The Journey Is Our Home (Genesis 12:1-9)
- September 10th, 2018
We are People of the Promise. God makes promises to us and that shakes things up. It sets things in motion. When God comes making a promise, you know your life will never be the same.
Just ask Sarai and Abram.
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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,
6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
The Bible begins BIG, with a series of epic stories about world history: Creation, Fall, Flood, the Tower of Babel. You could call it myth; Karl Barth preferred the term saga. It is pre-historical. The characters are broadly drawn and events take place on an enormous stage.
But something shifts in Genesis chapter 12. Instead of saga, we get…something else. Not history, strictly speaking, but what Hans Frei called “realistic narrative.” (More about Frei and his theological project here). The focus narrows considerably: from big stories about world history to something smaller and much more human –a melodrama. Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky once described Genesis as “an ugly little soap opera about a dysfunctional family.”
He has a point, but I want to quibble with one word in that description. Genesis it isn’t ugly, not exactly; it is just so very human.
The soap opera starts here, in Genesis 12, with the very human figures of Abram, Sarai and Lot. They are residents of Haran, a large city in northern Mesopotamia (probably modern day Turkey). Abram (later Abraham) is often remembered as the founding figure of the three “Abrahamic” faiths –Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But he is an ordinary person living an ordinary life –until God shows up and stars making promises.
The promise comes abruptly –without warning or prelude. “The lord” tells Abram to leave his home and his family for a location to be named later (“the land that I will show you.”). If he does this, God will do three things in return:
- “Make of you a great nation.”
- “Bless you and make your name great”
- “So that you will be a blessing.”
Less poetically, God will give him land and kids, the two things that matter most in this patriarchal milieu. (Dwight Schrute would agree).
So Abram goes. And right away we learn a fun fact: Abram is 75 years old. Now, of course, in our highly advanced society 70 is the new 30, but before modern medicine 75 is…not young. (Especially for someone still hoping to have children). But anyway, they go and everywhere they go they worship “The lord”
Just a couple quick thoughts as we prepare for worship this weekend:
- I keep putting “The lord” in quotation marks. “Lord” is a term that has fallen out of favor in progressive in some progressive Christian circles. (For example, Womanist biblical scholar Wil Gafney explains that “the gospels use “lord” (capital L) as a religious title for God and therefore Jesus, but it is also the title of slave masters, which is why I don’t use it in my prayers.” But in the Hebrew Bible, when the word appears in small caps (“lord”), we are dealing with something else. This is the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of YHWH, the divine name thought to be so sacred that it cannot be pronounced. For God to appear as YHWH suggests an intimacy to this relationship –Sarai and Abram relates to God on a first name basis.
- The promise, as defined in Genesis 12, is a little off-putting. What God promises Sarai and Abram is, in effect, other people’s land. This has caused problems right down to the present day. (To put it mildly). As we read this text, we must be careful not to construe God’s promise as something that entitles us to what rightfully belongs to anyone else.
- God’s promise sets things in motion –an unsettling thought! Before the promise, Sarai and Abram were stable, situated, rooted. After the promise, life is much less settled and much more interesting. The nomadic existence of the matriarchs and the patriarchs of Genesis offers a powerful metaphor for the life of faith. So in Theology of Hope, Moltmann approvingly quotes Victor Maag: “Nomadic religion is a religion of promise…The gods of the nations are locally bound. The…God of the nomads, however, is not bound territorially and locally. [God] journeys along with them, is…on the move.” And Moltmann goes on to develop this insight in a fascinating way: The future is not mere repetition of the past but an invitation to something genuinely new. The life of faith is a journey into something we have not yet known or seen.
The Journey is Our Home.