We read in Genesis that Abram n who later God will name Abraham n is worried and complaining to God because he has no children. God responds by bringing him out of his tent, showing him the multitude of stars in the clear desert night sky, and promising that his descendants will outnumber those stars.
How many stars are in the sky? Scientists tell us that a person can see about 5,000 stars with the naked eye. When God invited Abram to “count the stars, if you can count them,” this is about as far as Abram would have gotten. Of course, there are many more stars than those Abram could count. How many more? Astronomers’ best estimates today put the number somewhere around 1024; that is the number 1 with 24 zeroes after it.
The largest number a person can even vaguely grasp is the notion of “a trillion.” That is 1 followed by 12 zeros. Add another 12 zeros and you have a septillion. That is how many stars might be in the sky. When you consider that Abram and his wife Sarai are childless and now well past the normal age of childbearing, that’s a fantastic pledge. In spite of that, Abram “believed the Lord, and the Lord regarded it to him as righteousness.”
God called Abram and promised not only to make of him a great nation but also declared “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” God’s choice of Abram is not just for the benefit of him and his descendants, but for the whole world.
God’s promise to Abram takes on new significance when we appreciate that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all consider themselves “children of Abram.” Once we appreciate God’s promise to Abram, maybe we will learn to treat each other as true brothers and sisters. Our descendants n all septillion of them n are counting on us to do so.
What did Abram do to earn God’s favor? Abram simply believed that God was reliable and would do what he had said. Abram believed and trusted God, and that boundless trust in God became the measure of Hebrew faith. Biblical faith means trust in God, and not wrapping our minds around impossible outcomes. Trust in God may lead to impossible outcomes. However, God does not ask us to do mental gymnastics, just to remain faithful.
We might compare the task with what lovers do when they fall in love. They move through the miracle of love simply by trusting that it will resolve every obstacle. They do not know how love will do this, and they do not have a concrete plan to follow. They simply love and allow love to move each successive mountain as it presents itself.
Because Abram trusts God so completely, God decides to return the favor in a mysterious ritual. This covenant is a reward bestowed on a servant for past loyalty and demands no obligation from the servant. God tells Abram to cut several animals in half and line them up in a row. God alone moves through this pathway of death as a flaming torch, taking the threat of blood upon the “divine head.” What God is saying in this action is: “May I be like these animals if I break this covenant.” We Christians view this self-curse that God freely takes up and realize how it reaches its awful conclusion at the cross.
With Abraham, we trust and believe that God will furnish us with what we need for the stressful, painful, or tedious parts of our journey. As Abraham saw the presence of God’s Spirit in a fire that passes through the sacrificed animals, so may we experience God’s presence on our life’s journey.