Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Genesis 12:1-4's The Call to (and Obedience of) Abraham

This is a watershed moment in Biblical and world history. As Sacks observes, given Abraham’s obedience and what follows: “These words are among the most consequential in the history of mankind.” God’s calling is a two-part speech divided into Gen 12:1’s command and Gen 12:2-3’s 7-fold promise.

In 12:1a, Abram is commanded to “lekh lekha” three times/things. The NIV’s “leave” is a reasonable translation of the Hebrew phrase meaning “go forth/from”. It speaks to one’s past—and is a huge phrase in Hebrew thought, given this pivotal moment. Here, it is repeated for emphasis (vs. e.g., “go forth” to the grocery), implying something done alone and/or some final/ultimate action. (Interestingly, the same phrase will be the key in Gen 22:2b!)

The three things specified? “Country” (land; nationalism; emigration), “people” (lit. “birthplace”; culture), and “father’s household” (non-immediate family and its influences, dependence, trust). The list becomes more personal as it goes—physical, behavioral, familial. Beyond what’s made explicit here, Abram would have parted with friends, and business contacts. Abram is middle-aged, prosperous, settled and pagan—and often, it is quite difficult to move from such a combination. In a word, he is to leave all that’s familiar and to end most of his worldly attachments.

Of course, implicitly, this is also a call to leave idol worship behind (Josh 24:2-3a). And thus, Abraham is the father of monotheism—and thus, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Why does God call him to move—vs. forming a new nation right there in Babylon? He needs to be a “new man…”—to be set apart, holy. It requires a (big) step of faith from Abram. And again, it underlines God’s election/glory.

OK, that’s what he leaves; Gen 12:1b speaks also to “go”—to his future. It’s “go to the land”, not “you will be given the land”. There is no explicit mention of owning or controlling any land until later. (This heightens our impression of his faith.) The location is somewhat specific (31’s Canaan), but nothing beyond that—to an unknown place (Acts 7:3; Gen 20:13 and Heb 11:8’s wander; see again, the parallel with Gen 22:2b!). He is called, surely, to a better place—and to trust in God—backed by promises.

In sum, leave and go—as we are called to in repentance; as the NT’s “old man / new man. Exchange familiar for unfamiliar, security for insecurity, comfortable for uncomfortable. Just one remarkably understated sentence. But Abraham is the epitome of faith and its development (Rom 4, Heb 11, Gal 3:6-9; peaks with "sacrifice" of Isaac)

In Genesis 12:2-3, God lays out a seven-fold promise (in a 3-1-3 pattern). The first three: 2a's becoming a great nation, blessed, name great. These parallel what Abram “leaves” in 12:1a. In the middle, it’s 2b's "you will be a blessing" (Is 42:6, 49:6; Mt 5's salt/light). He’s not being blessed just for fun or for his own sake—but to bless others. So too with us! The second set of three: 3's bless/curse those who do same, blessing to all. This final promise certainly alludes to Christ (Acts 3:25; Gal 3:8-9,14; Lk 19:9) and should apply to us being a blessing to others.

All of this is important in light of frequent confusion about what it means to be called or chosen or blessed. “Chosen” implies greater privilege and responsibility, but not at complete exclusion for others—and all have access to God. (See: Hagar, Rahab, Gibeonites, but also those who encounter Abraham and Israel.)

And then, Abram obeys in Gen 12:4a. Again, for such a pivotal moment—for Abram and for world history—this is so understated!

Kass summarizes nicely: “God does not merely command Abram. He also appeals directly to Abram’s situation and to Abram’s likely longings and ambitions…land…the aspiration to be a founder of a great nation…and a great name…The voice addresses him, not only personally but knowingly and with concern: marvelously, from Abram’s point of view, the speaker has seen directly into Abram’s heart…“What kind of being is it that speaks but is not seen and—more wondrous…can see into my invisible soul, to know precisely what [I want]? Let’s take a walk with this awesome voice and see what it can do.”...[So] Abram completes the rejection of Babel and heads off…”

Of course, Abram could have said “no”; as is exceedingly common elsewhere in Scripture, this requires his participation within God’s provision. Abram hears the call AND responds to the call; often, we’ll drop one or the other of those.

Abram asks no questions; he is wonderfully compliant and silently obedient (in this, he is like Noah; should be this be taken as an ominous sign?).

Kass talks about his motives: “God knew his customer…Does [Abram] go because he is a god-hungry man who is moved by the awe-inspiring, commanding voice? Or does he go because he is a greatly ambitious man who is enticed by the promises?...One cannot be sure.”

Kass argues for the latter since it is probably required for God’s project [and the former might get in the way]—and those urges can be redeemed. But he notes that the text is “absolutely and happily silent” regarding his motives. In any case, the larger issue: he answers and obeys. This also points forward to the ultimate test—the binding of Isaac—where his motives are clearly revealed as he chooses between the Giver and the chief gift. Finally, Kass notes the pedagogical use of this fuzziness: What might lead Abram (or us) to make this sort of choice? (few if any would choose full submission on the front end, without promises!)

What else then have we learned, very early on, about Abraham at this point? He is descended from Shem and Eber (the word that becomes “Hebrew”), but he is the first/prototypical “Hebrew”. He is the biological and spiritual father of the Jews (and on the latter, of us as well—Rom 4, Gal 3). He foreshadows critical patterns for/of his people—and again, for us.

He is a spiritual/ethical model. Joseph Soloveitchik: “He questioned the status quo of his society and searched for God. He obeyed divine commands unhesitatingly, even when they entailed exile and sacrifice. He was drawn to the holy, departing his birthplace for an unknown destination.”

But he is very much a man under construction; Borgman (60): “Abram and Sarai begin by leaving behind all that is familiar and familial. They head out for an unknown destination, which proves as much a journey of the soul as a matter of geography.” We must be careful not to view him through a modern, “Christian” lens—and we should feel no pressure to see him as a pure hero. That said, we’re still talking about him today—so he was great. But more important, God is good.


At July 8, 2010 at 7:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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