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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Abram Follows God's Call to Move to Canaan

I. Abraham follows God's Call & Promises, 12:1-9

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household 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.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 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. From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. (NIV)

These 9 verses are some of the most significant in the entire Old Testament. For they contain God's call to a man named Abram, who was born in a city called "Ur of the Chaldees" in what today is located in either northeastern Syria or southern Iraq, depending on which of two theories held by scholars. After God spoke to Noah to build the ark, in the history provided by Genesis the next person he speaks directly to is this man. As verses 2-3 tell us, God promised this man that if he would follow his call and move to the land he would show him (which is what is called "Israel" today), God would make his descendants into a great nation, bless him personally, and make him and his descendants the source of great blessing to all peoples on earth. This stupendous promise lies at the root of all the subsequent dealings of God with the people of Israel, and even forms the basis of incorporating non-Jews into the people of God after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We have learned from 11:31 that Terah, Abram's father, had taken his family, and set out from their homeland in Ur of the Chaldees to move to the land of Canaan. At this point we are given no hint that this was due to a call from God given to Terah's son Abram, or that the land of Canaan had any special significance other than a random destination. But in 12:1-3 a new light is shed on those earlier verses. Subsequent chapters of Genesis make it clear that what God means when he tells Abram to go to "the land that I will show you" is in fact Canaan. The New Testament citing of these chapters understands this call to have come to Abram in Ur. Terah stopped at Haran, either because he suddenly became ill and died there, or because he decided not to accompany Abram to Canaan after all, stayed in Haran, and died long afterward. But this call, if it came now instead of earlier in Ur, made it clear to Abram that he was to continue to Canaan. 

Leaving the "kindred" and the "father's house" at this point meant leaving them not in Ur—at least not if that Ur is in far southern Iraq, but in the vicinity of Haran, where in fact we do find them in later chapters, when Abram (Gen 24) and later Isaac (28:1–5) send there for wives for their sons. 

One of the first things Abram did after arriving in the land God had shown him was to build an altar to God, first in Shechem, then between Bethel and Ai. In the course of his life in that land, he would move about, and build altars to God in virtually all places he visited (see 35:1-4). This indicates not only that Abram was worshiping Yahweh as his only God, instead of the many other gods and goddesses worshiped by people in Ur, Haran, Shechem, Bethel and Ai, but also that he wished to identify his God with this new land that God had "shown" him. It was an act intended to show by a concrete action that he believed God's promises to him. He would not learn until the next chapter that Go's promise would include giving that land to his descendants (13:14-18), but he may have had an inkling of what was to come. This is Abram at his best. But soon we will see Abram at his worst.

II. Abraham visits Egypt during Famine in Canaan, 12:10-20

 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had. (NIV)

Famines occurred periodically in the land of Canaan, because the water supply relied heavily on rainfall, there being no large river bringing water in from higher and wetter source regions. Excess rainfall water was stored in cisterns, from which it could be drawn on in drier spells. And people dug wells. But even so, prolonged shortfalls of rain brought drought conditions, affecting both agriculture and the livestock and humans who depended upon plant growth for food. During such periods, those who remained in the land often struggled against each other for control of the limited water sources (wells, springs, etc.). One can see this illustrated in the stories of Isaac (Gen 26).

When these prolonged droughts occurred, bringing famine conditions in Canaan, the population often sought temporary homes in northernmost Egypt, the so-called Delta region. Groups of immigrating Canaanites are seen on reliefs and painted pottery scenes from Egypt, which gives us a general idea of what Abraham and Sarah might have looked like, when they sought relief from this famine by traveling to Egypt. 

Egypt was generally immune to famines caused by fluctuations in rainfall, because there was little if any rainfall in Egypt, and the entire water supply was provided by the annual flooding of the Nile River, which was fed from rainfall and springs in the high mountains to the south of Egypt. This was why Egypt was the "bread basket" of the ancient Near East, the market to which Anatolian Hittites and Syrian and Palestinian Semites came to buy grain in times of famine in their own lands. 


But even Egypt was not totally immune from the rare low Nile, due to low rainfall in the high mountains to the south in northeastern Africa. We see this in the Joseph story, where he predicted the coming of a seven-year famine preceded by seven years of bountiful harvests and recommended a program of grain storage to prepare for the famine to follow (Gen. 41).

Abram was very conscious of his being a foreigner in Egypt. He knew that foreigners were often exploited and abused. He reasoned that the Egyptians were not above doing this to him. And—so he reasoned—if they believed that beautiful Sarah was his wife (which, of course, she was), and they desired her, they might kill him in order to marry her. So in order to save his own skin from a threat that at present was just in his own imagination, he lied, saying that she was not his wife but only his sister. This was a half-truth, since she was a half-sister, but also was his wife. This scheme showed that Abram was not concerned about Sarah's wellbeing, but only his own. It also showed that he did not trust God to keep him safe, nor did he give the Egyptians the benefit of the doubt that they were decent enough to not harm him or Sarah. He yielded to unreasoning fear instead of living by faith in the God who had called him when he was in Mesopotamia and promised him a different land far away as his descendants' homeland. 

Believing Abram's lie, the pharaoh innocently took Sarah into his harem (verse 15) and then heaped gifts and benefits on Abraham as his new brother-in-law (verse 16). Abram was "living in clover" at Sarah's expense! But not for long! God wasn't going to allow this ruse. So since Abram himself was in a period of weak faith, God bypassed him and (at first) got the pharaoh's attention with plagues, and subsequently revealed to him the true status of Sarah as Abram's wife (vv. 17-18). The pharaoh immediately returned Sarah and scolded Abram for his lies, which almost cost the king his life! 

It is often good to be cautious. When I have been in an unfamiliar city, I always exercise care in going into insecure areas of town, especially at night. As they used to say, "There's no sense in tempting fate"! But there are extremes on the other end to beware of as well. One shouldn't assume the worst about people you don't know. This sometimes applies to interpreting the comments of others. If it is possible to put either a good or a bad interpretation on someone else's words to you, do you tend to favor the good or the bad? Unless you know the other person extremely well, you may not know how to take certain remarks. But it is probably best to lean in the direction of giving the other person the benefit of the doubt until good evidence points in the opposite direction. 

The pharaoh's actions also give us a good model. Although Abram's lies could have cost him and his palace personnel their lives, by bringing God's wrath down on them, he only scolded Abram. He could have imprisoned him or possibly even had him executed for endangering the life of the king. He could also have sent him off, but first demanded back all the gifts he had given him under the false pretense that he was Sarah' brother, not her husband. But instead the king generously let Abram keep the gifts obtained under false pretense, and let him go unpunished. Probably he was influenced in this by the signs of God's anger at him for taking Sarah, concluding that this liar must really be someone whom God cared about! 

Abram was a true man of faith—most of the time. But this doesn't mean that we are to put on blinders when we read a story like this one. He had his weak moments, and this was surely one of them! But before we "throw the first stone" at him, we should all look within our own hearts. Don't we at times fail god through fears? I'll let that question sink into each one of us and wish you a happy week until out next posting.
Dear Yom Yom bloggers!

There has been a long absence of postings on this blog—it looks from the dates on the posts like about a year, in fact.

Just the other day my wife and I were having lunch with old friends, who happen also to have been following this blog. One of them asked me, "Are  you going to continue your Bible Study blog?" I was embarrassed, in a way, by this question. But I thought it was a very justified one, and I answered, "Yes, I know there has been a lacuna of about a year, but I believe I will try to resume it now."

So here is the fulfillment of that promise.

Recently, I have been studying the Book of Genesis, and focused on the second half of the book, the narratives about the Hebrew patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob's sons. So I will resume this blog with Genesis 12, the account of the calling of Abraham by God. That leaves 38 chapters until the book ends after chapter 50. Fifty sessions, each covering a chapter.

I hope that you are eager once again to study God's Word together with me, and I pray that we will all learn much from the study that will enrich both our understanding of the Bible and our personal relationship with God.

Your friend,

Harry