In thinking about today’s reading from Genesis 12:1-7, I can’t find something better to write than what Mike Mair wrote a couple months ago about this passage. He is a biblical blogger in Scotland whom I’ve quoted in the past and who has posted some responses to my own posts. I obtained his permission to quote his commentary here. His original blog post can be found here.
This begins a new section of the book of Genesis: the story of the beginnings of humanity in general is complete and the story of Israel begins. Of course, the author has planned this from the start. He wants to say that God’s solution to the problem of his out-of-control creature, humanity, is to persuade some of humanity to learn his goodness and to represent it in the world. We should wonder at this strange tactic. Why can God not control what he has made? The answer is evident in the story of Noah: he could wipe out humanity but he cannot force a creature made in his image to obey him; so unless he wants to start all over again he has to find another tactic. He has to persuade humanity of its own free will to go his way. So we have to see his work with Avram and his descendants as an expression of his faithfulness to his creation and to his human creatures especially.
Persuasion, even divine persuasion, starts with one person, in this case Avram, a descendant of Shem, whose father Terah has moved from Ur of the Chaldees, more accurately in Sumer, to Harran in the territory of the Mitanni, on the border of modern Syria and Turkey. The accompanying map shows the extent of the migration. Ancient sources record a variety of nomadic peoples whose journeys took them across the borders of great empires like Sumer and Egypt. Avram’s family is identified as already nomadic, since his father has migrated from Ur to Harran. The command of the Lord, therefore is not utterly foreign to Avram, but it is presented as decisive. There is no preliminary explanation given by the author, just a command: Go-you-forth. It is not an aimless journey, however because a destination is declared: “the land that I will give you”, which is identified within a few verses as Canaan. Both the author and his original audience know that this is the land of Israel, the land promised.
The command of God points to a future in which Avram and his descendants will enjoy God’s blessing but will also be carriers of God’s blessing to the human family. This is God’s solution to the problem of humanity. Avram is to BE a blessing to others. God cannot simply bless his creatures! The blessing has to come through creatures who have been persuaded of God’s goodness and will in turn persuade others. This is a very strange concept of deity. As the passage tells it, God needs Avram more than Avram needs God.
Avram’s ready response is made clear; he moves out of Harran with his wife and his own complete household. Other members of his family remain but his nephew goes with him, along with the “people they had made-their-own”, that is, workers and slaves. Avram is not exploring, he is moving house.
Ancient landmarks such as Shekhem, Moreh and Beth-El are noted in connection with Avram’s places of sacrifice to YHWH, but the crucial detail is that Avram “sees” YHWH, that is, he has a vision of him. In the story of Avram and subsequently in Genesis, God no longer talks person to person as he does to Noah, but is a little more distant; perhaps there is a vision or a sign, or a messenger, or several messengers, but the communication is a little less direct than in chapters 1-11. Some have suggested that the author wants to depict Avram as the first of the “seers” or prophets of Israel. In any case the verb “to see” will play an important part in his story.
The narrative makes God’s promise crystal clear: “I will give this land to your seed”; and shows Abraham’s acceptance of it by his establishing of sacrifice sites and his journeying through the land. The reader is left in no doubt that this passage records a new, distinctive vision of God. Some of what has seemed contradictory and inexplicable in chapters 1-11, now becomes comprehensible as the long-term strategy of God is made clear.
Most of us read this beginning of Abraham’s story with a sense of removal. We don’t hear the voice of God telling us to get up and go somewhere. But then we’re not Abraham and our ears are too busy listening to other voices. Today’s reading of Isaiah 29:13-23 speaks to our own experience as followers of Christ who struggle to preserve some authenticity and wholeness in our faith walk. But immediately before this reading come two verses (29:11-12) that are simply amazing:
And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”
The illiterate cannot read. But neither can the literate read, because “it is sealed.” What is sealed? The prophecies, the scriptures! Who sealed them? The rulers of the people, who are labeled as “scoffers” in 28:14. But more immediately here in chapter 29 (verses 9-10), the prophets!
Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
stagger, but not with strong drink!
For the Lord has poured out upon you
a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes, the prophets,
and covered your heads, the seers.
It is a horrifying vision. What hope is there for the people when even the prophets no longer receive the words of God? This is the famine that the prophet Amos warned about:
This is why we have trouble relating to Abraham’s hearing the voice of God. We are living in the time of famine! Yes, millions of copies of the Bible are printed every day in every known language of the planet. In English alone we have who knows how many translations and versions that you can pick up in a local bookstore or order from Amazon and have delivered to your door by UPS! It would appear that there is plenty of Bible going around. And yet, there is a famine – because the people of God are in a drunken stupor of materialism and comfortable Christian lives (so-called). Were these words spoken by God only for the dwellers of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time?
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote. (29:13)
Woe to those who hide deep from the Lord their counsel,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay;
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”? (29:15-16)
How many of us do not shiver when reading these words? And yet, we claim to read the Bible! Every year, on the Monday of Holy Week, at the evening service of the Bridegroom, the Gospel reading includes all of chapter 23 of Matthew. I don’t know how I make it through that reading every year or how I don’t hang up my vestments and quit on the spot. I don’t know how anyone in the Orthodox Church makes it through that reading! I don’t know how any priest or bishop of the Orthodox Church can read that Gospel and not quit or start a revolution of faith! Those are the only two options it seems to me.
These are the only two ways that we can be honest with God: Either quit or start a revolution! Everything else, everything in between, is lip service. This easygoing relationship we have with God, church tradition, the Bible, and with our own consciences – it’s all dishonest. God started a revolution with Abraham. By the time of Isaiah, the revolution was long in the past and easy believism ruled the lives of the people. But even here, God was ready to do something new, to renew the revolution that had started with Abraham:
Therefore, behold, I will again
do marvelous things with this people,
wonderful and marvelous… (29:14)
In that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (29:18-19)
Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:
“Jacob shall no more be ashamed,
no more shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
the work of my hands, in his midst,
they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
and those who murmur will accept instruction.” (29:22-24)
I pray that God can still do this renewal. I pray that God can still renew the fire of revolution in the church and in the hearts of all who want to follow Jesus. May the cloud and sleep that have come over our faith be dispelled once again, and may the famine cease. As Mike wrote in his post that I’ve quoted above, Abraham is not exploring, he is moving house. We also need to move house, and there’s a lot of moving to do! May Lent challenge us every year with these readings from Genesis and Isaiah to set a moving date.