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.

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