Promises, Promises

Why did God repeat his promise to Abraham at least four times?

Genesis 12:1-4. God called Abram to leave home and promised to make him a mighty nation through whom all the world would be blessed. Abram was 75 years old.

Genesis 15. Years later, God repeated and expanded his promise to Abraham in a series of dialogues. The Lord promised that Abram would have innumerable descendants and possess the land in which he was sojourning. Abram believed God, and it was “credited to him as righteousness.” The Lord entered into a formal covenant with Abram through a covenant sacrifice. The Lord had Abram sacrifice a number of animals and split them in half. Abram laid out the pieces with a path between the halves. In the darkness, the Lord revealed himself in the form of a smoking fire-pot and blazing torch which passed between the pieces. This event resembles the formal covenant ceremonies that two kings might make with each other in the era of the patriarchs. When the parties to the covenant walked through the carcasses of the sacrificed animals, it was a way of saying, “May this happen to me if I don’t fulfill my promise.” At this point in God’s covenant with Abram, it is God who is making all the promises.

Genesis 17. When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord once again repeated his promise to Abram and gave Abram the sign of the covenant that existed between them. God told Abram to circumcise himself and all the male members of his household. God also gave Abram a new name: Abraham. Similarly, Abraham’s wife Sarai would become Sarah.

Genesis 18. Shortly thereafter, the Lord appeared to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three travelers (angels?) who announced that Sarah would have a baby in about a year. “Is anything too hard for God?” The Lord announced that Abraham would become a great nation and a blessing to all the world. In choosing Abraham, the Lord intended that his descendants might “keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice,” so that the Lord can bestow all the blessings that he promised. Then the angels headed off to destroy Sodom for its unrighteousness. Now there’s something of a warning with the promise.

Each repetition of the promise gave Abraham a little more complete picture of what God was up to. When Abram first responded to the call, he didn’t even know where he was going. “Go the land that I will show you,” was all that he got.

We never know where God’s call will take us. As we live in Christ, our knowledge of what it means to be members of his family grows. Abram was not ready for a massive data-dump when the Lord first spoke with him. As the years passed, he was able to receive more of what God had to offer.

In yet a more basic human sense, God’s repetitiveness is understandable. Time passed. With each passing year it became harder for Abraham and Sarah to believe that God would fulfill his promise. They needed reassurance.

Christians today may wonder, “Where is the promise of his appearing?” It’s been 2000 years since Jesus rose from the dead; where is the kingdom that he promised? The question is as old as the New Testament itself. The apostle Peter addresses the question in 2 Peter 3:1-10.

So what do we do, those of us to whom God does not speak audibly and to whom angels do not appear? We have a couple of things that Abraham and Sarah did not have.

First, we have the Holy Scriptures that tell the entire story of God’s promise from the days of Abraham through the era of Moses into the age of prophets and sages. The promise culminates in the story of Jesus and his church. This story is, for us, the word of God as surely as the appearance of smoking fire-pots and hungry angels was for Abraham and his kin. As we continue to retell the story in our worship and life together, the promise of God reassures us and helps us continue on our common journey of faith.

Second, in our life together we have the Holy Spirit as a down payment on the promise we’ve been given. In our Eucharistic worship and communal life, we have a foretaste of the world we’ve been promised. It’s easier to believe in something when you get to experience a taste of it from time to time.

We are still waiting for the final consummation of God’s promise to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As we wait, we have the word of God and the sacramental life of the church to sustain us. In these, God repeats his promise to us day by day. Let us live, then, by faith in the promise of God.

Related: Faith that Works