We’ve skipped a few centuries from last week. Humans have started to develop from the creation story. Again, we need to remember that these stories are being written and created not as they are happening but in hindsight. Following the story of creation there is the story of Cain and Abel and the first murder—the first act of violence, then the story of Noah and the ark. Several generations later, Abram appears.
The basic story of Abram goes like this:
Abram and Sarai are very elderly and Abram is lamenting to God the fact that he and Sarai have no children and that his slave will end up inheriting everything he has. God speaks to Abram and tells him that he will have as many descendants as stars in the sky. Abram and Sarai travel around a bit. They spend some time in Egypt. They wander a bit more and then God and Abram have another conversation and again Abram laments that he has no children of his own.
Sarai had a slave girl named Hagar. Hagar had a child by Abram and named him Ishmael. Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar and her son and has them expelled from the camp. They wander in the desert. They are out of water and Hagar thinks they are both going to die. God speaks to Hagar and tells her that from Ishmael will come a great nation. Muslims trace their lineage to this story, to the child Ishmael, and then back to Abram.
Sarai still really wanted a child of her own. God and Abram have another conversation. God again promises Abram that he will have many descendants. At this point, his name is changed to Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. God appears to Abraham and Sarah and announce they will have a child. Sarah laughs and laughs because she is so old—there is no way she could have a child. Isaac is born and Abraham now has two children to fulfill the promise God made.
How many stars are in this picture? Can you count them? How did they get there? All these pinpricks of light in the sky brighten the night.
There are 7.4 billion people in the world right now. It seems that God’s promise to Abram to create many nations and have many descendants did indeed happen. I imagine the people writing the stories of Abraham and Sarah (several centuries after Abraham and Sarah were alive) trying to figure out how there came to be so many people in the world. Their conclusion, which we see in this story, is that God was fulfilling a promise.
But what does the planet do with so many humans? How does the earth sustain so many humans let alone other life?
The original invitation at creation was to till the earth, to care for it and enjoy its abundance within limits. There was wisdom in setting limits and boundaries. But while the earth is abundant, it cannot continue to sustain so many creatures indefinitely—especially if one species consumes and destroys so many resources.
What do we do with a promise like the one made to Abram thousands of years later? Is the promise still valid? Part of the way many humans make sense of life is to look towards a new generation of ourselves. We often look forward to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In our culture, this often means making sure that children have advantages. Perhaps it means giving things up so that the next generation can have more. Most of us have heard stories of parents who went hungry so their children could eat. There is value in continuing life. But where do we draw the line between what we need and what we want. Many of us are comfortable. We have good, healthy food. We have homes and vehicles. We have technology and appliances of various kinds. I like being comfortable but I am also conscious that, even in Canada, we have people who live much closer to that survival line than I do.
In many First Nations cultures there is a concept of the Seventh Generation. In this tradition, every action and decision is considered for how it will impact descendants seven generations into the future. I wonder if we would live differently if we could combine the seventh generation teaching with the concept of boundaries and limits in our relationship with the earth? Could we bring healing?
We see the earth struggling to sustain life. We see humans struggling with each other. God’s promise to Abraham was many descendants. God seems to have come through on that. How do we live up to our original covenant to care for the earth and observe limits? When we covenant in relationships, we agree to be in relationship and to work on the relationship. It doesn’t necessarily end when one person makes a mistake or breaks the covenant. There are opportunities to come back and try again. We continue to be in a covenant with God. The boundaries were broken but the boundaries are still there. There continues to be a responsibility to live within the limits.
My invitation to all of us is to reflect on the limits we find in the earth and to reflect on how we live within those limits as individuals and as a society. As we rediscover the limits, may we be open to changing our own lives so we live well in the creation.
In the creation story, humans are given one boundary—to not touch the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But they did touch that tree, and with it came knowledge. We have inherited that knowledge and the responsibility that goes with it.
15 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ge 15:1–6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.