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Home School of Biblical Theology Doing Biblical Theology - No 8 - Abram’s story [1]

Doing Biblical Theology - No 8 - Abram’s story [1]

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 Doing Biblical Theology - Talk  8


Abram’s story [1]: ‘God acts promising a fresh start.’  

Genesis 12-14            


 David Calderwood

Do you ever find yourself reading the Bible and thinking, this doesn’t make sense, or that this chapter or section shouldn’t be there at all, or even that it is ridiculous?  



I’m not talking about having difficulty understanding the precise meaning of a paragraph – that happens from time to time. No, I’m wondering if you read the bible and find yourself regularly thinking that the whole thing doesn’t make any sense or shouldn’t be there at all.



Well, if you don’t then I would suggest you are not reading your bible properly. That’s a big call isn’t it, so let me say it again. If you don’t ever find yourself thinking these sorts of things, then I suggest you are not reading your bible properly.



Turn with me now to a great example of this very thing in Genesis 12:1-3 where God makes what has to be described as a ridiculous promise to a ridiculous bloke called Abram.



In two verses God promises blessing to his world no less than five times, and in three distinct and obvious ways.



First, God promises to provide a new place or land for his people.



Second, God promises to make them into a great nation that will enjoy all God’s blessings or all the good things of God that make up the good life God wanted people to enjoy.



Third, God promises that through this new group of people, he would bless every nation on earth so that they too might enjoy the good life that God wanted them to have.



The problem is that none of this makes sense. It’s ridiculous! Logic tells us that there shouldn’t even be a Genesis chapter 12 when we go back to Genesis 1-11 and put God’s promise against the big picture of the early history of God’s world.



The beautiful reality of God’s creation: God’s kingdom where God’s people, were in God’s place, the Garden of Eden, enjoying the good life God made them to enjoy as they lived under his rule and the authority of his word, didn’t last long.



God’s image bearers rejected God’s authority and the good life good life given by God, determined to find their own version of the good life without reference to God’s word and relationship with him. And that wrecked everything.


The good life had become the increasingly ugly life of sin and rebellion, forcing God to act in increasingly severe judgments culminating in such harsh condemnation after Babel.



That’s why chapter 12 doesn’t make sense – logically God should have simply destroyed the world. So, why does God give a promise of rich blessing to his world which is hell-bent on treating him with such utter contempt?



The answer cannot be one of logic. It can only be one of grace, of God’s undeserved mercy to those who deserve only destruction. And again that is a clear theme in Genesis 1-11 .



God’s judgment on sin or rebellion was real and severe, but it was never absolute. God never abandoned his world or his people, but intended to sort out the mess that rebellion had made and restore things to how they were at the beginning.



Genesis 12:1-3 is God’s initiative to re-establish his kingdom so that once again his people will be in his special place enjoying the good life they were created for, under his rule.



 But there’s something else that doesn’t make sense, something even more ridiculous at first glance - God promises to deliver his blessing to the whole world through this bloke Abram.



Once again logic fails us. Why would God use a man who was living apart from God and most likely worshipping the moon? Once again the only answer that makes sense of it all is God’s grace and God’s purpose seen in God’s commitment to his messed up image-bearers.   



Friends, let’s pause here a moment and note a two things. First note the process of understanding historical narrative or stories in the Bible.  The key to working out the real message of the text is to recognise the single theme or storyline that unifies the whole bible.



This is what we call Biblical Theology:- making sense of Gen 12:1-3 knowing it is inseparably linked with the theme of God’s purpose to undo the effects of sin so evident in Gen 1-11 .



So, the fact that there is no evidence of God’s grace after the judgment at Babel does not mean God’s purpose has failed. Rather we just need to wait for another generation and another chapter to see that God’s purpose or storyline continues unbroken.



And that which at first makes no sense at all, the promise of blessing to a pagan idolater called Abram, properly connected into the big storyline of Biblical theology, suddenly sparkles as yet another creative word from the Lord, another fresh start for his sinful world and sinful, undeserving people.

And second, this proper process pushes us to see what the text is telling us about God and his ways and his work in his world.



God will always confront and judge his rebellious people making the statement that life pursued apart from God is no real life and will end badly.



But God is equally determined to reverse the effects of sin and gather his people again, making them truly great through the good life experienced under his rule and in his place.



So, friends these three verses are in a real sense a statement of the gospel. Here is God’s promise to fix the mess sin has created in his world and thereby restore the conditions of the garden of Eden, his kingdom where his people will once again delight to be under his rule



That means the crusher, mentioned in Genesis 3:15 will be a descendent of Abram. That means these three verses dominate the rest of the bible. In fact it can be said that Genesis 12:1-3 is the text which the rest of the Bible expounds and explains.



Look at the chart. God’s story-line, God’s purpose for his whole world is on view in Genesis 1-11 . From Gen 12 to the end of the OT we see the same story line or purpose being worked out through the nation of Israel beginning with Abram. Then with Jesus the outworking of the storyline of God’s blessing to the whole world is back on view, ultimately taking God’s renewed people to heaven with him forever.    



This is our God – the God of grace who never abandons his sinful people. The God of grace who will finish what he starts in the lives of his people and in his world at large.



Now, let’s move on into Genesis 12:4-14:24 and Abram’s journey with God – the journey to faith and trust in Gods promise.



Immediately after the outrageous promise of verses 1-3, there are three related travel stories. Verses 4-9, Abram goes to the land the Lord shows him; verses 10-20, Abram goes to Egypt, and 13:1-18, there is the return leg from Egypt and events with Lot after this.



So using the idea of the continuing story line of biblical theology with Genesis 12:1-3 as the dominating text, then we can see that having the promise of God is one thing, but responding properly is something else entirely. Let’s see how this works.



Gen 12:4-9 : The excitement of God’s initiative continues to build because we see Abram responding obediently to God’s word, trusting God to make his name great in sharp contrast to those at Babel, determined to achieve greatness by their own efforts.

It would have taken a great deal of faith for Abram to leave behind everything that was familiar and which represented identity and greatness in his day. But with only the promise of God for comfort and hope for the future Abram embarked on a journey into the unknown.



And, verses 6-7, it is only at the great tree of Moreh, very likely a shrine to local Canaanite gods in the heart of Canaanite territory that God confirms the land he is to be given is already claimed by the Canaanites and their gods.



But Abram’s response is one of confident faith and trust as he builds an altar effectively re-claiming the land – God’s promise is already becoming reality, though in a very small way.



Abram moves further South to the mountain pass near Shechem, which controlled access to the Southern part of Canaan. This time he pitches his tent, a sign of staking his claim and again builds an altar to the Lord and worships. Abram was demonstrating his now firm faith that the Lord reigned supreme even where he was not acknowledged.



Gen 12:10-20 But some time later Abram’s confidence in God’s promise is tested at a more personal level. It was one thing to travel through the land and acknowledge God’s sovereign rule, but when personal circumstances got tough, Abram failed.



Abram quickly left the land in a time of severe drought. It would appear that Abram could not apply God’s promise into his immediate personal circumstances, trusting the Lord who would give him the whole land, to give him his next meal.



And when he gets to Egypt Abram makes up a plan to protect himself, again showing his inability to trust that the Lord who would make him the father of a great nation, could keep him safe on a day to day basis.



Abram’s failure  to act on God’s promise in the immediate and challenging circumstances in life makes it clear that if God’s promise is to succeed it will not be because Abram gets it right. It will only be as a result of God’s superintending and intervention. It will be God who will provide and protect and preserve Abram so that his promise is fulfilled.



Gen 13:1-18  Abram, verse 2, returns to near Bethel to worship. And the obvious question must be: has Abram learned the lessons of his journey?



It’s reasonable to think that his worship was one of thankfulness – He and his family had been preserved in spite of his failure to trust; he had experienced the Lord’s blessing in spite of his failures, and was now incredible wealthy and influential.


And it’s reasonable to assume that his understanding of God was now much bigger. He had learned that God was as much in Egypt as he was in Mesopotamia or Canaan. And he appears to have learned a much deeper and personal dependency on God in light of God’s promise and this is demonstrated in the conflict with Lot.



Abram had every right to claim the best land for himself, but instead took what his young nephew didn’t want. This contrast between Lot, being attracted to everything the world offered as greatness, just like a re-run of Babel, and Abram is shown in verse 14-17.



Abram’s trust and confidence in God’s promise is honoured by the Lord who once again confirms that in spite of Lot’s actions, Abram will one day be given all the land as per God’s promise. And so Abram walks the whole land a symbolic act of ownership.



Gen 14:1-24 takes us into the arena of international politics. An aggressive coalition of four Mesopotamian Kings had occupied most of the land of Canaan. After 12 years of repression, a coalition of five local kings rebelled which, verse 5, brought military reprisal the following year, resulting in more occupied territory and the destruction of the rebel coalition.



Abram then gets involved, verse 13, upon hearing that Lot and his family had been part of a large group taken as slaves.



He mobilises his private militia and that of three allies, a total of 318 fighting men, and pursues the Mesopotamian force, catching them near Dan, 180km North. In a surprise night attack, he destroys the much larger, experienced, heavily armed force.



Totally successful, verse 16, Abram returns to be greeted by the king of Sodom, which means evil or unrighteousness, and Melchizedek, King of Salem, which means righteousness.



This exchange, verses 17-24, is very important in light of God’s promise. Both kings publicly recognise Abram’s all-powerful status and recognise that through him blessing has come to the whole world of the day. Another part of God’s promise is being realised in a small way.



But in response Abram refused to be identified in any way with the King of Sodom and all that he represented. However, in a surprise development Abram recognises Melchizedek’s superior position by giving him a portion of the spoils of war.



Abram recognises he is just God’s servant in the whole episode and that it all happens within God’s bigger promise, so he bows to the much superior King of righteousness. Abram now recognises and believes that God will make his promise real; God will rescue his people from their enemies and bring them home again into safety and security.


This is a salvation picture, and while Abram does appear here as a saviour figure, he knows he is part of a far bigger and brighter promise involving one like Melchizedek, involving the King of Righteousness.



Having all the riches of Sodom would have been an incredible coup for Abram, but instead in humility and faith and confident trust in even better things through God’s hand, Abram choose a simple blessing from the King of Righteousness, the blessing of God.



Abram, the man of faith refuses to sell out to or chase after anything but God’s blessing. And that my friends, is also our challenge – to be so content with God’s promise of the good life and every blessing in the spiritual realm in Christ that we are totally content with him.


 Questions to consider:

1. What is wrong with applying Gen 12:11-20 as a lesson that telling lies will always be found out and will get you into trouble?


Dale Ralph Davis writes, “Please don’t moralize the story into a little lesson to threaten children with”.

There is no doubt that telling lies is wrong and that you do eventually get caught out and get into more trouble. All this is true and it could all be shown from the story with Abram and Sarai. But it is not the point of the passage.

It is not the intended message of this biblical text.

The focus in not on Abram’s moral or ethical failure (lying)

But on his failure to believe the promise of 3a in the actual circumstances of his life, especially when under threat.

This alerts us to the fact that most likely Abram will not be the hoped for ‘crusher’ who will finally put things right in God’s world. He cannot put things right if he, himself is part of the problem of failing to trust the Lord and take him at his word (the problem of Eden).

Further this is Abram trying to act to make God’s promise true for him as he thinks it should happen (again trying to grasp the good life as per Eden rather than simply trusting the Lord for the good life)

This in turn throws the spotlight back onto the Lord and makes clear that if the promise is to be achieved and realized then the Lord will have to do it in spite of Abram – by grace and because of his own commitment to his own purpose.

2. In what ways does Abram give us a glimpse of ‘the gospel crusher’ of Gen 3:15 ?

While Abram is already unlikely to be the crusher, he is still a type or pattern or foreshadowing of the crusher.

He is the one in whom the hope of reversal lies

He is a savior figure –

- The innocent one who puts his life on the line against an incredibly powerful enemy who has taken captive God’s sinful people, people who have no other hope of freedom and life than what he offers.

- The one who acts decisively pursuing those who are actually in a situation of their own making (Lot and others having chosen to ignore God and embrace all the alternative good life that ‘the city’ offers) when they do not deserve the cost to Abram of their rescue.

- Picture of federal headship. As Adam acted for all those in his family or line, so Abram sees himself responsible, under God’s promise for all those in his family or line.

- he rescues God’s undeserving people from their greatest enemy that will mean their death, and brings them back into God’s place, and back under God’s rule.

- Like Jesus, he does not claim glory for himself, but humbly accepts blessing from Melchizedek and gives all the glory to the Lord, conscious that he is working for the same salvation outcome as the Lord.

- The enemy of God’s people is crushed by a totally surprising conqueror who initially does not look that powerful or threatening. 









Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 April 2012 10:09  

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