Monthly Archives: December 2007

Genesis Folklore of Faith, lesson 16

Genesis 14: Melchizedek. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on January 28, 2006.

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you and that this week will be filled with opportunities to love and learn. We need to be reminded of our calling and the true purpose of life this time of year when tax forms and W-2s arrive in the mail. We sometimes forget that in ancient Israel the required tax was called a tithe. Part of that money went to support the temple and the priesthood, but much of went to care for the poor and suffering. In our lesson for today, we have the first mention of a tithe in the Bible.

Wrap up from previous week:           Last week we discussed Lot, and I may have overstated my fondness for Lot. We will get to see Lot as an adult in Genesis 19, which we’ll look at in detail. It’s not a pleasant story. After we went off the air, members of the class discussed the fact that these stories in Genesis are not simply history, they are part of what theologians term Salvation History. In other words, these are stories were remembered because they were meaningful. We don’t have the entire history of the patriarchs, just the parts that later generations saw as important. It is the meaning of the stories that occupy our attention in the church today. In my interpretation last week, I emphasized Abram’s decision to live in peace with his neighbors. In our lesson for this week, we get a different picture. Abram is anything but peaceful in Genesis 14.

Problems with Genesis 14:    Today we are looking at one of the stranger stories in Scripture. One of the reasons I like this chapter is that it causes biblical scholars today such problems. Some see it as one of the oldest stories in the Bible dating back to the bronze age; others date it to the time of King David; still others put it as late as the 2nd century before Christ. It is a chapter that does not fit into the schema of J and P sources. You may remember from an earlier lesson that it appears that Genesis is made up of two major sources, one named for Yahweh (J) and the other named for the priests (P). Genesis 14 is neither J nor P. It also doesn’t fit with the other Abraham stories. As you read through Genesis, this chapter stands out like a sore thumb. This makes it interesting for scholars and frustrating for average readers.

            Part of the problem with Genesis 14 is that it begins with a chronicle of a war among nine kings of the ancient Near East. I’m not going to read verses 1-11 aloud because they are basically a listing of the various kings and the cities that went to war. I will tell you that over a century of intense historical research has failed to identify any of these kings or even where most of these cities. According to the text we have, several kings rebelled against the overlord, which led to a major battle in the Valley of Siddim where there were once tar pits. We don’t even know where Siddim was, although it might have been near the Dead Sea.

            One of the cities defeated in that battle was Sodom, and that is why it is interesting to the author of Genesis. If Genesis was written in Babylon during the Exile, as many scholars think, then it is likely that the author had found a record of an ancient battle in Mesopotamia that mentioned the defeat of Sodom. He copied this Babylonian report into his book on the patriarchs of Israel much as modern historians quote from other sources. One indication of this is the fact that Abram in this report is called a Hebrew. That word was almost never used by the Israelites to describe themselves. It was what outsiders called them.  

Abram the Warrior:               What made this chronicle of a long-forgotten war among nine kings important enough to be included in Genesis? The answer is that Lot was involved in this conflict. Just as many of you know about places like Iwo Jima and Anzio or the Gulf of Tonkin because you or your relatives were caught up in battles in those far away places, the children of Israel recalled the battle of the nine kings because it involved Lot and Abram. In short, poor Lot got captured in the battle.

            In fact, most of the people of Sodom and all their possessions were captured. The Bible reports this so calmly: “The enemy took all of the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way.” Ancient hearers of this tale knew the horror contained in that brief sentence. They would have no trouble picturing the scene of pillage, rape, and murder of the innocents as the cities were overrun and the survivors taken into slavery. Lot was one of them, and even though the people of Sodom were sinners, they were not left to suffer.

            A survivor came to Abram with the news of the defeat. This would make a great scene in a movie wouldn’t it? One boy who managed to flee the scene of carnage comes to Lot’s uncle with the news, and Abram listens in shock and anger. These few verses are a stark reminder that the ancient world was a dangerous place. Violence was the solution to political disputes, and it was common to take hostages and captives as spoils of war. Thank goodness that we have progressed beyond such methods today. Thank goodness that we would never kidnap someone and take them into a foreign country and abuse them. Thank goodness that in our day and time families do not have to face the prospect of their relatives being held by men of violence.

Abram’s Response:               But this is what Abram faced. He responded by calling upon his friends and allies, including Mamre the Amorite. Remember he dwelled near the terebinths of Mamre. It is good to have friends in difficult times. One of our presidents said that if you cannot kill all of your enemies you need to make as many friends as you can.

            Abram gathered his household, and he took 318 men to fight for Lot. Again, we get a feeling of the Old West in this story from the Old East. No doubt, part of the reason this story was told by the Israelites was to honor their ancestor Abram. He is depicted here like one of the judges of ancient Israel, a Gideon or Joshua. With a small army of dedicated servants, Abram pursued Lot’s captors all the way to Damascus in Syria. Abram was victorious against the more powerful foe, in part because Damascus was a city of the Amorites, his allies. He rescued Lot and the others taken by the enemy. This included the women who were taken as slaves.

            In this story, Abram appears as a tribal chieftan or a sheik rather than a simple nomad. We learned last week that he had become prosperous. With prosperity came responsibility. When trouble came, Abram had to defend his people, but notice that this was not a war of conquest or national pride. Abram had a single goal in mind – to get Lot and his family back from captivity. While he was at it, he liberated all the captives and restored the property stolen by the invading army. Abram is a warrior here, but more importantly he is a liberator and a savior. This is confirmed by his actions after the battle. I’ll be reading verses 17-24.

Read 14:17-24

Restoration:               Abram went to war in order to rescue his nephew. We sometimes forget that it is a divine obligation to take care of your family in appropriate ways. Abram did the right thing in risking his own life for the sake of Lot just we are called to make sacrifices for those whom God has given us to love and protect. Sometimes it is costly to love your family. In this case, Abram was victorious, but he could have died or been captured. That’s not the most important part of the story, though. In fact, the battle is just a prelude.

            It is what Abram does as victor that is important. Ancient hearers would expect that Abram would keep Lot’s possessions in exchange for rescuing the unfortunate boy. He had let Lot make his fortune in chapter 13, but now he had Lot in his power, and could be rewarded. Instead, he simply restored Lot to his former life. He gave Lot his life, his family, his property, and his authority. Once again we see the stature of Abram as a patriarch.

            He also had the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah in his debt and in his power. Abram could have made himself a great and powerful king or least a very wealthy man by keeping what he had just taken from the enemy. The king of Sodom even offers this freely. Keep it; just return the people. But Abram refuses to be rewarded for his victory. He did not go to war to make himself rich and powerful. He remained a liberator not a conqueror. The lesson that Genesis teaches is that if you are going to be a liberator, you have to relinquish claims to the property of the people that you liberate. Abram refused to make himself wealthy. He did what he set out to do. He freed the captives. For this, he was blessed.

El Elyon:                     Now we come to the most intriguing part of this chapter. Abram was blessed by a strange figure named Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He was a Canaanite, and his name probably means ‘king of righteousness,’ but it also associates him with the deity Zedek. Like many ancient kings, Melchizedek was both the political and religious ruler, and he blessed Abram in the name of El Elyon, God Most High.

            This is really intriguing since El Elyon was the name of the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon. He was the creator of heaven and earth in Canaanite mythology. Isn’t it surprising that Abram the Hebrew was blessed by a Canaanite priest in the name of a Canaanite god? This is one of those passages that remind us that the Old Testament is not as exclusive as we think it is. Abram did not look at Melchizedek and say, “Hey, buddy, we worship different gods. You take your bread and wine and leave me alone. You worship a false god and I’m not going to pray or eat with you.” That’s what we do today, don’t we?

            A minister in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church lost his job because he prayed with Jews, Muslims, and Catholics in a public event after 9/11. I’ve had Moravian ministers tell me that Muslims worship a different god than we do. Orthodox Jews and conservative Muslims won’t pray with each other or with Christians. But here is the patriarch Abraham, the father of faith for all three of our religions, accepting the blessings of a pagan priest named Melchizedek. Extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that we just ignore it instead of learning from it.

Creator:          Abram accepted the blessing of Melchizedek, and even gave him a tithe of the spoils of war. He acknowledged the authority of this priest of El Elyon and honored him in an appropriate fashion. They both recognized that there is one creator of heaven and earth regardless of the names that we use. There is one God and father of us all. In verse 22, Abram makes it clear that the LORD, or Yahweh, is the same as El Elyon. In fact, many of the names in the Old Testament contain the word “El” for God, such as Bethel. It may interest you to know that El in Arabic is Lah. The word Al-lah simply means the God, just as El means God in the Old Testament. We can be thankful that Father Abraham was gracious enough to eat with the king of Salem, and it gives us a model for dealing with our neighbors today.

Melchizedek:             Melchizedek himself became a subject of much speculation through the years. Many people have wondered why the Bible would have a story about this strange priest-king of Salem. It helps to understand that Salem is Jerusalem, the city of David. Jerusalem was originally a Jebusite city, not an Israelite one. King David took control of it and made it his capital, and then Solomon built a temple on a site considered sacred. We also know that David and Solomon established a priestly order known as the sons of Zadok. It is quite likely that this story of the priest-king of Salem was originally a story to support the priests of Zadok in their claim that their priesthood was actually older and superior to that of Levi or Aaron. They were the descendents of Melchizedek to whom even Abram gave tribute. We don’t know for sure, but we do know that Psalm 110:4 refers to “a priest on the order of Melchizedek.”

            There is more to the story of Melchizedek, however. Centuries later, scribes wondered why Melchizedek suddenly appears in the Bible and is never mentioned again. Perhaps he came from heaven, like an angelic messenger. Perhaps he will come again like Elijah. You’ve probably heard of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest copies of the books of the Old Testament, but you may not have heard that there were many other writings found in Qumran. Some of these were written by a Jewish sect called the Essenes. They saw the history as a struggle between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. They were looking for a heavenly deliverer who would rescue the faithful from the hands of the wicked. This deliverer would purify the temple and restore true religion. In at least one of the Qumran scrolls, the heavenly deliverer is the priest Melchizedek. There are only fragments of the scroll today, but it appears that Melchizedek was viewed like archangel Michael, but he was a priest. The Essenes took the phrase “priest of God Most High” to mean that Melchizedek was the high priest of heaven itself who would be the protector of the Children of Light.

            This had an impact on Christian theology in the first century. The New Testament book of Hebrews describes Jesus as a priest on the order of Melchizedek, and it says that he is the high priest of heaven. The author of Hebrews seems to have known of this tradition from the Essenes, but he makes it clear that the biblical Melchizedek is a forerunner of Christ, not Christ himself. For the New Testament, this story of the patriarch Abraham receiving bread and wine from the priest of Jerusalem and giving a tithe in return becomes a story anticipating the redemption and blessing of Christ himself. Jesus, the high priest of our profession, blesses us with bread and wine in the name of God Most High. Thus, the New Testament brings together the story of Abraham as the father of faith with the universal call of the gospel. We can be thankful that Abraham was not as exclusive in his faith as we are. He saw that Melchizedek’s El Elyon and his LORD were the same creator.

Conclusion:                 We don’t have to go down the mystical paths of the Essenes or even the book of Hebrews to draw important lessons from Genesis 14. I do hope you’ve seen that even such a difficult passage of Scripture can provide blessings for us. Whether you are pondering the complexities of international politics, wondering how to live in a pluralistic world, or simply tying to make your own way through life’ difficulties, take a moment to contemplate Abram. We can learn from his zeal in protecting those whom he loves, and we can also learn from him what it means to be a liberator. Remember that he did not enrich himself by his actions, but sought the good of others. We can also learn from the fact that he was willing to accept the blessings of Melchizedek. If someone wants to bless you in the name of the creator of heaven and earth, perhaps you should accept that blessing, even if you do not recognize the name by which it is given. We Christians see the Canaanite priest of El Elyon as a revelation of Christ our Lord. That should give us pause when we deal with people of other religions today. What blessings have we lost by being too exclusive in our relationships with others?

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Genesis lesson 15

Genesis: Folklore of Faith.  Lot’s Choice. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on January 22, 2006.

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. It was one of those busy weeks for me. As you may know, we are creating a new position called the Comenius Scholar at Wake Forest Divinity School. I split my time between church and school. I’m teaching a course on the history of theology and it is very stimulating. I’ve got ten very dedicated students. I did hear an interesting comment from a student about his professor this week. “He came into class with nothing but a Coke and taught for over an hour.” Adding to the busyness of the week has been a major home project. We bought a gas range for the kitchen, but didn’t know at the time that it would lead to a complete remodeling project. I’ve been painting late at night and my nephew-in-law is doing the floor and cabinet, so here’s a shout out and thank you to him. Another nephew was in the hospital this week, and I’m glad he’s recovering. We’ll be talking about nephews in today’s lesson. Keep in mind that we have a big event planned for March. The conference on justice for women will be held March 10 and 11. Amy Gohdes Luhman, a Moravian minister and newly minted Ph.D. will be addressing the subject of the Old Testament and women. She speaks with humor and a pastoral sense as well as expertise. You’ll want to hear her in March.

Lot:                 This week we are looking at Genesis 13, one of the most overlooked passages of the Bible. In this chapter we encounter Abram’s nephew Lot. You may recall that when Abram left Haran, he did not travel alone. Lot came with him. Lot proves to be a bit of problem for Abram. Next week we’ll read about Abram having to go to war to rescue Lot, and later on we’ll read about Abraham bargaining with the LORD in order to save Lot from destruction. I rather like these Lot stories. I have nephews and nieces that I love dearly, and when I could, I’ve tried to look out for them. Since some of you know my family, I won’t tell any stories about ways they’ve gotten into trouble, but I think I have a sense of what Abram felt for Lot. I also have a sense of what it was like to be Lot. I am nephew, and I had aunts and uncles who did their best to get me out of trouble when I was young – even when I was causing them trouble. There is a special kind of bond that a nephew has with an uncle, but nephews can also be problems.

            It is hard to know what to make of Lot. Traditionally Lot has been seen as example of greed, lust, ignorance, foolishness, infidelity, and so forth. In the Middle Ages, he was used as the representative of all seven deadly sins in contrast to Abraham who was the father of faith. But this is too hard on Lot. Like every nephew he is immature, but in Genesis we never get to see him grow up. His story ends when he has children. We never get to see him as a father or an uncle in his own right. It is as if my story were to remain that told by my aunts and uncles rather than the story told by my nephews and nieces. It is an incomplete story. We also don’t really know how to judge Lot because the Lot stories are primarily stories about Abraham. In fact, it appears that Abraham becomes more mature because of Lot. Certainly there appears to be a change in Abram from chapter 12 when he was rather selfish to chapter 13, which is our focus for today. Listen for the word of God as I read.

Family Conflict:          This story hinges on the reality of family conflict. For some reason, we don’t like to acknowledge family conflict in the church. We sing about family love, about being sons and daughters of God. We celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and all that, but the truth is that much of the conflict and pain of the world takes place in families. Think of your own life. Who have you hurt most in the world? Who has made you the angriest? Who have you competed with and fought with the most? Isn’t it someone in your own family?

            What is it that we fight about in families? I grew up with an older brother and two older sisters. We fought over limited resources. We fought over limited attention. We always knew that the other was more favored, more loved, more precious to our mother. We teased each other and tried to get each other in trouble. Actually, I didn’t do any of that. It was my brother and sisters who did all those bad things and I was an innocent victim. Now that we are all grown up and have our own families, we gather for holidays and tell childhood stories that raise my mother’s hair, but the family keeps getting the stories wrong. Somehow the way they remember them, I did some of the bad things and caused some of the conflicts. Of course, they are getting older and losing their minds. That happens.

Prosperity:                  Here in Genesis 13 we have a family story of conflict over limited resources. Abram’s servants and Lot’s servants keep fighting with each other over grazing land for the animals. You could easily turn this into one of those old Westerns with two ranchers trying to control the water rights for their cattle. Same thing, different millennium. The irony of this story in Genesis, though, is that the reason there is conflict between Lot and Abram is that they have both become so prosperous. Prosperity causes trouble. We continually live under the illusion that prosperity will make our troubles disappear. If only we had a bigger house then we wouldn’t be fighting over who gets to take the first shower. If only the children each had their own room, they wouldn’t fight over their privacy or their toys. If only my company was larger. If only the economy was doing better.

            But prosperity brings its own set of conflicts. We elect millionaires to serve in Congress thinking that they will not be tempted by the money lavished at them by lobbyists, but we forget that the wealthy have many financial obligations. We move into gated communities with the illusion of safety and then live in fear that we cannot keep up with the costs and social obligations. Abram and Lot had grown prosperous and began to compete against each other. How could they solve this problem that was created by their own success in the world? Neither one contemplated Jesus’ solution to the problem: sell all that you possess and give it to the poor. Then again, do we? We prefer the problems of prosperity.

Possible solutions:     Abram could have asserted his authority over Lot. Not only was he the older male relative and pretty shrewd, as we saw last week, he was blessed by the LORD. He could have ordered a solution. Or Abram could have put all kinds of pressure on Lot to give in. He could have used guilt. “Remember how I let you come with me from Haran and protected you on the way? The only reason you have anything today is because I took you in out of pity for my sister who couldn’t do a thing with you. And this is how you repay me? To think of all that I did for you, and now you have your herdsmen attack my herdsmen. Bad, nephew, bad.” Or Abram could have just ignored the conflict and let it fester until it was too late to do anything about it. We know what that’s like.

            Abram could have simply won a family fight. “All right, partner. I know you’re my nephew and you think you’re tough. Sure, you’ve got these rough herdsmen threatening my men, but you better think again. Next time you mess with my shepherd, I’m going to mess with you. Now, either you learn to get along or you better move on.” That would be Abram played by John Wayne. Played by Clint Eastwood, Abram would have simply said, “Okay, Lot. I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six arrows or only five? Well, do you feel lucky?” Face it. This is what we want. We want Abram to win the fight because we want to win our fights. But the truth is that no one ever wins a family feud. It may look like it. You may walk away with your grandmother’s pearl earrings that your sister wanted, but you didn’t really win. You proved to your to brother that he was wrong, but you didn’t win anything. All you did was alienate your brother or sister. Proverbs says that the one who troubles his own house inherits the wind. True.

Abram’s Solution:      So what did Abram do? First, he acknowledged that there was a conflict in the family. There was a real issue that needed a solution. Some of us never get to this point. Second, he decided that this problem was not more important than his obligations as the head of the family. He had the responsibility to protect the family, and so he chose not to let the family be harmed by this conflict. Third, he actually talked to Lot about the problem and invited Lot to help solve it.

            We can learn a lot from this. Here we see three marks of mature problem solving, but the fourth step demonstrates true maturity and morality. Abram was willing to suffer loss if necessary in order to solve the conflict. He was willing to compromise rather than win. I wish that more of our national leaders in government and business understood this. The mature thing, the right thing to do, is to willingly give up something for the greater good. Abram didn’t lose anything doing this, but he preserved a relationship to his nephew.

Lot’s Choice:              Abram decided that it was necessary for him and Lot to go their separate ways, but he lets Lot make the choice of which land will be his. They did not part as enemies, as winner and loser, but as friends and family members. Abram stays connected with Lot after he lets him leave because he still loves his nephew, but for the good of the family, Abram gives Lot the choice. This is remarkable. Abram chose peace over conflict; sacrifice over victory; the common good over his selfish desires. We don’t respect this in America today. We would call Abram a “girlie man” for stepping aside instead of asserting himself. But the Bible recognizes this as true greatness. Greatness does not lie in tough talk and abuse but justice and mercy. Abram was confident enough in himself and in the LORD that he did not need to win at the expense of someone he loves.

Fertile Land:              So Lot chose the better land. There is no denying that, although some commentators have tried. Some have even suggested that Abram tricked Lot into choosing poorly, but that seems off base. Lot freely chose the fertile land that reminded him of the lush valley of the Nile in Egypt. Some commentators accuse Lot of being like those Israelites who wanted to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt even if it meant slavery, but that is too harsh.

            Lot simply chose the land that appeared to offer the best opportunity for him to prosper, but the contrast with his uncle seems clear to me. Abram was willing to suffer for the sake of peace and for the good of his nephew. Lot chose to benefit himself rather than thinking of his uncle. We can understand this, even if we condemn it as greedy. Lot’s choice was based on Lot’s desire. Abram’s choice was based on the common good. This is a different Abram than one we met last week deceiving Pharaoh.

            As it turned out, Lot chose foolishly, and his decision had bad consequences for his family. The writer of Genesis gives us a hint of this by saying that this happened before the Lord destroyed Sodom. Lot, of course, did not know that disaster was coming when he made his choice. That’s the problem with our life choices. We never have all of the knowledge we need. We do not know the consequences of our decisions before we act, but we still have to choose our path. Sometimes we choose shrewdly only to have it all fall apart.

            Lot chose the fertile plains and settled near Sodom. Did he know that the people of Sodom were wicked? Did he know that he was actually endangering his family by moving into a bad neighborhood? Did he know that he was opening himself up to temptations and dangers? It is surprisingly easy to overlook such things when we want something. We don’t want to jump too far ahead in our reading, but for now we should note that Lot made the selfish choice and it went badly. Just as we often choose the high salary without concern for the costs that it demands of us and our families.

Abram’s Blessing:     Abram, who chose not to assert his authority over Lot, stayed in Canaan. Abram who solved the conflict by giving up his own rights and wants, accepted Lot’s decision. And he was blessed by the LORD. He secured a land for himself and his descendents. In today’s terms, we could say that Abram traded land for peace and was blessed for it. There may be a lesson in this for modern politics. You’ve probably heard that Pat Robertson said that God struck down Ariel Sharon for “dividing the land.” I wonder if Pat has read Genesis 13 where God blesses Abram for letting Lot have land rather than insisting on his own divine right. There is another interesting lesson in that Lot and Abram were fighting over scarce resources, but that same land would support Abram’s descendents that were to become as numerous as the dust. Scarcity becomes abundance if we have eyes of faith.

Mamre:                      Chapter 13 ends with Abram pitching his tent by the oaks of Mamre near Hebron. The trees were actually terebinth trees, which we don’t have here in North Carolina. Like oaks, they are large, leafy trees and are sometimes called oleander. The type of tree is not important, of course, but it is a reminder that the Bible we read is a translation. Don’t take the oaks of Mamre too literally and insist that there were red oaks in Abraham’s time in Israel. This is also a reminder to us that the world of the Bible is a foreign world, and there are things that we don’t fully understand here in America in the 21st century. I’ve never seen a terebinth tree, so I don’t really know what they are. We don’t even know for sure why they were so important for the biblical writer. There is some evidence that the terebinth was considered sacred in ancient days. This is not at all surprising. The sycamore was sacred in Egypt because it was associated with the goddess Hathor. The English and Germans had their sacred trees, too. This is one reason we have Christmas trees.

            It is likely that the terebinths of Mamre were already sacred when Abram settled there and built an altar to the LORD. Incidentally, we learn later in Genesis that Mamre was the name of a man who lived there. From this little statement that Abram settled by the oaks of Mamre, we learn that Abraham the Patriarch was able to live with native Canaanites in peace and respect. He settled near the sacred trees of his neighbor Mamre, and there he built an altar to the LORD for his own family. In the time of Jesus, there was a tree near Hebron that people claimed had been there since creation itself, and it was called the oak of Abraham. There is now a shrine near the spot for pilgrims. This is not proof that Abraham lived there, but it is evidence that from ancient days this was and remains a sacred spot.

Conclusion:                 We’ve come to the end of our time and need to ask what lessons we can take from Genesis 13. I think the most important one is that our choices make a difference. We can find ways to solve conflicts and live in peace if we choose to do so and trust in God. Lot had the choice of land, but it was Abram who made the critical choices. Abram chose to address the conflict with maturity and wisdom. Abram chose to limit his self-assertion and his rights. Abram chose to live with Lot’s choice. Abram chose to live in peace with Mamre and the people of Hebron. Abram chose to build an altar to the LORD and trust in him. Most importantly, Abram chose the path of peace and he was blessed by God. May we do the same today.