The way in which the story of Abraham is introduced has always fascinated me.
Or rather, I should say, the way in which I have most often heard the story of Abraham introduced has always fascinated me. Abraham seems to appear, like Melchizadek, out of nowhere. Now admittedly, I have mainly only heard the story from Reformed Church preachers or Jewish rabbis. The former preach on Abraham as part of their understanding of the covenant, and the latter do so as the father of their nation, even if he runs a long second behind Moses as a founding father.
And even when you read through Beresheit from the creation story, there still seems to be a hiatus between Babel and Ur.
So what is the connection between Abraham and the eleven chapters that have gone before him? Is there continuity or a gap. Before I look at that, I want to look at something else in the story that also seems odd.
Gen 12. The LORD had said 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.” So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, 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.” (NIV)
Now this has always been an impressive passage, almost as majestic as “In the beginning God”.
In Hebrew, לֶךְ-לְךָ (Lech lecha!) is a powerful command – “Get out!” “Leave!” “Go to the land I am going to show you”.
There is an urgency and an authority behind this command, and it really signals the fact that God is beginning to do something new again. Abram is being told to go to a land which God will show him, because God is going to bless him greatly.
Now for me, this is where the strange bit begins.
Abram is told to go the land of Canaan. This is where he is going to flourish and be blessed so greatly that he will also be a blessing to the whole world.
But no sooner does he arrive there than we are told that “the Canaanites were in the land”. To my mind, this must have seen totally inconvenient, if not downright depressing. God is sending Abram to this land to inherit an incredible blessing – but he can’t actually find anywhere to settle because it is over-run by Canaanites (who happen to live, strangely enough, in Canaan).
Canaanites in the land
So what’s going on here? Why is Abram being sent on what must be seen as a fool’s errand?
I think the answer lies in understanding God’s promise to him, and how it relates to the previous eleven chapters.
First thing to understand is what God means by “land”.
When God says “go to the land”, the word in Hebrew for “the land” is הָאָרֶץ (ha-aretz). This is the same word that is used in Genesis 1 where it says God created the heavens and ha-aretz, the earth. This is contrasted with the use of another word, adamah, in the later part of the promise: “and all peoples (families) on earth (adamah) will be blessed through you.
“Adamah” seems to relate to the physical substance that you stand on, whilst “aretz” seems to relate to a relationship of some sort, like kingdom or dominion. Throughout the Tanach these two words are used sometimes interchangeably and it would be a great study (for a doctoral thesis or something) to fully understand how these concepts are related.
Lacking that, I am going to persist with my gut-level reading of the difference.
What we can say, however, is that the use of this word is not an accident, and it signals the beginning of another work of re-creation by God.
We have seen this re-creation theme right through the first eleven chapters, and Abram’s story is the beginning of another one. So God is re-creating the world, restoring it to its original perfection and he is using Abram and his descendants in a special way.
This brings us to why the Canaanites were in the land.
In the original creation story, we are told that before God began to create, the earth (ha-aretz) was tovu v’vohu (formless and void). It was subject to chaos and darkness, there was no life in it. In the same way, the land to which Abram was called was also lacking in hope or life. It was populated by the Canaanites.
Remember that in chapter nine, Noah had pronounced a curse on Canaan and his descendants: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
So the land was under a curse because of the inhabitants.
Light into darkness
And just as God spoke into the darkness and separated the light from the darkness, now He speaks Abram into the land and creates hope and light once more. Blessing has now come into a world through a special work of God. The land was never intended to be just a playground for Abram and his family. Abram was put there to do some serious work. He was to bring blessing to the land, so that his blessedness could be shared with the inhabitants of the land.
But again there was a dividing of light and darkness here. Those who blessed Abram would be blessed, but those who cursed Abram would be (remain) cursed.
So we see the same work of creation here. Dividing the darkness into those who blessed Abram and those who cursed him, and then populating the land with Abram and those who blessed him. Now this is fundamental to how we understand not only Abram and the covenant, but also the whole purpose of Israel and gentile believers.
So much of what has been spoken or written about Abram, Israel and God’s covenant has focussed on the blessings that come to those inside the family or covenant, but has largely ignored the wider purpose of bringing God’s kingdom into this world; to helping in God’s work of re-creating the earth (ha-aretz).
So much time and effort has been spent on trying to work out who is included in this covenant that we have forgotten the purpose of the covenant.
Abram’s task was to walk before God and be blameless, and in this way to bring blessing to the land and divide out those who rebelled against this blessing. Abram and Israel failed to do this successfully, and so God began a new work of re-creation through his son, Jesus.
Isaiah 59: The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.
When Jesus came into the world, John tells us that he came to his own, but his own did not receive him.
So Like Abram, Jesus came into the land, but it was full of Canaanites, full of people under a curse who had turned their backs on God.
And so Jesus goes about dividing and populating.
Dividing the darkness
Luke 12:”Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.”
Those who bless Jesus will be blessed, whilst those who curse him will be (remain) cursed and remain in the darkness.
John 3: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
God sent his son into ha-aretz (the world) to save ha-aretz (the world), not to condemn it.
God is restoring ha-aretz (the world) to how it was meant to be.
Whoever believes is not condemned (blessed) but whoever does not believe stands condemned already. The same formula used in the covenant with Abram.
So the story of Abram is a continuation of the previous eleven chapters in that it further develops God’s intention to restore the world to how it was meant to be.
The flood put an end to the excess wickedness of humanity, and now instead of destroying people God begins his work of changing people’s hearts and minds. He enters into covenant with his people and teaches them how to live in the land.
This is not without difficulty, though, and hopefully I will get to that in future posts.