013 - A Flawed Hero
Season 1, Episode 13
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
This is our third episode looking at the life of Abraham and the story of Abraham in the middle section of Genesis. The narrative of Abraham’s life jumps right in to middle age here in Genesis 12, when God says to Abraham to go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. And then this this great promise: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great. And you will be a blessing.”
The call that God puts on Abraham’s life is, “Abraham, if you will go where I tell you. Even though you don’t have children now, nonetheless, through you I am going to establish a great nation in your descendants. And that nation that will come from them will become a blessing for the entire world.”
The idea here of blessed to be a blessing is very meaningful to us even today. This is good pastoral language. And it not only applies to Abraham, but I think even to us. That when God comes to us and he brings good things to us, he blesses us. He gives us resources and provision. It’s not just for our own sake. But it’s so that he can work through us, and we can become a part of God’s work in redeeming and rebuilding the world that he can bless the world through us. We become mirrors that reflect God’s beauty, His Holiness, his goodness, his righteousness, and his great compassion. So that as God blesses us through that the world around us is blessed and made better. And that begins with Abraham.
So here in this story, with that in mind, “Abraham, where I’m going to take you, what I’m going to show you, what I’m going to do for you and what I’m going to do through you is to make the world richer and better with my Kingdom in mind.” And, so, Abraham and Lot and their families make their way to Canaan.
What I want to focus on, though, in this episode is not so much Abraham at this point in the story, but God. I’ve made the statement already that this story about Abraham is not primarily a biography of Abraham, but a theological statement about who God is. And what we really see in Abraham’s account is God as promise maker. And the emphasis is on God’s assurance to Abraham and all that follows that he can keep his promises. What’s happening here underneath the surface is that God’s character is at stake. And so, what’s emphasized in this story, and what transpires of Abraham’s call i a focus on God’s power, God’s faithfulness, and God’s care.
So let me unpack this just a little bit. And go back and look at what was promised to Abraham. What was it that God said he would give Abraham? Well, there’s LAND: I’m going to take you to the promised land, Canaan. There’s FAMILY: I will give you many descendants and children and they will become a nation. And REPUTATION: your name will be great. And, in fact, dare I say, the very fact that we’re talking about Abraham in the year 2023 is an indication that for 4000 years Abraham’s name has been great.
So, look at that again. What was promised by God here to Abraham? Land. Family. Reputation. And if you stop and consider, these are all, in some sense or another, dealing with physical gifts or physical temporal concerns. Life here and now. But let me back up a little broader. Because we’re looking at this journey through the Old Testament through the lens of Kingdom and God’s Kingdom and what he’s doing.
And when we talk about the concept of Kingdom, we have to have three things. You must have a ruler, a king. You must have land. And you must have people. A ruler, land, and people — you take away any one of those things and you don’t have a kingdom. Something is missing. In this covenant conversation, we find that very thing between God and Abraham. At the focus is land and people: “Go to the land I will show you and I will make you a great people.” The covenant here with Abraham revolves around that.
And think about what is not promised at this stage of the journey. There’s no mention made of forgiveness of sins, eternal life, fellowship with God, the things we might put into a spiritual category. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re absent in the relationship between God and Abraham. But that’s not what’s in focus, that’s not what’s talked about.
Well, why not? I think there’s a really profound reason. And it takes us back to Genesis chapter 3. Because when we look at this in the context of the covenant and kingdom, we find there is a direct contrast to the Garden of Eden and to the Deceiver’s lie that God doesn’t care about the physical needs and the physical well-being of Adam and Eve.
And remember, go back to that, go back to that conversation. God had just said to Adam and Eve, “Everything in this world I have made – [represented by the garden and the trees — everything I have made is for you. It’s for you to enjoy for you to flourish, all that you have need of. I have provided for you and have put you at the pinnacle of it to be my co-regent, my co-ruler over that creation. The serpent comes along, whispering in Eve’s ear: “Did God really say? No, God’s holding something back. He’s not giving you everything he’s holding out on you!”
And very quickly as we look back and remind ourselves of what transpired in Genesis chapter 3. The question that is at the heart of the whole encounter there in the Garden of Eden is, “who supplies my needs. Who can I trust to do the right thing for me and to take care of me?” That was the problem in Genesis 3. And that question answered wrongly is what has led to the rampant sinfulness and radical destruction of God’s creation in all that has followed in the rest of the story.
And I would just suggest to us as we unpack here what’s happening with Abraham and the call of Abraham and the promise to build a nation, that’s what’s actually in view. That God wants to demonstrate to Abraham and to all that follow he is absolutely faithful to keep his promise. He is the God who can be trusted. He is the God who gives good things. He’s going to reverse the problem in Genesis 3 and Eden.
The first step in this plan, then, is to establish that God is trustworthy to meet these needs. And so an emphasis at the start is on care and provision: a place to live and dwell securely is in view. And stop and think — what was the immediate consequence at the end of Genesis chapter 3 when the curse of sin came upon Adam and Eve and the creation itself. It was the loss of place where they could dwell with God. And here God is saying my first step to reverse the curse is a promise of a place that I will give you in which I will bless you and which I will dwell with you. Its Eden being rewound.
Let me detour for just a moment here. What we find the Garden of Eden is that human flourishing is possible because God has provided all that is needed and necessary physically. That’s what allows human flourishing to take place. And there’s a corollary in biology. A wealth of research has taken place over the years on the relationship between how the human brain develops and the level of physical contact and physical affection during infancy.
Where there’s the absence of physical affection from birth, it has a direct correlation on the improper development of the human brain and the complex social and psychological centers that are at the heart of that. Children who are neglected as babies who miss out on regular, frequent human contact skin to skin contact, who miss out on the nurturing and the consistent, reliable attention to eating, to warmth, to diaper changes, to cleanliness — children who are neglected in that way often go on to have profound emotional and social and psychological problems as they get older. Things like a subconscious distrust of anybody around them; irrational food insecurity leading to hoarding; habitual deception of the people around them out of an instinct to self preservation; a lack of empathy, perhaps even bordering on sociopathy; habitual manipulation; the inability to make long term plans; a lack of commitment, on and on and on. We find all of these things in sociological and psychological research, behavioral research.
There’s a link between our physical needs being met in the right way and our ability to properly develop into the complex creatures that God designed us to be. And I think that’s no, that should not be a surprise to us when we look back at creation. That God designed the world in which everything that was needed for human flourishing was available, was there. Humanity is given a place to work in and to care for it, but they’re not having to come up with it themselves. They’re not on their own. And only in that construct is everything perfect.
And so I think God’s redemption plan in many ways is beginning back at that very basic question: “Who can we trust to take care of our most basic needs?” Human sinfulness programmed the human mind to say, it’s up to me. I’m the only one. Nobody else is watching out. And that’s where God’s starting point is.
And so, God’s plan is to establish a people living in a land where he provides and protects now over time. He will reveal himself more and more and eventually bring the story down to the matter of the individual’s heart and moral character. And that’s exactly what we see happening in the Old Testament by the time we get to the prophets.
But it can’t start there. Sins damage in creation has eroded that ability to trust, even the ability to be aware of the lack of trust. So, this story of “Abraham, go to the land. I will make you a great nation. I will provide a child” is about God proving that he is trustworthy to provide even the most basic things for which Abraham is helpless to do.
So Abraham went just as the Lord had told him. And when they arrive in Canaan, the southern part, they settle in around the settlement of Bethel. It’s northeast of what will eventually be the city of Jerusalem. And, after some time, famine strikes a region as it was prone to do. And, so, Abraham takes the family south to Egypt for a period, an extended period. And just as a reminder, this is something we talked about in episode 2. And how Egypt was the stable go-to when trouble would strike Canaan. And that happened frequently. It happens here with Abraham.
Along the way in these chapters, both Abraham and lot grow extremely wealthy, and their extended families are growing larger and larger. Now, it’ll be some years here before Abraham has children and grandchildren. It does eventually happen, of course. But he nonetheless has a large household for which he is responsible as the head. We talked about this a little bit previous episode. He has servants, numerous other, more distant relatives, their spouses, and children.
And part of what’s helpful is to understand something about Ancient Near Eastern culture. Actually, Middle Eastern culture, because this is still true today. The concept of the nuclear family as the central building block of society is largely unfamiliar here. It’s the kinship group or the clan, that larger extended family that is made-up by both blood and obligation — that’s the core social unit. It was true in the Ancient Near East in the Old Testament and the New Testament. It’s still true today in most of the Middle East.
And so, Abraham’s family, even though he does not yet have a biological child, is quite large and growing every year. So, Abraham and Lot eventually have to spread out. There’s not enough room for where they are. And so, Abraham gives Lot the choice where he wants to go. Lot chooses the Jordan Valley and the western plateau around the Dead Sea. Now at that point in history, this region’s very arid today, but evidently in in the time of Abraham and Lot, this evidently was a great deal more fertile and lush than in the centuries that followed. So that’s where that’s where Lot picks. Now, the main cities in that area were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And we know about what happens to those later in Genesis. So, Lot goes there and eventually makes his home in the city of Sodom.
Abraham, then, takes the central and southern hill country of Canaan and settles his permanent home in the town of Hebron. This is a hill town south of Jerusalem that overlooks the plains out toward the coast and the region of Philistia. And that is where Abraham and Sarah are both buried in Hebron. Genesis 23 tells the story about how Abraham acquires the caves and buries Sarah there. And eventually when Abraham dies, Ishmael and Isaac come, and they take his remains and put him into the cave.
Today you can visit The Cave of the Patriarchs, as it is known, in modern Hebron there in Israel. It’s a space that is occupied at present both by an Islamic mosque and a Jewish synagogue. Andthat site–this is the traditional burial place that, the Cave of Patriarchs is the traditional burial place of Abraham and Sarah–is considered to be holy by Islam, Judaism, Christianity.
Now, Abraham, as we have said, is known as a hero of the faith. But that faith had to be learned over time. And he made numerous mistakes along the way. Yet God was faithful at every one of those moments. But let’s look at a few. In Genesis 12, when Abraham takes his family to Egypt because of the famine, he has Sarah, his wife, tell the Egyptian officials that she is his sister rather than his wife. Now this is half true. She is a half-sister sister to Abraham. But the half-truth was intended to protect Abraham from being killed. Abraham knew, or at least thought he knew, that the pharaoh’s, other kings, they could act capriciously and take whatever they wanted, including his wife. And Abraham did not want to be killed in the process. Well, God brings affliction upon Pharaoh because Sarah is in fact married. And that’s just an interesting thing to observe: God judging the Egyptian ruler for something that he really had nothing, no control over. And that very quickly causes Pharaoh to come and investigate, find out what happened. And when he learns the truth, he very politely but firmly asks Abraham to go ahead and move on back out of Egypt and leave.
Now, there’s a similar incident that takes place in Genesis 20. This time they are in southern Canaan. And Abraham deceives King Abimelech along the same exact lines. So Abraham assumes that this Abimelech was a wicked man and would just kill Abraham and take Sarah. Evidently, she’s quite the desirable lady. Abraham is again acting out of self-preservation. And this latent, maybe even subconscious fear: God won’t protect him; Abraham somehow has to assume responsibility for his welfare. But God reveals the truth in a dream to Abimelech before any misadventures can take place with Sarah and Abimelech comes to Abraham to resolve that. So that’s in Genesis 20.
Well, in between in the story, Abraham tries to solve the problem of their childlessness by conceiving a baby with his wife’s servant, Hagar. Now this is Sarah’s suggestion, but it was a perfectly legal and acceptable custom of the day for all kind of reasons, which we won’t get into here. Polygamy was an inherent part of the world in the Ancient Near East, primarily for issues having to do with family survival and well-being. So even, but even though it’s legal, even though it was customary and acceptable, the familial strife that takes place is quite telling. Problems between Sarah and Hagar begin to mount soon thereafter.
These moves that Abraham are making – deceiving, with a subtle twist on the truth, the Pharaoh or king Abimelech. Having a baby with Hagar in a way that is not violating any law or custom — these are shrewd moves on the one hand. But they’re indicative of a nature that is hardwired for self-preservation and autonomy. This likely is not even something Abraham’s aware of, which is the point: I have to watch out for myself. God may have made the promise, but in the end it’s going to fall to me to ensure that it happens.
The scripture does not seem to place any immediate blame on Abraham. There are certainly consequences to these behaviors. But their primary role in the story is to emphasize the contrast between Abraham’s way of thinking about his call and his future versus how God wants him to think about that call and future and his dependence his absolute dependence upon who God is. Abraham’s actions here aren’t just simply to preserve his own life. It’s to preserve the promise that God had made, that he would become the father. And to Abraham’s way of thinking, if the Pharaoh kills me, or if Abimelech kills me, I can’t be the father. And to Abraham’s way of thinking, if my wife is unable biologically to have children, I can’t be a father. So, “Self,” Abraham thinks, “what am I going to do about it?”
Well, the question throughout all of this is this: Who is going to bring about God’s promise to preserve Abraham’s life and to establish his offspring in the land. Self-reliant human nature says it’s up to me. God is gently beginning to demonstrate that that simply will not work. Redemption and restoration is something only God can do. We cannot. It is God who ultimately is a source of our life and protection and provision in all that we need.
And the story of Abraham, indeed all of the Old Testament figures — it’s really the story of who God reveals himself to be with great emphasis upon his character. Before God demanded absolute loyalty or worship or obedience, he determined to do something for humanity and to prove himself. What a different kind of God this is! He says, “I am the holy one. I am the one who is absolutely good and faithful. I always have been. And I am powerful enough to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. Learn to trust me as you walk with me and I will show you what I’m like. And, in time, I will teach you how to be like that. I will make you like that in your heart!”
That’s the promise of Scripture that will ring across all the remaining pages to come.