No regular reader will expect this to be an attack on commentaries, or a plea for the lonely quicksand of solipsistic interpretation. Nor is it. I'm not sure which is the greater fool: the man who blindly depends on commentaries rather than looking directly to the Word (pace Matthew 15:1-9), or he who sniffs at learning from his olders, wisers, and betters (pace Proverbs 1:5; 5:13; 12:15; 18:2; 19:20; 26:12). Regardless, they're both fools.
I was invited to preach last Sunday, and theoretically had about eight days to prepare. But I think I've never had a more brutal week for devouring prep-time. Ended up having to take a day off from work, and just go at it from well before sunrise to after, and likewise the next day. In the course of the week I read and re-read the section (Genesis 15:1-6) in Hebrew and English, read the larger context, and walked and meditated on it. I also hit the books, literal and digital: grammars, lexicons, commentaries, theologies, many dozens of journals. Everything I had the time to get my hands on. The usual, just compressed.
But something stood out to me from the text that, as far as I saw, none of them noticed.
Now, you don't need me to tell you my luminosity relative to the other bulbs on the chandelier. So my first thought is that, if I'm seeing it and they're not, it probably isn't there.
But I think it was, and is. It isn't a major point (or I would flat-out doubt it). It's just a touch of vividness, color, detail. It's in verse 5. Here's a fairly literal translation:
Then He brought him outside, and He said, 'Now, gaze towards the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' Then He said to him, 'Thus shall your seed be!'"Most who comment just say how God brought Abram outside, showed him the stars, and said that his descendants would be similarly vast in number. Which is true.
But they don't make much of the break, the pause in the text. God tells Abram to count the stars — then there's a beat, a pause. Only then does God say, "Thus shall your seed be!"
What's that about?
Reading it, I simply recalled that Abram hadn't ever read Genesis 15. He had no idea where Yahweh was going with this. Yahweh's Word has come to Abram, He speaks with him, they're having a dialogue... and then God tells the old gent to go outside. So of course, Abram does. He doesn't know why. God tells him to look up into the heavens, so Abram does. He doesn't know why.
And then God tells Abram to count the stars.
And the text pauses, it takes a breath. God waits.
So Abram can start counting!
God had given Abram an order. True, it was a big order. But Abram knew that God told his impossibly old great-great granddad to build an enormous boat, and old Noah had done it. Maybe He actually meant Abram to do this, too. So he started.
How long did Yahweh pause? Of course, I've no idea; but I would wager that it was long enough for the sheer enormity of the task to sink in. A minute? Five? By the time Abram had even begun counting the stars at one horizon, many new ones had appeared, and others had sunk out of sight, uncounted. There was absolutely no way he was going to be able to do this job.
And only then does Abram get the word, the staggering promise: "That is what your seed will be like."
This observation is a small facet from one of the truths I endeavored to lift out of the text. Feel free to hear the whole, which is titled Three Pivotal Firsts.
But my point is that commentaries tend to get into a rut. They ask and answer the same questions, although giving different answers. Can't tell you how many times I've gone to the commentaries with a question of my own, a facet of the text on which I want some light — and nobody has anything to say about it! Could be I'm just strange; probably is that I'm just strange.
But I also see they get in ruts. You see, it goes like this: Commentator G reads Commentator F and comments on what F comments on; but he's already done the same with Commentator E, who did the same with Commentator D... and so on, and so forth. Ruts.
So use good commentaries judiciously and with due respect, thank God for them.
But be sure to approach the text afresh. It's the issue, after all (you knew that). It's the Word that is still living and powerful. A fresh, diligent, faithful eye may spot a fresh angle.
(Just make sure that lovely glitter isn't fool's gold.)