In this chapter, God makes a covenant – a contract, in Japanese – with Abram. At this point, I propose a new term for the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testaments. We’re on covenant #2 by now (the first was with Noah) and I know there are others to come. Specifically, God agrees to give Abraham descendents that outnumber the stars (v 5) and a vast swath of land from the Nile to the Euphrates (v 18-21).
The first promise Abram believes immediately, and God “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (v 6) In Japanese, “God recognized it as Abram’s gi.” Now, gi is a hard concept to translate into English. The Chinese term it derives from, yi, is one of the five virtues in Confucianism. It means “right conduct,” “justice,” “righteousness,” “morality,” and in Japanese “honor.” Particularly it refers to behaving properly in relationship to others. So a way of rendering that sentence might be, “God recognized Abram as being in a proper relationship with Him.”
Now, since this verse plays an important part in the Christian (and particularly Lutheran) idea of “justification by faith,” I think it’s good to note that this doesn’t mean Abram’s personal virtue or his salvation, but rather that he’s right with God. God sees trust in God’s faithfulness as the correct pattern of behavior between God and human beings. By having faith we don’t earn a ticket into paradise, but rather put our lives (which includes our post-life fate) into a good relationship with God. The Japanese use of gi really emphasizes this idea.
So Abram accepts that he’ll have children of his own – not passing his line down through his chief servant Eliezer, or through his nephew Lot. But when it comes to the land issue, he asks for a sign, and God gives him a very dramatic one. Not only does God descend in a “terrifying darkness” (v 12) and a smoking pot and torch pass by (v 17), God also gives a prediction of the fate of Abram’s descendents, detailing in particular that they’ll spend four generations as aliens (“temporary residents” in Japanese) and slaves in a foreign land. (v 12-16) What’s interesting here isn’t just that God seems to know ahead of time (or outside of time?) what’s going to happen, but also that the Bible provides a justification for it. The claiming of Canaan is delayed until the “iniquity of the Amorites” is “complete.” (v 16) God is basically saying they can’t have the land until the current residents no longer deserve it.
Taking the idea of God-outside-of-time, rather than God waiting for the Amorties to become bad, is this God knowing ahead of time that the Amorites will go bad, and setting up a people to claim it from them? These kind of prophecy/predestination issues always make my head hurt.
This chapter’s Japanese: nozomu “to attend, to call on,” mukui “reward” (v 1), tsugu “to succeed” (v 2), mitomerareru “to be recognized” (v 6), yamabato “turtledove” (v 9), hagetaka “vulture” (v 11), nerau “to aim at” (v 11, in the verb neratte furite kuru “came down aiming at”), ihou “foreign country,” kiryuusha “temporary resident” (v 13), tazusaeru “to carry in one’s hand” (v 14), chouju “longevity,” mattou “proper” (v 15), kiwami “extremity, height,” tassu “to reach” (v 16), taimatsu “torchlight” (v 17).