LESSONS: from Isaiah 41:8-10
Hebrews 11:8-12, 17-22
We’re making a survey of the Old Testament—to look at the forest instead just the trees. We’re trying to see something of the whole, and not just individual passages. So today, we take up the section from Genesis Chapter 12 through Chapter 50. This is the story of the patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
The story of Abraham begins in Genesis chapter 11. This tells how the sons of Noah multiplied into all the various tribes and nations, and then were scattered at the tower of Babel. Then the focus turns to one son, Shem. We sometimes refer to the people in the Middle East as Semites. That comes from the name Shem.
From Shem, we count down a few generations to a father who had three sons, Nahor, Haran, and a guy named Abram—… Abraham.
Then the soap opera begins. It says that brother Nahor married his niece. And in chapter 20, Abraham will tell us that his wife, Sarah, was actually his half-sister. Same father, different mothers. And we’re just getting started.
Nasty stuff. This past week, we’ve seen a whole range of human emotions played out in congressional hearing rooms—people hurt and fearful, others angry and yelling. Human stories aren’t pretty. By the time we get to Abraham, we have stepped into something we can identify as history.
That becomes clear when we’re told that Abraham was from Ur. That was a real place, one of the earliest known cities; a place in Iraq unearthed by archaeologists in 1862, about halfway between modern Baghdad and the Persian Gulf.
In chapter 12, Abraham sets out from Ur and lands at a place called Bethel. We can point to that on a map too. Then he goes to Egypt. Everyone knows where Egypt is. By the time we come to Joseph, we are introduced to the Egyptian Pharaoh. No names are mentioned, but history has much to tell us about the ancient pharaohs.
Now what’s the point? Simply this: With the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, God is working within the context and confines of human history. And that’s a radical statement.
Think of the “normal” religion; the way most people have thought religion is supposed to be. For most people –certainly for the ancients, but for us too—religion is mythology. Religion is the story of the gods slugging it out on Mount Olympus or in the cosmic city of Asgard.
Think of our modern myths, like Star Trek or Star Wars, where powerful, advanced beings —gods back in the old days –interact in galaxies far far away. If they have anything to do with us, it is only with the superheroes, the men larger than life—whether it’s guys like Jason, leading his Argonauts into battle with monsters, or Captain Kirk, steering his magical starship at warp drive.
We don’t expect God to be concerned about a bunch of old Jews with names like Abe, Ike, Jake, and Joe. But he is. God steps into the drama of human history. Sometimes he’s dealing with whole nations and peoples, but far more often, he’s dealing directly with particular individuals.
What does that mean? That God is real. God’s power is real. God is not an abstract philosophical concept, but a living being whose existence meshes with our own. The story of the past tells us that God is far closer to us than we may think.
But it’s still messy. Sometimes, these men step up, and act with majesty and courage. In Genesis 14, for instance, Abraham is a military leader who stages a daring nighttime rescue of his nephew, Lot. Then he forges a peace among the local kings in a part of the world where even today, peace is hard to come by.
Later, Jacob, his grandson, sets out on a long and perilous journey back to the old country, and then, in his old age, leads his family into Egypt to escape a famine. Joseph works his way up from slavery and prison to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command, and through his wise political leadership, he saves the country from starvation.
So they had their moments. But there are even more stories that paint an altogether different picture. In chapter 20, when Abraham explains that his wife was also his half-sister, he says it as he sends her off to another King’s harem, in order to save his own hide. Then Sarah got her revenge when returns and makes him kick out his girlfriend Hagar and their son, Ishmael, who is, at that moment, Abraham’s only son.
Then comes Isaac. Seems nice enough, but he’s also something of a mama’s boy who never really goes anywhere and never really does anything. In chapter 26 he takes a page out of his father’s playbook and sends Rebekah into the king’s harem, claiming that she’s his sister. It’s cowardly and disgusting, and both father and son did it.
Then comes Jacob. In chapter 25, he cheated his own twin brother, Esau, out of his birthright. In chapter 27, with the help of his mother, they plotted to cheat Esau out of the fatherly blessing, by playing a trick on a half-blind feeble old Isaac. It’s the soap opera again. But this is the Holy Bible.
Jacob had twelve sons, by four different mothers. In chapter 37, the teenaged Joseph comes off as a tattle-tale and show off. That’s nothing compared to the other eleven brothers. In chapter 34, in response to an unfortunate incident between their sister and a local boy, they broke a peace treaty, slaughtered every man in the city and stole everything they could carry. Then in chapter 38, they were going to kill brother, Joseph, but “settled” for selling him into slavery, and then lying about it to their grieving father.
This disgusting bunch were the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel; the ancestors of the people of God; their literal ancestors and our spiritual ancestors. And yet, from beginning to end, God is involved with them.
So: If God could see fit to step into their history, then surely God can be part of our history. Turns out that God is just as active in our lives today as he was with Abraham four thousand years ago.
Too often, we ask, Where is God? Why doesn’t God come down and straighten out this or that? We’re like the hecklers at the foot of the cross: o.k. Jesus, where is your God? Why hasn’t he come to take you down?
But God hasn’t deserted us. Sometimes we desert him—but he never deserts us.
We’ve talked of past and present, but these chapters are above all about the future. Two thousand years later, the writer of Hebrew emphasized this aspect in our epistle lesson. “By faith Abraham,” he says, “obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” He lived, verse 9 says,” like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob.” Why? Verse 10 says: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and building is God.”
Abraham was looking to the future.
Too often, we dwell on the past. We whine about what might have been if this hadn’t happened or if the other had happened. We nurse grudges and obsess over those who have wronged us down through the years. The climax of this part of the Bible comes at the end of chapter 50, when Joseph is reunited with his rotten brothers. In Genesis 50:20, he says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid.”.
The message of these chapters is both clear and strong: God worked directly in the lives of individual men and women. And since none of them were any more worthy than us, we have every right and reason to believe that in the present, God continues to work in our lives, if only we will let ourselves see his handiwork.
And if God is alive and working in our lives right now, then that means that we too can stop dwelling on the past or living only for the moment, and start living for the future instead. We can look ahead and dream of what could be and what should be. We can look ahead not as an idle fantasy or daydreaming, but look ahead with confidence and courage and hope, that if we reach for something good, God will reach out ahead of us to help us reel it in.
Isn’t that the real Christian message? Christians should be more like Christ. Care about people, especially those at the bottom of the ladder. Care about the suffering. Be generous, accepting, welcoming, forgiving. What matters is not how much we can pile up in the present, but what kind of legacy we will leave to the future.
That’s the message of Genesis for us. We can rise above this moment. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Genesis 12:4 says Abraham was 75 years old when he set out to find his future. Today, God is calling us as in verse 10 of the lesson: “I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed , for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Praise God!