Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Genesis 11:26-31's Intro to Abraham

So far, we’ve had Gen 1-2's creation with purity/purpose; Gen 3's sin/death; Gen 4-6’s Cain, Lamech, and Nephilim leading to Gen 6-9's judgment and deliverance; and Gen 9-11's import of building on the proper foundation. The Tower of Babel in Gen 11:1-9 was a fitting conclusion to pre-Abraham/Israel narrative. Looking forward, the reader is hoping for a solution.

God’s next plan? We now move from the last episode in the universal human story to the first episode in a new story as God’s ways are taught to a particular people. Not one city with many gods (Babel), but one God with many cities. One God “in history” who cares about people and “right conduct” (human, individual, personal, concrete history) vs. multiple gods “in the heavens” (impersonal, mythical, abstract).

Most important, we move from humans uninstructed to instructed. As Kass notes: “By the time the careful reader has finished the first 11 chapters of Genesis, he is well-nigh convinced that mankind, left to its own devices, is doomed to failure, destruction, and misery…God decides to take a more direct role in the matter, beginning with Abraham.”

As a result, we move from a new world (original and the sequel) to a new man and a new nation. From the dispersion of all peoples to the election of one—as God moves to Abraham and eventually, a people who would be a light to all nations. In the narrative, from thousands of years with God's focus on the human race vs. four generations of one family. From “the whole world” to a small segment of land for Israel. From a simple law about murder to The Law. From an ethereal rainbow to the Promised Land.

Gen 11:26-32 gives us an intro to Abram’s family. In 11:26, we learn that Haran has a son at 70—a good (fig.) number but he’s late to fatherhood (vs. previous seven at 35 or younger; a recurring theme going forward). In 11:26, we’re also given the names of all three of his sons named (Abram, Nahor, Haran). The norm in Gen 10:10-25 was to name the first son only, implying the significance of Terah and/or his three sons.

In 11:28, we’re told of Haran’s early death (in Ur)—and 11:27's Lot is identified as Abram’s nephew. This may explain Lot’s travels. Then again, Nahor stays behind, so Lot could have stayed with him. This also connects the dots with 29’s future inter-marriage—as Isaac and Jacob will marry women from the union of Nahor and the daughter of Haran.

No parentage is given for Sarai; this is reserved as a big surprise for later! More broadly, women are mentioned for the first time since Lamech’s two wives and daughter get a brief mention—and before that, Eve. As we noted, it was a man’s world in Gen 4-11—and ironically, in the age of patriarchy, that’s about to change!

The genealogical punchline here is that the patriarchs will come through Sarai, 29’s Milcah, and all three sons of Terah. In 11:26,27, Abram is listed first. This is not necessarily chronological (as in 9:18,24)—and in fact, probably isn’t, given God’s pattern.

In 11:30, we’re told of Sarai's barrenness. Of course, this is a big deal—especially within that culture, but in any time. And it strikes an especially poignant note in light of Gen 1:27’s multiply mandate. What impact does this have on their marriage? We can only speculate. It’s noteworthy that Abram stays married to (only) her, despite her barrenness—because of her beauty (12:11,15, 20:2) &/or an early hint of his pious faithfulness.

Moreover, her barrenness may impact on their theology. Was this a mini-Job-like trial for their faith in the moon god—or in God? From the perspective of God’s plans, her difficulties certainly underline God's preeminent role in this "new people"; God will bring a "new humanity" into being—a new Creation of another sort. As such, Abraham follows Adam and Noah as fathers of the fallen human race—and as an attempt by God to restore relationship.

In 11:31, they’re heading to "Canaan, but…" they settle in Haran (a city vs. 27's brother of Abram). Often, God’s will is recorded—and certainly lived out—in such “stages”. At this point, they still have a long way to go: 700 miles total; another 400 to southern Canaan.

Who doesn’t go? Nahor and Terah’s wife/wives. It may have been too much of a challenge at that stage of life (as it may have been for Terah) &/or they may have been wedded to Babylonian culture, family, etc.

Why do they stop in Haran? Maybe Terah was ill and seemed near 32’s death (Acts 7:4). Haran was a much more familiar/friendly place than Canaan—like Babylon, a center of moon worship.

Why do they go and who is the catalyst for the trip? It could be 31’s Terah (converted to at least monotheism after Josh 24:2)—with Abram following out of shared beliefs about God, an adventurous spirit, economic opportunity (Ur as prosperous but declining), or filial duty (vs. Nahor who stays behind; see: Noah & Sons).

Or maybe the call to Abram precedes (12:1's "had said")—while still in Ur of the Chaldeans. (How does this relate to Acts 7:2b-4? Are there one or two calls?). If so, apparently he persuaded his father Terah to go as well.

Rabbinical tradition sees (pious) Abram as a monotheist before God calls him who publicly rebels against Terah (as Gideon). Some argue that his faith was God-given at age 3; others say he was a 40-year old shepherd looking at the cosmos and reasoning the failure or non-existence of Babylonian gods. Did Abram have direct contact with God before “the call”—or was he persuaded of monotheism through reasoning and God’s prompting? Kass (241): “Could Abram have intuited that there must be an invisible, single intelligent source behind the visible, many, but silent heavenly bodies, moving dumbly yet in intelligible ways?” If so, God “called” him internally by pointing to Himself vs. gods (a form of “prevenient grace”).

The bottom line is that the narrative can be read both ways! One emphasizes continuity; the other, discontinuity. Sacks has a great observation on this: “Childhood has the same ambiguity. There are times, especially in adolescence, when we tell ourselves that we are breaking with our parents…Only in retrospect, many years later, do we realize how much we owe our parents…living out the ideals and aspirations that we learned from them.”

In any case, who is Abraham (in terms of what we know at this point)? He is the product of his parents—and in particular, his father’s influence. Kass: “Terah was a radical…set the example for Abraham’s own radicalism. Cultural discontinuity was part of the cultural teaching on which Abraham was raised.”

We also know that Haran dies early and Nahor refuses to follow Dad, but Abram does follow—a mixed bag in terms of the ability of a father to pass along values/beliefs to the next generation. This is a key theme going forward—and this generation gives us some hope, but is also sobered by circumstances and free will that limit the father’s success.

Aside from the genealogy, Abraham seems to come out of nowhere. Sacks: “Nothing has prepared us for this [him]…We have not had a description of Abraham as we had in the case of [righteous] Noah…Nor have we been given a series of glimpses into his childhood, as we will in the case of Moses. It is as if Abraham’s call is a sudden break with all that went before.” Of course, this underlines the power/importance of God’s call/election.

Along the same lines, Borgman compares Abram and Noah: “Noah is the prologue’s odd man out—as unnatural in his goodness as the others are normal in their destructiveness. We’ll never know about Noah, about how he came to be so good. God simply finds him that way…But in Abraham, God finds an ordinary man who needs to be taught a better than normal way of going about business.”—and then quoting Martin Buber, “with Abraham, what matters is not his character as God finds it, so to speak, but what he does, and what he becomes.”

But from the genealogy, Abram was born in 1948 and Noah dies in 2006—and Noah is 10 generations in between Adam and Abram. Since Abram could have known Noah—and Noah was the first who could not know Adam, Kass observes: “Whereas Noah, the new man, represents a clean break with the man from the Garden of Eden, Abram will build on the foundation begun with Noah.”

Finally, Abram’s name means “lofty/exalted father” or “the father is exalted”. Both names are bothersome. The former is ironic (given his lack of children), but more likely given the connection to heaven/moon worshiping in Babylon. Moreover, it gives more power to Abram’s later name change by God.


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