In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
So far we have looked at the first two Abram/Abraham stories, but they really set up for us what we are going to see in the rest of his story. In the first Abram passage, Gen 12:1-9, we see God’s calling of Abram and the institution of the covenant. In the second passage, Gen 12:10-20, what we see, essentially, is Abram trying to take control of that covenant. Abram, reacting out of fear, seems to be taking things into his own hands.
Now, if you don’t like spoilers, you can cover your ears now, but this is pretty much what we will see throughout the Abraham cycle. A kind of repetitive back-and-forth between Abraham and God’s plans for Abraham.
Our passage today sees Abram and his household returning to Canaan. the details of the story are pretty straightforward but let’s take a look at some of those details and see how they may inform our understanding of our stories in the light of God’s story.
Now keep in mind that what we’re probably seeing here is Abram returning, or trying to return, to the promises of God according to the will of God (i.e. as opposed to by his own will). In other words, we’re seeing Abram return to allowing God to establish the covenant, which ultimately is the theme of our whole story. So let’s flesh that out a little and see how some of the elements in our story inform this understanding.
To begin with, let’s note the fairly obvious point that this passage climaxes in God again re-stating the covenant.
14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”
In some sense, this is not surprising because most of us know how this story goes (more or less). However, keep in mind the passage that we just came out of last week. To reiterate:
- Abram leaves the land that God promised him (Canaan) because of a fear of famine
- Abram then lies about his wife in order to save his own life (and presumably the lives of his household, Sarai included).
All of this indicates an acting out of fear, or an inability to trust in the promise that God had given him: i.e. that Abram would be the father of many nations. For this reason, Abram takes his own life into his own hands.
So coming out of that, what we’re seeing is (what seems to be) a pretty abrupt about-face.
First of all, let’s consider the relationship between Abram and Lot in light of the covenant:
Lot plays an interesting role in this story (Abram’s story overall) because he is Abram’s nephew (Gen 11:27). But why exactly do we hear so much about Lot when he seems to be pretty clearly not part of the story of covenant? In short, Lot seems to be presented as a sort of foil to Abram/Abraham. In literary terms, what we mean is that a foil serves as a counter-point to a main character. The foil is presented to give us a better understanding of the main character.
I point that out because Lot isn’t intended to be a “bad guy.” In our culture, we’re fixated on trying to identify who the good guy is and who the bad guy is – this is how our politics work. But people aren’t like that. We can, however, learn from this comparison between Lot and Abram in our passage.
The interaction between the two involves Abram offering Lot first choice of the land – having decided the two households are best separating since there seems to be trouble brewing (due to limited resources). Lot chooses the land of Jordan which, though it appears to be good, we know is a bad choice.
Though much has been made of Lot being greedy or superficial, I don’t believe that the text really supports this. But we do know this is a poor choice because the text makes a point of noting its connection with Sodom.
More importantly, the text also makes a point of noting that this land is outside of Canaan. In other words, and remember what we talked about a few weeks ago about the connection between kingdom (i.e. the covenant) and land, by choosing to be out of the land, in some sense Lot is putting himself out of the covenant promises.
Abram’s actions, on the contrary, indicate a movement away from his own efforts (which was his problem in the previous passage) to depending on God. By giving Lot the first choice, Abram is in some sense giving up his rights as the head of the household. By potentially giving up at least a portion of the land of Canaan – the land he was promised – he is in some sense (but an important sense) giving up the need to hold onto it (via human means). In other words, he is trusting in the promise instead of trying to latch on to it.
Carrying on, I want to take a look at the tents. What’s the deal with the tents?
- 3 From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier 4 and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord.
- 5 Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents.
- 2 Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.
- 18 So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.
It might be (and only “might) that, in the history of Israel, up to the time they establish themselves (i.e. under a king), the story is about living in tents. There’s even a Jewish festival dedicated to this (which celebrates/remembers Israel’s wandering in the desert). Hopefully it’s at least somewhat clear that the tents probably has something to do with the journeying that we talked about.
I also tend to think that this has to do with a very similar theme that we just discussed (re: trusting in God). And let’s think about this by contrasting it with a couple of previous stories in Genesis (in the proto-history): the city of Cain and the city of Babel. In the story of Cain, we see that Cain establishes a city (presumably) as a source of protection after his expulsion from Eden. In the second story, we see the people building a city, Babel, with a tower that will reach the world.
Now the bible is not anti-city; far from it. Heaven, in fact, is pictured (in Revelation) as a city. Jerusalem and Zion – both kingdom references, are cities. The problem here is that the city becomes a testament to humankind rather than expression of a community of God. The city becomes an expression of what humankind can achieve rather than an opportunity to develop a kingdom culture.
So, maybe there is something to the fact that Abram (and Israel) doesn’t settle down. That he continues to journey. He walks the length and breadth of the land that God has given him, but he never plants roots. He never finds his security in what he can build, but rather trusts entirely on what God gives.
A final element to consider is the fact that Abram’s journey from Egypt to Canaan is bracketed by altars – at Bethel and Hebron. To put it another way, this whole narrative is bracketed by worship.
The only thing I would like to say about this is to note that worship is not a human initiated activity – it is God initiated and we respond. We don’t worship because we are trying to demonstrate how good and pious we are, but in response to God’s revelation of his grace and mercy, his holiness and justice. We don’t worship because we are trying to get something out of God but in response to what God has done for us. We don’t worship out of penance, because we are sorry for what we have done, but out of thanksgiving and repentance because in Christ we are forgiven.
I’m stepping out of the text here, but I think it’s significant that this narrative is surrounded by worship because Abram has come to a place where he recognizes that he can’t hold onto the promises of God – without God. It’s why worship is such an important part of our walks. Because inasmuch as we worship well, what we are doing (at least) is re-orienting ourselves to the reality that it all begins and ends with God.
So, saying it again, what we seem to be seeing in today’s passage is that Abram is trying to return to the promises of God according to the will of God (i.e. not by his own will).