One of the challenges of reading the Bible, is trying to discern what the point of a passage is. You can read a narrative section and understand what’s happening without really being clear on what it’s there for. What is God trying to say? One of the keys to understanding this is context. What comes before? What comes after? Is there anything tying things together? This week’s e100 reading introduces the life of Abraham, who was initially called Abram. The entire history of the world until his birth is summarized in just eleven chapters, but Genesis devotes fourteen chapters to the events of this man’s life. Why is he so important? What’s the significance of his life? Consider how the clues in the context make God’s intention clear.
Abraham seems to come onto the biblical scene abruptly in Gen 12:1, but, in fact, he is introduced in Gen 11:31 where we learn he is from “Ur of the Chaldeans.” Ur was near the city of Babel, known later as Babylon, where earlier in Gen 11 the peoples of the earth conspired together to build the infamous tower. So, already we see that there’s a Babel connection between Gen 11 and 12. As we look more closely at Gen 12:1-3, however, we see God promising to make him “a great nation” and make his “name great” and through him to bless “all the families of the earth.” Aware now that there might be a connection with what came before (and there usually is!), we start thinking about the connections to the account of the Tower of Babel.
At Babel, the people used their technology and achievement (Gen 11:3) to avoid going out into the rest of the world and instead tried to build a great tower to “make a name” for themselves (Gen 11:4). Seeing that they were united in rebellion against his plan to fill the earth (Gen 1:22, 28; 9:1, 7), God confounded their plans and scattered them. But the brief account ends ominously. Human sin has invited God’s judgment in the garden (Gen 2-3), with the flood (Gen 6-8), and now with the Tower at Babel (Gen 11). With this third strike, is humanity now “out?” Has God given up?
Right after the account of Babel, we’re introduced to the descendants of a man named “Shem,” his name means literally, “name.” God calls one of his descendants, Abram, and in his conversation with him shows a series of connections with what’s just taken place. At Babel, the people huddled together to avoid being sent out into the earth, but with Abram God called him to leave his country and go to “the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1) which we saw last week was like a return to Eden. At Babel, the people tried to make a name for themselves through their efforts, but with Abram God promises to make his name great through His blessing. At Babel, the people experienced God’s judgment and were scattered over the earth, but through Abram God promises to bless all the families of the earth. At Babel, the people built a tower and made a name for themselves, but with Abram, he travelled throughout the Promised Land and built altars to God and called upon His name (Gen 12:7, 8; 13:18).*
As you look at the connections, it becomes clear that Abram is God’s answer to Babel. Far from giving up after Babel, God has an incredible plan that He will bring to pass through this man and his offspring. The chapters that follow sometimes seem like random episodes but in each one, human sin threatens to derail God’s plan either with respect to Abram’s descendants, his blessing the families of the earth, or the gift of the land (cf. John H. Sailhamer’s book, The Pentateuch as Narrative). In each case, God shows that His faithfulness can overcome human failing. We ought to be encouraged that God’s faithfulness can overcome our sin, too! He hasn’t given up!
As we come to the New Testament and read, Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham (Gal 3:7), we see what a great legacy we’ve been entrusted with. As followers of Abraham’s descendant, Jesus, the ultimate solution to human sin and rebellion, we’re called to go out and establish outposts where people can call on the name of the Lord. We’re called to trust in God’s plan and God’s promises rather than make a name for ourselves through our own achievements. And through the gospel, we’re called to bring blessing to all who are suffering from the judgment that this world encounters because of sin.
May God stir your hope and motivate your obedience to His commission as you read His Word this week.
In awe of Him,
* For these and other parallels see L. Michael Morales’ book, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?
Image courtesy of Phillip Medhurst (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons