CREDO FOR LENT II(C) 11th March 2001
TO THE EDITOR CATHOLIC TIMES
Fr Francis Marsden
If you consult Ordanance Survey sheet 115, you can find Carmel, Bethel, Saron (Sharon), Seion (Zion), Salem, Nasareth, Nebo, Bethesda and Bethania. They are all hamlets by slate quarries, within a few miles of Caernarfon, much closer to each other than their originals in Palestine. Non-conformist mining communities frequently named themselves after their chapels. Abram – with whom we shall deal today – has blessed with his immortal name a pit village between Wigan and Leigh in the Lancashire coalfield.
Holy Church this weekend offers us the account of God’s Covenant with Abram, our father in faith. A covenant is a mutual agreement, an alliance, from the Latin con-venire, to come together.
The call of Abraham marks the start of God’s great plan of redemption. Between 1800 and 1600 BC his family migrated from the city of Ur of the Chaldees, on the banks of the Euphrates near the Persian Gulf. We are told that Abram’s father Terah moved the family to Haran, in what is now Syria or southern Turkey.
In obedience to Yahweh, Abram later left Haran (Genesis 12). This would have marked his abandonment of the cult of the local divinity, a moon god. His obedience to the one true God contrasts with the disobedience of Adam and Eve, of Cain who slew his brother Abel, and of the builders of the Tower of Babel.
Abram migrated to Canaan, where he erected altars to Yahweh, and settled in the mountains east of Bethel. Still semi-nomadic, he journeyed to the Negeb and to Egypt, and finally back to Hebron. He settled at the oak of Mamre and erected there another altar to Yahweh (Gen 13:18).
Abram’s obedience to the voice of God is reckoned to him as righteousness. He is saved by what he does in response to God. Faith is proved by obedience and good works. Faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Having tested Abram’s obedience, God is now ready to enter into covenant with him.
A political covenant was usually a binding compact, an alliance or treaty, between tribes or states. It listed the duties of each side and the respective sanctions, should these duties not be fulfilled. Both parties processed between the halved animals, expressing thereby a curse upon themselves, should the covenant be betrayed.
In this case, however, we are witnessing a covenant between the Creator of the universe, and the ancestor of a small tribe, predestined to be a powerful tool in God’s re-shaping of the world. No wonder the narrative carries a sense of awe and mystery.
“Abram brought [a heifer three-years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove and a young pigeon]. He cut these in two, and laid each half over against the other . .” Birds of prey come down upon the carcasses, reminiscent of the evil powers which will try to disrupt the covenant, but Abram drives them away.
“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram, and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him . . .When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking firepot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram . . “ (Gen 15)
Abram is “slain in the Spirit”, as it were, because he is the passive, weaker partner in the Covenant. Dread and insensibility fall upon him during this ritual of “cutting” the Covenant, to indicate a mighty work of God. Adam too fell into a deep sleep while God created Eve, “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” The apostles fell asleep at the Transfiguration, and awoke fearful, to behold Jesus in glory conversing with Moses and Elijah.
God, symbolised by the fiery brand, passes between the halves of the sacrificed animals. His presence will later be manifest as the pillar of fire during the Exodus. The bisected beasts are a warning of the sanctions which uphold God’s Holy Covenant, and the punishments which will befall one who betrays it.
God pledges to Abraham the whole of the land of Canaan – “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” The other tribes, on account of their wickedness, will be displaced in due time. This promise is still today a live political issue.
Yahweh promises Abram that his descendants will be as many as the stars of heaven. Abram and Sarah are childless and already in their old age, so the fulfilment of this promise is difficult to imagine. Nevertheless God assures him of innumerable descendants: “And he believed the Lord, Who reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (15:6)
Two chapters later, in Genesis 17, there is a second, so-called “priestly” account of this covenant with Abram. This emphasizes circumcision as the sign of the covenant. El Shaddai, God the Almighty, renames Abram (meaning “exalted father”) as Abraham (“father of a multitude”). As so often in the Bible, a new name signifies a new mission. He is to be the “father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful . . . and kings shall come forth from you.”
The long history of Israel is one of repeated betrayal of the covenant, and of repentant returns to it, urged by prophets and godly men. Unfaithfulness to the covenant brings war and defeat, disaster and exile. “For the fig tree will not blossom, nor will there be any fruit on the vine, the yield of the olive will fail, the fields afford no food; the sheep will vanish from the fold, nor will there be any cattle in the stalls.” (Habbakuk 3:17)
In the new dispensation, can a once Christian nation break its Covenant with the Lord?
Imagine, just for example, that a certain nation spurned the Sabbath and turned it into a day of business and shopping, so that only a faithful remnant, 6% or so, gave thanks to their Creator for His many blessings and their luxuries from the ends of the earth. That for decades this nation ridiculed Christian belief on its TV and radio stations and promoted all kinds of pornography and vileness in the name of “freedom of speech” and “artistic liberty.” That it promoted a religious pluralism and vaguely spiritual sentiment, but denied any objective revealed truth.
Suppose that its Government refused to support Christian marriage and family life, legalised homosexual activities even for minors, and supplied the abortifacient morning-after pill to girls as young as 12. Imagine that this society murdered hundreds of thousands of its own young in the womb every year, spitting out a No to God and a No to its own future.
Just suppose that it built a pleasure dome supposedly for the 2000th anniversary of Christ’s birth, but then refused the nation’s Christian leaders the chance to utter a prayer as the millennium turned – instead filling its modern Tower of Babel with semi-naked pagan dances. Imagine that it earned immense sums of money exporting arms to the dictators of poor nations, and then, after a televised war to prove its military hardware, starved their children to death with economic sanctions. Imagine a nation which had grown obese on interest payments exacted out of the malnourished of the earth, even if latterly it remitted a few of their debts. Imagine, even – though this is hard to credit – that ignoring all its national neighbours, it became a moral pariah by legalising experiments to clone human beings and cannibalise them for spare parts.
How far would a nation have to go before it had torn up its Covenant with Yahweh? God is not vindictive. It is simply that by breaking the Covenant, a nation puts itself more and more under the dominion of the enemy, the Evil One. Storms and tempests howl, blizzards rage, the rivers rise in flood, motorways are blocked, the railways disintegrate with crash upon crash, farm animals sicken and die, epidemics of venereal disease spread like a plague, adults are exhausted with work, city streets and homes become unsafe, families split asunder, children run wild, the prisons overflow. Other nations grow wary of this people when abroad because they behave like drunken barbarians. And the nation is ruled by the politicians it deserves.
Surely only coincidence . . . .?