Genesis: Faithlore, lesson 13

Genesis 12:1-8 Abraham’s Call.

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on January 8, 2006.

Epiphany:       Today we enter the season of Epiphany. According to the church’s calendar, January 6 is the day to remember the visitation of the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem. When my nephew was young, he called them the three wise guys. He also let them ride to Bethlehem in his Dukes of Hazard race car. We know almost nothing about these sages of the East, but fifteen hundred years ago, Christian legend added to the simple story in Scripture. They became kings as well as sages, and they were even given names: Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior. They came from exotic kingdoms: Persia, India, and Ethiopia. I once preached in Ahuas, Honduras on Epiphany, and I wrote a very clever sermon about being a wise person like the wise men. The translator was a bit upset since in Honduras Epiphany is Three Kings Day. They are kings there, not wise men. I think she just preached a different sermon than the one I did. The people seemed to like it.

            Epiphany is not a big day in America. The decorations are gone. We don’t give gifts, and the churches are largely empty this week. We do get to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” but we don’t emphasize this holiday even though it was once one of the big days in the church year. In our Adult Bible Class we are turning our attention to the story of Abraham today, and it is appropriate to do so on Epiphany. The Magi in the New Testament repeat the journey of Abraham from the East to the Promised Land. In the New Testament, the good news of Jesus Christ is seen as the fulfillment of the promise that Abraham would be a blessing to all nations.

            We tend to think of Christianity and Judaism primarily as Western religions, but there are many connections between Mesopotamia and the Bible. At the time that the Old Testament was written, many thousands of Jews were living in Babylon and Persia. Five hundred years later Christianity spread to the East. Until the rise of Islam, there were probably more Christians in Eastern lands than in Europe. For those Eastern Christians, the Magi and Abraham were reminders that God is concerned about Iraq and Iran, not just Palestine.

Abraham:        Back to Genesis. We are going to spend the next several weeks discussing Father Abraham and the stories about him in Genesis. One fourth of the book of Genesis is about Abraham, but he is even more significant than that. Three of the world’s major religions claim Abraham as their founder, in some sense of the word. This means that nearly half of the world’s population looks to Abraham as an ancestor in faith, but in different ways.

            Jews claim a direct biological descent from Abraham. To be a Jew is to be in the extended family of the patriarch even though Israel was the name of his grandson, Jacob. The covenant between God and Abraham, which we’ll discuss in detail in a couple of weeks, is the covenant between God and Abraham’s heirs. This is one reason why the genealogies in Genesis have religious meaning for Jews – they establish the links between Abraham’s covenant with God and the nation of Israel.

            Abraham is one of the major figures in the Christian New Testament. He is mentioned more than most of the disciples. In the Gospels, Jesus frequently referred to Abraham and used him as an example of faith, but he was critical of those who claimed to be descendents of Abraham were not righteous like Abraham. In one parable, Jesus told the story of a poor man named Lazarus who was taken to paradise to be with Abraham. By the way, this is one of the clearest statements by Jesus that righteous people who lived before advent of Jesus were in heaven. He claimed that Abraham was in paradise even though Abraham had not professed faith in Christ. More than that, the poor righteous man was there with Abraham. I don’t know why some preachers keep insisting that those who did not have the opportunity to follow Jesus could not possibly be in heaven. Jesus says something quite different. Abraham was in heaven.

            Abraham is also an important figure to the Apostle Paul and the author of Hebrews. The burning question for early Christianity was whether non-Jews could be saved. We are so used to thinking of Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism that we forget that many early Christians insisted that Gentile converts should become Jews. Paul proclaimed the controversial notion that Jesus’ death broke down the dividing line between Jew and Gentile. Faith, not strict adherence to the law, was the secret of salvation. The story of Abraham became very important for Paul’s theology because Abraham had faith in God even before there was a law for him to follow. Abraham’s faith preceded the covenant and the giving of the Torah. Abraham had no law to obey; all he could do was trust in God. Thus Abraham became the father of faith not just the father of the race.

Islam:              According to Islam, Abraham (or Ibrahim) was the first Muslim. He was the man who worshiped and obeyed the one true God in a time of polytheism and idolatry. The Quran has many stories about Abraham and his children that are not included in Genesis. And the Quran omits some of the Genesis stories that portray Abraham in a bad light. For Muslims, he is the perfect model of a man: honest, faithful, just, and pious. Abraham rejected the pagan ways of his father when he realized that the sun, moon, and stars are not worthy of worship. Only the invisible Creator should be worshiped. Thus Abraham became the model of submission to God, but he is also the model of pious rebellion against authorities who are unjust.

            All three religions agree that Abraham was the patriarch; he was the one who heard the voice of God and who followed the commandments of God. They fight over whether the covenant with Abraham included his first son, Ishmael, and whether faith alone brings one into the covenant, but they all trace their origins to Abraham. For more than two centuries, Moravians have acknowledged this common heritage in our Church Litany. We have long prayed for Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham. We have always recognized that Jews and Muslims worship the same God we do, even though we differ on many other things, especially on Jesus Christ. From the Moravian perspective, the three religions are part of the same family despite our very real differences. With all that in mind, let’s look deeper into the Genesis account of Abraham.

Genesis 12-25 as a Unit:       It is not surprising, therefore, that the story of Abraham would be one of the longest sections of the book of Genesis. It gets thirteen chapters while the creation of the heavens and earth took only two chapters. If you read Genesis straight through you will notice a definite change in style from the first eleven chapters of Genesis and the Abraham stories. The first chapters deal with broad, universal history, and the style is more like folklore than history. For instance, as we have seen, there is a talking snake, life-spans stretch into hundreds of years, and there is massive flood.

            After Genesis 11, the stories become more like history as we know it. Though Abraham is very old, he doesn’t live into the hundreds of years. He also journeys to places that we can put on a map. Archaeologists have a reasonable hope of finding evidence of Abraham somewhere in Palestine. The stories also deal with mundane affairs. Rather than a cosmic struggle between good and evil, for instance, we have conflict between shepherds and hired hands. The Abraham stories are also different in that there is also a lot more conversation between the various characters. In many ways, Abraham is the first genuine literary character in the biblical drama. We can look at how he changes, grows, and interacts with others. The Abraham stories are not just about Abraham: there are stories about Lot, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. But the focus is always Abraham.

History:          Some biblical scholars and archaeologists have argued that the Abraham stories include elements that can be dated to the Middle Bronze Age. There are many things that strike us as quite strange but they fit with what we know of ancient Middle Eastern culture from archaeology. This does not mean that we can confidently date the writing of the Abraham stories to the middle Bronze Age (1700 BC), but some of the stories may go back that far. There are some scholars, such as John Van Seters down at Chapel Hill, who dispute the idea that archaeology supports the historicity of the Abraham stories. Van Seters views Abraham as a literary invention rather than a real person. He was used by the author of Genesis as a way to place the history of Israel in a wider historical context.

            The truth is we can’t answer the question of whether Abraham was a real person just as he is described in Genesis because the only evidence we have for the existence of Abraham is Genesis. Of course, most people who have lived on this earth have left no evidence of their life behind. It is interesting that even though Abraham is such an important figure for Judaism and Christianity, he is hardly mentioned in the Old Testament other than in Genesis. Clearly, his story became more important later in Israel’s history, after the return from Babylon.

            There is much about Abraham that we will never know, but we can be reasonably sure that the stories about him grew and changed in the retelling until them were written down in their final form in Genesis. It seems reasonable to assume that once upon a time there was a man named Abraham who had two sons, and their descendents told and retold stories about their ancestor. Some of the things they remembered no longer made sense to them, but the stories remained. Some of the stories cast Abraham in a bad light, which later interpreters try to make sense of. In short, the stories about Abraham are complicated and it is sometimes hard to understand them. When we read about Abraham, we are reading materials dating over several centuries – from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The author of Genesis put them in the form we now have, leaving some of the repetitions and difficulties.

            One thing I find intriguing in the discussion about the historical accuracy of the Abraham stories is that these stories of the great patriarch of Israel are not myths, even if they border on legend. Unlike most societies, the Israelites did not claim that their patriarch had come from heaven or sprang up from the earth. Abraham is described as a normal human of flesh and blood who is remarkable only because he listened to the calling of God. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity agree on this. Abraham was not God or even the son of God. He was a man who heard the word of God and set out on journey of faith that continues to shape our world today.

Read Genesis 12:1-8

Barren Sarah:            The LORD told Abram to leave his father and his country and journey with all of his household to a strange and distant land. Notice that at this point in the story, the patriarch is called Abram. His name will change later, as will the name of his wife, Sarai. In the previous chapter we learn that Sarai was barren. It was a great tragedy in the ancient world if a woman could not have children. Our English word barren captures some of the sense of the ancient notion that a childless woman was lifeless.

            The simple statement in Genesis 11:30 that Abram’s wife Sarai was barren meant that Abram had no future. He and Sarai could not fulfill the first commandment to be fruitful and multiply. There would be no line of children to keep their memory alive. There would be no future to strive for; nothing to hand down to descendents. And time was running out. Abram was 75 years old when he heard the voice of God. The main plot of the story that follows is whether Abram will have an heir. I won’t give away the answer, but I will let you know that this is one of many stories in the Old Testament about barren women who are chosen by God as agents of grace. Sarai is barren. Abram has no future, but God calls him.

Leave Haran:             Get up and leave, the LORD says. No explanation is given as to why the LORD chose Abraham. Centuries later Jews and Muslims would add stories about young Abraham that showed that he was righteous. The LORD chose Abraham because Abraham was already worshiping the LORD, according to later accounts. But that is not in the Genesis story as we have it. For unknown reasons, the LORD calls to Abraham. This becomes the model for others who became prophets of the LORD. It is not their will, but God’s will that matters. All they have to do is obey. Abraham is much like Mary in this instance. God did the choosing. I have often wondered whether the LORD called others beside Abraham. Were there men who ignored the call to go into a strange land? Were there those who answered the call but failed to achieve their goal? What if there were others who answered the voice of the LORD, but we simply don’t hear about them since the Bible is the book of Israel, the descendents of Abram who heard and obeyed?

            Abram was chosen, and Abram chose to leave. This is the very essence of faith. God gave a promise and Abram risked everything in order to trust that promise. God promised Abram five things: “I will show you a land. I will bless you and make your name great. I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who curse you. And all families on the earth will be blessed because of you.” This was the choice: Abram could stay in Haran where live was secure but where he had no future or he could risk everything and become the father of a people. He could depart from all that was familiar and become a blessing to all nations on the earth. What would you do if you were chosen? Could you trust in God’s promise and depart from your home into a frightening world? We want renewal without losing what we are accustomed to, but as Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian says, “Without a departure, no such new beginnings would have been possible.” (Exclusion and Embrace, 42.). Abraham had to depart in order to be blessed.

            Abram believed and took the risk of faith, but he did not do so alone. We will never know what conversations took place between Sarai and Abram when he told her the news that the family was moving to an unknown land because the LORD had instructed him. She is the first wife of a prophet to have to deal with such unusual news, but there have been many others through the years. Perhaps she put up an argument, but Sarai chose to go as well. She is also a mother of faith and will play a major role in the stories to come. Like Abram, she is not presented as perfect, but she also left what was familiar to go on a new adventure. Their nephew Lot joined them, but he will be an example of one who answers the call to depart without really knowing why he is leaving. He will also be a major character in the drama to come.

            The covenant of God begins with grace. The LORD first makes a promise to Abram which included a land and descendents. It is later that the terms of the covenant are spelled out. Initially, it is simply a promise freely given; a gift of God. All Abram had to do was believe; not intellectually, but deep in his own life. Belief in the Bible means to trust someone and act on that trust. Abram believed and he departed from his old life into a strange new land. Once there, he and his family continued to journey. And we who build altars in our land and call upon the name of the LORD do so because we are the descendents of Abraham, the Father of Faith, the risk-taker.

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