Friday, January 21, 2011

God and Abraham Part II

God and Abraham
Part II

This is the second in a series of blogs that deals with God and his relationship with Abraham, focusing on how Abraham would have understood God and his ways within his own cultural context.  In the first blog, we explored Abraham’s monotheism in contrast to the polytheism of the ethnic groups around him.    In this blog, we will begin to look at how Abraham would likely have understood his call, as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3. Abraham’s call had three components.  God promised to give him land, make him a great nation, and that through him all of the nations of the earth would be blessed.  Here, we will focus on the promise of land.

Understanding Abraham’s call within his context requires a closer look at both Genesis 11:27-12:4 and Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7:3-4.  Stephen clearly states that God’s call came to Abraham when he was still in Ur.  But the command to leave his father’s relatives apparently did not necessitate leaving all of his family behind, at least at first, as it is clear that his nuclear family of origin, along with Lot, his nephew, were part of the party who traveled as far as Haran (Genesis 11:29-32), which was located in northern Mesopotamia (part of modern Turkey, not Lebanon as I erroneously suggested in the last blog).  This passage also denotes that Terah, not Abraham, was the leader of the group since he was the head of the clan.  There is no need to assume that this in any way contradicted God’s will.  Rather, it demonstrates God’s willingness to enact his will within human cultures.  Life in ancient Mesopotamia, like most non-Western cultures today, was heavily centered on the extended family led by a patriarch.  What matters here is that Abraham packed his tent and responded to God’s call.

Furthermore, there is no reason to think that Abram moved outside of the current social movements of the time.  Many scholars date the life of Abraham at around 2,000 BC.  Around that time, there was a migration of people from southern Mesopotamia into Canaan, and Abraham’s family may have been part of that migration.  Both Haran and Canaan were along the major trade route between Ur and ancient Egypt, but Abraham did not know that Canaan was where God was leading him until he actually arrived there (Genesis 13:7). 

Terah’s goal was to move the family to Canaan but stopped when he got to Haran and put down roots there.  Jewish tradition holds that Terah was an idol maker and, in light of Joshua 24:2, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of this tradition.  Since sons normally followed in the footsteps of their fathers, this may also have been Abraham’s occupation before he encountered the one, true God.  We are not told why Terah did not continue with his plan to migrate to Canaan.  Since Haran was a local center of trade and commerce and had contact with other ancient trading centers such as Tyre, Terah may have thought his trade could be more lucratively practiced there (Haran, Wikipedia, accessed January 17, 2011).

How long Abraham lived in Haran is not clear but his stay may have been lengthy.  Since he did not know at this point that God was leading him to Canaan, he may have even perceived that Haran was the place to where God wanted him to be until God repeated the call in Genesis 12:1-3.  Here, God adds that he will give Abraham the land to which he is sending him, along with a posterity, and that his seed will bless the whole world.  When Abraham received this word from the Lord, he folded his tent and moved.  At this point, the Genesis narrative and the Acts passage conflict.  Stephen asserts that Abraham did not move from Haran until after Terah died, but a careful reading of the Genesis account indicates that Abraham left Haran while his father was still alive.  The issue of the Bible’s infallibility is not an issue here since the doctrine of infallibility would only insist that it was Stephen who made the statement in Acts 7:4.  Whatever the case may have been, at this point, Abraham severed ties with all of his family, except for Lot.

Abraham’s first stop was in Shechem in Genesis 12:6-7.  This city would come to have great significance to Abraham’s descendents.  It was located between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, where the children of Israel would gather to re-ratify their covenant with God right after entering the Promised Land.  It later became a Levitical city of refuge and served at Israel’s first capital (Genesis 34:2-26; Joshua 8:32-35; 21:21; 24:1). It was also the scene of Levi and Simeon’s notorious avenging of their sister, Dinah’s, rape.

For Abraham, too, Shechem was a place of great significance.   Here, God revealed for the first time that, at long last, he had arrived in the land to which God had called him.  Abraham’s response was to build an altar and worship, which must be seen as an act of gratitude.  Building an altar for worship would not have seemed strange to his Canaanite neighbors as they did the same.  What set him apart from the others was that his altar had no images of God, and it was not used for appeasing sacrifices as their’s were.  The Canaanites appeased the gods to get them to do their will.  Abraham worshiped the Lord, accepting the promise of HIS will. 

From Shechem, he went down into Egypt to avoid famine.  After his unfortunate escapade in Pharoah’s court, which led to his being kicked out of the country, he returned to Canaan and called upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 13:1-3).  From this point onward, while he continued in a semi-nomadic lifestyle, he never again left the land of Canaan.  Genesis 13:3 is the first reference to Abraham’s livelihood and social stature.  We are not told how he gained his wealth.  How and when an urban dweller from Ur became a shepherd we do not know.  It is possible that he had always had herds that were kept in the pasture while he himself lived in the city.  What we can know directly from the text is that Abraham was extremely wealthy, which accorded him high social status among his neighbors.  This wealth and that of his nephew Lot’s, however, created some logistical problems between them and necessitated their separation.              

After he separated from Lot, he moved to an area near Hebron.  Here, God again appeared to him and restated his covenant (Genesis 13:14-18).  By this time, Abraham was already at least 75 years of age and still had no children.  The situation looked impossible, but he believed that God would keep his promises.  Abraham had the assurance that no matter where Lot went, it would Abraham’s, not Lot’s, descendents who would inherit the land of Canaan.  It is interesting to note that both after he separated from his father and then again from his nephew, God appeared to him to assure him of his covenant promises.  To separate completely from one’s kindred would have been rare in Abraham’s time when closely knit clan relationships ruled the day.  This assurance from God must have given him great peace. 

Abraham never tried to conquer Canaan by force; he merely planted roots where God told him to stay and trusted God to keep his promises.  At the time, land in Canaan, at least the pastureland needed for his flocks, appears to have been communal—open to anyone. There were no complaints recorded that he ever treaded on someone else’s property nor is there evidence that Abraham ever owned any of the land upon which he dwelt, except the family burial plot at the cave at Machpelah, just outside of Hebron (Genesis 23). 

What lessons might we draw from Abraham’s example here?  First, Abraham responded to God’s call, as he understood it, while still in Ur, and began to follow it.  Later, while he was in Haran, God repeated the call, giving greater detail and clarification.  Again, Abraham responded in obedience.  He followed God’s call, in faith, to the best of his ability.  Like Abraham, God’s entire plan may not be obvious to us in the beginning.  But as we walk in obedience, God gives further guidance, direction, and sometimes, promises of blessing.  Our challenge, then, is follow Abraham’s example of obedience.

Second, Abraham’s obedience resulted in God’s blessing.  Had Abraham remained in either Ur or Haran, there is no assurance that God would have blessed him with land and posterity.  Because he obeyed, God kept his promises and, throughout history, Abraham’s name has been revered the world over not only by followers of Jesus, but also by Jews and Muslims.  The fact that Abraham did not live to see the fulfillment of the promises mattered little.  He received the promises of God by faith (Hebrews 11: 8-13).  While we may never be famous, obedience to God’s word does bring us his blessing and leads to a contented life.  If we do not live to see all of the promises of God fulfilled, we can be rest assured that the One who kept his promises to Abraham will also keep his promises to us—in God’s time. 

Third, Abraham’s response to God’s blessing was to worship (Genesis 13:7).  After four thousand years there has still never been a better way to respond to a word from the Lord.  Let gratitude and adoration also be our response to his blessing, and let us always seek to honor and glorify him.  As the old Christmas carol expresses it, “O come us adore him, Christ the Lord!”

In the passages mentioned above, there is a direct connection between God’s promise of land and his promise to make Abraham a great nation. The promise of the land could not be fulfilled until Abraham had a sufficient number of descendents to fill the land that God had promised.  This aspect of God’s promise will be the subject of the next blog.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

God and Abraham Part I

God and Abraham
Part I

This is the first in a series of blogs that attempts to describe Abraham’s relationship with God within Abraham’s own cultural setting.  This blog will focus specifically on Abraham’s monotheism in contrast to the polytheism of the ethnic groups that surrounded him.  Future blogs will deal with issues such as his relationship to Hagar, his use of the Hittite covenant in Genesis 15, the implications of God’s promises to him in his own time, and the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, etc.  Each blog will draw some lessons that can be learned in our daily lives in the 21st century.

Abraham was born and raised in Ur of the Chaldees, which was located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, between what is now the modern city of Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf (, accessed January 4, 2011). It was the most developed and sophisticated city of ancient Mesopotamia. Ur was also a pagan city where many deities were worshiped.  The ruins of the main altar, known as a ziggurat, still stand today.  One writer, citing the Jewish Talmud, says that Terah, Abraham’s father, worshiped at least twelve gods, which is consistent with Joshua 24:2 (, accessed January 4, 2011).

How and when Abraham became aware of the one, true God, and worshiped only him, is not recorded in the Genesis account.  What is clear is that Abraham’s monotheism was in stark contrast with the polytheism and animistic practices of his day.              

When he arrived in Canaan, Abraham found a number of tribes or ethnic groups living there, each with their own gods or goddesses.  Some practiced a form of polytheism known as henotheism, the belief the one god was the supreme ruler of all the lesser gods and goddesses.  Not many specifics are known about the Canaanite religious practices in the time of Abraham, but the practices of Baalism and worship of the Asherahs in period of the monarchies give some strong hints.

Generally speaking, Canaanite religions gave allegiance to the gods who were believed to control the land, rain, crops, and human fertility.  Religious rituals involving fertility rites were heavily sensual, involving both prostitution and homosexuality, giving an early indication that there is a connection between idolatry and sexual immorality.  Sacrifices were offered to appease the gods, not worship them in biblical sense of the term.  The guiding philosophy behind the sacrifices was to get the gods to do what humans wanted them to do, bless the crops and the fruit of the womb, keep disaster and disease at bay, curse one’s enemies, and keep the universe in balance.  In other words, the practices were done for the benefit of people, not for the glory of the gods.

As at Ur and Haran, Abraham’s relationship to the one true God, who allowed no image of him to be made and who required no rituals to be performed, was unique.  The focus was also radically different.  Everywhere he went Abraham built an altar to the Lord except in Beersheba, where he planted a tree in God’s honor—a common practice of the time.  While we are not told what his altars looked like, it is reasonable to assume that the altars may have been ziggurats, such as he would have known in Ur, or they may have resembled the altars of the Canaanites, minus the images.  What is significant is that it was dedicated to the Lord, the true Creator of heaven and earth.  Abraham’s focus on worshiping one God, whom he believed to be the creator and controller of everything, rather than on the local gods who were held to be territorial deities, was part of what set him apart from his neighbors.  While his neighbors worshiped the gods because of what they could get from him, Abraham worshiped the Lord in order to honor and glorify him. 

On at least one point, however, Abraham reflects at least some commonality with the Canaanites.  The rite of circumcision, which God gave to Abraham in Genesis 17:10-14, was a well known practice in the ancient Near East, although the Philistines were an exception.  The origins and intent of the practice among Abraham’s neighbors is not certain, but marking the body was often a part of their religious rituals.  Therefore, it is safe to assume that circumcision had religious connotations even for pagans.  What separated Abraham from his neighbors was God’s intent.  The Genesis passage is clear that God intended it as a sign of his covenant relationship with Abraham and his posterity.  From then on, Abraham was a marked man!

What lessons might be drawn from Abraham’s life?  First, in order to follow the Lord, Abraham had to reject the false ideas about God.  Namely, God is one, not many.  Also, he requires no images and, at least in Abraham’s day, required no rituals.  To follow him was to be counter cultural.  How might this apply to us?  False ideas about God abound in today’s world.  The New Age Movement and the teachings of moral relativism are but a couple of glaring examples.  Some are subtle and some are blatant.  All are deceptive.  In addition to false religious ideologies, the gods of money, sex, and power vie for our patronage on a daily basis.    Abraham’s response to the temptations of his day was to built altars and worship the Lord, focusing on the beauty and glory of God, and following only him.  We would do well to follow his example, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2)—knowing his will for our lives and, like Abraham leaving Ur and Haran, following Christ with reckless abandon.    

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