Watershed Formation Studies

Chapter 3 - Covenant

In chapter 2, we heard the story of catastrophe; the consequences reaped from the eternal tendency humans have to mess things up. With Adam and Eve exiled from the garden, every imaginable relationship is disrupted.

In chapter 3, with God’s people still exiled from their homeland, the old man wonders if God has forgotten them. The people’s songs are about the covenant God made with Abraham after the catastrophe, but their present experience feels like God’s absence. And so, for the evening’s fireside, he decides it might be timely to retell the story of when God made a covenant with his people.

To save humanity from themselves and mend the broken cosmos, God continued the work of creation in a new way, by choosing one family from all the families of the earth, the family of Abraham (first called Abram).

Like most stories in the Bible, Abraham’s is filled with many paradoxical and unlikely turns. And, like Jesus’ disciples were asked to do, God asked Abram to leave his sources of security - his homeland, his relatives and his father’s house. Abram was highly doubtful when God told him he would be shielded and greatly rewarded by God, with descendants as plentiful as the stars in the sky, yet God was true to His Word.

Like the people in exile, Abraham was asked to surrender his life to the God who promises, trusting God to provide all his needs. God asks this of all his people. This story of God is, after all, the story of us, over and over again.

Questions for Discussion

1) What kind of God would ask a son to be killed?
2) What do you think of God's blessing promises?
3) What does barrenness add to the story?
4) Should Abram have argued with God?


Consider the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. What do we make of a God who would ask his follower to kill his son in a test?

Bev Patterson: Taken literally it needs to be seen in tribal terms, at best. Within the story, we sometimes don’t feel the impact of how much terror and darkness this chapter really holds for Abraham, Isaac, Sarah and ultimately God. The paces Abraham is put through seem cruel and when I sit with it as something that could have actually happened, I feel embarrassed for God on the one hand and on the other, I think of Abraham’s delusional religious understanding. Is this part of their ancient consciousness?

And yet, I rarely think this way. For better or worse I really don’t have the visceral feeling that other people have experienced or talked about - honestly I haven’t felt that internal disgust at God being an abusive Father God who uses bully-like tactics even though cognitively I understand why someone would go there.

My next question then is - Is there something wrong with me? Do I let God off the hook just because this story is part of my scriptural heritage? Are we actually called to wrestle with this passage at an ontological level - is it there to disturb us? Is that the boon of the story, much like Job’s journey into existential angst? Should we be shaking our fist at God? Does he ask too much of us, or trick us into proving our love for him?

I must admit, delving into these ancient stories again, at this point in history with the conflict in the Middle East, I do begin to feel uncomfortable at all the flagrant military actions on the part of Israel and seeing the dispossession of other tribes as a right that comes with their unique relationship with God. What to do? Jeremiah and the other prophets certainly had a point when they called them back to the vocational blessing that comes from being chosen - “Be a light to the nations” and treat those you occupy with justice and righteousness.

But back to Abraham. If we were to replace Isaac with “career”, our love of stuff, our need for ego-advancement, status and appearance, our obsession with security, our happiness projects, family as religion, or children as possessions — then of course I think we would see this story as a tale of liberation and we would profess to want to be as Abraham - willing and faithful to the end; wanting nothing more than to give up our most prized and precious possessions for our love and relationship with God. I hope I would have the trust and faith to follow through and respond to God’s desire for me to value nothing more than my covenant with God and the true essential self that I discover when I follow the path of discipleship.

In a modern reading of the story, the idols that we are called to sacrifice, those symbols of what is most meaningful for us, is likened to letting go of a child. It is that hard and life-altering. The prospect of letting go, once and for all, often feels heart-wrenching and cruel and we can’t quite believe that God will come through and offer us a better way, a more fulfilling life, or a love more passionate and pure. Will he really provide? That is the heart of the matter.

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Linda Tiessen-Wiebe:
While pondering this text, I kept thinking of God's sadness or longing for some reason. Maybe because he's already made several promises to Abraham and Abraham is slow to learn. Somehow God desires to have an intimate relationship with Abraham and is willing to bless him beyond limitations. But Abraham laughs it off. True, what would you think if you saw nothing of the promise. But it seems that what God wants is for Abraham to trust him, in spite of the apparent lack of evidence. The text does say God tests Abraham.

I wondered what it meant that the people of God thought they had the answer and then went into exile and experienced a testing. How did they experience having their own future put on the altar? One verse struck me: when Isaac asks where the sacrificial lamb is, Abraham says, "God will provide the lamb." Is Abraham learning that God can be trusted, even when it doesn't look like it? Beyond our understanding? The longing for God is for humanity to freely choose to trust God, that God's goodness is the basis of reality. Is the test not the command to sacrifice a child, but rather to not lose trust in God's goodness in dire situations?

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Lydia Penner: I have been pondering the testing of Abraham. This story must have stuck with me as a child, because I remember always thinking that God was testing me. I was always on guard, thinking I had better respond correctly in whatever situations were before me. As a patrol in Grade 6, I would see police cars on the streets on my patrol duties, and would immediately wonder if I was doing the right thing. I would always happily wave at the cop cars, my shiny patrol badge glinting in the sun, proof that I was on the “right side”. When my parents asked me to do something, I tried to jump quickly. Call it the overdevelopment of a superego or the making of a 2, who helps in an effort to do the right thing and be accepted.

The horror of the story didn’t strike me until high school when we read a modern retelling of the story, where the narrator was horrified at God’s proposal. Like others have said so eloquently, what kind of a God would ask this of a follower? The chapter by Gladding paints the story so well, about how long Abraham and Sarah had to wait for this promise in the child, and then the craziness of the test to give the child up. He had already given up his past, and now to give up the future too?!

Of course, God Himself later had to do just this thing as he gave up his son Jesus. Just as Jesus had to trust his Father’s will, so did Abraham. Only a life rooted in trust could have brought Abraham’s feet up that mountain to do what his Father had asked. Like Gladding says, “Abraham’s faithfulness did not come easily, nor without anguish, yet God still praised him for it."

It is a poignant, heart-wrenching story that speaks so well to all that we need to give up. At times in centering prayer, consoling thoughts or feelings, or the mulling over of good feelings from the day before, will well up and the injunction of letting go with the sacred word seems wrong. Isn’t this the goal of life, to feel better? Just when I feel I’ve arrived (like Abraham), God asks me to give up my future too.

But sticking with the injunction is like being re-schooled in the goal of life, which is not to feel good, but to follow God, to stay in relationship in “weal and woe”, as Julian said. To hang on to the good times is to stoke pride at how I finally look and seem good, and at this point in my life, I can see that this has never worked anyways. Again, Gladding says, “You and I face the same decision as Abraham: Do we grimly strive after control over lives that are effectively uncontrollable, or do we surrender our lives to the God who promises, trusting God to provide all our needs?”

So the kid who thought God was like a cop, always checking to see if I was being good, is having her image of God revamped as an adult. The test isn’t about what I thought it was. The test isn’t to see if I’ll be good, it’s just to see if I can surrender everything for a love I’m beginning to glimpse.

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Dave Berg: In a sense reading the story is a test in its own right. Oddly enough, in the text when God tells Abraham to entirely burn up Isaac there is no mention of Abraham’s emotional or any verbal response. The text immediately cuts to the next morning with Abraham saddling his donkey, which was what Bev was hinting at - we don’t feel the impact on Abraham. The story is crude, by our present day standards, but I think it would definitely offend even back then. The value on the family and specifically the heir would have been very high. At the end of the story God endorses the value by promising Abraham an exponential amount of descendants. However, the story qualifies the nature of this blessing. Are descendants the highest value? (replace descendants with whatever might be your highest actual value-what would it be for us in Watershed)? The audience then and now is greatly offended that our highest values would be “entirely burned” (as some translations keep reiterating over and over). But the giving over of that which we value the very most is essential.

When we look at it as a story about the relationship between Abraham and Isaac it looks psychotic, but when we look at it as a story about the relationship between Abraham and God it looks different. Then we are able to notice that note at the bottom of p 58 in Gladding, "This is the first time the word love appears in scripture," that Abraham loved Isaac. To give him up to God is to be interpreted such that he was willing to utterly depend on God.

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Verda Heinrichs: A confession, my first impression after reading the Gladding chapter was a bit cynical. Was Gladding just using the story of the testing of Abraham (to sacrifice Isaac) as an emotional tool to hook our attention and get us there? And when you consider the news of today, hearing God’s promise to Abraham of land and a multitude of descendants made me cringe a bit. And yet, we claim Abraham as the father of our faith seemingly without question. I kept hearing this refrain in my head — who in their right mind would claim these stories as faith engendering? (Though of course, at the same time I know it can be dug deeper!)

So, as one should do with all dilemmas - I went for a walk. :-) A thought came to me that quite excited me. Perhaps the whole point is to grapple with these stories — the grappling might be even more important than the story itself. It is ‘we’ who are formed in the grappling. It is God’s act of creating as we ponder/pray over the texts together. As we struggle to understand the story well and deeply for our times ... it might change how we live. Maybe in moments we’d even have something to offer the real world. Given who we (Watershed) are, it seemed that this might be what God is/has been calling us to. It just struck me as being so different from having the destination of arriving at the right concept, the right answer.

Synchronistically, when I picked up Brueggemann’s book, The Prophetic Imagination, he seemed to be saying something along the same lines. It is in the grappling, in Brueggemann’s words criticizing (what is false in dominant culture) and energizing (what is true through God’s freedom) that true alternative consciousness/communities are formed.

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Divine Blessing

God told Abram to leave his three sources of security; his country, his relatives and his father’s house. Yet God promised to replace all three; a new land, a new family and a divine blessing. Abram’s name will be made great. What reflections do you have on this passage?

Cal Wiebe: I have always liked how Hebrews 11 talks about faith - "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (11:1) A few verses later, it talks about Abraham : "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” (11:8)

It was Abraham's decision to obey the command even when he knew very little about where he was going or what he was to do. He took God at His word and acted even before he could see how things would work out for him. He definitely did not have all his ducks in a row beforehand, but trusted God and so left his security for a new land.

I think to some degree or other all of us are called to take this same step of faith, to go beyond our safety zones to the new place God is calling us to. This is my experience of recently leaving the relative security of working full time for my boss Dennis. I do not know how it is all going to work out and I have a fair amount of anxiety about it but I am putting my trust in the fact that God will be with me in this new venture. Hopefully the new incarnation of the work will be able to serve the Kingdom in a bigger way. But who knows, maybe like Abraham it will not look like much in the end, but be a seed for something else in the future.

At the end of his life, Abraham doesn’t appear to be a huge success; he has one son and owns only a small plot of land in Canaan. So why is Abraham esteemed as the father of Israel’s and, according to the Apostle Paul, our Christian faith?

Marilyn Heidebrecht: Yes, the wild call of YHWH on Abram's life seems reckless or else deeply radical. I like how the story pointed out the parallel between Abram's relinquishment of his father and his past; and his relinquishment of Isaac his son and future.

It makes sense in a prophetic context. How can a finite thing stand in for the Infinite in our lives? It seems that the weaning of Abram from his early milieu would have needed to be offset by a later weaning.

How ironic to be weaned from one's own child! But isn't this what happens to everyone? We must choose to step out of our parent's lives, hopefully in response to a call. And we must relinquish our children and outcomes as well. What was Abram's deepest vocation? Perhaps to be nourished by God, and to live out of that relationship. Perhaps a small plot of land in Canaan and one son could have left Abram disappointed if he had been trapped in an "under the sun" perspective.

Maybe God had to wean Abram from his circumstance — even his blessing — so that he would be free to receive a portion from "above the sun" — and live in faith. Maybe he was called to a quality of relationship rather than a quantity of anticipated outcomes.

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One of God’s promises to Abram is that he will be the father of a great nation, greater in number than the stars in the sky - and yet Sarah is barren well into her old age. Barrenness is a theme that runs through the stories in the first testament. “Barrenness symbolizes the powerlessness of humanity, yet in our limitedness God acts to give life.” What does Sarah’s and Abraham’s barrenness add to this story? Do you see a theme of barrenness in your own or Watershed’s life?

Bev Patterson: I have always loved this tension, and it’s one of the “through-lines” of our faith — to be barren, (especially in a culture that puts a huge stock in bearing a lineage) and yet to be given a promise of life that goes beyond your own very small episodic 70-ish years. It is hope and faith-engendering and you end up rooting for these people — we are one of them.

You also end up with a sense of awe and gratitude for such a God. Here is a God who has crafted us in his own image, an image that is all about creativity and bringing forth life and yet, despite all our barren and futile attempts at coming through we are loved and we are given a story to be part of. God includes us in his life.

I think God is saddened by us, sometimes disappointed in his creation, angered by our choices and our rebelliousness, but he never seems to punish or judge us because of our barrenness. All he asks is that we wait and trust and believe HE is real. Could it be that God has gone ahead and set up a very upside-down situation in that, when we are most empty, without much to offer of our own making, when we are in a place of wandering without much of a homestead that we are most accompanied and often used for God’s loving purposes? Is this what it means to be in covenant and part of the blanket of stars which was Abraham’s dream for spiritual significance?

In our imagination, the small attempts at following God’s call (i.e. staying true to God’s vision of Watershed, supporting each other in small ways, encouraging the walk of faith in each other despite times of being dis-heartened or the discouragement we feel when nothing comes to fruition, responding in faith and in “BIG-TENT” ways, welcoming people to our small gathering, including them in the story we’ve grown to love with a spirit of freedom, etc etc.) seem so small and insignificant, but maybe in God’s imagination all that little stuff, the stuff in the brackets, is like the mustard seed that helps to grow the kingdom.

We might be barren and we rarely see the big picture and without God, this barrenness is death, but in God’s dream that spans across the ages, life always comes from a ground that appears seedless. Maybe, that is why, (see Question #2) Paul the apostle has the clarity and the wisdom to see how Abraham could father such abundance - Abraham was at a loss as to how to create life on his own but that seems to be the best ground that faith and trust and loving relationship with such a Holy God can grow from. Much better than a Father who is hell-bent on achievement and worldly success, pushing his children at all costs for his own agenda. After all, it is Abraham who leaves the place of tower building and Babel.

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God Provides

“God has already tested Abraham once, with the call to go, the call to leave his past behind -- asking the son to relinquish his father. And Abraham proved faithful. But now God is calling him to give up his future -- asking the father to relinquish the son. Thus God tested Abraham, and Abraham proved faithful. Yet the place of his testing is not called ‘Abraham will be faithful.’ No, it is called ‘God will provide.’ For this story ultimately is about the faithfulness of God. The God who makes covenant with Abraham can be trusted, even if God cannot be understood at times. For God both tests and provides.”

What does this story tell you about God? In a literary sense, if Abraham would have argued with God or refused the test, what implications would that have had for the story?

Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: It's hard not to rewrite these stories in our heads. And the most obvious change would be having Abraham argue with God, challenging God's archaic ways. This would be more palatable for us and I think we would cheer Abe for his integrity. It might inspire us to stand up to corrupt authority in our lives. The story would become a classic hero story. It might be other things as well but it would no longer be "God will provide". It might be "I will prevail". It might start to sound a lot like the stories we tell ourselves, where we are the hero somehow and reality is to be stood against.

I don't quite know what to make of a God who tests us. Read a certain way that can seem to encourage a performance-based approach to spirituality. But if I see "testing" the same way as we've talked about "judgement," a testing that purifies, restores, and opens up a different way; where failing tests leads to gratitude for mercy and passing a test is because suffering has created a heart more open to people and God. And while it's great to be the hero of your own story, what do you do when you encounter your own profound self-interestedness? We’re not exactly reliable heroes! If God provides, especially when I fail or am barren, this seems like a better story to lean into.

Lorna Derksen: Do you think it's important that we choose to identify the source of the tests in our life as God? As opposed to being random events that every life encounters? I was just thinking about my skiing accident (where I broke my leg) and how I was never inclined to see it as from God. Would there have been a point in attributing it to God? It did end up being a test of sorts; in a sense it continues to be a test of patience and trust as complete healing still seems a ways away. And it was an occasion for witnessing the provision of God.

The old man or narrator in the chapter seems to suggest the importance of acknowledging that we are being tested by God. Or is it more along the lines that Reality, as infused by God, tests us always. It's inherent in being alive. And we are invited to be faithful.

It's funny because as much as I chafe at the idea of identifying something as a test from God, there is something engaging and energizing about being given a test, and needing to rise to the occasion. Maybe not if the test is killing your son though. :-(

Just one more thing — what makes so many of the Hebrew scripture stories appealing is that they show flawed people stumbling their way toward faith. If Abe had argued or not taken the test, I imagine the story of God's provision would have found its way to the light of day anyway. The message rarely seems to be about getting it right. It's more often about God choosing relationship despite blunder after blunder. But maybe that's the story that we choose to see.

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