“All in the Family” Part III – Abraham: Father of Nations
As we continue our series on Jesus’ family of origin in Genesis, let’s review where we’ve been. We’ve talked about Adam and Eve as the first “children,” who tried to grow up too fast and cast off God’s parenting and love—an act that represents humanity’s bent toward self-interest and instant gratification. That cycle of dysfunction and betrayal of God’s creative power spiraled down into total depravity…so much so that God decided to wipe out humanity with a great flood. Noah, however, was righteous and through him God decided to take another chance on humanity by saving him and his family in the Ark. After the flood, the text tells us, God became resigned to the fact that humanity had a disease called sin—but despite the human tendency to stray from God, God decided to stick with them, save them, preserve them in an act of grace.
Those first eleven chapters of Genesis, then, are a way of setting up the rest of the Bible. We might say that these chapters describe, in some way, the spiritual if not historic origins of humanity—all the families of the earth. We learn why we are the way we are, about our need for God and for God’s saving power.
Today we move from this broader narrative about the whole human family to a more specific one—the family of Israel. Knowing that the families of the earth were continually perpetuating the dilemma of sin and evil from generation to generation, God responds by choosing one man…and through him one family…to be the vehicle through which the whole human family might be saved.
We meet Abram at the end of Genesis 11—he is the son of a prosperous herder, living in “Ur of the Chaldeans” (in the cradle of civilization—Ur being about 70 miles south of present-day Baghdad). Abram seems to have been a man simply minding his own business, with nothing special about him when God calls him. Abram was probably like his neighbors in the rest of the ancient Near East as far as religion goes—likely a polytheist, worshipping many gods.
In most ancient cultures, humans, the gods, and nature were in a kind of circular relationship of causation. If a Mesopotamian farmer wanted it to rain, for example, he would have to perform certain rituals (often sexual in nature) to get the sky god and the earth goddess to consort together in a kind of intercourse in order for the skies to be fertile and bring forth rain. These gods could be cruel and arbitrary, but were also able to be manipulated and controlled through these elaborate rituals.
But the biblical worldview was quite different. From the beginning of Genesis, we read about one God—a God who is not intertwined with creation…a God who has no consorts…a God who creates from nothing…a God who stands apart.
In contrast to his neighbors, Abram engages this God and begins to act as a monotheist…believing and following this one God. The text implies that God’s choosing of Abram really comes down to the fact that Abram was one who was willing to listen. He was simply willing to buck the trend and put his trust in one God. That should give hope to those of us who think we have to have everything figured out before God can use us!
God comes to Abram with a proposal—a deal, if you will: “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you 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 the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” The core of the proposal, the promise, concerned land and descendants—a new home and a nation to populate it—a chosen people through whom God would bless the whole world.
This proposal must have been hard for Abram to grasp on at least a couple of levels. One, he was being called to leave behind everything he knew and set out on a journey with no idea of the destination. People in the ancient world generally didn’t travel like this…they tended to stay in place. Ancient cultures generally believed that their gods were territorial—that if you left your homeland you also were leaving the protection of your familiar gods. If he were to take on this journey, Abram would be leaving behind security and have to put his trust completely in this one God who, very unusually, promised to go with him.
The second wrinkle in God’s proposal hit a little closer to home. Abram was being promised descendants—to be blessed—to be the father of a great nation. The ancients understood that blessing was something to be passed on to an heir—in those days a son. Abram had no children. His wife, Sarai, was barren—and now Abram and his wife were both old (he was 86). Their chance at having children was long past. God’s proposal and promise to Abram must have seemed ludicrous (in fact, in Genesis 18, Sarai laughs at the whole prospect). They were already deep into thoughts about geriatrics when God comes to them talking about pediatrics.
Still, Abram starts the journey to this land. Here’s where geography can help us grasp what’s going on. Take a look at a map of the Middle East and you’ll see that Abram’s journey takes him from Ur over the Fertile Crescent to Canaan on the Mediterranean sea. The land that God was promising to Abram, the land that God would again promise to the Israelites in the time of Moses, was fertile and desirable…but there’s a hitch.
Throughout history, this area of the world has been the ground of empires. The Egyptians in the southwest, the Babylonians (and, later, the Persians) in the east, the Assyrians in the north. Farther west were the Greeks and later the Romans…all of whom occupy significant territory and trade and conquer more territory within this geographic region. These empires bump against one another, wax and wane, but are always on the move.
I think of it this way…throughout the rest of the Old Testament, these empires might be represented as rooms in a very large house—each one having it’s own space but always trying to take the others’. And if these empires are rooms, then God puts Abram and later the Israelites right in the hallway between them. They will constantly be under attack, constantly subject to the whims of larger empires, constantly on the move in exile and mission. To put it another way, God was not trying to build an empire through Abram—but a family that would be forever on the move—a family that would ultimately move out from its territory (whether voluntarily or by force) and impact the whole world with a message of blessing.
So God begins to work with Abram, but Genesis reveals to us that Abram has his flaws. After arriving in the land promised to him, Abram soon discovers that the land is locked in a famine, so he is forced to go to more fertile Egypt for a time. There, as a prosperous herder, he fears for his life. His wife, Sarai, is beautiful and he realizes that the Egyptians might fancy her and bump him off in the process. So, he concocts a scheme with Sarai to lie about their relationship…to say that she is his sister. Despite God’s promises, Abram is still afraid.
Then there’s the whole idea of Abram and Sarai having children. Sarai doesn’t believe that God can deliver on the promise of an heir through her, so she decides to circumvent the process and have Abram sleep with one of her servants, Hagar. If the servant is able to have a child, then Abram would have his heir. Ishmael is born, but God makes it clear that Ishmael is not the promised child (though God cares for Ishmael and his mother, and the child becomes the father of nations himself—Muslims trace their lineage back to Abraham through him).
Still, God sticks with Abram…even giving him a new name. Abram meant “exalted father” while Abraham means “the father of a multitude.” Abraham and his family will be marked as different from the rest of the world, not only through their loyalty to one God but also through the mark of circumcision. God is forming a new family, and has not given up on the promise even as Abraham is skeptical. God has made a covenant and will stick to it.
What we also see as we look at the story of Abraham is how this covenant is played out in a relationship. God doesn’t merely send Abraham out on a mission and then stands back to see if he’ll do things correctly. God engages Abraham personally and Abraham talks with God seemingly person to person. In Genesis 18, for example, Abraham bargains with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. If there are 50 righteous people, says Abraham, will you keep from destroying the city? Eventually, Abraham gets God to go as low as ten. Abraham was not afraid to engage God on the journey.
We see, then, that Abraham’s journey with God is more than geographical…it’s spiritual—a journey that carries all the way through his succeeding generations in the Old Testament, to the time of Jesus, and all the way to us. This was the point the writer of Hebrews was making. Abraham was the beginning—by faith he journeyed where God told him to go, but he also realized that he would not be the one to reach the final destination. Look at Hebrews 11:13—“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them at a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…they were longing for a better country, a heavenly one.”
In this relationship with Abraham, God was setting the agenda for the renewal of creation—a renewal of the whole human family. But that renewal would not happen in a God-altering moment—it would happen over time and through the relationship between God and humanity. That “better country” is the place where the relationship between God and creation is fully renewed. We’re not there yet, but God is calling us, like Abraham, to start moving in that direction.
The covenant journey of Abraham pushes the narrative of the life of Jesus in the New Testament as well. People in the Bible are changing their addresses. It is hard to find anyone who is in a serious drama with God who is not on the move. No one ever finds God by nailing life down. Maybe that is because faith is always discovered along the way.
Jesus was a wanderer whose constant call to his disciples was “follow me” (note—not “stay with me” or “sit down and think about me”). Jesus was always calling people on a journey toward the realization of God’s Kingdom—to live and work as though they had already arrived there. It’s no coincidence that the first Christians were called “people of the Way”—people on a journey toward a new way of life. They would move out from the promised land into the rest of the world and take the promise with them.
The message of the Gospels seems to be that you cannot follow Jesus without moving, and you can’t move without leaving something behind. Some disciples were asked to leave behind their families and professions. Others were asked to leave their sin, or their wealth or even their grief over the dead. Jesus is always moving on, and he expects his followers to be on the move as well.
The first disciples had a hard time with this, and kept wondering when Jesus was going to settle down. They were waiting for him to establish the kingdom right then and there, so at last they could stop walking around …. Like the disciples before us, we don’t know exactly where Jesus is leading us right now. I really think that is okay. We are not asked to be clear about where we are going. We are asked simply to turn our eyes upon Jesus.
We live in a kind of nomadic culture these days. Everybody seems to be on the move. Did you know, for example, that the census bureau data about Park City indicates that the average residency here in our little burgh is just three years? I’ve known lots of people who have moved here and moved away in just the time we’ve been here. I meet people every week who are either coming or going.
But while we seem to be a culture that moves a lot physically, we seem to want to stay rooted in one place spiritually. A writer named Joseph McClelland puts it this way: “In many ways, if we depend upon our “roots” to define us, we create a rigid little outline of what our relationship to God is. We take on the attitudes, and accept the priorities of the communities in which we live. But what we gain in physical comforts we lose in spiritual exercise: It is far easier to grow lazy and complacent when we are rooted in a place.
“Once you settle down on your own land, turn the humble tabernacle into a great temple, and exchange nomadic customs for agricultural and urban ways, it seems peculiar to pattern your life after a pilgrimage. Since you are not really going anywhere, you begin to think that God stays put, too.”
But the story of Abraham tells us that God doesn’t stay put. God is always on the move and calls us to be as well—moving out to engage the mission of following him, to be a blessing to others, to go into the unknown and uncomfortable as a way of changing the world and renewing God’s creation.
The more we journey with God, the more we see possibilities because we know that God always follows through on his promises. Isaac, the promised son, was indeed born to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s barrenness, which may also represent the barrenness of humanity, the end of the line without God, was overcome by God’s fruitfulness and faithfulness. The promised family became a reality with God’s help. The impossible was made possible by God. Knowing how that works takes a lot of time, a lot of walking with God. We have to be in it for the long haul.
A pastor baptized a baby. After the baptism, the pastor said to the baby, in a voice loud enough to be heard by parents and congregation, “Little sister, by this act of baptism, we welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life. This isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of God’s experiment with your life. What God will make of you, we know not. Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know, and this we say – God is with you.”
Where is God calling you to go in your life these days? Wherever it is, know this…God is with you. That’s the promise!