire over the sacrifice. While Abraham was having that vision, God reiterated his promise to Abraham and developed it: God promised to give Abraham the land and told Abraham that his descendants would live in it.
How is this response supposed to allay Abraham’s skepticism? It consists just in a repetition of the original promise together with some fireworks—a fearful darkness and a display of power over Abraham’s sacrifice.
It is as if in answer to my skepticism about your promise of CDs, you were to say to me, “I promise you that you will really get them! And I am powerful enough to make things happen.” But what was in doubt was my reliability to keep my promises, not my power to do so.
God’s response to Abraham’s doubt is like this. Even with the fireworks in the vision, it still requires Abraham to trust God in just the way he wasn’t willing to do when he asked, “How do I know that you will give them to me?”
What is the point of God’s response then? In fact, what is the point of God’s making the promise of the land in the first place? If God wants Abraham to have this land, why doesn’t God just give it to him now?
The answer to all the questions is implicit in the answer to that last question. God wasn’t trying to be Abraham’s real estate agent. He was trying to develop a relationship with Abraham. But that relationship required trust in God on Abraham’s part.
And trust in God came hard to Abraham. No sooner had he managed it, and gotten credit with God for it, then he lost it again, as the story makes clear.
Notice, though, how precious Abraham’s trust was to God when Abraham finally did manage it: God counted it for righteousness. When we lament our sins and long for righteousness, this is a good story to remember.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University