Reading Genesis 15
1. If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship? In particular, is the faithful relationship between Lord and human mediated or immediate? How do questions of faith, doubt and knowledge structure the terms of the relationship?
2. What can Abraham's relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology? In particular, are the rhetorical forms of dialogue and metaphor relevant to the particular operations of theology?
I invite your comments on these questions, as well as a number of others I have suggested in my reading notes below; as always, your own particular interests and insights are requested. Below find my inexhaustive reflections on the text.
In Genesis 14, Melchizedek’s appearance introduces a priestly mediator between Abram and God Most High; in Genesis 15, however, Abram resumes direct communication with the Lord, immediate and unmediated by priest or person. Indeed, Abram’s encounter with the Lord in this chapter appears, for the first time, to be genuinely dialogic: Abram and YHWH converse in an exchange of questions and answers, requests and responses.
The temporal nature of the encounter is difficult to interpret: the Lord first comes to Abram in a vision, but it’s not clear to me whether the vision comprises the rest of the chapter; if it does, then Abram experiences an unusual sleep-within-a-dream. In any case, the conversation, whether occurring in real-time or dream-time, is narrated so as to underscore its passage through time and space. YHWH takes Abram across two crucial symbolic thresholds: the limen of his tent, in verse 5, and the setting of the sun, in verse 17. Whereas the Lord’s first utterance of the covenant in 12:1 occurs in some anarchic beginning outside of history, as Jim as suggested, the reiteration of the covenant in Genesis 15 can be understood to take place in a very different temporal mode, a here-and-now history that moves in human increments of time and space. (Alternately, I suppose, the liminal location of the encounter could be read as conferring a special ontological status of some sort on the conversation. Readers’
The Lord’s utterance in Genesis 15 differs rhetorically from his first pronouncement in Genesis 12, as well, most notably in the introduction of metaphor. In Genesis 13:16 the Lord says, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” A cognate simile (a species of metaphor) is introduced in in 15:5 to the same effect: “Look up at the heavens and count the stars---if indeed you can count them. … So shall your offspring be.” Dust and star as metonym for earth and heaven; earth and heaven as metaphor for Abram’s family.
Roman Jakobson, of course, has written famously on metaphor and metonymy; I know Ricouer and Derrida have also written on metaphor, though I don’t know what they’ve said; I also am absolutely ignorant of Hebrew rhetoric. If there is anything to be gathered from the appearance of metaphor in the covenant, perhaps one might begin with the trope’s logic of substitution and interruption: dust and star work as conceptual substitutes for offspring, bringing their superabundance---indeed, their unknowable superabundance---to bear on the idea of Abram’s seed. But the substitution of metaphor is accomplished by interruption, rather than by the contiguity of metonymy: star and dust are not continuous, conceptually, with offspring. Interruption, substitution---this is the vocabulary we’ve been using to talk about the Lord’s disruption of the patrilineal logic. Is there a connection? (Readers’
This chapter seems to introduce the problems of faith, doubt and knowledge---problems that will reappear surrounding the conception and birth of Isaac. Verse 6 tells us that “Abram believed the Lord, and he [the Lord]? credited it to him [Abram?] as righteousness.” Several verses later, however, Abram seeks a surer knowledge, asking in verse 8, “How can I know that I will gain possession of” the land? In response, the Lord directs Abram to bring him various animals, and upon Abram’s compliance the Lord puts on a miraculous show of supernatural power, assuring Abram that he can “know for certain” that his descendants will ultimately inherit the land. This is clearly a foreshadowing of the episode with Isaac later, but I have no idea what to make of the specifics. I’m certain there’s symbolic meaning to Abram’s various offerings and to the way they are prepared, described in verses 9 and 10, but I’m ignorant. (Knowledgeable readers’ insights solicited.)
Finally, something might be said about the highly atmospheric recounting of Abram’s extraordinary night vision in verse 12-21. Abram’s “deep sleep” and the “thick and dreadful darkness” that falls upon him bring to mind both Adam’s deep sleep at the creation of Eve and the darkness that blankets the formless earth at Genesis 1:1; from both darknesses YHWH brings forth light. (I don’t know the original Hebrew, so I don’t know whether these parallels are supported by the lexis.) Abram knows he has encountered the creator God: in verse 2 he addresses YHWH as “Sovereign,” the term (I think) introduced by Melchizedek at 14:19 that encompasses maker, creator, possessor, and engenderer. (Please correct me if I’m wrong here, Jim.)
It is this context of creation that YHWH gives Abram the extraordinary prophecy of the future of the great nation that will bear his name. This is the first appearance of the word “covenant”, I think, though it is by now the third or fourth iteration of the themes of inheritance and offspring. Here the Lord promises the land not to Abram himself, but to his descendants: the gift is deferred, but also defined. Abram’s descendants will displace---substitute, interrupt---the “Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” In Genesis 13:14 and 13:17 the Lord invites Abram to claim the borders of his land by seeing and walking its perimeter, an incremental and continuous act of possession. In Genesis 15, however, YHWH installs Abram’s offspring in the land---discursively, at least---in a radically discontinuous, substitutionary fashion. Metonymy and metaphor are coming to mind here, again. Is there anything to be learned from from these differences? (Readers’