As I write this today the world’s attention is focused on the FIFA World Cup draw. While this has many fans riveted, much of the rest of the world is focused on the riots and unrest in Thailand and Ukraine. Then there is always the civil war that is raging in Syria. And this just in … Nelson Mandela has passed away.
But probably by the time that you read this article these events will largely be forgotten. What the world takes great note of now will quickly be forgotten as we move on to other amusements, sporting championships or political crises. The focus one day quickly becomes forgotten history the next.
We saw in our previous article that this was true in the ancient time of Abraham. The important and spectacular contests, achievements and gossip that was the talk of the people living 4000 years ago are now totally forgotten, but a solemn promise spoken quietly to an individual, though totally overlooked by the world back then, is growing and unfolding before our eyes. I pointed out the obvious, but usually overlooked fact, that the promise given to Abraham about 4000 years ago has literally, historically and verifiably come true. This should give us reason to recognize that this Promise to Abraham indicates that God is just as revealed in the Bible (Veda Pusthakan) and is working to see that His Promises will be accomplished. This is not simply legend or some abstract metaphor.
The account of Abraham continues with two more key encounters with this Promise-Making God. Abraham (and we who follow his journey) learn much more – even to the point of seeing this promise move from the realm of history to that of achieving Moksha, but in a very different way – a simpler way – than we might expect. The story of Abraham is not a quickly forgotten event like today’s sports events; it is one of an unnoticed man setting a foundation to understand the gaining of eternity, so we’d be wise to take note.
Several years have passed in Abraham’s life since the Promise recorded in Genesis 12 was spoken. Abraham had moved to Canaan (the Promised Land) in what is today Israel in obedience to that promise. Other events then occurred in his life except the very one that he wanted – the birth of the son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. So we pick up the account with Abraham’s complaint:
After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)
Abraham had been camping out in the Land awaiting the start of the ‘Great Nation’ that had been promised him. But nothing had happened and by this time he was around 85 years old. He complained that God was not keeping that Promise given to him. Their conversation continued with:
Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:4-5)
In their exchange God renewed His Promise by declaring that Abraham would get a son that would become a people as uncountable as the stars in the sky – many for sure, but hard to number.
Abraham’s Response: Like a Puja with Permanent affect
The ball was now back in Abraham’s court. How would he respond to this renewed Promise? What follows is treated by the Bible as one of its most important sentences (since this sentence is quoted several times later on). It lays the foundation to understand an unalterable truth. It says:
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
It is probably easier to understand this sentence if we replace the pronouns with names, thus it would read:
Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
It is such a small and inconspicuous sentence. It comes and goes with no news headline fanfare and so we are apt to miss it. But it is truly significant – and it contains the seeds of The Everlasting. Why? Because in this little sentence Abraham gets ‘righteousness’. This is like a getting the merits of a puja that will never degrade or be lost. Righteousness is the one – and the only one – quality that we need to get right standing before God.
Reviewing our Problem: Corruption
The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)
Instinctively we sense this corruption. This is why festivals, such as the Kumbh Mela festival, are so well attended because we sense our sin and our need for cleansing. The Prartha Snana (or Pratasana) mantram also expresses this view that we have about ourselves:
I am a sinner. I am the result of sin. I am born in sin. My soul is under sin. I am the worst of sinners. O Lord who has the beautiful eyes, Save me, O Lord of the Sacrifice.
The end result of our corruption is that we find ourselves separated from a Righteous God because we have no righteousness ourselves. Our corruption has seen our negative karma grow – reaping futility and death in its wake. If you doubt that just scan some news headlines and see what people have been up to the last 24 hours. We are separated from the Maker of Life and so the words of Rsi Isaiah of the Veda Pusthakan (Bible) come true
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6, written ca. 750 BC)
Abraham and Righteousness
But here in the conversation between Abraham and God we find, slipped in so quietly that we can almost miss it, the declaration that Abraham had gained ‘righteousness’ – the kind that God accepts. So what did Abraham ‘do’ to get this righteousness? Once again, so discreetly that we are in danger of missing the point, it simply says of Abraham that he ‘believed’. That’s it?! We have this insurmountable problem of being corrupt and so our the natural tendency down the ages is to look for sophisticated and difficult religions, efforts, pujas, ethics, ascetic disciplines, teachings etc. – to gain righteousness. But this man, Abraham, gained that prized righteousness simply by ‘believing’. It was so simple we can almost miss it.
Abraham did not ‘earn’ righteousness; it was ‘credited’ to him. So what is the difference? Well, if something is ‘earned’ you worked for it – you deserve it. It is like receiving wages for the work you do. But when something is credited to you, it is given to you. Like any gift freely given it is not earned or merited, but simply received.
This account of Abraham overturns the common understanding that we have about righteousness either by thinking that it comes by a belief in God’s existence, or that righteousness is obtained by doing enough sufficiently good or religious activities. This is not the way Abraham took. He simply chose to believe the promise extended to him, and then he was credited, or given, righteousness.
The rest of the Bible treats this encounter as a Sign for us. Abraham’s belief in the promise from God, and the ensuing credit of righteousness, is a pattern for us to follow. The whole of the Gospel is founded on promises that God gives to each and every one of us.
But then who pays for or earns righteousness? We take it up in our next article.