05 December 2008

God Speaks To Us - Abraham

Abraham is usually recognized as the founding leader of the Jewish religion and he definitely was one of the more prominent contributors. The interesting thing is, much of what he did religiously he received from his ancestors and there were only two new developments in this religion during his lifetime.

He didn’t wear different clothes or “move his affiliation” or modify his diet. The only additions were the institution of circumcision and the naming of Canaan as the geographical home of those who were followers. Together these additions don’t add up to massive religious changes but both were an inconvenience to Abraham, especially the land issue. Circumcision wasn’t too difficult to manage but living in the land was a constant source of irritation. On a religious level, not much changed during his life but on a personal level, his world was turned upside down.

Admittedly, choosing Canaan as the future home of Israel was significant to us but for Abraham it wasn’t very gratifying. He never owned any of the land other than the cave in which he buried Sara and living in Canaan was not a treat for him or his family. The spiritual environment and most of the residents were a constant source of grief.

To follow God, Abraham made many personal sacrifices and there were few positive outcomes to validate his troubles. When he died, the religion was still barely noticeable and his family was divided. So, we must ask, how did Abraham know with certainty he was where God wanted him to be, doing what God wanted him to do? How did God direct him in the first place and how did God encourage him to endure these troubles?

His Experience
In order to appreciate his sacrifices you need to know the problems he faced.

Journey Problems
To start, he travelled hundreds of miles from Ur to Canaan, a place he had never been and about which he knew nothing. He didn’t even know where he was going when he started.

To say this journey was “comfort challenged” is an understatement. There was no “modern” means of transport and he travelled with his family, a large number of servants and a large number of animals all of whom had to be fed and protected.

Family Problems
Abraham’s family situation was often discouraging. Sara went along with his plans but she wasn’t always sympathetic. Given his indecision, we can understand why.

His father died in Haran (halfway between Ur and Canaan) and his nephew, Lot, fought with him over rights to grazing land. Eventually the two separated never to be restored. The rest of his family stayed behind. He never saw them again.

Assimilation Problems
Even though Abraham’s “household” was a large contingent (his personal militia included 318 men) he never got established in the land. He was nomadic. He gave the appearance of being unsettled, even unstable. He moved several times within the land (on one occasion out of the land) and related to the locals only at a distance. “Untrusting” and “disconnected” would be the best words to describe his relationship with his neighbors. He was never close friends with anyone in the area.

When Abraham moved to Canaan it was a step down socially and culturally. He gave up everything when he left Ur: name, relationships, lands, influence and most of these things were never recovered in his lifetime. Many generations passed before any of his descendants took possession of the land. Even more generations passed before he was recognized for the greatness of his faith.

We are not being unreasonable to ask, “how did God communicate with this man?” How did He convince Abraham to go in the first place and how did He encourage him to stay once he arrived? Well, on a technical level, the answer is easy. He used spoken words, established principles of truth, circumstances and people to convey His message.

The Spoken Word
There were several times when God spoke audibly to Abraham over a span of at least 30 years:

• When He instructed him to leave for Canaan and after he arrived (Gen.12)
• When He promised him the entire land of Canaan (Gen 13)
• When He assured him he would have a biological heir (Gen 15)
• When He instituted circumcision (Gen 17)
• When He was about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19)
• When He encouraged him to send Hagar and Ishmael away (Gen 21)
• When He tested him with the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22)

These messages were specific and personal. They required a very special means of communication, such as the audibly spoken word and the information is pertinent for us also.

Some would suggest that God still speaks in this way today. If so, then we would expect the message to be very personal and to have huge implications for the greater population. That was the case with Abraham.

We could say more about this but it isn’t the point of this post. We will leave it for later.

Established Principles of Truth
Abraham did many things in Canaan, which he no doubt had previously learned about in Ur. All of them were well represented in Bible history.

He offered sacrifices and worshipped. In fact, every time he moved within the land he built an altar as a matter of course. He also practiced tithing (Gen 14) which is a bloodless offering.

He was socially guarded. For the most part Abraham was civil toward the surrounding communities but he kept a safe distance. He interacted with them when necessary and was always fair but he was never “close” to any of them.

He understood monogamy. Abraham did commit adultery but not easily or without consequence. We are certain he understood monogamy or there wouldn’t have been a tense discussion between him and Sara over having a child with Hagar.

The practice of having children by concubines was widespread in those days. It was a matter of protection. There is power in numbers. If Abraham didn’t live by a different standard he and Sara would have adopted this practice long before they arrived in Canaan.

He displayed honesty, courage and self-sacrifice. Abraham led the way in defeating a confederate army of five different kings only because he wanted to save Lot and his family from captivity. When the battle was over, he confidently and publicly refused any of the spoils which were associated with Sodom.

Grace. The same man who was honest and courageous on one occasion also lied twice to different kings (dishonest). He did so to protect his life (cowardice) and he put Sara’s life in jeopardy when he did (selfish). The truth is, Abraham made a lot of mistakes but he never gave up on himself or God. There was a thirteen year period following the birth of Ishmael during which God said nothing to Abraham. His relationship with Sara was strained during that time and he probably never touched Hagar again but he knew something about the grace that God gives. Instead of running he patiently waited.

In the story of Abraham, God never restated any of these principles. He never told Abraham to worship, offer sacrifices, be socially guarded or be monogamous. They were well established principles and God neither repeats nor defends Himself. He doesn’t retell each successive generation everything He established before. Abraham was aware of these principles and when he failed, God was silent not noisy. Fortunately, even God’s grace was an established principle which sustained him through the failure. These are principles we can bank on even today.

We have much more Bible than Abraham and far less reason to need individualized instruction. Therefore, if you want God to speak to you, the best place to start is the written Word. The more Bible you read the more God you hear.

Sometimes God used the consequences of Abraham’s actions to communicate with him. This happened more than once.

When Abraham lied, God spoke to the kings, in both cases, not Abraham. In return, the kings reprimanded Abraham publicly. They were echoing God’s sentiments. God didn’t need to say anything.

When Abraham committed adultery, God said nothing to anyone. Sara, however, had a lot to say. The friction was a constant reminder that adultery is a no-no. God needed to say nothing more.

Abraham's Resolve - The Real Issue
There were two details in Abraham’s life that kept him off balance. One was living in the land without socially integrating and the second was having a child by Sara. The question for Abraham, in both cases, was not "did God speak," but "did God mean what He said." No one has received instruction more clearly or specifically than Abraham. The clearness of God’s communication was not the issue. Abraham’s ability to accept it was.

When he arrived in the land and experienced famine, he was confused. When he remained childless for years, especially after he arrived in the land he was frustrated. When Sara suggested he have a child by Hagar (doing what they knew was questionable) he was uncertain. But, through all of these situations Abraham learned that God not only speaks, He means exactly what He says.

Abraham lived a hundred years in Canaan and survived famines, family conflicts, war and God’s judgment on neighboring cities. All of those problems, however, were incidental. The real lesson for Abraham was learning to overcome his indecision. Getting to Canaan was difficult. Staying there was even more difficult. His resolve was constantly tested. What we learn from his experience is not “how” God speaks to us but that He doesn’t repeat Himself and He really means what He says.

When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the Bible clearly says it was a test. A test of what? A test of his resolve to take God at His word. God never changed His instructions to Abraham but He did change Abraham’s ability to live with it.

For now, if you want to know what God is saying to you, read your Bible. Do what it says. ThinkAboutIt.

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