Friday, November 27, 2009

Genesis chapter 13 - the parting from Lot

Just as in chapter twelve, in many ways, the journeys of Abram prefigure the journeys of the Israelites, so in chapter thirteen the actions of Abram and Lot are not just meant to be an interesting story. There are several things going on in this passage. First, the question of who will be heir to Abram is still unanswered. Lot would be the legal heir in this case, being the closest relative and with Abram being without a son. Coming out of Egypt, Abram is said to be very wealthy. Sounding like a side-note, or in sort of a copycat manner, Lot is also said to be very wealthy. The result of the way it is said leads us to realize that his blessing is really just a side-effect of being with Abram. This wealth, interestingly, is exactly the device God uses to make it clear to Abram and to the reader that the heir of Abram will not be Lot, but someone that he will provide.

The wealth of Abram is said to exist in livestock, silver, and gold. These three commodities represent the only wealth that makes sense for a semi-nomad like Abram. He doesn't own real estate, at least not yet. The semi-nomadic lifestyle did not value real estate the way more urbanized socities did. Gold and silver, then as now, as two of the most valuable precious metals have often in history functioned as currency or as a para-currency, typically being very liquid. Livestock functioned in Abram's day in much the same way. “Livestock, silver, and gold” would translate roughly over to “stocks, bonds, and real estate”, were Abram a modern American.

Hebrew has many words for livestock, some of which are specific, but many of which are fluid, being able to refer to cows, goats, or sheep, and this is one of those.Some translations have “cattle”, which technically in English does not refer specifically to cows and bulls, but which has come to have that specific context. We don't refer to our flocks of sheep as “cattle” anymore. The NIV correctly translates with the more ambiguous term “livestock”.

The combined flocks and herds of the two men are so numerous that it says the land could not support them. Some would dismiss this as hyperbole, stating that there is no way that there was not enough available land for two men's livestock. That misses the point of the text however. The point is not that they filled up the entire land of Canaan, but that they were not able to dwell close enough that they could be said to “dwell together”, or that they could function as one family-unit/camp. Even when they separated, they were not that far apart, but this separation marks the end of their existence as a single family-unit.

The dispute that initiates the separation is made clear to us, but we may deduce from the fact that it was between herdsmen and that we know that the “land could not support them”, that the dispute was over pasture land. Apparently, some herdsmen were getting upset when they would take their flocks to pasture, only to discover that it was already taken by other flocks. This must have become a continuing and significant problem. One occurrence would not have been enough to separate, being easily handled by good administration. At some point, however, Abram realizes that good administration is not going to be enable them to dwell together as one family, so he initiates a parting of ways to keep the peace. He says, “Let there not be a meribah [strife] between us.” This is not the same word used earlier when it says that, “There came a rib [dispute] between the herdsmen of the flocks of Abram and the herdsmen of the flocks of Lot.” It is, however, from the same root, ryb. Why would the author put a different word into the mouth of Abram than what had just appeared. It appears that meribah is a word used for a large scale contention, whereas rib functions, here at least, to describe the disagreement on a more intimate scale. In other words, Abram's action is preventative.

Lot appears to the reader as something of a non-character. We are not meant to despise Lot; rather, we are simply to dismiss him. His life so far has been in Abram's shadow, there is nothing unique about him. He is given no lines, at least until the destruction of Sodom when he is out of the picture as being an heir to Abram. It is not Lot that initiates the resolution to this problem, it is Abram. And Finally, when faced with a decision he makes it based on what he sees, though we are told immediately that this was a bad decision, one that was not made based on godly principles, and one that was doomed to be short-lived because of impending destruction of the region. Lot is a foil for Abram. He acts and functions the way the world acts and functions. We are not to think of Lot as wicked, simply as not actively godly and therefore subject to the way the world works.

Lot also represents more than just himself in this story. The patriarchs represent in many ways the nations purported to have come from them. We learn later that two nations came from Lot: Moab and Ammon. These two nations are both located east of the Jordan, and Moab is very close to where Sodom and Gomorrah are supposed to have been. The boundaries of nations in the ancient world was thought to have been determined by their gods and/or their ancestors. Here, when Lot makes the decision to choose the Jordan river valley, especially at the south end, he is choosing for his descendants not to inhabit the land promised to Abram by God. So this story once again speaks to a very ancient people, the Israelites either in the wilderness or early on in their dwelling in Canaan. It tells them why their boundaries are what they are and why Moab's and Ammon's boundaries are what they are, and also why the Israelites are prohibited from taking their land.

After Lot is out of the picture, YHWH speaks reassuringly to Abram. This was the right decision, though it was difficult. That Lot was the heir apparent is further established by the subject of YHWH's reassuring speech to Abram – his seed and his legacy. When faced with the disappearance of the only heir he could see, Abram is once again told that YHWH will provide a seed from what appears to be nothing. Abram ultimately responds by building an altar [mizbeaḥ] and calling on the name of YHWH at the oaks of Mamre. To call on the name of YHWH is another way of saying that he actively worshipped him there. To worship a deity included making sacrifices. We are not told what he did with the altar he built, but some have suggested that he did not sacrifice at the altar, he just built it. This is a difficult position to maintain. There are other ways the OT describes the building of a monument, and mizbeaḥ is not one of them. We must believe that Abram practiced animal sacrifice at these altars, but this is not specifically mentioned because of the later emphasis in Deuteronomy on the centralization of such activities.

God has a way of directing our lives such that all the solutions we thought we could call on disappear. Despite all the wealth that Abram had, his primary concern was not wealth but progeny, and the very thing that he could point to as a blessing from God, wealth, became the thing that separated him from his only apparent heir, and his only nearby relative. As we saw in Genesis 1, God's creative activity is made up of calling and dividing, and just as this continued in Abram, so this is the kind of activity we can expect from God in our lives, as well. The division which seems so painful, and from which it seems nothing good could come, is exactly the thing that God is using to bring about a greater and more glorious blessing in his perfect plan.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Genesis 12:10-20

Logos is a continuation of a Bible study group I led at Longview First Assembly during my time there. This post picks up where the Logos class left off, in the second half of chapter 12 of Genesis.

After the “mission statement” of Genesis 12:1-3, the rest of Genesis explores the ways in which that statement is worked out in the lives of the first few generations of the life of the chosen people. That mission statement consists of a call and a promise. The call is for Abram to forsake all familiarity and security and to follow God to an as yet unknown land. The promise is favor, a purpose, and a legacy. In many ways, the rest of Genesis is set up as a series of threats to this promise and preservation of the chosen line through the threat.

Genesis 12:10-20 is the first threat in this series, but the threat is not as simple as it at first appears. The apparent threat is serious famine, but what it leads to is sojourn away from the land which has just been promised into Egypt, prefiguring in a way the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt which led to the Exodus. This sojourn of Abram's is not initiated by God, and this is conspicuous in this passage because of God's active direction in the first part of the chapter. We should note, however, that this action by Abram is not condemned in the text, nor is God's promise nullified through this action. This sojourn is a natural and seemingly wise decision by Abram. It leads, however, to unintended consequences which we shall see later.

The point of these observations is this: God's promise to Abram was not dependent on perfect wisdom or perfect faith. Perhaps Abram could have believed that God would provide food in a famine stricken area, and perhaps God would have done it. The text does not comment on this. The lesson is that God's favor is resting on Abram in a completely sure and steadfast way, and Abram does not have to maintain some minimum level of wisdom in his decision making process, or possess some wisdom defying faith to qualify for that favor.

If there is one thing which seems odd and perhaps wrong in Abram's behavior, it is the request of Sarai that she claim to be his sister. Now, at this point we have not yet been given a justification of this claim, as in Abram and Sarai sharing a father and not a mother, and even with the situation being known Abram's reasoning seems strange to us. Certainly, the plan seems to backfire, because Sarai is in fact taken, and this is the height of the threat to the chosen line, because even though it has not yet been stated, Sarai's is the womb through whom God has chosen to bring about his promise of descendants.

The claim that Sarai was Abram's sister potentially has some background in laws of an ancient people group called the Hurrians who inhabited parts of middle and northern Mesopotamia and who became one of the three major military powers vying for dominance in Palestine and Phoenicia during the second Millennium BC. Among Hurrian elite, it was customary for a man to legally adopt his wife as his sister. While Abram was not Hurrian according to Genesis, the narrative does place his provenance in northern Mesopotamia, where he might have been accustomed to such laws. In view of this, the explanation given in the second “my wife is my sister” episode, that of Abraham and Abimelech, might seem like a later or variant tradition. Nevertheless, we don't really know where the claim comes from other than what Genesis tells us.

This still does not explain Abram's logic. Why would he expect the Egyptians to kill him for his wife? In part, what we may be dealing with is a reality to Abram's situation, the relative absence of which we in America and Western Europe often take for granted: in the absence of political self-restraint or balance of powers, the powerful make the rules. Among his family and people, Abram could have depended on common rules of conduct, ethnic or clan loyalty, or even clan military support if needed. Abram is alone in Canaan and Egypt. He has no clan to call on; that's what he left in Haran. He may or may not have had intimate knowledge of Egyptian law/custom, but even at an early stage, the Egyptian Pharaoh's power was near absolute and Egyptians seem to have exhibited an insular ethno-centrism (which at a much later stage was more pronounced). With no one to call on or appeal to, it is entirely conceivable that a lusty monarch would kill a man for a beautiful woman (David and Bathsheba, for instance). The idea that claiming his wife was his sister might save his life only seems to make sense if one considers that in the absence of an older patriarch, it is an eldest brother who would give the permission for a woman to be wed. Perhaps Abram was thinking that the appearance of availability would give him enough space to stall for time, or to outright reject the offer of any man who asked for Sarai.

Once again, Genesis gives us precious little to try to evaluate the psychology of a man who lived about 4,000 years ago, and I think maybe we get off track in doing so. Even with such reasoning as we have proposed in place, Abram's fear seems extreme, even to the point of being irrational. But going back to our earlier point, the steadfastness of God's blessing on Abram, once again notice how when Abram is afraid, we might even legitimately call him faithless at this point, God's promise is sure, and his faithfulness is rock solid.

Abram's plan backfires. Instead of Pharaoh asking for Sarai and Abram having some time to find a tactful retreat, the king of Egypt simply takes her and pays Abram well. He acted fairly if heavy-handedly, which is what one might expect from an ancient absolute monarch who is not entirely corrupt (he still could have killed Abram and kept his livestock). Abram's bluff is called and he has no recourse. Enter Yahweh. Without condemning Abram's faults, he sends plagues on Pharaoh's house on account of Sarai (notice the occurrence of plagues – once again prefiguring the later exodus). Somehow, it is made clear to Pharaoh that Sarai is the reason and that she is Abram's wife. This could be through a dream or through Pharaoh's own magicians – the text does not say. But apparently he is too respectful of the retribution of God to do anything else to Abram, thus explaining why he does not ask for his livestock back. The threat to the chosen line, the abduction of the line's matriarch, is averted only through the merciful activity of God, and the line is preserved. Abram is blessed. Those who do good to him will be blessed. Those who do wrong to him will be harmed.

We who are the chosen of God through Jesus today also partake of that call and promise. We live in that same sort of protected status. Those who bless us will be blessed, and those who harm us do so at their own peril, for God is jealously protective of us, and that protectiveness is not earned through any minimum level of faith or wisdom. You don't have to make a minimum number of right decisions to qualify for blessing. God's plan works through our decisions, even the bad ones. We must not confuse our finite nature and imperfect wisdom for rebellion. They are two different categories as far as God is concerned, and if Genesis teaches us anything, it is that God can bring good out of bad. We all know that you can't earn righteousness before God: that's been pounded into our heads since the Reformation. The problem with that statement, though, is that very few of us think we can actually earn any sort of status with God in that way. On the other hand, where we often have difficulty is when we allow ourselves to expect bad things to happen to us because we feel guilty about poor decisions made in the past. This is rarely a salvation issue with the Christian, and more of a present day blessing issue. It is true that godly wisdom will generally lead to physical blessing and ungodly foolishness will inevitably lead to ruin, but none of us are perfectly wise, and it is wrong of us to expect that of ourselves. “We're only human” is no excuse for sinfulness, but it is a valid acknowledgment of our finite understanding. God understands that we're only human. He calls us to become perfect in that humanity, and to allow him to work good in the bad that will inevitably come.