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The Call of Abram
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD.
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.
Hitting the Road
September 10, 2017
Last week we set Abraham in context by focusing on the primeval history of Genesis 1-11. And how, at the beginning of Genesis 12, God makes a move to show Abraham that Abraham isn’t the center of the world. And that we aren’t either. That this place we occupy — this world, this church, our own life — isn’t just our place. (If you’re interested in catching up, copies of that sermon are available out in the gathering area.) Then I promised that this week we’d unpack exactly what God says to Abraham in Genesis 12.1-3. So let’s do that.
First of all, these three verses are an example of a common event in the ancient world: the creation of a covenant. Over the last century or so, archeologists have discovered many examples of ancient covenants, so Abraham would have recognized what was happening here between God and himself. But us? Not so much. What is a covenant, anyway?
A covenant is a binding relationship — usually where no such relationship has existed before. And this binding relationship does two big things:
first and foremost, it creates a new identity for at least one of the parties;
and, second, it results in the carrying responsibilities — usually by both parties.
All of this happens through solemn, life-changing vows that the parties make to one another.
So, in the ancient world, covenants were sometimes unilateral — like a covenant between a ruler and his subjects. And sometimes they were
bilateral — created jointly by two equal parties. This covenant in Genesis 12 is clearly unilateral: God himself is initiating this binding relationship. With a human being named Abraham — but, really, through Abraham with the whole world.
Okay — so let’s move on to noticing some important features of this covenant. First, it creates a new identity for Abraham. We’ve got to remember that Abraham lives in a Genesis 1-11 world — and specifically, a Genesis 3-11 world: a world in which human beings neither know God nor trust God — and, as a result, practice self-preservation, selfdetermination, and self-promotion. Abraham, certainly, has no personal experience — no history — with God. But this covenant changes that. From now on, Abraham belongs not to himself — but to the God who created the universe. And this is a change in who Abraham is — not just in what he does or how he behaves. Identity precedes responsibility. This is important. Nowhere in scripture do we learn that human beings have to do stuff for God in order to gain their identity as beloved children. That’s the way of toxic religion. Instead, God gives us a covenant identity as beloved children. And then this new identity leads us to respond in trust, obedience, and goodness. Identity always precedes responsibility — and shapes it.
So, here’s a quick example of this important distinction from the 2015 movie, Bridge of Spies, set in 1960. Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, a lawyer who specializes in insurance settlements for his New York law firm. At the behest of the U.S. government, Donovan’s firm taps him to defend Rudolf Abel, a suspected Soviet spy. Of course, no one expects Jim Donovan to take this responsibility very seriously. Not his law partners, or the prosecuting attorneys, or the judge, or Jim’s family. What they expect him to do is just “go through the motions” of defending Rudolf Abel. Instead, Jim Donovan does the opposite: instead of “going through the motions,” he mounts the strongest defense he can. And the story continues from there, intersecting with events surrounding the downing and capture of Lieutenant Gary Powers by the Soviet Union in 1960 and the ensuing backchannel negotiations to obtain Powers’ release.
It’s a good movie, in which Jim Donovan does a lot of things — many of them things his law partners and the CIA wish he wouldn’t do. But most of them, from our vantage point, are the right things for Jim Donovan to do.
So where do these good actions come from? It was pretty clear, at least to me as I watched the movie, that they spring from Jim Donovan’s identity — from the person he is. Rent it and see if you agree with me — that identity precedes responsibility in Jim Donovan. And for that matter, in Abraham and all the rest of us. Getting the order right on this is very important and affects our lives every day.
Okay, so let’s move on to four other important features of the Genesis 12 covenant.
1. It’s obviously lop-sided, with God playing “a conspicuously larger role” 1 than Abraham. There’s just one responsibility given to Abraham — the command to go in verse 1 — while God takes on six responsibilities. God will:
guide Abraham to his geographical destination;
make Abraham into a great nation;
bless Abraham, make his name great, and protect him;
and, finally, through Abraham and his family, God will bless all the families of the earth.
In this new relationship, God — not Abraham, not humanity will do most of the heavy lifting.
2. You’ll notice the word bless occurs five times in three verses, which makes it important — and only more so against the backdrop of Genesis 1-11, where human beings have displaced God from the center of their lives and activity. By the end of Genesis 1-11, these theological realities are prominent:
humanity is a long way from where it began and getting further and further away from that original wholeness every day;
humanity’s broken and at-odds with itself;
humanity’s in trouble — and has no means of getting out of trouble.
The words bless and blessing in chapter 12 stand in emphatic opposition to humanity’s trouble and helplessness in Genesis 3-11. What God wants for humanity is:
prosperity and well-being,
long life and good harvests,
kids and grandkids,
wholeness and peace.
All the things we long for — but can’t get on our own, or sustain on our own — turn out to be the things God wants to give us. And promises to give in the covenant he makes with Abraham.
3. So there are lots of blessings here — but they aren’t just for Abraham. Or his own household, family, and business. For God,
there’s an end-game to blessing Abraham that becomes evident in verse 3. God, it turns out, is looking for a way to bless the whole entire world! To bless the very people who are in trouble and helpless. So, although God might be starting small, with just one man and his family, the blessings widen out over time to include everyone.
4. Even though God commits to most of the heavy lifting, he also gives Abraham something to do. “Go,” God says. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And, truly, this is a lot to ask. I’ve made 15 major moves in my life. Twice as an adult I did what God asks Abraham to do: I moved somewhere sight unseen. Moving, as all of us know, is a major disruption, even today. But in the ancient world, expecting someone to leave home, to interrupt their relationships with their family and their ancestors, was to expect something almost impossible. But here’s the truth: God won’t be able to make good on any of his promises unless Abraham goes. Do you see how God places himself in a relationship of dependence on Abraham here? How what God wants to do for the world — what God will do for the world — hinges on Abraham’s willing participation? Will he go, or won’t he? Especially when the going part is all a little vague. “Go to the land that I will show you,” God says. “Just start walking, Abe, and I’ll let you know when you’ve arrived.” Imagine Abraham trying to sell this idea to Sarah!
And not only that, but you can see how this whole deal implies that there will be children, descendants, progeny for Abraham. But Sarah, remember, is barren — so how’s that going to work?
So this covenant is quite grand — but it also contains elements of disruption, vagueness, and impossibility that would have been obvious to Abraham. And even though God’s taking on a disproportionate share of the responsibility. Abraham will have to learn a whole new way of being in the world. As one Genesis scholar puts it, Abraham will have to learn “how to reverse the clutching to life and name and family that characterizes all normal human behavior. [Abraham] must learn something better than being normal. His ordinary way of being in the world must change.” 2 What will Abraham decide?
Well, we don’t have to wait long to find out. Verse 4: So Abram went, as the Lord had told him. And, once again, there are some important things to notice about this next section of Genesis 12. First, Abraham is well into adulthood when he makes this decision. Seventy-five, the text tells us. Now, people’s ages in Genesis are a little tricky. It helps to remember that ancient people used numbers differently than we do: generally they used them symbolically more than to count things. And it also helps to remember that God created human beings to live forever — but in Genesis 1-11 we see people’s life spans steadily decline. Another sign that things are going downhill. Even so, Abraham’s clearly no kid when sets off on this pilgrimage with God. He’s married, as we know, but has no children. Though he has a very close relationship with his nephew, Lot. Abraham’s also a person of considerable property, having been successful in the family business. All these things take time, so Abraham’s well into adulthood when he breaks with his homeland, his family, and his family’s gods — and hits the road with Sarah and Lot, his possessions and servants.
Hitting the road means that Abraham follows the Fertile Crescent west and south from Haran, in northwestern Iraq, to Canaan — which is modern-day Israel-Palestine. In Canaan, Abraham faces yet another impossibility: the land promised by God is already occupied by others. Nevertheless, Abraham walks the length of it in verses 4-9 — all the way from north to south. In the process, he encounters not just Canaanite people, but Canaanite holy places. He visits Shechem — a major city on the northsouth trade route — where Abraham also encounters a sacred tree: the oak of Moreh. And here — get this — God doesn’t just speak to Abraham; God actually shows himself to Abraham! And then God shows Abraham something else. From this mountain pass, God shows Abraham the fertile valley stretching out below him and says, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
Abraham responds to this encounter with God by building an altar at Shechem — probably out of flat stones. Not an altar to a Canaanite god, but an altar to the Lord.
From Shechem, Abraham moves on, following the main north-south road. He camps near Bethel for a time, builds another altar there, and “calls on the name of the Lord.” All this walking and altar-building suggests that Abraham is learning to move over and share his life with God. Learning to let God occupy the center. Learning to live differently.
By the time Abraham reaches the Negev — a hot, dry region in the south — he’s traveled the full length of the land God’s promised to his offspring. He’s spent time in it. He’s worshiped God in it. Though the land belongs to others, Abraham has symbolically taken possession of it.
What are this week’s takeaways for you from the Abraham story? For you personally — and for you as a church? Here are just a couple of thoughts that come to mind for me.
1. It’s important to remember that it’s God who takes the initiative, makes promises, creates a future, does most of the heavy lifting. And to let God do these things for us. To look to God as the central character in the story of our lives — and in your congregational story. To look to God in expectation, and pay attention.
2. Perhaps it’s also important to “walk the land” of your own life, of MPC’s life, and of who you are in Jesus Christ. God gives us our identity as beloved children — an identity that always precedes and shapes any responsibilities we undertake.
3. Finally, you could build an altar and worship God. In fact, I invite you to bring a stone to church over these next weeks as a sign of your commitment — not to MPC, but to God. If, like Abraham, you intend to share your life with God in a new way — then bring a stone. Bring it whenever you like — and just place it here, on the communion table. A symbol that you, like Abraham, intend to follow God into the future that God himself will show you.
Paul Borgman, Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard. Downers Grove, IVP, 2001, 57.