Flesh vs Faith Part 5: The Call of Abraham

You lived 175 years and never went beyond faith – Søren Kierkegaard.

In the series up to now, I have defined Faith and Flesh. Faith, I said, is an active response to God’s revelation, of living trust that what God says matters – no matter how things may seem. I looked at the beginning of the flesh in its self-assertion, telling the Creator “we will not have you rule over us.” I looked at three OT pictures of the commitments of the flesh and at three NT passages concerning the believer’s struggle with the flesh and the antidote of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, like Adam in the garden, the life of Faith is a life of dependence, trusting the Creator.

We are going to turn now to the life of Abraham. He is the example of faith cited frequently in the New Testament as our example. He is the prototype of the righteousness by faith apart from works (Romans 4; Galatians 3, 4) and also the example of how faith works (James 2). The “Faith Chapter” of Hebrews devotes 12 verses to Abraham’s life “by faith” (Hebrews 11). We can take encouragement from the life of Abraham that Faith is the way to live our lives So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:9)

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1) Here is the call of Abraham. It is not the first time he is mentioned, having been named six times in the genealogy in Genesis 11:26-32. Gleaning what we can about Abraham’s pre-call background, the genealogy paints a less than positive picture. Not only are the two cities mentioned as dwelling places for Abraham’s father centers for the cult of the moon god, Sin, two of Terah’s female descendants Sarai (a daughter who became Abraham’s wife) and Milcah (a granddaughter who became Nahor’s wife (and mother to Rebecca, Isaac’s wife)) were named for the moon-god’s consort and daughter.

The early death of Abraham’s brother, Haran (father of Lot and Milcah), is somewhat unique in genealogies, indicative of, perhaps, disfavor on the family. Verse 28 says that Haran died in the presence of his father. While it could be we are to understand that means that Terah outlived his son, Haran, and perhaps he was at his deathbed, a scan of the use of the phrase in the presence of in the Scriptures almost universally indicates official or ritual presence. So, Samuel served in the presence of the Lord (1 Samuel 1:22; 2:11,21). When there is a judgment to be made evidence is presented in the presence of the judges (Genesis 23:18; Deuteronomy 25:9) or the king (1 Chronicles 24:6,31). A ritual is performed in the presence of the assembly (1 Kings 8:22; 1 Chronicles 29:10). I did not find an instance where in the presence of means simply that someone was present. Even its use in Psalm 23:5, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, the context is in the Lord’s exaltation of his people over their enemies, not merely that predators are in the woods watching the sheep eat grass. So, with Genesis 11:28, I believe there is indication that the death of Haran “in the presence of” his father was a matter of judicial or ritual action on the part of Terah, neither possibility being a positive reflection on Haran’s fate.

Finally, there is the statement in Joshua. Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. (Joshua 24:2) Abraham was at least raised in idol worship. In Hebrew tradition, there is a story that as a child Abraham went into his father’s idol shop and destroyed all the idols and taught Terah a lesson concerning their lifelessness showing how false they are. But the Scriptures indicate no such thing. The evidence, scant as it may be, is that Abraham was himself called out of idol worship and that the call was not based on anything in Abraham’s past but on the choice of God. This must always be how it is with the life of faith. Even should the story of Abraham’s precocious instruction of his father be true, post-call Abraham, like Paul, would count it rubbish.

The call of Abraham, which continues on to verse 3 of Genesis 12, contains several elements, of which for the sake of this article, I can highlight only a few. The call is to move from his country and his father’s house. To my eye, there seems to be a connection with Jesus’ statement, If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26) Clearly, this will come up again later in the story of Abraham, but from the beginning, the life of faith is one where one’s relationship with God takes precedence. The call to “hate” is not a call to treat hatefully, but to act knowing that dependence on God is the best way to love those you love even when it seems you are leaving them. Significantly, while the from is obvious, the to is left to the Creator and the creation is to depend on God for it (to the land that I will show you).

What seems to me to be an important observation is that this call has two imperatives. In most translations, there appears to be one: Go forth (v 1). The second imperative is found at the end of verse 2: be a blessing. The translations usually have this as so that you will be a blessing1. So the translations have this as a consequence of the work of God in blessing Abraham. But there seems to be a structure in the text:
Go forth from your country … (imperative)
I will make you a great nation
I will bless you
(I will) make your name great
Be a blessing (imperative)
I will bless those who bless you
I will curse whoever treats you with contempt
(I will) bless all the families of the earth through you
Of course, this brings up another question. How does one follow a command to “be a blessing”?

I think the answer is found in Abraham’s response. We know that when God revealed his will that Abraham leave By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8) The first place we see Abraham stop is Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. (Genesis 12:6) The fact that Moses mentions the oak tree at Shechem indicates that it was a significant landmark. The word translated “place” in this verse means “sacred place” in the Hebrew. Later, in the time of the judges, it says all the leaders of Shechem came together, and all Beth-millo, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem. (Judges 9:6) and as that story progresses, they call it the diviner’s oak (Judges 9:37). This tree in particular seems to have been a center for cultic activity. It is here that God appeared to Abraham to tell him this is the place he was sending him (Genesis 12:7). And it is here that Abraham built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12:7). Throughout Abraham’s journeys, whenever he comes to a new place, it records that he built an altar to the Lord. From Shechem, he goes to Bethel And there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD. (Genesis 12:8) It seems to me that it is in the building of the altars and calling on the name of the Lord that Abraham lives out the faith response to God’s revelation that he is to be a blessing. God called Abraham to an idolatrous place to bless these idolaters by calling on the name of the Lord.

The biblical story of Abraham, our example of faith, begins with the call of God. Abraham by faith responds by following God’s call in dependence on him. A further contrast with Adam may be found in Abraham’s response to being in the place of God’s choosing by calling on the name of the Lord, rather than listening to the occupants of the land in their idolatry.

1 The NET has a note explaining this translation: “The vav (ו) with the imperative after the cohortatives indicates purpose or consequence”. I know. This is technical Hebrew stuff. I quoted it to show there are reasons for the way the text is translated. There is no pretense that I know Hebrew well enough to correct translations, but it seems to me the imperative serves a function not reflected in them.

This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, Culture/Society, Ethics, Flesh vs Faith, Genesis 12. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Flesh vs Faith Part 5: The Call of Abraham

  1. Kevin says:

    In your first post, Faith: The Substance, there was a line that struck me, remains with me through the series to this point and now has become a distraction that I must bring up now. “Faith is an active response to Revelation”

    I like the line, no worries but…….. Noah and Abraham both surrounded by idolatry. What would personal revelation from God be like? How powerful? Neither man received instruction from an angel, only some form of direct communication was given. How would you know that the communication was real vs losing your mind?

  2. xulonjam says:

    We really don’t know from the Bible how the word was given to either of these guys, Abraham got angels later on the story. They both did things that seemed lost-your-mind-ish, so I assume the revelation they got was powerful. Today we have Revelation recorded in the Bible to gauge our actions by, so it’s not like we are without resources.

    As I approach Abraham (Part 7 particularly) I see his life, like ours, to be a process of growing and that as we live out of the wisdom we have, we find growth in wisdom.

  3. Kevin says:

    Good reply to an unanswerable question. I found myself sort of in their shoes for a moment just trying to imagine direct revelation; Get up and go, build a huge boat in your frontyard.

    Daydream is the word, maybe. Don’t sweat it. It happens to me sometimes.

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