Sunday, April 18, 2021

Starting with Abraham 2

continued from here


3. Nevertheless, although we are reading Exodus for the next two weeks, we should dip back into the story of Genesis briefly to get a sense of how we got to Exodus 1. As we said, the thread of Israel's story begins with a man named Abraham. For Abraham, we go back in time to around 1800BC, when there were massive migrations of people going on in the middle east.

While there is no record of Abraham outside the Bible, the path the Bible mentions fits the time in which he is set. His journey starts in Ur, in the very south of what is modern-day Iraq. This is where the two great rivers of the "fertile crescent" meet, the Tigris and Euphrates. This is the birthplace of civilization, where earlier hunter-gatherers first settled down and became stationary, farming the land and starting the first kingdoms.

In the 1700s BC, the old Babylonians become the force with which to reckon, with the famous king Hammurabi ruling the day. Interestingly, Abraham goes to battle in Genesis 14 at the time when an "Amraphel" is ruling in the region of Babylon. If you look at the consonants of this name, they are the same as Hammurabi.

Joshua 24:2 tells us that Abraham's family at that time were "polytheists"--they worshiped other gods "on the other side of the River," meaning the Euphrates. Abraham's path to Canaan, the land that would become Israel, was a two-step process. First, his family went northwest to a place called Harran, which is where modern-day Syria is located. Then God calls Abraham south to Canaan, which is where Israel will eventually be located.

4. One of the themes we will explore as we read is the notion that God meets us where we are. That is, God does not expect us to come up to his level to understand something. Rather, God is patient. God speaks our language. God finds a way to move us forward starting within our categories.

If you think about it, how could it be any other way? First, we surely could not understand God on God's own terms. I am frankly amazed at how arrogant we often are without knowing it, thinking we understand so much about God. Perhaps at some point you have studied something that has put you in your place. Maybe it was a math or a science course. What you may not realize is that there are puzzles that even the smartest people cannot solve. Even the great Einstein went to his grave without figuring out things he spent decades working on.

Now think of God. How often people like you and me think we have God figured out. I often preach and teach things about God. Scholars write books about God. Yet I am convinced the most "learned" among us are going to be horribly embarrassed in heaven to realize how stupid we were.

The bottom line is that we really have no hope unless God "stoops to our weakness" and comes to us in our categories. This is what some people call "incarnational" revelation. Remember that Jesus took on human flesh when he came to earth (John 1:14)? So when God speaks to us and when God spoke to people in the Bible, he takes on our intellectual "flesh." God speaks our language and then moves us from there.

5. We may see hints of this fact in the names of God in Genesis. At the very beginning of Abraham's story, he is met by a mysterious priest by the name of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18), just after the battle mentioned above. Some think this priest may have been a "cameo" by Jesus in the Old Testament, although the Bible never says this. [1]

Melchizedek is the priest of "El-Elyon" or "God Most High." In other words, he is the priest of the highest god. Peoples in this phase of history worshiped many gods, just like Abraham's parents. At the top of these "pantheons" or collections of all the gods, was a chief god, a king of the gods. In Greek mythology, it was Zeus. In the Babylonian pantheon, it was Marduk.

If we ask ourselves, how might these people have worshiped God before there was a Bible, surely this is a strong possibility (cf. Ps. 82). Someone like Abraham, who had no Bible, could certainly have worshiped God by worshiping "God Most High." This is at least a good possibility for how God might have met someone like Abraham within his understanding of the world at that time.

Exodus 6:3 tells us that Abraham did not yet know God by his first name--Yahweh. This is the name that God reveals to Moses later on, at the burning bush. Whenever you see the word LORD in all capitals in the Old Testament, that is a translation of Yahweh, the proper name of God. My name is Ken. God's revealed name in the Old Testament is Yahweh.

Exodus 6:3 says that Abraham, then his son Isaac, then Isaac's son Jacob, all knew God as "El Shaddai," God Almighty. It says they did not know him as Yahweh. Notice the word "El" again, which means "god" in Hebrew. They might easily have known El Elyon as El Shaddai, "God Almighty." 

A clever person might then say, "But why does Genesis call God Yahweh all over the place? Genesis acts like Abraham knew God as Yahweh." My answer is that this is "after the fact" language. 

Let's say your name is Ken, but you later get the nickname "Flick" because of something you do with your hair when you teach. Someone might still talk about Flick doing things as a child even though you did not yet have that nickname at that time. Joshua refers to Jerusalem several times, even though it probably was not yet called that (e.g., Josh. 10:1; cf. Judg. 19:11). In the same way, Genesis can refer to God as Yahweh even though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not yet know God by this name. The author and reader of Genesis knew well enough the name by which God would later reveal himself.

6. I might also add that, while I have been referring to God as a he... 

[1] The idea of the appearance of Christ in the Old Testament is called a "Christophany." However, this idea is an early Christian tradition. The Bible nowhere says this happened.


Bob MacDonald said...

Joshua 24 is quite a chapter - almost creedal - and expressing that arrogance you speak of above - "we will serve Yahweh". The word for /serve/ occurs 16 times in that one chapter. A study in good intentions? I've been reading Amos Oz, or I should say, I have had it read in my deaf ears as a means of learning to hear and speak modern Hebrew. Not sure it's working, but the subject is of paramount importance in the history of conflict that still shows its terrible results in the land and surrounding lands. (I particularly noted verse 13... a land where you did not labour, and cities which you did not build, and you have inhabited them. ...)

Ken Schenck said...

Appreciate your interaction with these Bob!