Light from the Sidra

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12 - 17; Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16

Promises and gifts, gifts and promises! No, it’s no-one’s birthday, nor is it a festival. So, don’t panic you have not forgotten anything. But this is a gift which is for anytime - the gift of righteousness. As for the promises, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells us that promise in the religious sense is “a Divine assurance of future good or blessing.” If you are reading this page then I am sure that that is important to you. In Lech Lecha Avraham avinu sets us all an example to follow, as all good fathers should, and the lesson could not be more vital. Is anything more important than to be righteous and to know God’s promises are for us?  

Let’s begin with the promises. Abram was to receive a land and offspring, he was to be blessed, renowned and a blessing to others, how people related to him would determine how God related to them, and he would ultimately be the channel for Divine blessing to all the world. What more could a man want! That does not mean it was easy to leave home and friends at seventy-five years old, but God could hardly have promised more, and his promise had no conditions attached. Not one of those promises has failed! In the Banqueting Hall of Hampton Court Palace there is an enormous tapestry on one wall depicting Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. During a recent official visit the Queen of Holland entertained the British Royal family and many dignitaries there. Abraham’s awesome act of faith overlooked all the proceedings that night. Abraham would surely smile if he could see how the LORD had kept his promise  “I ...will make your name great”. How great is God!

The gift comes next, in chapter 15. Here God repeated his promise to Abram and faith was the hand by which the promise was firmly held. Abram had been through some tough times of success and failure and God appeared to him in a vision to encourage him. He pleaded with the LORD for the promised son and was assured of a multitude of descendants. The words which follow in verse 6 are few, but momentous, “And he believed in the LORD, and he accounted it to him for righteousness.” Abram simply believed the bare promise of God; no sign was given and no condition was set; he simply trusted in the character of God. He believed in the LORD. Abram had now come to the point of a total trust in the LORD himself, with no ifs and buts. This was a great turning point.

What follows in the verse is remarkable, and all the more amazing for its unexpectedness. Here we are, reading the story of Abram, and suddenly we are told how Abram became righteous in the sight of God. Many readers might have assumed they already knew the answer to this. After all, Abram had left Ur, arrived in the Promised Land, stood up to Pharaoh, defended Lot and kept away from Sodom’s king. Surely a collection of activities certain to merit righteousness and life. If you read any comments on this Sidra by the rabbis you would certainly come to that conclusion. But here Moses (the author of Genesis) tells us that righteousness was not something Abram earned but was something freely put to Abram’s account by God himself. Clearly Abram did not already have righteousness in the sight of God, or it would not need to have been accounted to him. Clearly Abram did not do anything to merit such a gift, for he had not been told, “Do this and I will consider you righteous.” It was simply that when he trusted God and his word, the LORD sovereignly accounted him righteous. He became a Tzaddik by God’s free gift, not his own merit, works or anything else.  

The next development in this story of Abram should come as no surprise. God had promised the land and now he confirmed that promise by a covenant (Genesis 15:9-21). For those who have studied Near Eastern history here is something familiar. An agreement between two parties was sealed through blood and by the parties walking between the carcases of the slain animals. But an onlooker in those days would have been surprised that Abram was not invited to pass between those carcases; only something symbolic of God himself did so. The point was clear. The performance of the promise was guaranteed by God’s commitment. This is not a “deal” which would collapse if either party defaulted; it is a covenant of God Almighty the certainty of which is guaranteed by his name and authority. 

Let’s summarise where we have got to so far. God has intervened sovereignly and unconditionally in the life of a man called Abram, making great promises to him. That man has come to believe those promises and the one who made them. Such faith is accounted by God as righteousness for Abram, and so we now have the man Abram in a right relationship with the LORD. He may not be righteous in all his behaviour, and subsequent events show that to be all too true, but God treats him as righteous. Abram is now secure in God’s favour and then receives God’s covenant. 

One step remains within the scope of this Sidra and that is God stipulating to Abram what he requires of him within the relationship now established. It is circumcision (chapter 17). This is a sign of the covenant already made earlier, and its relationship to the promise of descendants is obvious. Abram is to obey as a witness to the faith in the promise of God that he has already demonstrated. It would also be an aid to faith in the future. It needs to be underlined that this does not therefore make the covenant an equal partnership. Six times in the chapter God says “My covenant”. It is never referred to as “our covenant”, and the whole tenor is of something imposed by God, not something agreed upon mutually. Why do I stress this? Because of the tendency of many Jewish men to think the mere fact of being circumcised somehow bestows something spiritually valuable. It did nothing of the sort for Abraham. It was a sign of what had already been established through God’s promise and the gift of righteousness through faith. It was the sign of an existing relationship; it bestowed nothing. 

How different is all this plain teaching from Scripture to the teaching of the rabbis. God’s gift of the land led Rabbi Yochanan to remark that one who walks four cubits in Eretz Yisrael may be confident of a share in the future world, and Ketubot 111a* teaches that all sins are considered absolved for a Jew who is buried in Eretz Yisrael. If that were true we would expect there to be something in this Sidra about the merit of Abram arriving in the land, but there is nothing. Abraham’s hope of sins forgiven (righteousness) and a place in the world to come were entirely founded on the free gift of God received by faith alone.

But what of today? Faith in what, or in whom? In the LORD no doubt, but on which promise should our faith focus to receive the gift of righteousness? This is the answer given by the Brit Hadashah: 

Now it was not written for his (Abraham’s) sake alone that it (righteousness) was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offences, and was raised for our justification. 
(Romans 4:23-25)

The writer makes it clear that our faith must be in God, but it is also to focus on the promised Messiah, Jesus. In particular it must focus on him in his death and resurrection.  This should come as no surprise. The promise of Messiah first given to Abraham was further developed in Jeremiah in a way that points us to Messiah’s work of bringing righteousness. Jeremiah calls him “The LORD our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). Righteousness comes from the LORD, but he sees the Messiah as the one who is our righteousness, he procures righteousness for us. This is what Jesus did. His death paid the price for our sins, so we can be forgiven and declared righteous. The death of Messiah Jesus is a fact of history, and so is his resurrection. This is something the LORD has done and he calls us to believe. What he has shown us in Lech Lecha as his way of forgiveness is repeated in the prophets and fulfilled in the Brit Hadashah. It is, however, contradicted by the rabbis. 

The lesson of Lech Lecha could not be more important could it? Will you follow in Abram’s footsteps and believe in the LORD and receive his gift of righteousness through the promised Messiah, Jesus, or will you trust in your own merit and receive human applause, but no more? 

* Ketubot 111a: “R. Anan said: Whoever is buried in the Land of Israel is deemed to be buried under the altar: since in respect of the latter it is written in Scripture, An altar of earth shalt thou make unto me, and in respect of the former it is written in Scripture, And his land doth make expiation for his people.” 

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