A Long Road Trip with an Angry Woman (Genesis 11-15, Psalm 4)
Old man Terah got an itchin’ to leave home, so he packed up his son Abram and his grandson Lot (and all their people) and headed out of town. Every time I read this passage, I see the opening theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies, Terah’s little wife sitting in a rocking chair, strapped to the top of a camel, and teenaged Lot all wide-eyed, carrying a rifle and looking for adventure.
The clan had a plan to make it to Canaan, but they only got to a little town called Harran, and that was far enough for the old man’s bones. So he settled down a while to rest, which turned into the rest of his life.
I don’t know what drove the old man that far, and the Bible doesn’t say. But it does tell us that somewhere along that journey God spoke directly to Abram and told him to finish the trip. In fact, God tells Abram to stop settling into whatever had become comfortable, to go out from his country, away from his people, and away from even his father’s household into a land God would show him. The purpose of this land was very specific—Abram was to launch a nation that would bless all the people of the earth.
Critics of the Old Testament tend to rail on Israel for committing genocide, and they don’t care much for a God who operated by choosing a favorite nation. These critics also miss the deeper context of these passages. Fast forwarding to Genesis 15, we see a prophesy about Israel being stuck a while in a foreign land because the “iniquity [sin] of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
“Complete” is a strange word for sin, isn’t it? In Hebrew, it means “full” or “perfect.” I think this shows us how God’s mercy will sometimes allow human rebellion to grow into its own telos (or end). In yesterday’s passages about the Tree of Life and Babel, God intervened to thwart human rebellion—but here, God allows evil to run its natural course—ripening into full defiance against the creator.
So on those occasions when the nation of Israel steps into the Middle East as a militant, conquering kingdom, it’s functioning within the script of God’s perfect timing. Any nation that faces God’s justice (meted out by Israel) has reached its final moral tipping point—additional time or opportunity to live uprightly will do that nation no good.
I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s description of a hell-bound soul here, the man to whom God says, “Not my will but thine.” For such a soul, another day on earth would not lead to a desire for greater union with God. The fullness of rejection has been completed, and God at last permits a man’s will to chase his own sovereignty into the darkness.
Contrasted against such a posture, we see Abram, an imperfect man who slowly learns to trust a invisible God for a future he will never see in full. God tells him to go somewhere he’s never been for the sake of people he can’t even imagine. He is promised children, though his wife is barren, and it’s all sort of comic and ridiculous. Here's the sort of story Christian rationalists and empiricists couldn’t begin to explain away in a debate with Bill Nye.
But all this mystery heads toward one big purpose--God's intent to bless the world. So the covenant is not about elitism; it’s about the beginning of a holy movement that’s eventually going to undo all the damage Adam and Eve brought to this broken planet.
God’s ways are quirky, though--Abram is actually kind of ridiculous in the beginning. Sure, this man would eventually trust God deeply enough to offer him an only son, but he isn’t any kind of hero in his early years. In fact, he bails on his wife, abandoning her to a foreign king.
I’ve been married long enough to know what kind of lecture that poor dude was likely to face after this whole mess was straightened out. If you've ever been trapped in a car with an angry woman, just imagine miles and miles on the road with angry Sarai. She was cynical sort, anyway—we get that from the whole tent/laughter debacle. And by how she treated Hagar, we know she could be cold as ice when she felt threatened.
Abram had to travel all the way from Egypt to Canaan with this woman after betraying her. “You just HANDED ME OVER like a PIECE OF MEAT!” Did he hear that a thousand times? I hope so.
If you wonder why Abraham grew so much spiritually between Harran and Caanan, you need to get to know the fury of a scorned female a little bit better. Makes me laugh every time. God works in mysterious ways, and we've got some serious sanctification going on here, folks.
By the time Abram rescues Lot from the King Kedorlaomer (et al.), he’s grown. Abram refuses the spoils of war saying that he’s not willing to risk belittling God by making alliances with an earthly ruler who could someday make a claim on Abram’s success. Abram wanted to offer that sort of allegiance only to God. (Some of our modern religious leaders could learn a lot here, right?)
Soon after he makes this leap, God speaks to Abram in a vision saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Don't miss the contrast here. As Abram turned down the protection and wealth of the stuff of earth, God said that he was going to offer his own presence and resources instead. Abraham has chosen the Living Lord himself, and God's going to make good on that decision.
I wish I had time to write through the next few chapters. They are so beautiful and so ruggedly honest. God presents his covenant with visual symbols that would take our breath away, if we could see them with our own eyes. Then Abram fumbles in his faith again as the glory settles and as silence rises. (Don’t we all?) I see myself in these chapters. I cheer for Abram. I cringe for him. He is all of us, isn’t he?
How fitting that this section of the story hits in our reading alongside Psalm 4, one of my favorite Psalms in the Bible because it’s just so raw. David pours out his feelings. He appeals. He tries to cling to the truth. He collapses in surrender. He rests.