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An Acceptable Fast: An Adult Lenten Study Session 2—Genesis 15:1–18 and Psalm 27 Take the long view. incurring the righteous indignation of another neighboring king, just when the long-awaited child was about to be conceived in Sarah’s 90-year-old womb. What she thought of her husband, whose record with women was somewhat less than stellar, we can only guess.

Abram and Sarai The Old Testament passage for the second week of Lent comes from much earlier in ancient Israel’s story. Abram and Sarai were ancestors of Moses and all the Israelites he brought from Egypt. A major theme throughout their story is that of patience, or taking the long view, as they are made to wait twenty-five years before even beginning to see the fulfillment of promises God repeatedly made them. Genesis 15, today’s first Old Testament text, comes early in their story, before the two were renamed by God and became Abraham and Sarah.

We can know the past, but we can no longer affect it. Abraham didn’t always do this badly. Like that of most people, his record is mixed. There was the time he gave the good land to his nephew Lot, the time he rescued Lot from kidnapping by foreign kings, and the time he tried to intercede for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. There were his generous dealings with potential in-laws and neighboring landowners. Whatever we see him doing, it’s not always the wisest or the bravest thing, but it is generally understandable, often well-intended, and occasionally noble. Abraham doesn’t stand out as an exceptional person for God to choose. He doesn’t compose songs or wisdom sayings, teach disciples, heal the sick, build a temple, or lead a nation, and he’s certainly no early feminist. Many readers find him and Sarah appealing precisely because they don’t seem nobler, smarter, or more altruistic than ordinary people. They give us hope for us. Their story illustrates repeatedly the trusting words of today’s Psalm 27:13–14:

In the 175 years of his life, Abraham must have done a lot of other things. But much of what we see him doing in the brief chapters that tell his story is waiting. Or, often, not waiting. In Genesis 12:1–3 he is told by God that his descendants will be a great nation. But at seventy-five years old he has not one child. Over and over, ever more explicitly, God says that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the shore. Sometimes he seems to accept this and move on. Other times, he tries to short-circuit the waiting, and only confuses things. Once he gave his wife Sarah to the Egyptian Pharaoh, claiming she was his sister. The Pharaoh’s indignant response was to send him away. Once he gave up on Sarah’s fertility and slept with her maid Hagar. This episode is one of many that call into question notions that Scripture offers healthy norms for modern families. Yet in those days taking a second wife to produce an heir was acceptable, if emotionally complicated. And then there was the second time that Abraham gave Sarah away,

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I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!


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lines, and knotholes. Whoever wants to work with something uniform will not choose wood, but a fabricated material like metal or plastic. A woodworker’s challenge is not to make something uniform from something organic, but to work with what is there, deciding just how to cut to make the best aesthetic and functional use of the tree’s complex story, the uniqueness of its rings and knots. The job of an interpreter is likewise not to ignore Scripture’s knotholes, but to work with what is there. So I’ll suggest something we can do with the four generations/four centuries knothole. My suggestion doesn’t remove the discrepancy, nor even speculate about its origin, so it will not satisfy historical curiosity. But it’s one approach to considering what this problem offers readers.

Genesis 15:1–18 By the time of today’s text from Genesis 15, God has spoken to Abraham three times, always on the same subject of the numerous descendants who will inhabit the land. It’s not clear exactly how much time has passed since God’s first promise in Genesis 12:1–3, but it’s less than ten of the twenty-five years that they will wait. We find much that is curious in Genesis 15. After the usual speech by God announcing the many descendants Abraham will enjoy, Abraham believes. But then as God elaborates further, Abraham asks, “How am I to know?” God tells him to bring five animals: a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. The cutting of the animals in two, the deep sleep and terrifying darkness, the smoking fire pot, and the flaming torch exude an air of mystery and power. Abraham is definitely not in control, and this is not anyone’s ordinary life, not even Abraham’s. And the message he is given extends far into the future with great specificity, specificity that only someone living long after Abraham could have offered:

Three Time Horizons In this passage we meet three time horizons. Two are given in the passage: First, and closest to Abraham, we hear of the fourth generation, which is surely imaginable—Abraham nearly lived to see his great grandchildren. Second, we hear of his descendants four hundred years hence, a time as unimaginable for Abraham as it would be for us today, picturing our own descendants four hundred years from now. How often do we envision our descendants even one century ahead?

Your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. (Gen. 15:13–16)

The third time horizon lies beyond the passage, but is evident to us. When we ourselves read this story, we stand at a distance from Abraham, our spiritual ancestor, not of four generations nor of four centuries, but of nearly four thousand years.

In the midst of all the smoke and carcasses, what catches readers’ eyes is a numerical discrepancy. In verse 13 God says Abraham’s descendants will be oppressed as slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years. But in verse 16 God says that they will come back in the fourth generation. This discrepancy has occasioned centuries of creative interpretation. Ancient rabbis writing in the Tanhuma Yelammedenu speculated that God meant that if the descendants repented of their sins they would be returned in four generations, but if not, in four hundred years. Modern commentaries likewise create explanations, suggesting that “generation” simply means a span of time, or that “four generations” refers to something other than what it self-evidently means elsewhere. Others imagine that the editor compiling the story knew diverse traditions and didn’t wish to choose one over another.

From Abraham’s own vantage point looking forward, the difference between four generations and four centuries is the difference between the imaginable future and the unimaginable. Yet from the vantage point of the millennia through which the story has passed to us, even four centuries are relatively brief. Though our vision is vague and our knowledge scant, still we can look back several millennia more clearly than Abraham or any of his contemporaries could possibly look forward even a few years. When we think about the past and future, there is irony in two realities that mirror each other. First, we can know the past, but we can no longer affect it. We can’t change what people did long ago to bring us to the world we know now. Second, by contrast, we can’t know the future, but we can and do affect it every day in ways we may or may not see. It’s only because we can look back at what we cannot change, at decisions and actions that

The Bible is like an old tree that a woodworker fashions into furniture. The tree’s past is written into its textures,

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Judith Nies relates the story of the uniting of the various warring tribes that comprised the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy before the whites arrived, a confederacy that some historians think provided models as the revolutionaries planned the colonial federation. A Huron visionary named Deganawidah, known as the Peacemaker, enlisted the aid of a powerful Onondaga orator named Hiawatha, and the two of them traveled from tribe to tribe outlining a vision for peace. 1 The constitution that ensued says, in part:

made the world what it is now, that we have a model for thinking about ourselves through the eyes of future generations. We are not conscious of our successors, but they will remember us and how we shaped their world.

Living the Long View For better or worse, the things we do in this life do radiate into the future. We can’t determine the choices that our descendants will make, but we do set patterns that create the world they will live in, the opportunities and limitations with which they will live. During what became the Revolutionary War, some of my own ancestors fought in upstate New York against the British, and alongside of them, most of the tribes of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois confederacy of six nations. The colonists fought for their own independence from a foreign power. But when they acquired the land, they vanquished those who were its earlier inhabitants, pushing them farther and farther west.

In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion . . . . Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground—the unborn of the future Nation.2

This vision, far outreaching the drafters’ own day, became known as care for the “seventh generation.”3 Not just care for the fourth, our great-grandchildren whom we can imagine, but for their great grandchildren. To take the long view is to choose actions for which our greatgrandchildren’s great-grandchildren will thank us, and to refrain from actions that will diminish their lives; to take care in the present for people in a future far from imaginable by those living. Taking care so that those looking back, who cannot change their past, will benefit from and thank their forebears. The Haudenosaunee ethic expressed here is, like the story of Abraham, an exercise in taking the long view.

To take the long view is to choose actions for which our great-grandchildren’s greatgrandchildren will thank us, and to refrain from actions that will diminish their lives. The name of the state I live in, Indiana, preserves the memory that in 1763 the British government officially reserved the region it had acquired from France that lay between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River for Native Americans. But after the vast land was ceded to the revolutionaries, it was gradually carved into states whose names recall their original residents: near Indiana is Michigan (from a Chippewa word for “great water”), Ohio (from an Iroquois word for “great river”), Kentucky (from the Iroquois, possibly meaning “meadow lands”), Tennessee (from “Tanasi,” the name of a Cherokee village), Illinois (from Algonquian, “warriors”), Wisconsin (a French corruption of an Indian word whose meaning is disputed), Iowa and Missouri (both given tribal names), and Minnesota (from a Dakota word meaning “sky-tinted water”). What if our ancestors had done differently, finding means to live with those whose places and names we have taken as our own? Could we have found peace? Could we all have been enriched by Native American knowledge, as the Bible itself was enriched by a variety of traditions?

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Building Our Legacy At the 1992 international environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a twelve-year-old Canadian child named Severn Suzuki spoke up, bringing her hearers to tears as she begged decision makers to consider the welfare of children and their children, to give to, rather than to rob from, future generations.4 In the midst of the greed and competition that continue to inspire individuals, businesses, and whole countries to trade the long view for the next paycheck, the next purchase, the next quarterly statement, the next election cycle, Christians, with our deep historic roots, must consider how we might live generously toward those who are yet to be born, toward our own descendants.


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out of our control. Yet what we are building is not simply the goal itself, but our own souls. Toward the end of his memoir A Time to Plant, Indiana homesteader Kyle Kramer writes, “I try to keep in mind Wendell Berry’s maxim: the most important products of a farm are not what is sold off of it, but the health of the soil and the improvement of the farmer’s mind and character—and, I would add, the quality of his or her relationships.”5 His patient approach calls to mind the psalmist’s words:

Trees are our legacy from ages past and our donation to the future. The reformer Martin Luther is credited with saying, “Even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” I recently attended a seminar on woodlot management, where the distinction was made between timbering a land for maximum short-term profit and thus ruining its future health, and timbering wisely and sustainably by preserving the best trees to produce genetically stronger offspring.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

Just as we may voice daily gratitude for the nourishment we cannot create on our own (see session 1), we may witness our inheritances from past generations as occasions for thanksgiving—healthy trees; fertile soil; clean air; spacious parks; sound buildings, bridges, and roads; as well as the growth of knowledge, wisdom, and culture. Not everything our ancestors gave us fills us with gratitude. Yesterday’s toxic waste and garbage dumps; the lingering effects of slavery, colonialism, and disenfranchisement; the debts our forebears left us; and complex histories whose effects we live today—all of these present challenges to us. But they also serve as reminders of the importance for us to keep our descendants in mind. In the long run our momentary pleasures will matter far less than care for our enduring future.

About the Writer

Patricia K. Tull is Professor Emerita of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and the author of several books and Bible studies, including Isaiah 1–39 in the Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary Series.

Endnotes 1.

There is a difference in scale, but not in kind, between caring for our personal futures and caring for generations yet to come. The spiritual discipline of patience can be exercised each day that we contribute a step to a long-term goal, whether that goal is training for a race, building a home, attaining an education, raising a child, or saving for retirement. In such a discipline, even our failures can, like Abraham’s, contribute to wiser understanding if we examine our mistakes and learn from them. As we acquire goals that transcend generations, we realize that their attainment and enjoyment will pass

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2. 3.

4. 5.


Judith Nies, Native American History: A Chronology of a Culture’s Vast Achievements and Their Links to World Events (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 55–56. The U.S. Constitution’s debt to Haudenosaunee principles was acknowledged by Congress’s Concurrent Resolution 331 on October 4, 1988. “Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law, Gayanashagowa”; online at http://www.constitution .org/cons/iroquois.htm. Linda Clarkson, Vern Morrissette, and Gabriel Regallet, “Our Responsibility to the Seventh Generation: Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development” (Winnepeg: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 1992), Her speech, labeled “The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes,” can be accessed on YouTube at: http://www Kyle T. Kramer, A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2010), 158.

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Session 2: An Acceptable Fast  

Explore themes of Christian discipline and reflection through Scripture and weekly readings. Join the discussion and share our understanding...