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.

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