Reading Genesis 12:1-20
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country, and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…” God tells Abram to leave what is familiar to go into what is unknown, and accompanying this command is a promise, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. Abram, in much the way we end each Sunday service, receives a sending and a blessing, a calling and a gift… and Abram chooses to go.
Abram/Abraham is held up as a paragon of faith. Many take effort to stress that Abram has done nothing to earn God’s calling, or seek God’s blessing. Nothing to separate himself from the great mass of people and names previously outlined in the story, and yet God crashes into his life with a commission and a blessing, in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
And thus, more than just being a paragon of faith, Abram is exemplative of the faithful. Exemplative of all of us to whom God has drawn near and called, all those God has said come as you are and I will give you a future, all those who have done nothing to earn God’s attention but have received it nonetheless, who have received grace and love and with that a commission.
And Abram is a paragon of faith, because he responds and goes with God. He leaves what is familiar to go forth to where he does not yet know. It is not until they arrive at the land of Canaan that God reveals that this will be the land given to his offspring… this is the faith of Abram, he hears and responds, he listens and goes.
And then he has to keep going. The next part of the passage details the nomadic life of Abram, Sarai, Lot, and their slaves. Again and again they pitch their tents, build alatars, and pull up stumps. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head, so remarked Jesus, and here, Abram, the father of faith, has no land to call his own. He has the promise of land for his offspring, but for he and his household, they must journey… and because they must journey, they are vulnerable to the insecurity of the land and its climate.
Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside their as an alien… Such a move (then as now) brings with it terrible risks. One of the risks Abram fears is that the Egyptians will see Sarai’s beauty and kill him in order to take her for themselves. To mitigate this risk, Abram suggests they pose as brother and sister, so that should she be taken he would not be killed but rather be spared (and indeed, treated rather well).
Let us begin with the generous read of this decision. Folks in vulnerable situations, facing insecurity, disenfranchisement, and possible violence regularly face compromises and difficult decisions in order to survive. Abram fears he will be killed, it is a rational fear, he also fears – we might suspect - that his untimely death would jeopardise God’s plan. God has called him to be a blessing for all the families of the earth, we have seen Abram express nothing but the supreme level of trust in that promise and calling, he has, we might say, his eye on the prize. The generous read is that stuck in a vulnerable situation, Abram, out of fear of his death and thus the snuffing out of God’s great plans, makes a decision that will ensure his survival, his material reward, and thus secure a future where what was promised will be.
But what of Sarai? This woman who has had no encounter with God of her own, received no promise of her own, received no blessing of her own, and yet, despite this has been journeying with Abram, has put her faith in the promise and calling he received and left the land of her kinsfolk to move about building altars in the hope that at 75 and 65 they will somehow sire a great nation. Despite her faithfulness, Abram chooses his safety over her own, his life over her dignity and bodily autonomy. She is given up to the household of Pharaoh. It is all very well, she might think of Abram, to wish to live in order to be a blessing to all families, but what good is that if you curse your own wife. Is this befitting the paragon of faith?
And what of God? The one who called Abram in the voice that called creation into being. Abram exhibits no sense that he might trust God to bring him and Sarai into Egypt safely. No sense that God might be trusted to deliver them unscathed. We do not see Abram seek God’s wisdom, as they enter this perilous situation. Instead, he allows fear to take charge and bets on the worse of human nature rather than trust in the divine. For surely the promise of God is stronger than the desires of man.
The result (thanks in no pat to Abram) is that things kind of work out ok. Pharoah is plagued and realises he has been deceived. He returns Sarai to Abram, and lets Abram leave with all the livestock, slaves, and wealth he had gained from this whole charade. Sarai, it appears, receives nothing… but she does survive. God delivers Abram and Sarai (a foreshadowing of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt centuries later). For the God who calls, is faithful.
The beginnings of Abram (and Sarai)’s story is a complex and mixed affair. We witness faithful and fearful responses. Such an account is reflective of ways we are all more than one thing, our stories more than black and white. For we can all be selfless and selfish, all be trusting and self-protecting, we can all show great commitment to future flourishing and all forget the ties that bind us. There is a danger, present to each of us, that we picture ourselves as the main character in our story, indeed, in everyone’s story, and thus are at liberty to engage with others as if they are supporting characters in our own life, robbing them of their own multitudes, their own complexity, their own wants, fears, and frustrations. Many who believed themselves called to great work on behalf of God and the world, have let that justify the neglect and mistreatment of those closest to them.
Abram is indeed a paragon of faith; in many ways he is exemplative of the life of the faithful… and from his example we draw wisdom and hope. But he is also exemplative of the many ways we damage others out of fear and selfishness, a paragon for the harm that can come when we view our own flourishing and success as indispensable to the plans of God.
This story, as our first step into our time in the book of Genesis, also exemplifies the danger that comes of reading this narrative as one centred on a paragon of faith, as one centred on a heroic individual, as one centred on the great patriarch, the father of faith. For there are always more people in these stories, even if the way the story is composed does not always draw our attention to their existence, their inner life, or the consequences of the actions of others upon them. We hear little of Sarai and her feelings, and none of the slaves, compelled to follow Abram as he goes forth in faith.
We end as this passage began, with God. God is the one who calls. Who comes to us without us having to prove or earn a thing. The God who commissions us to be a blessing to others. The God who wraps that commission in the promise of God’s own presence. And having gone with us, God is faithful even when we err. Even when we fall short or miss the mark, when we neglect others, when selfishness and fear creeps in: God remains, God abides, God is faithful to us, and God delivers. As the old refrain goes: The God who calls you, will not fail you.
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