The Lamb, the Throne, and the Desert: V. Abraham, life as sacrifice, and the call to another country

Jesus replied, “….  Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”  “You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”  “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”                                                                                    John 8.54-57

Lo, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I   will come in and sup with him, and he with me.  The conqueror I will allow to sit          beside me on my throne, as I myself have conquered and sat down beside my     Father on his throne.”                                                               Revelation 3.20

                                                 i

The hunger which leads to Mt. Moriah

Our God, the God of Abraham, is the God who enters into time, who leaves his throne and enters into the lives of his people.  He comes to us, finds us in the progression of our lives, and opens to us a vision of himself.  In hope we open our hearts to him.  We open our hearts to a vision of his person surrounding us with his care. We open to the vision that in him lies all truth, that in him lies the purpose and completion of our lives.  We open to his person.

His presence changes us.  Our feet are still in place in the world, but he raises our consciousness and our aspirations to the courts of heaven.  We are alive under new colors.  We belong to our king.  We do not see immediately the implications of this allegiance.  We are at rest in knowing that we belong to the one who made us.  We find comfort in him.  Putting aside recklessness and rebellion, we find health.

Over time we begin to notice that we are set apart from our world.  Our hunger is for our God, a hunger which the world does not share.  This hunger, this adherence to the God who claims us for himself, becomes a challenge to the ease and ecumenicity of the world around us.  The culture of the world is in a loss of rebellion.  As much as this world is ours to inhabit, it is not our cultural home.  We begin to see that the admonitions of our God are directed to us:

“Have no fear of what you are to suffer… Be faithful though you have to die for it, and I will give you the crown of Life.”                                            Revelation 2.10

“Hold to what you have til such time as I come…”                 Revelation 2.25

“Though your strength is small, you have kept my word, you have not renounced my Name… Because you have kept my call to patient endurance, I will keep you safe through the hour of trial which is coming upon the whole world to test the dwellers on earth…Hold to what you have lest your crown be taken from you.                        Revelation 3.8,10,11

Suffering and loss were not part of our original vision.  It was enough to give up rebellion, to give up wildness, to give up a possession or a pleasure.  Having come to him for the sake of our well–being, it is contrary to our instincts that he might ask of us the sacrifice, in this world, of that very well–being which we love.

Our progress along this path is the great test, the measure of our growth.  Life as sacrifice.  Our life as our sacrifice.  It is a place where most of us do not go.  But our God has cleared a path for our progress in this truth.  He has taken this path ahead of us and he has provided a vision for us, a vision of Himself, the same vision which he provided for Abraham:

“And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gates to make the people holy through   his own blood.  Let us go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.          For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to    come.                                                                                       Hebrews 13.12,13

Here in these pages we attempt to see what Abraham saw, that vision and presence of God which kept him whole in his pursuit of God.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his           inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.       By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign    country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the    same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose    architect and builder is God.                                       Hebrews 11.8-10

ii

 Alone in the pursuit of the will of God

 From Noah and his children came the re-population of the earth in villages and city states along the fertile crescent.  The postdiluvian command was

“increase in number and fill the earth.”                                      Genesis 9.1

God made a covenant with Noah and his sons, on the one hand promising to preserve the earth and mankind, on the other hand promising to demand

an accounting…from each man…for the life of his fellow man,”      Gen. 9.5

and giving them an emblematic code of civil justice based upon the divine parameters of man:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”                                                           Genesis 9.6

Men, however, did not spread out and fill the earth, which would have called for individual reliance upon the person of God.  They stayed together in fertile Mesopotamia, relying primarily on each other, and devoting themselves to mastery in the knowledge of the planetary motions.  They inflated their planets and stars and moons with the personae of demigods, and constructed towers to worship and measure their deities.  This deconstruction of the vision of a world ruled by its one Creator became the rebellious fabrication of a pantheon of equal but conflicting paradigms, hence a world much like our own in which every diverse bias is to be coddled, a world without truth.

Here in these beginnings, however, there remained fragmentary lines of faith binding Eden to the future.  The chronology in Genesis offers a few possibilities.  The antediluvian lifespan was long, and grandchildren of Adam [as well as six subsequent generations] were still alive during the first century of Noah’s life.  He undoubtedly had contact with many men who had known Adam and his children and could share reliable accounts of the early days of creation and the dealings of God with man.

Noah expressed God’s blessing upon the line of his son Shem.  In retrospect we see this blessing as the marking of the path along which the messiah will come, the first narrowing of the field from which will come the son of woman who restores creation.

Soon, in the ninth generation beyond Shem, the field will be narrowed further to a descendant of Abraham.  But Abraham will not find himself at home within the existing culture.  Abraham will become a nomad with fealties set apart for God.  A native of Sumer / Shinar / Babylonia, a descendant of Shem, he will follow his father, Terah, from Ur to Haran, and then set out with his household from Haran in pursuit of the will of God.

 

                                                                        iii

 The establishment of the original nations

In Genesis 10 we come to a list of fathers and sons, a list which might easily be ignored.  But this list is more than a genealogy.  It is the record of the sons and grandsons of Shem, Ham and Japheth as seventy patriarchs of seventy nations.  The text also mentions the division of languages[1], and so we are given to understand that the division and establishment of the nations is related to that division which arises in the dispersion from Babel.

Moses, many generations later, will refer back to the seventy nations in his final great address, The Song of Moses. This song was given to Moses by direct instruction of God so that he could teach it to the people of Israel.  In Deuteronomy 32 Moses begins to recite the song with praise for the magnificence and faithfulness of God.  Then he expresses God’s dismay at the apathy of the inhabitants of the earth toward their Creator.  He declares that the majority of men have abandoned their God:

“They have acted corruptly toward him;  to their shame they are no longer his children, but a warped and crooked generation.”  Deuteronomy 32.5

He is on his way to declaring God’s fondness for the children of Abraham, when the song makes an interesting addition to the Genesis 10 division of the nations, an understanding which, it asserts, still endures within the memory of their parents:

“Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past.  Ask your father and he will tell you, Your elders, and they will explain to you.  When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.  For the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.      Deuteronomy 32.7-9

The song is referring here to the household of Jacob as it rejoins Joseph in Egypt, becoming the full family of Jacob.  We know that the number of those who are joined inEgyptis seventy:

“And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!”  “Here I am,” he replied.   “I am God, the God of your father,” he said.  “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.  I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again…”  …All those who went to Egypt with Jacob – those who were his direct descendants, not counting his sons’ wives – numbered sixty-six persons.  With the two sons who had been born to Joseph in Egypt, the members of Jacob’s family, which went to Egypt, were seventy in all.                                       Genesis 46.2-4, 26,27

There is a beautiful analogy here between the formative number of individual sons ofIsraeland the formative number of the nations.  It may be impossible to know what is God’s purpose here, but, apart from his delight in symmetry and number, we know that it is his will that every nation shall ultimately know him as Lord.

Septuagint and Targum versions of the Song of Moses, although they are not as sure as the Masoretic text, nevertheless, inform us of ancient thinking about the core text, in this case enhancing our perception that the establishment of the seventy primary nations was well understood in the ancient past.

These texts also carry the suggestion that  the seventy nations are further represented by seventy members  in a heavenly council, an understanding which seems to be in accord with certain other passages of Scripture, such as the mention of the Prince of Persia in Daniel[2], or the King of Tyre in Isaiah[3].

The Septuagint, broadly in use at the time of Jesus, ties the identity of the nations to the identity of certain heavenly beings:

He set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the angels of God.           [Deuteronomy 32.8]

The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan overlays the number of the sons ofIsrael with seventy heavenly beings having princely power:

When the Most High made allotment of the world unto the nations which proceeded from the sons of Noach, in the separation of the writings and languages of the children of men at the time of the division, He cast the lot among the seventy angels, the princes of the nations with whom is the revelation to oversee the city, even at that time He established the limits of the nations according to the sum of the number of the seventy souls of Israel who went down into Mizraim [Egypt].  Targum Pseudo-Jonathan trans. By J.W. Etheridge

In addition, the Book of Jasher, which is recognized twice in the Bible as a legitimate source of information, [once in Joshua 10.13 and again at II Samuel 1.18][4]  also speaks of the division of the nations in terms of the involvement of seventy chosen heavenly beings:

And they built the tower and the city, and they did this thing daily until many days and years were elapsed.  And God said to the seventy angels who stood foremost[5] before him, to those who were near[6] to him, saying, come let us descend and confuse their tongues, that one man shall not understand the language of his neighbor, and they did so unto them.                                        Jasher 9.31

It is important that we know that the nations are not just whatever happened to fall out from the wanderings and struggles and alliances of random groups of people.  The original nations are the creation of God.[7]  The advanced state of rebellion at Babel became the occasion for the division of the nations, but God’s hand was in that division, and we see that those nations are the carefully chosen and defined ground against which and out of which God creates a new people holy to himself: “For the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.”[8]

St. Paulwrote,

All nations he has created from a common origin, to dwell all over the earth, fixing their allotted periods and the boundaries of their abodes, meaning them to seek for God on the chance of finding him as they grope for him.  Though indeed he is close to each one of us, for it is in him that we live and move and exist – as some of your own poets have said, “We too belong to his race.”  [Acts 17.26-28]

We see in this quote that this understanding, that God establishes the nations, endures from ancient times to the time of Paul.  With Paul we also may expect that the life of every nation is for every individual a window onto the truth of existence, a prospect of the knowledge of God.

iv

A people apart, not one of the nations

By contrast, in Abraham we find the beginning of something new, the origin of a people which is to be set apart from the nations, holy to God.  With Abraham begins the formation of a people which will settle inEgypt, flourish, become enslaved, be redeemed and be set free, the people of whom, in their Exodus, a recalcitrant prophet named Balaam will declare, under the imperative of God:

“I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.                   Numbers 23.9

and,

“No misfortune is seen in Jacob…the Lord their God is with them.      Numbers 23.21

and of their great king:

“I see him but not now; I behold him, but not near.  A star will come out of Jacob…             A ruler will come out of Jacob and destroy the survivors of the city.”              Numbers 24.17,18,19

There will be many more references to the great city of the world.  It is from this “city” that Abraham is called out.  It is from this city that we are called out.

Abram, son of Terah, descendant of Shem, was born in Ur, just west of the Euphrates River, between Babylon and the Persian Gulf.  He grew up in a society which had turned away from the worship of the God of creation and worshiped an assortment of demigods, including Anu, Bel, Ea, and Nana [Ishtar].

As a grown man, living in his father’s house, Abram heard a clear call from the living God of creation, a call to separate himself from his native environment.  To this call were coupled several promises:  that from Abram God would make a great nation, that Abram and his seed would become a source of blessing to all nations, and that God would surround Abram with his favor, even to the point of opposing whoever opposes Abram and bringing blessing to whoever brings blessing to Abram.

“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.  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. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”                                                              Genesis 12.1-3

Abram hears God but does not immediately commit himself to the separation which the command prescribes.   On what basis will he respond?   The promise is complex and somewhat mysterious.  Along with the prospect of being the patriarch of a great nation there is this augmentation that through him all peoples on earth will find blessing.  It is not just a call to land and patriarchy.  It is a call to be part of God’s provision for mankind.

Abram’s father, Terah, moves in advance of Abram, making his own decision to set out from Ur, gathering to himself his entire family, and heading toward Canaan.  On the way Terah stops in Haran, the intersection of major fertile crescent trade routes in northern Assyria.  He settles there, along with Abram, Lot, and Sarai.  Haran, like Ur, is a center of moon worship. Terah is described in Joshua as an idolater.[9] There are several sources of qualified authority which give a colorful picture of Abram embroiled in rebellion against the idolatrous practices of his family.[10]

During the time in Haran, Abram must be ruminating on the fact that the God above all gods has penetrated his consciousness with a call to put behind him the comfort of home and family.  He knows that he is in a state of compromise.  He has not yet fully answered to the call of God.  He has left his country and his people, but not his father’s household.

At age seventy-five Abram gathers his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, his possessions, his herds and herdsmen, and he sets out in the direction ofCanaan.   God has chosen Abram, has spoken to Abram, and has guarded Abram’s understanding so that he might be able to step further into the mystery of the knowledge of God.   The time has now come for him to take the road which answers the call… a road of not knowing the future, a road of living in attendance upon the provision and expectation of God.

Much is yet to happen.  The Bible presents us with the father of faith in a long and painful process of education and testing at the hand of God.

“I reprove and discipline those whom I love.”                            Revelation 3.19

                 

v

Education, culture, and the continuity of generations

We didn’t get to see it in the narrative of Adam or Abel or Noah, but with Abram we are given an insight into culture: man stumbling and learning in the course of following the voice of God; God teaching man, and teaching man with the expectation that he will teach his children:

“For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”                Genesis 18.19

With the narrative of Abram, a process of culture, the education of children in the knowledge of God, becomes part of God’s creation.  With culture we share in God’s creation and ultimate purpose.  With culture we are expected to do “what is right and just,” to live excellently so that the excellence of being men is made manifest.   This culture is founded on lives of faithfulness which are also devoted to the understanding of our children.  This refinement of behavior lies at the heart of the shema:

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  And these words which I command to you this day shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.  You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorways of your house and on your gates.                                                                                            Deuteronomy 6.4-9

Culture such as this is the foundation of families and a means to preserve the knowledge of God through generations.

“Unless you change and become like little children [ready to be taught], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”                                       Matthew 18.3

vi

At Shechem, God first appears to Abram

Traveling south from Haran into Canaan, Abram stops at “the great tree of Moreh” at Shechem.  After years of God reaching out to him, Abram has at last arrived in the land which will be the geographical center of God’s plans for Abram and his children.  It would seem that God is concerned that Abram recognize the importance of the place, the importance of his arrival in that place, and the importance of his having heard and followed the voice of God.  At this moment God radically confronts Abram, appearing visibly before him:

The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”  So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him.[11] 

There is no record that God’s initial call to Abram was in the context of an appearance.  We have every reason to believe that God called to Abram as he calls to every one of us.

The promise to Abram was unique, but the call to Abram did not differ from the call of Yeshua to every man:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.[12]                                                                                   

Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”[13]  

The call, without display or miracles, is spoken into the core of our being, and it is ours to hear it.  For Abram, for ourselves, the call is there, commanding us to break every binding relationship with the natural ground of our lives and to exchange those ties for total trust in and fealty to the sovereign God.  What is unusual for Abram is that he is able to hear and respond to the call of God in an environment of widespread indifference.

Now by this great tree in Shechem God has appeared before Abram.

vii

Beginnings on earth of a kingdom whose throne is in heaven; Jesus the ladder to heaven, stairway to the throne of God

Babel claimed to be “a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens.”  It claimed to be the point of access to the universal, on its own terms.[14]  God found it important to move among them in finite form “to see the city and the tower that the men were building.”  This was the city of rebellion.  By God’s hand it was undone.

Now with Abram the true city of God begins to take form, with God as Lord and King. The true tower that reaches to heaven is in process of installation, not rising from a bed of stones, but rising in an indestructible architecture which binds the person of God and the human person, giving meaning to human history.

At this moment  there must be no doubt as to where we stand:  the unique tower and ladder which stretches from earth to heaven is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man, Yeshua our messiah, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.  He is our architecture, our temple, our stairway to heaven, and in him, bound together by his Spirit, we are the city of God.[15]

As icon, this image of the ladder will first appear to Jacob in a vision.  Abraham will have a son named Isaac.  Isaac will have a son named Jacob who will grow to be a young man and will be alone in the land of God and will have a dream in which angels ascend and descend upon a ladder which reaches to heaven:

“He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  There above it stood the Lord, and he said:  ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.’”[16]                               

Jacob will wake from his dream to say,

“Surely the Lord is in this place… How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”[17]                    

About fifteen hundred years later a man named Nathanael is stopped by his friend Philip, who says,

“We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”[18]    

Nathanael goes to meet Jesus and is smitten by the fact that Jesus already knows who he is.  Nathanael declares,

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

To which our king replies,

“You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things than that.”  He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”[19]

Jesus himself is the ladder between heaven and earth.

For the men of the ancient rebellion, in their imagination, the ladder to heaven was part masonry, part science and astrology, part gnosis and mysticism.  For us, in the truth of history, the ladder and unbreakable chain between our person and the person of God, between history and our Creator, between the heavenly throne of God and his footstool in Jerusalem, is completely and uniquely Yeshua of Nazareth, the lamb slain since the foundation of the world. 

 

viii


“He who is from God…”

How is it that God appears to Abram?  God appears to men and women repeatedly in the Old Testament,[20] but we have the word of Jesus that God the Father has never been seen by anyone but Jesus himself:

“And the Father himself, who sent me, has testified of me.  You have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his form.”[21]

and we have the word of John:

“No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.”[22] 

and the words of Jesus:

“Not that any man hath seen the father, except he who is from God, he hath seen the Father.”[23] 

As for the Father being beyond the reach of our senses, we have the word of Timothy:

…Our Lord Jesus Christ… at the due time will be revealed by God, the blessed and only Ruler of all, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone is immortal, whose home is in inaccessible light, whom no man has seen and no man is able to see: to him be honor and everlasting power.  Amen. [24]

In the narratives of the Old Covenant it is repeatedly the “angel of God” who appears to Abraham, to Moses, and to others.  In almost every instance, the angel of God is seen as God, is addressed as God, speaks as God, and yet is clearly not the unapproachable presence of him “whose home is in inaccessible light”.  Neither can it be Jesus in the earthly body which he owes to his earthly mother.  But it could conceivably be Jesus in his essential being, the Word, the Lamb of God.  And yet, curiously, the Scriptures do not overtly affirm a clear identity between the Angel of God and the Word, although some translators and commentators seem to use them interchangeably.

Reflecting on John 6.46, quoted above, Jesus is saying that only “he who is from God” has seen the Father.  This suggests an opening that is worth following.  Jesus is certainly referring to himself as “he who is from God.”  Jesus is God who is from God.  We also know that the Word is God who is from God:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.[25]  John 1.1,14

 We discover in the course of the Scriptures that the angel of God behaves as “God who is from God.”  There are pieces in this riddle which Scripture does not stop to fully explain.  God is, I believe, content to see the riddle find its resolution, not in theology, but in discipleship, in the witness of the intimate heart.  As disciples we learn the profound insight that the God of history, the God of Israel, the angel of God, the Word of God, and Jesus our messiah and king are all One.  The Spirit of God speaks to our heart and teaches us the truth of the shema:

The Lord our God, the Lord is one[26].

The angel of God appears, in the first of many appearances, to Abram and informs him that the place where he stands will someday be the possession of his offspring.

ix

 

Bound to God through sacrifice

Abram erects a marker on the land, but not a pillar or a symbol of physical might.  As witness to its being a land set apart by God, Abram marks it with an altar.

An altar is a place of sacrifice.  It is a table upon which living beings are set out in the presence of God to yield their lives.  By this ritual act men present to God their understanding that they are his creation, and that they find life only through his mercy and love and sovereign power.  Openly sharing in this understanding with our God creates a ground of honesty which facilitates the open activity of our consciousness in his presence.  In the tradition of Abel and Noah, Abram must recognize the fundamental architecture of the bond between man and God: at the heart of history lies a sacrifice too profound for words.  When God appears before Abram, does Abram shudder with a dark understanding when he looks at the face of the one who is to be that sacrifice?

All creation belongs to God.  The setting apart of this land is promise for the future.  Its designation as holy is similar to the setting aside of the tree at the center of the garden of Eden.  Here in Canaan the land is being set aside.  In reality it is being restored to God.  The petty states who serve the idols of rebellion are losing their right to the profane use of this land.  This land is being garnered for a holy [“set apart”] people of God.

The setting apart of this land for the people of God is bound to Abram being set apart for God.  A man of God, a patriarch, must belong to this land.  The landof Godis not a mere real estate holding, indifferent to the history which transpires upon it.  It is the destined home of the children of God, and God, acting in history and with the aid of culture, is acting to set apart for himself, in this land, children for himself in the house of Abraham.  Abram must be bound to God and to his purposes, allowing that the land realize itself as the home of God’s purpose for men.  Every person who claims Abraham as his father must be bound to God and to his purposes:

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did.”[27]                 

We would not be amiss in seeing an added dimension in the understanding of Abram at this time.  Abram sees that he is bound to God through sacrifice: not only God’s but also his ownLife as sacrifice… this will become the ground of the relationship of total devotion, one to the other, life bound by covenant, i.e. total mutual commitment.  It is this which Abram will prove in his life, and this to which David will refer in Psalm 50:

The Mighty One, God, the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.

From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.

 Our God comes and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
and around him a tempest rages.

He summons the heavens above,
and the earth, that he may judge his people:

 “Gather to me my consecrated ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”

How ironic that Abram should find himself being told in Canaan that he is in the land of promise – Canaan being the very land which Terah had meant to inhabit before he decided  to relax into life in Haran.  If Abram had ever come to Canaan with Terah, then they would have been nothing more than a family of wanderers trying to make a place for themselves among strangers, just as in Haran.

Now, acting in answer to the call of God, it is quite different.  Abram does not have to make a place for himself.  He has a place designed for him, assigned to him, and conformed to him by God.  Abram now stands in an independence which is grounded in the care and provision of God.  He is positioned by God in the land of his God, a land which is pregnant with their shared future.  Now for Abram it is more than sufficient to walk with his God, in whom all will be accomplished.  With the altar, Abram marks the land as belonging to God.  “Not by might but by my Spirit,” says the Lord.  The dangers and vicissitudes of the moment are swallowed up in the overwhelming truth that he is now and forevermore resident in the hand of God.

x

 God’s grace and the universal imperative of his law  

Abram moves into the hills east of Bethel and pitches his tent betweenBetheland Ai.  He knows that this is also God’s land, so he builds another altar, and calls out to God.  But the land is not sustaining his herds.  There is a famine.  It is God’s land and it is newly devoted to Abram and his children.  Perhaps he believes that he himself is not bound to this land except through future generations.

At this moment Abram seems unsure of himself.  He has been given expectation in this country, and yet he feels, perhaps incorrectly, that his herds are more than the land can sustain.  [Later God will ask Abram’s son Isaac to ignore a condition of drought and hold onto his residency in the land.]  Abram’s decision is to go for the present to a place where there is more water, to Egypt.

He has perhaps not yet comprehended the shelter implicit in God’s promises to him.  He also worries about his wife inEgypt, fearing that in a world where kings take what they want, he might not survive the Egyptian taste for beautiful nomadic women.  Abram arranges a deceit based on the fact that Sarai’s father is his brother.  [Sarai is Abram’s niece.]  Fearing that the Egyptians might kill him for his wife, Abram convinces her that during their travels she must bill herself as his sister.  [Even today in many eastern cultures “siblings” in this close situation address each other as sister and brother.]

As it turns out, she, being beautiful, is noticed, seized, and taken to the house of Pharaoh, where she must fend for herself, while Abram enjoys the good fortune of the favored “brother.”

The deceit does not last.  The bonds of marriage trump the bonds of birth; an oath before God is of greater import than a genetic link.  God brings extensive grief to the household of Pharaoh, ending the charade before Sarai’s virtue is compromised.  The Egyptians, fearing the unseen power which forms a hedge around this woman, send Sarai and Abram away enriched with gifts and herds.

Abram has made himself look curious in the eyes of the royal household.   He is clearly under the protection of God, but it is not clear that he trusts his God to preserve the purpose of his life.  He looks like someone who would gamble his wife’s virtue in order to save his own skin.

Abram is observant and clever.  He must see that he gambled his wife, and that, through no fault of his own, she was protected and restored to him.  He can not fail to notice that Pharaoh, who acted in innocence, stood to be punished severely had he crossed the line and brought to his bed the woman whom God had already marked for Abram.  Meanwhile, Abram, though playing out a deceit, is surrounded by God’s hedge, and exits the affair unscathed and prosperous.  Is this justice?  Not by Pharaoh’s standards, I would assume.  Abram might well have felt embarrassment at his good fortune.

But Abram also might have seen more deeply into the situation.  He might have recognized that all his good fortune has been undeserved.  He might have known that he did not deserve this grace and favor from God any more than he deserved to be noticed inUr.  Abram, like all children of God, is not merely on a journey in the discovery of the holy God.  Our God reaches out to us, and we and Abram alike become participants in history, entering into God’s historic actions and gestures and moments, in which we, not through our own virtue but through his heart of love, are held in the heart of his in-historical purpose; even in distress, even in our weakness, we are not given away to the disaster in the trajectory of world rebellion.  In mercy and faithfulness, our God preserves us.

Now Abram must leave Egypt.  He heads loosely in the direction from which he came.  God has assigned a country to his offspring.  Who will be his offspring?  Abram doesn’t even have a son. But God has bound him to this country.  He must return and give up trickery and trust God to preserve him.

Abram, Sarai, Lot, herdsmen, specialists of all kinds, a handmaid to Sarai [reputed to be a daughter from the house of Pharaoh,] all make their way back to Bethel.

xi

Abram, Melchizedek, and the sovereign rule of God their king

Returning from Egypt, Abram has reason to sense more immediately the gravity of his relationship with God.  He also has reason to be certain that it is only by the grace of God that he receives honor.  If he was aloof from his brother before, if he was cavalier with his wife before, he now has reason to know that he is bound to his brother and his sister by the mercy of God and the justice of God which are held out to every man, Abram and Lot and Pharaoh and Sarai alike.

Upon return to Canaan, Lot’s herdsmen and Abram’s men seem unable to manage the reasonable separation and government of their herds.  Abram says to Lot,

“Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.  Is not the whole land before you?  Let’s part company.  If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”                                                                    Genesis 13.8,9

Abram exhibits generosity to Lot and confidence in God’s provision for his own needs.  Lot exhibits confidence in the value of good land, unashamedly claiming the rich Jordan valley for himself.  Soon, no longer needing to roam the hills to feed his herds, Lot is able to settle into the town of Sodom, a place renowned for the level of its renunciation of the government of God.

If Lot once saw himself as sharing in God’s promises to Abram, he may now consider that the promises are simply land and wealth, without any moral imperative….much as participation in the promise is interpreted today by vast numbers of self-proclaimed children of Abraham.

After Lot goes his way, God and Abram encounter each other for a third time.  Perhaps Abram is wondering if he did the right thing in facilitating Lot’s presumption to take the best land as his own territory.  God speaks to Abram, affirming that all the land that he can see will ultimately belong to his seed, and that ultimately his seed will be as numerous as the dust of the earth.

Abram begins to make himself at home in the land.  He takes his household to Hebron and settles in near the “great trees” of Mamre the Amorite, a powerful man with two powerful brothers, Eshcol and Aner, all of whom end up as allies with Abram, bound by covenant to each other.

How does Abram form alliances with random residents of the land?[28]  Is it not his job to become the reigning power of the land?  Are these men expected to see in Abram the beginnings of a new power in the land?  No.  Abram is not a new power in the land.  It is not Abram’s job to conquerCanaan. The power in the land is no other than it has been since the beginning… God Himself.  All things must come from the hand of God.  Uniquely, this land is His private possession, His kingdom, and Abram is first and foremost a subject of the kingdom, a loyal servant of his God and king.

Suddenly Lot is captured and all his possessions become booty of war, as he is caught up in a massive military campaign where the king of Sodom, in alliance with four other petty kings, fails in a rebellion against the dominant regional powers: Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goiim.

A refugee from the conflict informs Abram of what has happened to Lot.  It is impossible to know what Abram is thinking.  He calls upon his alliance with Mamre, his two brothers, and their men.  He also calls upon 318 trained men in his own household.  His little army sets out to confront the recently victorious alliance of four mighty kings.  Everything is put on the line for Lot.

Amraphel is heir to the kingdom of Nimrod in Shinar, which is Babylonia.  Ellasar is a region of Mesopotamia. Elam is a large region of Persia north of the Persian Gulf.  Goiim is an alliance of states.  Abram is about to confront a military force capable of defining the power of nations in the ancient world.

Abram’s attack is not a sly guerilla foray on a target of opportunity.  He sets out with open determination.  He pursues their armies for miles, from Hebron to Dan [from south of Jerusalem to north of Galilee].  The battle itself is brief, but decisive enough that he is able to put their armies in retreat:

“During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus.  He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.”[29]                                                        

Abram had the smaller force.  He dared to divide it and make it even weaker. But by separating his forces they were no doubt able to appear to be a much larger army, perhaps routing the enemy with very little bloodshed.

Having chased the enemy kings out of the country, Abram and his allies head back toward Hebron with their spoils. Abram and company pass near Salem [Jerusalem].  Melchizedek, who is both king of Salem and priest of God Most High, comes out to meet Abram, carrying sacraments of bread and wine.  Fully aware that only God Most High could have given to Abram’s band a victory over an alliance of kings, Melchizedek gives this blessing:

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.  And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”[30]

Abram then acknowledges the sovereignty of God and the legitimacy of Melchizedek by giving him a tenth of the spoil recovered from Amraphel and company.

The land has been given to Abram and his seed.  Abram has no royal title.  Here is a king and priest of the God of Abram in the very land promised to Abram, in this city of Salem, and Abram has no concern of redundancy or conflict.  Is God entertaining some sort of alternate plan in Salem?  Who is Melchizedek?

There is no redundancy.  Abram knows with increasing clarity that in all the earth and uniquely in the land of God, God alone is king, God is sovereign, and no other.  Abram and Melchizedek share in fealty to their king, the Lord of Creation.  Melchizedek rules this small city of God because he is a priest [mediating representative] of God. The land of God is not unattended.

The sovereignty of God has just been demonstrated on the battlefield, and now the intention of God that his sovereignty will manifest itself clearly in this land is witnessed by the presence of Melchizedek, his blessing, and Abram’s tithe.  If the bread and wine were just lunch, it is hard to believe that the scripture would take notice of it.  It can only be sacramental, in acknowledgement of the body and blood recognized in the structure  of the world by Abel and Noah and Job.  The sacrament is the emblem of what Abram and Melchizedek both know: that the love of God and the future of the world are in the body and blood of the messiah to come:

Jesus replied, “….  Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”[31]                       

xii

Natural expectation and trust in the power of God

Abram is aware that his fortunes were miraculously preserved inEgypt, beyond any natural expectation.  He knows that he has been given an unprecedented victory in battle.  Abram has never put great value in what he could gain by his own hand.  For that, he might have remained in Haran.  Abram wants life as it is given from the hand of God.  It was better to have the arid hills from the hand of God than to enjoy the lush valley of the Jordan without the grace of God.  Now Abram refuses the offer of spoil from the king ofSodom:

“I will accept nothing… so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’                                                                         Genesis 14.23,24

Following the battle, God moves to affirm in the mind of Abram that life in the hand of God, all that he has hoped for, is what he will have, and it will be wonderful.  It may be severe to engage at all times the sovereignty of God, and yet from it come the sweetest fruits:

1 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield, your very great reward.”                                 Genesis 15.1

But Abram’s response is heavy with concern that nature reigns supreme.  In spite of the fact that God has just given Abram victory over the great kings of the region, Abram is still considering God’s readiness to intervene in the material circumstances of his life.  Just as he felt that the condition of having a beautiful wife in a foreign land was something which he alone must handle, so now he considers his lack of an heir and the advanced age of himself and Sara as a condition into which God may not reach.

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”                                               Genesis 15.2,3

God gently continues to speak.   He who created nature invites Abram to look beyond nature.   He reaffirms for Abram that the particulars of his life are in the sphere of what interests and occupies Him, particulars which will not be allowed to stand in the way of the fulfillment of His promises.  He works a change in Abram’s perceptions and trust:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”  He took him outside[32] and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.   Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” Genesis 15.4-6

Abram believes God’s word to him.  God values him for his belief.  Abram believes that he will come to have this son, and that from this son will come innumerable offspring.  But the link between his offspring and the land is less clear to Abram.

xiii

The covenant and its context: absolute mutual devotion

God and Abram now discuss land.   Seeing the extent to which God labors to give him understanding of what is to come, Abram dares to lay before God the limitations of his own faith and his desire to have confidence in God’s promises.  He reveals that the simple words of the promise have not fully captured his confidence and that he wants a token, a witness.  He knows that it is the custom of men to seal relationships of mutual devotion by covenants…oaths witnessed by mutually recognized persons or objects or events.  Abram seems to be seeking a covenant with God.

He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”  But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”                                    Genesis 15.7,8

God then undertakes to make [or “cut” as the Hebrew word indicates] a covenant with Abram, a promise witnessed by the carnage of sacrifice, the indication that it is an oath with all the gravity of life and death for the participants.

An example of the seriousness of this kind of covenant can be seen in the instance where God speaks to Jeremiah about the failure of King Zedekiah to live up to a simple covenant to free the slaves among his own people:

“Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen.  So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord – ‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine.  I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth.  The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.  The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives.  Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.”                                                 Jeremiah 34.17-20

God commands Abram to make preparations for the covenant ceremony, without any sort of background explanation.  Abram seems to understand what is about to take place.

So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”  Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.  Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.  Gen. 15.9,10,11

Abram falls into some sort of dark trance, by virtue of which it would seem that Abram will be completely consumed by the coming words and presentation.

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

Then God narrates introductory information which has the import of illustrating for Abram that the promise is not immediate in its realization.  It will take time.  And even by the end of the review of future events, there is no clear landmark revealing how these events lead to the fulfillment of the greater promise.

Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.  But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.  You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age.  In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”                                                 Genesis 15.13-16

God, in patient hope for mankind, will not terminate the right of the Amorites to their land until over centuries he allows them to show the worthiness of their intentions or to conduct their rebellion to its manifest conclusion.

Now God completes the covenant by the ritual act of sending a representation of his presence  [“Our God is a consuming fire.”[33]]  between the pieces and by stating the terms of the covenant.

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates- 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites,            Girgashites and Jebusites.”                          Genesis 15.17-21

Is this a one-sided unconditional covenant or is God acting autonomously with profound expectations?  I believe that to view the covenant as unconditional, as it is so commonly viewed today, requires a high level of either cynicism or ingenuousness. 

Ingenuousness might be exemplified by the child who is promised a cake for his birthday, but who, upon receiving it, without malice turns around and feeds it to the family dog.  The gift of cake to the child is made autonomously without demands.  But the child’s innocent misuse of the gift becomes a denial of its purpose and value.

Cynicism might be portrayed by an athlete who receives a gold medal for athletic excellence and then sells it to buy a night on the town.  The reward of the medal was given without demand for any responsive action.  But the athlete’s discard of the reward in a trade for pleasure is a cynical denial of the character and discipline which the giver meant to recognize in the awarding of the gold medal.

God enters history, comes to Abram, leads him out of his natural life and into the knowledge of God.  He establishes him to become the father of a people who will adhere to God as Lord and king.  To Abram and his children God autonomously gives a land to be their own land. It is unthinkable that the descendants of Abram should imagine that they might hold this land with honor apart from covenant relationship to the God of Abram who gave it to them.

The primary testament to the nature of God’s covenant with Abram is the fundamental circumstance within which the covenant is made.  That circumstance is the profound purpose of two persons, one divine, and one human, ambitions converging in one geographical address on earth.  God’s purpose is to create for himself a people, giving that people a place on earth and caring for that people so that they know him as their God.  Abram’s purpose is to align his life with the being and expectations of the God who has come to him.  Each is devoted to the other, and without that mutual devotion the relationship ceases to have meaning. 

It is no different for us than it is for Abram.  At this moment, not unconditionally, but unilaterally, God advances himself into the gravity of the oath that, for Him who holds all worlds in his hands, nothing shall prevent him from bringing to completion his plans for those who are devoted to him with all their lives.

To the cynic, the autonomous gift of God might have been the moment for the inauguration of a grand experiment in social Darwinism.   But there will come[34] more than one very clear warning that the claims of mere power or of lineage will keep no one inside the divine promises.

xiv

The literal and the transcendent fulfillment of certain promises from God

Sometimes it is impossible to take the measure of what we see or experience apart from seeing it in comparison to something else of similar nature.  Standards of units of measure are carefully preserved in every country in order to preserve a reference by which to know the accuracy of actual tools of measure in common use.  An interest in “champions”, whether in horticulture or animal culture or athletic accomplishment, is a way of creating standards of measure.  Literature can serve as a measure.  It is a record of human hopes and expectations and disappointments – a record along side of which we may measure ourselves in our own time.

Words measure experience.  Words have defined meaning, explicit content.  Using words alone we make promises of defined action, agreements, contracts, covenants — fully expecting that these words are able to stand as a measure of actions which will follow — actions which will be found to fall short or meet or exceed the content indicated in the words spoken or written.

The Bible is a book full of promises and covenants, given that our God comes to us, his creation, with profound intentions and expectations which must find their resolution over time.  God includes us in his creative process and speaks to us of the future.

Many of these promises have simple, straightforward and purely literal implications:

This day you shall be with me in paradise.”

Others are freighted with both literal and transcendent fulfillment expectations.  In the literal fulfillment of prophecy God’s action is visible, his hand remaining clearly in this world, thus preserving our confidence in his faithfulness.  But at times the literal is only an ancillary part of God’s full purpose, which is the transcendent fulfillment of the promise.  The issue, perhaps, is that God attempts to lead our vision through what is visible and comprehensible to a place beyond our normal vision, a place as yet invisible and incomprehensible.

Many centuries after Abram, God would promise the exiled descendants of Jacob that after seventy years of exile their fortunes would be restored and they could return to the land of promise.  A truly literal fulfillment of this promise was supplied.  In addition, however, Daniel, who would be witness to that fulfillment, was also given a vision of a fulfillment which would transcend the literal terms given.

“I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according of the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.  So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting and in sackcloth and ashes.”                                                                Daniel 9.2,3

What follows is the great prayer of Daniel asking God’s forgiveness for his own sin and for the sin of the people, recognizing that the seventy years of exile is just punishment, seeking God’s recognition of their change of heart, and seeking the restoration of God’s favor upon his people and upon the holy city,Jerusalem.

At this moment God sends the angel Gabriel to relate to Daniel that the seventy years of exile and restoration for the people of the existing nation state are a model or figure of another transcendent drama involving a multiple of seventy years and the messianic entry into the world:

“Gabriel…came to me in swift flight…. He instructed me and said to me, ‘Daniel,…as soon as you began to pray, an answer was given which I have come to tell you…: “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.”’”                 Daniel 9.21-24

Gabriel then details a span of events which includes the coming of the messiah and ranges through war and anti-messiah to the end of the age.  As literal event, the seventy years until the Israelite nation is restored to Jerusalem has become paradigm and foreshadowing emblem of the spread of history until the messiah rules on earth fromJerusalem.

xv

Literal fulfillment of the promise to Abram

As for Abram, the fulfillment of the covenant promise appears, at first, to be a marginally obscure matter of children, land, and divine blessing.  However, in the layering of the drama of Sarah and Isaac over the analogous drama of Hagar and Ishmael, God gives to Abram a means of insight into the transcendent scope of the full covenant promise.

God had never suggested that Abram would have need of a wife other than Sarai to bring about the fulfillment of his promises.  Abram has already seen in Egypt the divine hedge around Sarai, protecting her virtue in the house of Pharaoh.

Sarai, however, although she may believe God’s promise of a line from Abram, seems to lose faith that she herself, in her advanced age, can be the mother of nations.  So she offers to Abram her handmaid, Hagar, to be taken as a second wife, still under her rule, so that Hagar, perhaps, can become the source of their line of descendants.

Hagar is taken in marriage by Abram.  She becomes pregnant.  In pregnancy Hagar is proud of her new status, to the great discomfort of Sarai.  Sarai complains to Abram.  Abram replies,

“Your servant is in your hands.”                    Genesis 16.16

Sarai begins to treat Hagar harshly.  Hagar flees into the desert.  The angel of God comes to her near a spring in the desert:

“Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”          Genesis 16.9

Then the angel of God makes a promise to Hagar,

“I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.  You are now with child and you will have a son.  You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.”                    Genesis 16.10,11

At age 86 Abram becomes father of a son, and he is named Ishmael.  Hagar, a true wife of Abram, has given him a true son, with no discredit to come from the fact that she is subservient to first wife Sarai.  By comparison, only two generations into the future, the grandson Jacob will marry two sisters, Rachel and Leah, and from them will come twelve patriarchs – but only two from Rachel, six from Leah, while Dan and Naphtali come from Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah [given to Jacob as wife] and Gad and Asher come from Leah’s maidservant Zilpah [given to Jacob as wife.]

Ishmael is in every sense the fully qualified firstborn son of Abram and natural heir to the wealth and expectations of his father.

Although God had never suggested that anyone other than Sarai would become mother of nations, neither had God said that only from Sarai would the nations come.  Does Abram have any reason to doubt that Ishmael is the child of promise?  Hagar has brought home the word of the angel of God that she is to be mother of descendants too numerous to count, a seeming corroboration of the earlier promise to Abram.  Hagar has been blessed in the presence of God.  Sarai, by contrast, has remained alone in bitterness, doubting whether God’s promise would begin in her own body.

xvi

The transcendent fulfillment of the promise to Abram… now Abraham

Thirteen years later, Ishmael is a healthy young man.  Hagar is submissive to Sarai but enjoying the honor of Abram and of God himself.  Sarai sees in Ishmael the foundation of their family, even though the pain of its coming from the body of Hagar must be acute.  Abram sees the promises of God moving toward fulfillment.

Suddenly everything begins to change.  At age 99 Abram finds himself in the presence of God, who appears before him in great seriousness and begins to speak:

“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be thou whole-hearted.  And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and I will multiply thee exceedingly.                        Genesis 17.1-2

Abram falls on his face.  This seems to begin as a simple confirmation of past promises, but there is an air of things unseen being brought into view.  The declaration continues:

“As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations.  Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham, for a father of a multitude [hamon] of nations have I made thee.  And I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make of thee nations, and kings shall come out of thee.  And I will establish my covenant between me and between thee and between thy seed after thee, throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be unto thee for a God and to thy seed after thee.”      Genesis 17.4-7

Now things are changing.  For one, he has a new name,[35] which might suggest that he is to have a new being, or at least a new role.  Secondly, the greater meaning of the covenant is being emphasized: “to be unto thee for a God and to thy seed after thee.”  Thirdly, it is now made explicit that the promise is eternal, “an everlasting covenant.”  And there is more.

“And I will give unto thee and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession; and I will be to them for a God.”                   Genesis 17.8

Now the gift of the land is placed in the context of God being sovereign lord over its people.

Next God introduces the demand that in the body of every male who participates in the covenant there shall be a sign or token of the covenant, the circumcision of the flesh of the foreskin.

“Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You are to undergo circumcision and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you….My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.                       Genesis 17.10,11,13

This is not only a mark of ownership.  Implicit in this sign is the emendation of nature and the removal of corruption.  Nature alone does not suffice for entry into the transcendent covenant.  There must be an act of God upon the individual soul.

Now God states the thing which to us is so expected, but which is an unnerving shock to Abraham at the time:

“As for Sarai, thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.

                                                                                    Genesis 17.15,16

This is totally beyond Abram’s expectations.  He already has, through the graciousness of Sarai and the womb of Hagar, a beautiful son, Ishmael, through whom he lives in hope of all the promises that his descendants will someday become a great nation, inherit the land of promise and become a blessing to all nations.  Abraham is about to have it impressed upon him that the covenant of which God speaks is other than this and transcends all this.

“Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed; and he said in his heart: To one of a hundred years old shall a child be born? Or shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?  And Abraham said unto God: Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!  And God said: “Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Isaac; and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.  And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee; behold, I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and multiply him exceedingly: twelve princes shall he beget and I will make him for a great nation.  But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.  And he left off talking with him and God went up from Abraham.”                                        Genesis 17.17-22

Ishmael will be great, father of princes and a great nation, a nation to stand among the other nations.  He and his children will be loved and sought after by the God who has looked after him, even in the womb of his mother.  But God is bringing about something which transcends all this, and it is to be realized in the lineage of his as yet unborn brother.

Immediately Ishmael, who is not in the lineage of what is to come, is yet circumcised and marked by Abraham as a child of the covenant.  The covenant demands a line of descendants and yet it transcends physical descent.  How can this be?  Only in failing to see the angel of God and the messiah of God and Yeshua our king can we fail to see that the patriarch Abraham is to father the people from whom the messiah must come, but this messiah is the hand of God reaching out to all people, even to Ishmael.  From Abraham must come Israel, the people who struggle with God, the great amphitheater in which the drama of God’s in-historical love will have its run, and within which a line of kings will be woven into the history of the earth, to which line our messiah will belong and gather into his kingdom people from all nations.  By the grace of this our king, and his sacrifice on the cross, Ishmael is first to join Abraham in bearing the sign of belonging to the covenant.

Abraham moves swiftly to make sure that all are marked with the sign of belonging to God.

“And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him.                    Genesis 17.23

 

xvii

The transcendent fulfillment points to a transcendent kingdom

Lot chose green pastures and raised his children among idolaters.  Abram wandered the rocky hills with his herds, but did so in the gracious presence of his God.  Abram found water for his herds in Egypt, but it cost him the shameful entanglement of his wife in the royal household.  Abram returned to the wild Negev and found peace in life formed for him by the hand of God.

Abram found joy in Ishmael, but God demanded that Abraham look beyond the surface and beyond blessing to something which will not always be green valleys.  Green valleys are for Lot.  Floods of water are for the idolaters of Egypt.  Abraham must go to the place which transcends the literal fulfillment of the promise, a place which strains all vision and understanding, a dry place somewhere in the hand of God.  That is the place, the only place, for a man of God to live.

God has been leading Abraham, year by year, hour by hour, to this place.  He is the first.  He is our spiritual father.  The purpose of all this trouble is that he might undertake a journey – a journey which for Abraham is immensely difficult because for him there are no road signs except those which God himself directly presents to his consciousness.

Abraham is soon to appear again before God, this time in the ease and openness of guest and host sharing a meal.  Abraham now lives with an advanced understanding that the events of his world are written in heaven.  Perhaps this makes it easier to see heaven in his front yard.  Edified by the gravity of his now advanced understanding of their relationship, it will become Abraham’s joy to bargain boldly and participate in his Lord’s own spirit of mercy.

xviii

Living in the confidence of the God who walks among his people

God manifests himself on earth.  Chapter 18 opens with a clear declaration:

“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”   Genesis 18.1

This is our God who in love for us comes to us in the context of our particular lives.  Here before Abraham God is visible, and we know that it is not the appearance of inaccessible light, but rather the presence of the Messenger, the Angel of God, who is also the person of God.  He is both from God and one with God.  Abraham addresses him as God, Lord of the covenant.  This mystery of the presence of God in the finite world is as much a part of the Old Covenant as it is part of the New Covenant.  If there were no other facet to God but his unapproachable being, then the shema declaration that “God is One” would be a meaningless tautology.  It is the mystery of God’s entry into our finitude which gives gravity to the assertion that our Lord, in all his aspects, is yet One.

Here before Abraham’s tent the Lord is accompanied by two others in human form who are angels.  At first it appears that Abraham greets the three with ordinary concern for hospitality to three travelers, but his words to the first among them seem to betray his awareness of the One to whom he speaks:

“My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.  Let now be fetched a little water, and wash your feet and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your  heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.”                                                                                                      Genesis 18.3-5

It is inconceivable that at this moment Abraham does not know before whom he stands.  He further recognizes him as someone with dirty feet and a hunger for food.  As host and as servant to his Lord, he offers the preparation of a meal which, if not a covenant meal, is yet given in celebration of their unbounded commitment to each other.

This is the kingdom of heaven come to earth.  This is time and space and the history of earth become transcendent.  This is the glory of all that is created, terrestrial and physical.  God honors the person and home of Abraham.  Abraham honors the body of God, the feet of God, the hunger of God.  This is the repudiation of the worship of lifeless idols.  Now the entire adventure since leaving Ur is become wonderful.  God surely rejoices in the sound of Abraham’s voice, praying Him to remain in the presence of his home, asserting with each sentence his joy in belonging to his Lord.

Abraham knows now that his Lord’s transcendent intention does not come through Hagar but through Sarah.  He runs into the tent to Sarah and asks her to prepare bread for the visitors.  Abraham himself runs out to the herd and selects a calf, giving it to a young man to dress it for roasting.  Abraham brings to his guests bread and meat and cheese and milk, and they eat.  Then they ask about the welfare of Sarah.  The angel of the Lord says,

“I will certainly return unto thee according to this time of life [next year] and lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.”               Genesis 18.10

Abraham now believes in the promise and the covenant and the sovereign power of God.  Sarah, however, seems not to keep pace with the faith of her husband.  Also she knows intimately that her body is past the time of child bearing, and the burden of nature sits more heavily on her.   She hears the words of the angel of the Lord and she laughs.

We are individually responsible for our faith, but in this kingdom culture is of primary importance, and, as patriarch, Abraham is responsible not only for himself but also for the culture of his entire household.  The Lord addresses a rebuke to Abraham.  Asking why she laughed, He posits,

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

thus alluding to the axiom that the God who created nature has full power over nature.

Sarah, stricken with fear, presumes to allay God with a denial:

“I laughed not.”

God replies,

“No, but you did laugh.”

The three visitors now rise and begin their passage toward Sodom.  Abraham sets out to see them on their way.  As before the division of nations at Babel, the angel of the Lord is on his way to make a final on-site determination preliminary to bringing judgment upon Sodom for its excess of rebellion.  He begins to consider sharing with Abraham an understanding of what he is about to do — partly on behalf of the intimacy which has developed between them, partly for the instructive purpose indicated in the text, for this Abraham who is to raise children into the kingdom must be fully aware of the gravity of sin.  Abraham has known a huge measure of God’s mercy and grace, with a hedge around his life.  But he and his children must not underestimate the gravity of the proposition that the God of all worlds is a holy God, expecting holiness in his children.  They must be fully aware that the ongoing and ultimate wage of rebellion is death.

“And the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing; seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him shall be blessed all the nations of the earth?  For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.  And the Lord said: Verily the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and verily, their sin is exceeding grievous. I will go down now and see whether according to the cry of it which is come unto me they have done; destruction shall come upon them, and if not, I will know.                                                                                               Genesis 18.17-21

As Abraham is father of faith and patriarch of the kingdom come to earth, so does he prove that history is for the sake of man, and he petitions God, taking advantage of his  privilege, attempting to move the heart of God in mercy on behalf of the men of Sodom.

God’s anger is directed at Sodom.  Abraham sees that the rebellion of men has laid a stain upon their land.  Can the obedience of men redeem a place?  Abraham asks God to save Sodom if fifty righteous can be found.   It must please God to see Abraham intervene, mediate, with a spirit of mercy on behalf of his neighbors.  God answers, Yes.

Abraham then dares to bargain to lower the number bit by bit until the critical number is reduced to ten, and God accedes to his petitions.  Unfortunately it happens that ten are not found, and the two angels are confronted with the townspeople of Sodom behaving in open support of perversion.  For the sake of Abraham, Lot and his direct family are rescued.  The town is destroyed.

Lot ends up living in the mountains with his two daughters.  His wife is lost, having failed, during the escape, to follow the command not to look back.  The daughters of Lot get him drunk and seduce him.  He fathers in them the people of Moab and Ammon.

xix

 Walking before God, there is nothing “outside” his care

Abraham moves away to the west, in the northern Negev, to a city state called Gerar, where Abimelech is king.  Abraham is ninety – nine years old, his wife close to ninety.

It would seem that, since the latest visit of the angel of the Lord, Abraham and Sarah should be stubbornly holding to the promises of God.  But there is reason to imagine that they are struggling, as in coming events they revive an old habit.

Ishmael’s place at the center of hope has been undone by the recent announcement of the angel of the Lord that the covenant is to be fulfilled in a son yet to be born.  No longer is there a visible center for their hopes.  Hagar at some point becomes aware of the change, and perhaps Abraham must bear with the disappointment in the heart of Hagar.  Sarah perhaps feels the stress of new expectations on herself and she is confronted even more heavily with her advanced age.

The images of brimstone tearing out of the sky and destroying the life and property of Sodom are fresh in their minds.  They have never before witnessed the terror of God as in this great judgment on the city of Lot.  Their awareness of the gravity of sin and the consequence of separation from God is no doubt strong in their minds.

Lot, Sarah’s brother, is now resident in some barren mountain location.  When they first left for Canaan with the hope of God’s promises of blessing and land, Abraham had no doubt filled them with hope that Lot would live close to the center of God’s blessings.  Now he is nowhere to be seen.  Nor is the heir of promise yet to appear.  Sarah is not yet pregnant.  She and Abraham are both old.

It would seem that, in sum, Abraham fears for himself.  Newly resident in the domain of Abimelech, he falls back on the habit of times past when he would go to new lands and have Sarah “cover” for him by declaring that she is his sister.  It seems like a practical cover, an innocent bit of role playing.  Besides, she is ninety years old, and who would try to make off with her?

Fearing for ourselves is the antithesis of entrusting our lives to God.  We take unnatural measures to protect ourselves.  Encasing ourselves in protections, it becomes impossible to live at the hand of God, to “walk before” God.

Abimelech must believe that the “sister” of someone so worthy as the highly reputed Abraham must be a worthy addition to his court.  And it must be that she is still quite beautiful, since the dialogue implies that Abimelech might desire her intimacy. Having taken notice of her, Abimelech, in kingly fashion, surreptitiously sends for her and enters her into his household.

God moves to set things straight, preserving the hedge around Abraham and Sarah:

But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead, because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”  Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?  Did he not say to me, “She is my sister,” and didn’t she also say, “He is my brother?”  I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”

Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me.  That is why I did not let you touch her.  Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.  But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die.”                                                       Genesis 20.3-7

Abimelech is incensed and calls for Abraham.

“What have you done to us?  How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom?  You have done things to me that should not be done.  And Abimelech asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?”         

Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’”               Genesis 20.9-11

Abraham thinks he is in a godless and unfettered environment, but he now finds himself in the house of his brother, and his brother is revealing to him that he, Abraham, is not the only one from whom God expects justice and righteousness.  Nor is Abraham the only one whose life is protected with a hedge.  God clearly protects Abimelech, whose sense of honor at this moment seems to exceed that of Abraham.

Abraham explains that Sarah is the [grand-] daughter of his father, though not of his mother, by which he allows himself to call her sister.  And he adds that the whole ruse had become a habit since they first set out from Haran:

And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, “This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’”                                                                                 Genesis 20.13

If Abimelech had no sense of the hand of God, he would be laughing at Abraham’s frail deceit.  But instead he, like Pharaoh before him, is primarily focused on the fact of the presence of God surrounding and protecting this very human man and wife.  He immediately restores Sarah to Abraham.

He invites them to live wherever they choose in the region of Gerar.  He presents Sarah with a thousand shekels of silver, and to Abraham sheep and cattle and male and female slaves.

Abraham can not fail to see that here where he expected “no fear of God” there is true recognition of the power of God and true honor of his expectations of righteousness.  Did Abraham feel that he was the unique guardian of true knowledge of God?  He has now been given a taste of the graciousness of God at the hands of someone he presumed to be his enemy.  Abraham cannot fail to see that he and his brother are one, and that neither has any expectation in this world apart from the unbounded and unearned mercy of God upon them. 

After this encounter, Abraham lives for many years in Beersheba, in the hills east of Gerar, not far from Abimelech [Gen.21.34].  They have deep respect for each other.   One day Abimelech approaches Abraham, seeking enduring good will between themselves and between their descendants.  Abimelech knows that only life in obedience to the will of God can endure, and he knows that his friend Abraham has come to this land to answer to the call of God.  They swear an oath, Abimelech recognizing the small matter of a well that Abraham has dug at Beersheba, Abraham honoring this petition of Abimelech, the Philistine king:

“God is with you in everything you do.  Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants.  Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you.”  Abraham said, “I swear it.”                                                            Genesis 21.23,24

Are we not also bound, the modern child of Abraham, to see the child of God in our Palestinian brother?

xx

The imperative of the transcendent promise

In the interval between the abduction of Sarah and the oath of Abraham and Abimelech, a great event transpires, the birth of Isaac.  His father is one hundred years old.  His mother, no longer fearful, is thrilled:

“God has brought me laughter.”[36]

As soon as Isaac is weaned there is a great feast.  Ishmael is perhaps dismayed by the extravagance of attention given to his new sibling.  Sarah observes adolescent Ishmael and believes that there is mockery in his bearing around the infant Isaac.  She perceives that the issues of birthright and inheritance must be solved immediately.  To Abraham she says,

“Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”[37]

Abraham is in severe distress, as he loves Ishmael.  He knows that the transcendent promise must come through Isaac.  He knows that in everything Isaac must receive favor.

God speaks to Abraham and tells him to let Sarah’s vision for Isaac prevail, since “it is through Isaac that your seed will be reckoned.”  God assures Abraham that He will hold to his promises to Hagar and make Ishmael into a great nation.  Abraham must be willing to put Hagar and Ishmael in the hands of God, allowing that his actions in dismissing them from home and inheritance may never be understood by men.   It also may never cease to wound the heart of Abraham.  He surely has the deepest love for the mother of this child whom he has cherished for thirteen years.  And there can be no doubt that he has the deepest love for Ishmael.  Although he can not bear it, he will give them over, because of the depth of love between Abraham and his God, and because of the depth of his trust in the words of his God.

God’s future for Ishmael may be bright, but the actual sending off into the desert could not appear more heartless:

Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar.  He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.  She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.      Gen. 21.14

Hagar finds herself with a broken heart, watching her son die of thirst.  Then the angel of God hears the cries of Ishmael and leads Hagar to a well in Beersheba.  God preserves Hagar and Ishmael.  The boy grows up in the desert of Paran in the northern Sinai and in time his mother gets him a wife from Egypt.

Order is restored to the home of Abraham.  The great promise is now in visible formation in the growth and education of Isaac.  After the treaty with Abimelech Abraham settles in, no longer a wanderer.

“Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and there he called upon the name of the Lord, the Eternal God [El Olam].  And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.”                       Genesis 21.33,34

Isaac grows to be a young man and he is raised by his father to know intimately the God of the covenant which binds them.

xxi

The great test, and the provision of the Lamb by whose blood we may be saved.

And it came to pass after these things that God did prove Abraham.[38]                                                                                                                           Now comes the call from God so penetrating that we must explore it, yet so radical that we must acknowledge that only Abraham can know the pain that it must cause him.  It is a mystery and a riddle.  In the speech of God it is more than a riddle.  It is a deadly serious test by which Abraham will demonstrate to himself, to his God, and to every witness throughout the ages, that he is able to see beyond what is given, and that his life is so abandoned to the person of God, that nothing will intervene between the call of his God and the response of his heart.

It was Abraham’s presumption when he first set out from Haran to live in answer to the fearful call of the unseen and eternal God and to put behind him every imperative of tradition, country, family, and the gods and goddesses of Haran and Ur.

Now one day in Beersheba, Abraham hears the clear voice of God:

“Abraham!”   

And he said, “Here am I.”

And He said: “Take now thy son, thine only son whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”[39]

Moriah is a range of mountains, one of which is Mount Zion, just outside the walls of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem.   The tradition of the burnt offering, as it develops, is that it be the sweet odor of homage and surrender before God.  This call from God appears to be absurdly severe, as it threatens to undo God’s chosen link in the covenant, which is the person of Isaac.

Abraham has now already, in a very real sense, sacrificed Ishmael and Hagar.  It had been, however, visible in the agency of God that something greater was being undertaken, and this had made it more bearable.  Is their some obscure practical advantage to be gained by the death of Isaac?  Not that we detect.

God gives us riches, they are not our own, and we are expected to understand the foundation of goodness and grace which authors these riches.  But only a few of us, once in a great while, are ever put in a position to have to prove our understanding by spending all those riches to the bottom.  Abraham is being called to the depths.

And what is it that out of a young man’s body can possibly generate a sweet odor of homage and surrender?  Only the most unreserved love and the most unrestrained trust of both the young man and the father.  That love must stand higher than every earthly desire of Abraham and Isaac.  That trust must prevail through a storm of apparent contradictions.

And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering and rose up and went unto the place of which God had told him.  On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off.

 And Abraham said unto his young men:

“Abide ye here with the ass and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.”[40]

Taking Abraham at his word, what he has on his mind is the adoration of God.  He has also been meditating on the demands of his God for three days.  For three days his son has been as good as dead, a living sacrifice.  For three days he has been looking into the eyes and heart of his God.  Has God hidden from him, from Abraham whom he loves, the truth of the structure of the world?

Jesus replied, “….  Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”[41]                       

Does Abraham hear,

“For God so loved the world he gave his one and only son…” ?[42]

Is it “fair” that the man who set out from Ur to escape the folly of idols and know the truth should now spend his beautiful son in sacrifice to that truth, that living truth?  But that very Truth is that God Himself gives His own son for the life of the world.  In the bonds of the covenant may they not, God and Abraham, share in all things?  It is not unjust for our God to ask all, every last thing.  It is only horribly painful.  And it is inconceivable apart from the arms of God holding Abraham each step of the way.

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him.  On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”  He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  And an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.  And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.[43]                   

Abraham is being called into the knowledge of the heart of God, even the pain of God.

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.  And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and he said:  “My father.”

And he said: “Here am I, my son.”

And he said: “Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?”

And Abraham said:  “God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.”  So they went both of them together. [44]

Abraham is saying to Isaac that God Himself will provide for Himself the lamb.  Of these last two phrases Rashi writes: “That is, He will see and select for Himself the lamb; and if there is no [other] lamb, then ‘for a burnt offering (will you be) my son.’  And although Isaac understood that he was going to be slaughtered, ‘they went both of them together’ with like hearts.”

If with like hearts, then they both share in the peace of knowing that their God, He Himself, will take to Himself the sacrifice of willing hearts.  He does not relate to them in compulsion.  God stands free and he has created Abraham and Isaac to stand free.  If there is to be a sacrifice, it will only occur in the free gift of the hearts of Abraham and his son.  Only in freedom can the sacrifice have the odor of worship.

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.  And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.  And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said:  “Abraham, Abraham.”

And he said:  “Here am I.”

And He said: “Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.  And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold a ram, afterwards caught in the thicket by his horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son.[45]

Now it is certain: the provision of the lamb is from the hand of God.  It is certain that God does not desire the death of Isaac.  It is certain that we do not come alone to the altar of God with nothing to show but our petty accomplishments and our sins.  We come to the altar of God with the hand of the Lamb of God upon us, the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world.

So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time and said, “I swear by myself…that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.  Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”[46]            

Now Abraham returns home.

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.[47]                           

Abraham, through radical collision with the person of God, has moved beyond simple aspiration for the God “about whom” he has belief.  He has progressed to life in the presence of the person of God who cares for him, teaches him, and directs him into the future.  Now, for Abraham, what is home?  What is country?  What is his kingdom?

The life of Abraham is part of the opening context of God coming to earth, securing for himself a people, securing an earthly patriarch for that people.  Into a world of rebellion which was claiming heaven and earth as its own possession, God, through Abraham, restored to the world something unexpected, the presence of the kingdom of God on earth, the birth of a people for God.

God is with Abraham.  God is in the world – in the history of the moment.  There is no barrier between heaven and earth.  God lives with his people.  This is the foundation of the transcendent promise.  Abraham, we know, has also learned that the fulfillment of the transcendent promise lies yet in the child of woman who will crush the head of the serpent, in the One whose sacrifice will heal the world.

Abraham has learned about time, that there is a future time and place toward which we are all straining.  He has also learned that the transcendent kingdom is real in the present time.  As we remarked previously, the green valleys are for Lot, the flood waters of the Nile are for Egypt, but we in this era must live in transcendence of the literal fulfillment of the promise, in a place which demands faith and depth of vision, an arid place, the desert place which God has prepared for us.  This is the place where we know God intimately through his Spirit, a place which we must claim as our own, only after which can we know the oases.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country: he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God.[48]

xxii

Jesus, the Lamb

“Then I saw, lying on the right hand of him who was seated on the throne, a scroll with writing on the back as well as inside, sealed with seven seals.  And I saw a strong angel, proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is fit to open the scroll, to break the seals of it?’  But no one was fit, either in heaven or on earth or underneath the earth, to open the scroll or look into it. So I began to weep bitterly because no one had been found fit to open the scroll or look into it; but one of the Presbyters told me, ‘Weep not; lo, the Lion of Judah’s tribe, the Scion of David, he has won the power of opening the scroll and its seven seals.’

Then I noticed a Lamb standing in the midst of the throne and the four living Creatures and the Presbyters; it seemed to have been slain, but it had seven horns and seven eyes [they are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth], and it went and took the scroll out of the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.  And when it took the scroll, the four living Creatures and the four and twenty Presbyters fell down before the Lamb, each with his harp and with golden bowls full of incense [that is, full of the prayers of the saints], singing a new song: 

 ‘Thou deservest to take the scroll and open its seals,

For thou wast slain and by shedding thy blood hast ransomed for God 

         men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation;

Thou hast made them kings and priests for our God, and they shall reign on earth.’”[49]                              

To come before God as a child of Abraham is to come to the altar of God with the hand, the blessing, of the Lamb of God upon our heads.  As children of Abraham, it is not enough to answer only to the call to promise, boasting of our faith.  We must also answer to the call to sacrifice, bearing to the messiah of God our entire soul and body and resources, gifts for him to use as He alone shall decide.

In this light, to be a child of Abraham is not something we can own merely by securing ourselves within an “Abrahamic” religion or culture.  There is no other route but to yield our lives before God, to walk before God.

“Gather to me my consecrated ones who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”[50]                  


[1] Genesis 10.4,5,20,31,32

[2] Daniel

[3] Isaiah

[4] Joshua 10.13, II Samuel 1.18

[5] rank, not physical proximity

[6] again this must mean near to his heart and not the accident of physical location.

[7] A creation which will some day kneel before him as we know from Revelation 1.7 and Revelation 15.4

[8] Deuteronomy 32.9

[9] Joshua 24.2

[10] Midrash Bereishit 38.13

[11] Genesis 12.7

[12] Luke 9.23

[13] Matthew 10.37-39

[14] NIV Study note, Genesis 11.4:  “The typical  Mesopotamian temple-tower, known as a ziggurat, was square at the base and had sloping, stepped sides that led upward to a small shrine at the top. …Other Mesopotamian ziggurats were given names demonstrating that they, too, were meant to serve as staircases from earth to heaven: ‘The House of the Link between Heaven and Earth’ [at Larsa], ‘The House of the Seven Guides of Heaven and Earth’ [at Borsippa], ‘The House of the Foundation-Platform of Heaven and Earth’ [at Babylon], ‘The House of the Mountain of the Universe’ [at Asshur].

[15] Since the day of rebellion in the garden right up into modern times and the cults of the powerful secret societies, as often rendered in Masonic literature, the city of the world has claimed a different ladder to heaven: gnosis and wisdom, which they attach to their goddess, Sophia.

[16] Genesis 28.10 ff

[17] Genesis 28.16,17

[18] John 1.45 ff

[19] John 1.50,51

[20] See Bryan Huie, “Christ in the Old Testament” at http://www.herealittletherealittle.net

[21] John 5.37

[22] John 1.18

[23] John 6.46

[24] I Timothy 6.14-16

[25] John 1.1,14

[26] Deuteronomy 6.4 ff

[27] John 8.39

[28] Not just random but Amorite, the very people whom God foresees saturating their culture with sin and earning their removal from the land four hundred years into the future. See Genesis 15.16

[29] Genesis 14.14-16

[30] Genesis 14.19,20

[31] John 8.54

[32] Once God takes him outside, the vision is over and the presence of God [The Word] is actually with him. The coming covenant preparations are actual, not within a vision, and as things progress Abram will again fall into a deep sleep.

[33] Hebrews 12.29; Deuteronomy 4.24; Psalm 50.3; Psalm 18.8-13; Exodus 3.1-14; Exodus 13.21

[34] Deuteronomy 29

[35] Literally the “ha-“ [Hebrew letter hai] from hamon [multitude] is pieced into his name [Ab meaning father] to produce a name which means father of a multitude of nations.  But it is also frequently recognized that the letter hai is associated with the aspiration of breath and therefore with the breath of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore it is said that the new names, both for Sarah and Abraham, are meant to stand for them in their new lives to be lived in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  As it has often been said, Abram can not attain the covenant nor can Sarai.  It is only Abraham and Sarah, transformed in their communion with the Spirit of God, that can know the realization of the covenant promises.

[36] Genesis 21.6

[37] Genesis 21.10

[38] Genesis 22.1

[39] Genesis 22.1,2

[40] Genesis 22.3-5

[41] John 8.54

[42] John 3.16

[43] Luke 22.39-44

[44] Genesis 22.6-8

[45] Genesis 22.9-13

[46] Genesis 22.14-18

[47] Genesis22.19

[48] Hebrews 11.8-10

[49] Revelation 5.1-9

[50] Psalm 50.5

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