S1E11 Transcript

011 - Head Out of Town

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Season 1, Episode 11
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
Length: 24:32



Act 3 of the Bible’s Big Story will focus on the nation of Israel and takes up the rest of the Old Testament. And with Act 3, the main theme is God’s promise that he really will restore his Kingdom and redeem his creation. As we look out ahead across the rest of this story in the Old Testament and this idea of promise, we can break Act 3 itself down into three smaller parts.

In part 1, God initiates his plan to restore that Kingdom. That’s the Pentateuch; Abraham and Moses and the Exodus. In Part 2, God’s plan will be complicated because of Israel’s failure to walk in fellowship with God when he calls. And we really see that in the historical books. And out of this complication comes the question, will Israel’s failure to be obedient and faithful to God’s—will that interfere with and prevent God’s redemption plan from ever coming about? And thus, in part 3 we see the rise of the prophets being sent by God who predict the coming day of redemption through the Messiah, that God will send in response to the repeated failures of the people.

God sends the prophets one after the other over a span of centuries to continue to sound the message that God’s Kingdom–it will come to pass. That God will restore that God will redeem in spite of all that has complicated his plans and all that has gone wrong along the way. And, in fact, the inability of the people to be faithful to God is at the very heart of the problem that God is going to address. That’s what we see as we look out ahead across the rest of the Old Testament.


In the last episode we had looked at how expansive and intensive sin had become. It got to the point, it permeated the whole Earth and God destroyed the earth. Preserved out of that Noah and his family to start again. Although, as we saw at the Tower of Babel, things quickly turned bad again.

So now what next? Well, in Genesis chapter 12 the answer comes to us. God calls a family through whom he will save humanity. And that’s appropriate because the apex of God’s creation itself was a family. That was the intent with Adam and Eve. They come together, they would bear children, that union of man and woman together in their co-ruling over God’s creation as his stewards with their God-given capacity to bring forth life and to expand his creation. That was the very thing God looked at after he created and said it was good. And even though that family picture becomes broken and worked very quickly, that nonetheless was the apex, the pinnacle of God’s design and creation. And so God’s restoration of his creation of his kingdom is going to happen through a family and be driven by this idea of the family at the heart of the Kingdom. This makes sense when you look back at Creation. And that’s here, where Act 3 begins.

You know it’s both ironic and of great theological significance that Abraham and Sarah, this family that God has chosen to start with – that they are childless, unable to have children. This is who God is going to use? Well, this represents, I think, the core consequence of human sinfulness that we looked at in Act 2. That in this world that was designed by God to flourish and to grow with human life ruling over it and abundant enjoyment and responsibility of that world from one generation to the next. Now as a result of sin and the loss of their place and all that has happened to fragment that design; now, instead, it’s barren, it’s empty, it’s conflict.

So, in a sense, I think Abraham and Sarah as God’s starting point represents on the one hand the fundamental problem with creation: it’s broken, it’s unable to do what it was designed to do—they’re not able to have children. And yet on the other, that very limitation, that very flaw represents the significance of God as creator at work in redeeming and renewing that creation. Only the creator can bring forth the life to put it all back together again. And so, it’s going to take a miracle for Abraham and Sarah to have a child. And indeed, that’s the theme: it’s going to take a miracle for God’s Kingdom to be restored. And just such a miracle is forthcoming. And so, this is, this is going to be the story of God’s redemption plan, how he initiates it, who he initiates it through.

When we look at Genesis, it’s kind of where we’ll settle down here for a few episodes. And I just I want to break this into some smaller chunks for us. We won’t look at every book in the Old Testament in this level of detail, but I do think it is very helpful with the Genesis.

From here to the end, this is primarily a narrative about the family and who they become. So, beginning with Abraham and then his children that come along – and like any good story as we’ve talked about – Genesis has a beginning, middle, and an end. So, Genesis 11 through 25, the beginning of this story of Abraham, primarily about Abraham. In Chapters 25 to 37, we have the middle of the story that is focused on Isaac and his sons, Jacob and Esau. And here the story then will move in more tightly onto Jacob, who has given the name Israel, and his twelve sons, which, of course, in time is who becomes the nation. And then Genesis 37 to 50 that winds up the Genesis narrative account with the story of Joseph’s captivity and the family’s flight to Egypt because of the famine. And then while they’re there, the resulting captivity that will come upon them over the next years that sets the stage for the Exodus. So that’s really the structure of Genesis in a nutshell.

Let me back up and go through some of the key parts of some of this a little bit more in detail, especially with a closer look at Abraham. And we’re going to do this over the next several episodes of the show, because there really is a lot going on that is foundational to the entirety of the Old Testament. Because of our aim with the series here, I’m not going to dive into the characters of Isaac and Joseph as much as I will Abraham. So, for now I just I want to give a bit of a bird’s eye overview about what we see.


And we start with the question of Abraham’s origin, where is he from? Genesis 11 tells us that Abraham is from “Ur of the Chaldeans.” This is, this is where his family is from. Abraham’s story starts with God calling him to take his family – Lot, his nephew lot, their family, the whole extended family – to take that family and go to cannon where there God will make of him a great nation. By the time this this takes place in Genesis 12, the family has ended up in the city of Haran. So, some years earlier, Abraham’s father, Terah ,had decided to take the family out of Ur, where they’re from, to Canaan and so they embark on that trip. They come to the city of Heran, where they end up settling down, and we’re not really ever told why, but they settle down kind of make that their home and years later, that’s where Terah dies. And so Abraham is from Ur, but he’s living in Heran, 75 years old with his wife, no children when God calls him to go to Canaan with the promise of a greater future.


Now, the matter of Abraham’s birth city of Ur is an interesting topic to me. We’re actually going to have a supplemental episode here that dives into Ur and this question a bit more from an archaeological standpoint, so I won’t really get into that too much here. But there are two possible locations for this ancient city. Both of which are called, known by the name Ur. One is in southern Mesopotamia. It’s a large Sumerian city of Ur, located about 200 miles southeast of modern day, present day, Baghdad in Iraq, close to the Persian Gulf. And for a good portion of the 19th and 20th century, that southern Mesopotamian location was considered to be the traditional biblical Ur of Abraham’s birthplace. So that’s, that’s one possibility.

A second possibility is in northern Mesopotamia, in what is today Turkey near the Syrian border, and it’s a region that is known now as it was known then, as Urfa-Haran, and you hear the name “Haran” in there. Archaeological discoveries such as the Ebla tablet in the late 20th century, along with ancient local customs and traditions from that part of the world suggests that this city of Ur in the north is in fact where Abraham is actually from.


Either way, Abraham is from Mesopotamia, not Canaan. Furthermore, Abraham is not Jewish. The Jewish people as that identity group, that cultural group, that ethnic group come from Abraham in time. But Abraham himself is not Jewish because that people group didn’t exist in the way that we think of them. But Abraham is Semitic. The Semitic peoples are the descendants of Noah’s son Shem that inhabited that part of the Mesopotamian region after the flood from Turkey down through to the Persian Gulf. As the text tells us, Abraham comes out of the Chaldean culture. And I’ll talk more about who the Chaldeans were in the follow up episode here, the supplementary episode if you want to listen to that later.

But Abraham is a Semitic Chaldean from Mesopotamia. His descendants later are known as Hebrews, but at this point in the story there is really no such identifiable people. In fact, that’s in large measure what Genesis is all about: how God will bring forth from this childless middle-aged couple a nation who are called the Hebrews.

Well, a few details about Mesopotamian culture is going to be helpful for our background here as it relates to Abraham.  And primarily here at this point talking about religion. Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic and anthropomorphic. There were many gods in the pantheon and these gods were thought of and talked about in human form. And this is fairly typical. We see this in ancient mythologies and these ancient mythologies were the religious systems of the ancient world. So, there are multiple gods, and, furthermore, each of the Mesopotamian city-states or tribal areas had their own specific gods that functioned as a patron deity for that particular locale. So, each city would have a patron deity. A tribe might have a patron deity. The patron deities would protect those cities from the bad things that would happen to them, the threats, as well as serve to ensure that there was good harvest and prosperity. Professions, many of the professions in ancient Mesopotamian culture, also had special deities that were there to watch over them. So many, many gods and out of that out of that, out of that big pantheon, there were really a handful about 5 major gods that ruled over all of Mesopotamian culture.


So, the world at this time is highly religious, very organized, very complex, had its own priestly systems, temples, religious shrines. Religious ritual worship. All of these kinds of things. And the the city of Heran, in particular where Abraham is now living in Genesis 12 when God calls him, was known in northwestern Syria, in in northern Mesopotamia, was a prominent city that was known for the Temple of the Babylonian moon god, Sin. Sin is one of the major deities in this Mesopotamian pantheon.

Just like Heran, the city of Ur – both cities, whichever, you know, whichever of the two options may end up proving to be actual, the actual birthplace of Abraham –  both of these Urs were also key cities in the cult of the Moon god, Sin. So, whichever those he comes from, the ritual worship of and devotion to the moon god would have been central to Abraham’s background and upbringing. And so consequently all of this culture shapes Abraham’s way of thinking and conceiving and understanding the whole question of deity and spirituality and religion. So, in all likelihood, Abraham and his family themselves were polytheistic in their own religious outlook. And, as the culture did, they may have worshipped one god and yet understood and considered that the world consisted of many gods. And sources tell us that Abraham’s father, Terah, was evidently some kind of a craftsman involved in the manufacture or the sale of artifacts that were used in the temple worship rituals for the moon god cult.


So, it’s important that we stop and consider the religious background in this ancient culture, the setting out of which Abraham comes. And the idea that each of these cities have their own patron deities is crucial. That city would serve and interact with their own particular god. Well, that raises for me this question why Abraham would have listened to and obeyed the voice of what essentially would have been a foreign deity or some other some other deity that was not the dominant one for the world out of which he comes: the Babylonian moon god.

This is an interesting observation to make when we know a little bit about the historical culture. It was unusual that a god would have communicated directly to a person like Abraham without going through a priest as an intermediary. That in and of itself is somewhat unusual. See, for the people of ancient Near East, the gods did not speak directly to the people. The priests were the anointed go-betweens. They’re the ones that communicated with the deities through their incantations and talismans and secret rituals that were known to the priests. So, the common people, if that they wanted to hear or get a decision from the gods, they would have to go to the temple and whatever messages or questions they had, they would bring to the priest.

So, it’s really strange on two fronts here with Abraham and God calling him. One, that a foreign God, whoever Abraham understood him to be, would appear to him out of some other culture, evidently. That’s one. And that he would speak directly to him, that’s two. On both of these fronts, it really poses a very fascinating question for me., how and why Abraham engaged that.

Now, it could certainly be the case that in Abraham’s mind, he associated this God with the deities of Canaan. You know there was clearly a family connection here with Canaan as, you know, as his father had decades before intended to relocate the family there. So, did Abraham possibly have a greater sensitivity or an interest in the religious affairs of Canaan? Maybe it’s hard to say. I mean, that might help explain a little bit, but it’s just not sufficient to fully answer why Abraham listened and obeyed? At any rate, whatever the answer there is, Abraham did hear and he did respond.


Here’s what we see: that God is penetrating into a very well-developed religious worldview. It’s the religious systems that have expanded beyond what we find in the Tower of Babel account. It’s very well developed, very complex religious systems, all that exclude a complete, a complete and accurate understanding and a personal, intimate understanding of who the one true God is. And so God is God is speaking into a pagan culture and into a pagan mindset who has their very own wrong understandings of what God means? God has to break into that, penetrate into that, and bring out of that worldview system one individual who he will then use to tell a very different story; to reveal a very different set of explanations and realities about what God truly is like. This is an extraordinary way for this story to begin in my mind.


I take the time to mention this question about who God is here in the cultural context in these opening sections, because you’ll find the arguments being made out there, with respect to Old Testament studies, that the biblical picture of God is just the product of social evolution of the ancient Jews. There’s nothing uniquely different about the God of the Bible compared to these deities of all the other ancient peoples. This just happens to be the Jewish version. And so, instead, these arguments, they seek to explain the origins of God of the Bible by saying he was just simply one of these other regional local Canaan deities. And over time the Israelites came along. They gave their loyalty to this deity who they began to call Yahweh.

Of course, to many of these same modern scholars who argue this way, all of these ancient deities are equally fictional. None of this is dealing in reality. It’s more just about understanding and being interested in how the Jewish people developed and use religion as a part of their cultural mythology to give themselves a unique identity.


Well, that’s a radically different picture than what the Bible itself is offering to us. Of course, from a biblical perspective, this simply doesn’t work. Because the message that weaves through the whole Old Testament is that there are no other gods. There is only one, the Eternal Creator. Nothing else exists like him. And this eternal creator is the One himself who has come and revealed himself to mankind, and so the claim of divine revelation is central to this whole story.

But if you’re coming from a materialistic, humanistic worldview, as many of these biblical critics and even so-called biblical scholars sometimes are writing from, that worldview rejects the possibility of the supernatural and the divine in the first place. They begin by saying that can’t possibly exist, so there’s simply no way that a non-biblical starting point could entertain the explanation that a divine eternal being interjected himself into human affairs the way that Genesis tells us happens with Abraham.

So, whatever level of awareness or understanding that Abraham had about this God whose voice he hears – whatever he understood him to be, whatever associations are in his mind, we’re not given a lot. The emphasis in the text is Abraham heard that call and obeyed and followed. Now, I think the inference in all of this is that God is the one who is enabling Abraham to do just that. That there is a supernatural impulse and a move in Abraham’s heart and mind to follow and go even without being fully aware of all the ins and outs.

And does it make sense? Does it fit together? Can we explain it by cultural things around them? I don’t think so. Because I think this is God at work in Abraham’s heart and heart. Maybe even more so than his mind. Yet, because God is choosing Abraham, God is going to use Abraham. And even though Abraham may not fully know God very well – and there’s certainly a lot that we see Abraham is going to have to learn. And a lot more of these pieces about who God is and what he’s like have to be filled in over the subsequent generations. Nonetheless, God calls Abraham and Abraham responds.

And even while God is going to use Abraham and Sarah and their family to begin this redemptive process, part of that redemptive journey will be for Abraham himself to learn who this God is and what he’s like. And you know, I think that’s very instructive and hopeful for us. Because our ability and capacity to follow God and to be obedient to him, it doesn’t depend on how well we know and how well we understand everything that is happening. We can move out in faith with his help even when we don’t fully understand or have it all figured out. And God meets us where we are. He meets us there. He guides us through it and as we walk with him, even with very little knowledge at the outset, God will begin to reveal himself more and more and more and more, and that’s exactly what we see happening with Abraham as the story unfolds.