Story 31: Pleading for Sodom

Genesis 18:16-33

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Three visitors had come to visit Abraham.  He had provided them with a feast and honored their presence at his home.  These guests were truly worthy of such an honor.  For you see, two of them were angels, and the third was the LORD himself!  They had come to announce to Abraham and Sarah that a son would be born to them within the next year.  Their world was about to change.

As the men prepared to leave, they looked out from Abraham’s tent at the plains below.  There in front of them, off in the distance, was the city of Sodom.  It was also where Lot, Abraham’s nephew, lived with his family.  The people of Sodom lived morally filthy lives.  It was a place full of a corruption and abuse, where the vulnerable were all the more vulnerable and the powerful had few to stop them from doing whatever they wanted.  Abraham had already rescued Lot from capture to pagan kings (see Story 23).  In doing so, he and his men had saved the Sodomites and all of their animals and gold as well.  But Abraham refused to keep any of it for himself.  He would have no connection to them in any way.  He utterly rejected their ways…and they knew it.  His rebuke against them had no effect.  A testimony of God’s right, straight, pure ways had been given to these people by a man who had saved their lives, but they had not let it change them.  They continued on in their aggressive rebellion against God.

As Abraham and his exalted guests looked over the city, the LORD thought to Himself:

“‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?  Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations on earth will be blessed through him.  For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just…’”

 God had made a very special covenant with Abraham to become a great nation.  He longed for the children of Abraham to live as righteous people who would bless the world with their purity and goodness.  The nation of Sodom had done the opposite.  They lived in the deep dark filth of total sinfulness.  Their sin was not only perverse, it was violent.  The people had given themselves over to Satan, and they had become just like him.  They preyed on the weak and destroyed any hope of goodness.  Those who wanted to be good became targets of malice,  deception, and seduction.    The cry of the oppressed, those who suffered under the agonies of their wickedness, was heard by God, and now He was going to judge them.

Abraham was to become the father of God’s holy nation.  It was important that he understood God’s judgment on the wicked.     God had tremendous grace and compassion for all people of the earth.  He did not come in judgment easily or lightly.  It was always perfectly fair and just.  So God said something that would start a discussion with Abraham. It would prove two things.  First, it would show that Abraham was a just man with great compassion.  He was a lot like God.  Second, in the integrity of God’s perfect holiness and justice, He will not allow evil and wickedness to continue unchecked.  But when He judges, God takes great care to protect and watch over the righteous and the innocent. This is what the LORD said to Abraham:

 

“‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached Me.  If not, I will know.’”

 

Once the LORD said this, the two angels turned and began to walk towards Sodom, but the LORD stayed behind.  Abraham stood there in shock.  What was the LORD saying? Was he really going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? He went to Him and said:

 

 “‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  What if there are fifty righteous people in the city?  Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?  Far be it from You to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from You!  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’”

 

Wow!  God had shown Abraham His plan, and now we see Abraham’s passion for the goodness of his God.  His Lord was not like the other gods.  He did not unfairly punish the innocent!   Abraham interceded for the innocent in Sodom, arguing with God Himself!  Would God hold back His judgment if fifty people could be found in the city who were righteous?  A small city in those days would have about a hundred people, so fifty might have been about half the city.

Now, Abraham knew just how bad Sodom was.  His concern was not for all the wicked who would perish.  Their own choices had brought judgment on themselves, and it was right for God to punish them.  Abraham’s concern was for the righteous who would be judged with them.

God’s care for the righteous was far deeper and more powerful than Abraham’s.  God had started the conversation to prove the goodness of Abraham’s character, not His own.  As Abraham defended the innocent, his own purity and righteousness was allowed to shine.  His desire for justice drove him to argue with God!

The LORD knew this story would be told for many generations.  Abraham’s children would tell it and retell it to their children, and they would learn important lessons.  They would see the character of Abraham, the honored father of their beloved nation.  They would learn that he thought the lives of righteous men were valuable and worth protecting.  These things would become set as high values in the culture of God’s holy nation.  It would influence the hearts of the people and the decisions of their kings for hundreds of years.  Over a thousand years later, the descendants of Abraham would have a saying:

 

“‘Whoever is merciful to his fellow beings is without doubt of the children

of our father Abraham; whoever is unmerciful to his fellow beings

certainly cannot be of the children of Abraham our father’”

(From the Talmud in Betsah 32b)

They would also learn from this story that God was just.  He valued the lives of the righteous so much that He was willing to hold back judgment against wicked people to protect the few that were innocent.  He could be trusted to judge rightly, and His punishments were fair.    When God’s judgments did come, everyone could be sure they came with good reason.

As Abraham stood with the LORD overlooking Sodom, he could not imagine that the people of Sodom were so wholly and completely wicked that there was no one there worth saving.  God was willing to work with him to prove the truth about the depths of their sin.

The LORD agreed with Abraham’s request.  He said that if fifty righteous men could be found in Sodom, He would spare the whole city.  The next time Abraham spoke, he came with greater humility.  What if there weren’t fifty?  He said, “‘Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty?  Will You destroy the whole city because of five people?’”

The Lord agreed with Abraham.    It was more important to hold back judgment for the sake of the few who are righteous than it was to punish the wicked.  If forty-five righteous people were found in the city, He would not judge them.

But Abraham wasn’t finished.  He knew Sodom was a very wicked place.  So he asked if God would hold back His judgment if there were only forty righteous people in the city.  God said He would.  Then Abraham asked the same thing if there were only thirty righteous people, then twenty!  Each time, God showed the greatness of His mercy as He agreed to Abraham’s requests.  Finally Abraham said, “‘May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more.  What if only ten can be found there?’”  The Lord looked at His compassionate servant and said, “‘For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.’”  And so the LORD went on to do His work, and Abraham went home.

What would happen to the city of Sodom?  Would the angels find ten righteous ones there?

 

 

 

Story 30: Entertaining the Angels of God

Genesis 18:1-15

Three angels visiting Abraham by Johann Lucas Kracker (1752 – 1776) from Premonstratesian cloister in Jasov in Jasov, Slovakia.

One day, Abraham was resting out by the entrance to his tent.  It was the time of day when the heat grew to its worst. Abraham sat looking out on the glorious trees of Mamre where he and Sarah had chosen to live.  They were far from the cities of immorality and shame that his nephew Lot had found so attractive.  Abraham looked up and noticed that there were three men standing close by.  Abraham lived in a region where visitors did not come very often.  When they did, they had often journeyed long distances.  It was considered a great honor to serve them and show them hospitality.

Abraham jumped up and rushed over to the men who had been travelling in the terrible heat.  He bowed low to the ground in front of them and said, “‘If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.  Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.  Let me get you something to eat, so that you can be refreshed and then go on your way–now that you have come to your servant.’”

The men agreed.  Abraham hurried to Sarah and told her to make some bread.  Then he ran to pick out the best, most tender part of meat from a calf and gave it to a servant to prepare.  He went and got some curds and goat’s milk.  These were delicacies in Abraham’s day, and showed the high honor Abraham was giving these men.  How attentive Abraham was to his noble guests.  This was a lavish meal for a nomadic family living in tents!  As they ate their banquet feast, Abraham stood nearby and waited on his guests under a tree.  The men asked him where his wife was.

Abraham said, “‘There, in the tent.’”

What the Bible says next is interesting.  These three men who came to visit Abraham were no mere humans.  Two of them were angels.  One of them was the LORD.  Wow.  Those are some pretty important houseguests.  The Lord said to Abraham, “‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah, your wife, will have a son.’”

Now, Sarah was inside the tent listening in on the conversation.  When she heard what the LORD said, she started laughing to herself.  Didn’t this Man know how old she was?  Didn’t he see that Abraham was not a young man?  It was too late for them to have children!  She said to herself, “‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’”  Oh, the precious heart of a woman.  Even as she lacked faith in God Himself, her heart longed for the treasure of a baby in her arms.

The LORD knew exactly what was going on in Sarah’s mind.  He said to Abraham, “‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Will I really have a child, now that I am old?”  Is anything too hard for the LORD?  I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.’”

Oops.  When Sarah heard that, she was scared.  She lied and pretended that she hadn’t laughed.   But the LORD argued with her.  He could read her mind!  He said, “‘Yes, you did laugh.’”  God restored her back to honesty with His rebuke.  He showed her that He could read her thoughts.  He understood her doubts.  And surely the LORD who could read her mind could also give her a child.

Story 29: The Son of God’s Choosing

Genesis 17

The human race had plunged itself into a terrible situation.  God created humanity to live in perfect harmony with Himself.  We were to live in a perfect Garden Temple called Eden, which means “pleasure.”  But the first humans, the ancestors of us all, rebelled against the one limitation God had given them.  They sided with God’s enemy, and in so doing, subjected the whole race to his bondage.  Yet even as they rejected God’s way, He had a plan to draw them back, a design for human history that would provide a ransom for the souls of humanity.  Abram and Sarai were at the center of God’s plan.  He chose them to be the ones through whom He would bless the nations of the world.  Their offspring would be His holy priesthood, and somehow, they would bring salvation.

Yet there was a problem.  Abram and Sarai had no children.  Sarai was barren.  After many years of waiting on the Lord’s plan, they grew impatient, and sought to have a child through Hagar, Sarai’s servant.  They lost faith in God’s plan and took matters into their own hands, violating the sacred covenant of marriage in the process.  Abram and Hagar had a son named Ishmael.

Thirteen years passed after Ishmael was born.  Many things must have happened in their lives over those years.  Still Abram and Sarai were without a child.  What ache did Sarai live with as she watched her maidservant raise a son before her eyes.

By the time of this story, Abram was ninety-nine years old.  The LORD appeared to him again.  He said:

“‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’”

When Abram heard this, he fell down with his face to the ground before the LORD.  God continued to speak:

“‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.  No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.  I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.   I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.  The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; I will be their God.’”

Genesis 17:4-8

Abram was given a new name.  It was a mark that the promises the LORD had given His servant before were growing.  God was filling in the details and showing Abraham just how great and awesome His promises truly were.  This covenant would bring whole nations and kings…it would be everlasting!

Then God gave Abraham a sign that would be the symbol of His covenant.  Abraham and every man who descended from him was to be circumcised.  Circumcision is a quick but painful operation.  A small piece of extra skin is cut off of a male’s private parts.  Every male in Abraham’s family or his servant’s family was to have this operation done as a sign that they belonged to the LORD.  They were part of His covenant blessing.  Most of them would have it done when they were infants, when they were eight days old.  They would hardly know what was happening to them.

It was a high honor, marked out in their very flesh, that they were to remember at all times!  Each descendant of Abraham had to chose to follow after God with the same faith as Abraham.  Whoever did not keep the sign of the covenant by being circumcised would be cut off from the people.  It was a breaking of the covenant itself.

Then God told Abraham that He was changing Sarai’s name.  It would now be Sarah.  God promised that He would bless her, and she would give birth to a son.  This son would become the head of twelve tribes, or clans, and from them whole nations would come.  Her role as the mother of the coming nation of God was high and honored.  The Lord had watched her go through every trial of faith with her husband.  She had carried the shame of her barren state as she waited on the Lord for His promises.  She, too, had remained faithful.

But when Abraham heard this, he threw himself onto the ground and started laughing.  Sarah was ninety years old!  Abraham was almost a hundred!  How could this be?  When it came to childbearing, their bodies were as good as dead!  It was impossible.  So Abraham reminded the Lord about Ishmael.  Perhaps God should use him.

Abraham did not yet fully understand that his Lord was the one who could call things into being that were not (see Romans 4).  Abraham was limiting his imagination to the things that a human could do.  God has no such limitations.  If God made the stars and the earth from nothing, surely He could raise up a nation out of nothing!  Surely He could make a child, even from the bodies of an aging couple!  God was able to bring life from the death of old age.

The fact that it seemed impossible was part of God’s plan.  Everyone would know that this was a miracle.  It was clearly something only God could do.  All of the surrounding tribes and villages, all of the towns where Abraham had visited and even saved in war, would know that something different was happening in the lives of God’s covenant family.  This was a power and a provision there that would shake their understanding of the world.  When the LORD began His holy nation through this child, the whole region would be gossiping and wondering how it happened.  It was a testimony and an opportunity to follow the God of Abraham.

God knew how impossible it was for Abraham to have a child and said, “‘Nevertheless.’”  Then He told Abraham that a son would be born to Abraham and Sarah the very next year. Abraham accepted the unique plans of his LORD and stepped out in immediate obedience. That very day, he circumcised himself and Ishmael and all the servants of the house.

Story 28: The Grief of Faithlessness: The Plight of Hagar and Ishmael

Genesis 16-17

Abram and Sarai had taken some major risks in obedience to God.  They had left their own land and all of their comforts to become Bedouins, journeying to the land of Canaan, trusting that God would one day give it to their descendants so that they could bless the world.  They had hung all of their hopes on His promises.  Eleven years later, Abram and Sarai still had no child.  In the eyes of everyone around her, Sarai’s barrenness was seen as a great weakness and failure.  She was costing Abram a family.  She was disgraced.

Sarai began to grow impatient for a son for her husband.  If the LORD was not going to bless her own body with a child, perhaps He would bless someone else.  So she made a plan.  They were not the plans of God, and they were not built on faith.

Sarai went to Abram with her idea.  Sarai had a servant named Hagar who tended to all of Sarai’s personal needs.  Perhaps if she gave Hagar to her husband, her servant would give birth to a son!  In the time of Abram and Sarai, this was common.  When a wife could not have children, another woman, usually a slave or a servant, would be brought to the husband.  The child from their union would then become the adopted child of the husband and wife.

Abram agreed to do what his wife suggested.  Apparently, Hagar agreed to take part as well.  It was a way of helping Sarai out of her disgrace.  So Abram and Hagar came together, and Hagar became pregnant.  A child was on the way.  It would seem that everything was going just as Abraham and Sarah had planned.  The only problem was that there were things they did not anticipate when they stepped outside of God’s plan.

Now that Hagar was with child, her attitude toward Sarai changed.  The disgraced wife of Abram had given him no child, but now she was providing one for him!  She began to carry the pride of her pregnancy around like a crown.  The most painful loss of Sarai’s life was now being thrown in her face every day…and by her own maid.   Hagar treated Sarai with contempt in her own home.  She treated Sarai as if she had replaced her as Abram’s wife and head of Abram’s household.

Sarai’s attempt to solve the problem  of her barrenness in her own power was unraveling into a nightmare.   She went to Abram and said, “‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.  I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me.  May the LORD judge between you and me.’”

Even though Hagar was Sarai’s special maidservant, Sarai turned to her husband and handed Hagar over to him.  Sarai yielded the situation to Abram, honoring his position of authority and giving him the responsibility to make it right.  It was his role to put an end to this destruction.   It was his job to create the right order in their home.  He had to protect their marriage and Sarai’s position as his wife.  Then she appealed to God as her protector.  He was watching over Abram and would hold him responsible to his role as Sarai’s husband.  All of this took great faith, for Sarai had to let go of her own control and trust others to end her pain.  What if they failed?

Abram said to his wife, “‘Your servant is in your hands.  Do with her whatever you think is best.’”  Instead of handling a situation where his wife was clearly in over her head, Abram excused himself from the mess and let the burden fall on Sarai.

The way Sarai responded is the darkest mark on her character in the story of her life.  Sarai turned the tables and began to mistreat her servant.  Now it was Hagar’s turn to be miserable. Who knows the harsh words or beatings Sarai gave.  Who knows what abuse Abram allowed.  The tensions that come up in a home when the most tender things are at stake can tear apart the integrity of the finest heart.  Whatever the sins of Sarai and Abram, they were harsh enough that Hagar would rather risk death in the desert than live with the torments of her mistress.  She fled away from the home of Abram and Sarai out into the wilderness.

God was watching as all of these sad events unfolded.  How differently these women could have treated each other.  The angel of the LORD came to Hagar as she sat near a stream in the desert.  This is the first time in the Bible that someone was visited by an angel.  When they came to earth, it is because they were sent on a mission from God.  They come as His holy messengers.  What an honor to receive such special attention from the Divine King!

It is remarkable that in the Bible, God’s first message from an angel was to this weeping servant woman.  What does it teach us about the character God?  In all of ancient literature, with all of the other religions and idol worship that was going on, thiswas the only time a divine being spoke to a woman by name. She had great worth in his eyes.  See how gently he came:

 

He said, “Hagar, servant of Sarah, where have you come from, and where are you going?’”

“‘I am running away from my mistress Sarah,’ she answered.

“Then the angel of the LORD told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’  The angel added, ‘I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.’

The angel of the LORD also said to her:

 

‘You are now with child and you will have a son.

You shall name him Ishmael,

for the LORD has heard of your misery.

He will be a wild donkey of a man;

His hand will be against everyone

and everyone’s hand will be against him,

and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.’”

 

Who was this God?   He had come to speak to a lowly servant woman, an outcast, someone that nobody in her culture or world would have any time for?  Who was this LORD that saw her crying in the desert?  Hagar wondered at his tender care.  She said: “‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’”  And she was right.  Though she was a woman and had no great importance in the eyes of the world, she could trust the God of the universe to look on her with love.

The angel of the LORD explained to Hagar that this son would truly be blessed.  He would be as a wild donkey, so passionate for freedom that he would not easily share life with others.  He would also be the father of nations.  Yet he was not the son of God’s covenant promise with Abram.  That could only come through his sacred marriage with Sarai.

Hagar obeyed God and returned to Abram and Sari.  She gave birth to a son.  Abram was eighty six years old.  Hagar must have told Abram what the angel said, for Abram named him Ishmael.  His name meant, “God hears.”  I wonder if Abram and Sarai felt convicted by the LORD when they realized that God listened to the cries of Hagar as much as He listened their own?

Sarai was the true wife of Abram.  They were one flesh.  When God called Abram, Sarai’s life was wrapped in that calling.  It was through their marriage and their union alone that God would bring about His great and precious promises.  But that required radical faith, a faith that had to increase with time.  Sarah was seventy five years old when Ishmael was born.  As they waited on the LORD and watched their bodies age, their trust in God had to intensify.  They had to believe in Him for the impossible.  Would this man and woman of God bear through the final stages of their testing?  Would they take hold of the faith that God meant for them to have?

Story 27: Ratifying the Covenant

Genesis 15:9-21

In the days of Abram, covenants were an important part of human society.  They were treaties or agreements between two groups that would keep the peace between them.  In a time when a conflict against another family, clan, or nation could bring bloodshed and war, those covenants were deeply valued.

Covenants were often used to bring an end to war and chaos.  A king might war against a nation and conquer it, and then make a covenant with them to end the fighting.  He might promise to give protection to the conquered people, and they would make promises to serve him and to be his ally against any other nation.  These covenants were common all over the world at that time.  They were often written down on a special scroll and sealed.  Both the king and the conquered nation would be greatly disgraced if they did not keep their own side of the covenant.  They had bound themselves to a promise, and they had to be willing to do anything they could to honor it.

Part of covenant making often included a ceremony or a ritual to show the great importance and worth of the commitments being made.  One part of that ritual was often to take an animal and sacrifice it.  It was a symbol of the punishment that should happen to the person that did not keep his side of the covenant.  The sacrifices held potent, binding power over the people because they believed these rituals had the force to influence the blessing and cursing of their lives.

God was about to reestablish and finalize His covenant with Abram.  Only this one would be a different kind of covenant.  This was no mere human king trying to make peace after victory.  It was between God Himself and a human.  Almighty God, who needs nothing from anyone and can do all things, was binding Himself to a promise being made to a person.  Imagine!  The most powerful Being in the universe was going to limit and organize His future work to make sure that He honored this promise.

It was also a different kind of covenant because God, the Divine King, was the only One who had to do anything to keep it.  There was no job for Abram to do here.  The promise was one way.  The blessings of the covenant flowed from the LORD to His chosen people, not the other way around.  God would give all the lands of the Canaanite people to the children of Abram, and they would become a great nation.

It was through that special nation that all nations of the world would be blessed.  The Great Hope of God’s entire plan for humanity was being sealed with the fate of this nation.  This moment with Abram was a lofty and holy moment in the history of the world.  God provided a ritual to show the tremendous, sacred importance of this agreement.  Abram was not to bring just one animal; God told him to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon.

Abram obeyed immediately.  He brought one of each of these animals and cut them into halves.  He divided the halves, putting one part of each animal on the left, and one part on the right.  In between was a space that made a pathway.

As Abram worked, great carnivorous birds flew down and tried to eat the offerings, but Abram fought them off.  As the sun began to set, Abram fell into a deep sleep.  The Bible calls it a thick and dreadful darkness that came over him, and God spoke to him about hard things of the future:

 

“‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.  But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.  You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age.  In the fourth generation, your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’”

Gen. 15:13-16  

 

God is sovereign over history, and He has prepared His sacred plans ahead of time.  Abram’s descendants would end up moving to a country far away from this land that God had promised.  While they were there, God would bring His children into a difficult time of suffering and oppression.  They would be humbled as a people, working as slaves under the grip of another nation for four hundred years.  Four hundred years!  Can you imagine?

God told Abram that the whole time his descendants were gone, the people who were already in the land of promise, sometimes called the Amorites, would have time to change from their sinful ways.  God had already shown Himself to them through the life of Abram and He had given them Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the priest of the Most High God.  The Amorites could choose to follow the best, most clear examples of righteous faith and dependence on the LORD.  Or they could choose to live in wickedness and sin, violently taking what they wanted and destroying all that was good and pure in their societies.

God knew the future.  He knew exactly what they would decide.  They would ever and always turn to evil.  But God was still determined to give them their time to change.  After four hundred years, God’s gracious patience would come to an end.  His wrath would pour out on these cities and nations.  They would no longer be allowed to pollute the land that God had given them with their despicable sin.

God would bring His own people, the children of Abram, back out of the land where they were slaves.  After four hundred years, they would return.  Only this time, they would come as the hand of God’s judgment and destroy the sinful nations in war.  The righteous would do battle against the wicked for Yahweh.  These things are the darkness and dread of life in a cursed world where the rulers of the earth rebel against the goodness of their Divine King.  Such is the suffering of God’s people as they lived in the midst of the rebellion.  But their faithfulness to God would be richly rewarded.  Their appointed time of suffering would be over, and God would bless them with a beautiful homeland.

The promises of God had been given, and it was time for the ceremony to seal the covenant between the LORD and Abram:

 

 “‘When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land”’” (Genesis 15:13-18a).

 

Who do you think it was who carried the smoking firepot between the animals?  It was God himself.  He was using the powerful traditions of Abram’s culture to show His servant the solemnity of His promise.  This covenant was binding, and the honor of God Himself was now at stake.

 

Story 26: Strange Mysteries from Distant Times: The Sealing of the Covenant

Genesis 15

When God called Abram to leave his home and journey to the land of promise, He gave conditions.  If Abram obeyed, then God would bless him.  Abram did obey.  He ventured out into the unknown with his barren wife, taking everything with him.  He completely left the life he’d had behind, trusting totally in God’s promise.  Over time, Abram proved his faith in the LORD in new and greater ways.  He righteously lived for the Most High God in the midst of a pagan, idolatrous place and waited for God to bring His covenant blessings. And so God came to him with His covenant once again, only this time things had changed a bit.  Now God made His promises without condition.  Abram’s faith was established, and God could assure him that His promises would come true no matter what.  God would give him more descendants than there were stars in the sky, and He would deliver to them the land of the Canaanites.  Yet Abram still felt unsure.  How could he know that God would truly give him the land?

For his answer, LORD told Abram to bring a cow, a goat and a ram, a dove and a young pigeon.  Does that seem like a strange answer to you?  Why bring animals?

When we read the Bible, we always need to remember the time of human history we are reading about.  We are reaching back through time to a world far different from our own.  Often what we read will seem mysterious and strange to us.  Abraham lived in what we called the Ancient Near East.  In order to understand the story, we have to imagine what that world was like.  So let’s try.

It was quieter.  These were the days before electricity, cars, and airplanes.  There were no televisions or radios, engines or blasting horns or telephone chatter.  The noises that filled their lives were the quiet sounds of their flocks and herds, the blowing wind, and the tinkling of streams.  It was the sound of the women singing as they hand washed clothes in water hauled from a well or at the river.  It was the discussions and calls of men at their work.  There were no photographs or paintings. The only faces any one person knew throughout his whole life were those from his own village or town.  Any visitor would have been a great curiosity.  It would have been a new face to see!

Nature was their artwork.  Trees and streams, sunrises and sunsets and the vast display of stars in the dark night sky were the things of beauty that filled their lives.  It was a simpler world, but it was a deeper one.  They ate the same basic food every day with a profound gratitude that is hard for us to understand.  You see, in those days, they knew what famine was like.  Most families went through at least one or two hard seasons when they went hungry for weeks and months on end.  They were keenly aware of the weather and how the crops were doing because it all had an immediate impact on their own survival.  It strengthened their spirit of gratefulness and sharpened the pleasure of their food in times when it was abundant.

When God showed Abram the stars and used them to explain the wonderful blessing He was going to give him, He was using the most magnificent and awesome visual in Abraham’s world to inspire his faith.  Humans will never paint or create anything that will surpass the beauty of a starry night.  But we may have lost our ability to cherish and wonder at the sprawling night sky the way the ancient people did.  It was their nightly glory.

Now God would strengthen Abram’s faith by using animals as a symbol, just as He had used the stars.  In Abram’s time, human society was largely dependent on their animals to survive.  For a family, each creature brought value and security to their home as their flocks and herds grew.  Their lives were arranged around making sure the animals were protected and fed.  They moved when they needed to find more grassland for them.   They took special care to keep out of the way of bandits and thieves who might steal them.

The people of Abram’s day lived their lives close to their animals to make sure they could protect them.  They could hear their sheep and goats bleating through the night and drank the milk from their own cows and goats in the day.  They did not go to a store to buy their sandals and sweaters.  The leather and wool they used to make their own clothes and shoes came from creatures they had watched being born.

They did not go to a store to buy meat.  Usually, the only time they ate meat was when a sacrificial offering was made.  It was a rare treat, a feast that would mark the day as a high point in the year.

Every piece of meat they ate came from a creature they had watched over, fed, and nursed back to health when it was sick.  Their whole lives were filled with the provisions given to them by the lives of their animals.  These creatures had worth and meaning, what they offered humanity were answers to some of the great needs and enjoyments of life.  They were gifts from God, and they were meant for the provision of those things.  For the people of Abram’s time, the sacrifice of meat had greater meaning and worth than most of us can possibly understand.

In the societies of Abram’s time, the value of animals was so great that killing one of them was something that was only done with great consideration and care.  Usually it was only done for the high and sacred moments devoted to their gods.  Sometimes they were used for feasts.  Sometimes they were used when a great treaty was being made between one king and another, or between a king and his people.  When the animal became a sacrificial offering, its death showed the high importance of the occasion.

God  understood the culture and times that Abram was living, and so He chose a ceremony that Abram would understand, that would be meaningful to him.  He told Abram to bring Him a cow, a goat and a ram, a dove and a young pigeon.  These creatures would become the sacrificial offerings to commemorate the high and holy making of the Great Covenant between God and His chosen servant.

 

Story 25: The Covenant: Descendants and Land

Genesis 15:1-8

Wow.  Imagine the difference in the life of Abram from the time we began his story until now.  He went from being a wandering nomad with his wife and nephew to a man of vast wealth.  He had his own private army of highly trained warriors who conquered five kings and saved the people of the Jordan River Valley from captivity.  He was now highly respected throughout the land.  But there was something far more important happening, something that made all the rest of it possible.  As the years went by, Abram’s faith was stretched further and further, and his ability to depend on God’s promises was growing into a mighty power.  It was the kind of power that God could bless.  As God expanded Abram’s influence and power, Abram kept his eyes fixed on the Lord in trust and received only what was clearly from God’s hand. Through his determined faith, Abram was exhibiting glorious righteousness to a watching world.

Yet there was still a tremendous ache for this wise and aging man.  Abram and his beloved wife were still without a child.  How would God make Abram’s descendents into a great nation if they had no son?  What good was their wealth and reputation if the life of Abram died with him and his wife?  Who would they pass it on to?  The Lord spoke to him and said,

 

“‘Do not be afraid, Abram,

I am your shield,

your very great reward.’”

Genesis 15:1b

God knew the fears on the heart of his faithful servant and pursued him, promising to be his divine protection.  This promise was a bit different from what God had given in the past.  Before, there was always a condition.  In order to receive the promise, Abram had to show his faith through obedience. Over those many years, Abram had proven his faith, and now the LORD was coming to him with the fullness of His covenantal promises.  God would uphold His side to His servant no matter what lay ahead.  Through all of history, the blessings of this covenant would be utterly unchangeable.

When Abram heard this, he came to his LORD and asked the questions that so troubled his heart.  “‘O Sovereign LORD, what can You give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus…You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir’” (Gen. 15:2-3).

Abram had trusted God with his whole future, but he and his wife were growing old, and the promises of God seemed more and more unlikely.  How could Abram’s faith stretch so far as to believe the impossible?

God’s plan for His loyal servant was already set in history.  The future was as sure as the past because God had made it so.  In fact, He had allowed everything to get to the point where His promises seemed impossible to Abram so that he would have to utterly rely on the LORD in faith.  Everyone would know that when God’s blessings came, it could only have come from Him.  His blessings on Abram would give the Lord great glory before all the nations of the region.  The holiness and power of the Most High God was being declared through the most personal longings of Abram and Sarai’s life.

The LORD knew the discouragement of His beloved servant, and so He began to explain more about the mighty, unbreakable covenant that He had made with Abram in Genesis 12.  He said:

 

“‘This man [Eliezer] will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.’  He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars-if indeed you can count them.’  Then He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”

Gen. 15:4-5

Abram could not imagine how wide and great God’s blessings would become, so God had to bring him out into the night sky and show him the universe.   And in that sacred moment when God’s Word came to him, Abram believed what God said, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness.  Abram was righteous in the eyes of God simply because he believed the LORD.  He did what all the other nations and tribes refused to do.  He surrendered in trust to the will of the One who made him.

 

Then God said, “‘I am the LORD.’”

 

Any time God says that in the Bible, it means that whatever comes next is big.  Really big.  It means that God is sealing His next words with the integrity of His own character.  It bears tremendous power and gravity.  It is going to happen because He is permanent and eternal and He doesn’t go back on His word.  So the LORD said to Abram:

 

“‘I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the land of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it’”

 

 Once again, God gave Abram a wonderful promise.  All the land of the whole region where the Canaanite cities and nations lived would one day belong to Abram’s family.  Abram took God’s word very seriously.  Purely by faith, he was staking his whole life on this promise.  So once again, he came to his God with an honest question about his doubts and fears.  “‘O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?’”

Story 24: Melchizedek

Genesis 14

In the dead of night, Abraham and his men went after the four kings. The kings had decimated the corrupt cities of the Jordan River Valley, and now they had taken his own nephew captive.  It was time to act.  Under the cover of darkness, Abram divided his soldiers into two groups and attacked the four kings from two directions.

Imagine Abram’s men moving in deft silence, sneaking up on the clueless soldiers. Imagine the cry of attack and the roars of Abram’s men as they descended on the armies of the four kings.  How terrifying their fury must have been.

Abram’s men utterly defeated Kedorlaomer and his allies that night.  They claimed Lot’s freedom along with all of his possessions.  They also brought back all of the men, women, and children from the five kingdoms that had been plundered.  They had rescued them all from abject poverty and enslavement.

Abram and his men were the great heroes of the entire region.  They had utterly saved the day.  And because they were the ones who won the battle, all of the booty that was taken now belonged to Abram.  According to the rules of their day, all of the animals and gold and silver and even the people that the four kings had captured were now Abram’s.  What would he do with this lavish new wealth?  Would he use this turn of events to rule over the region?  Would he grasp for power or trust the Lord?

The King of Sodom came out to meet with Abram along with a man named Melchizedek.  Melchizedek’s name meant “my king is righteous.” He was the king of Salem, a region that would one day become the home of another great city:  Jerusalem.  He was also a priest of the Most High God.  When the Bible tells of this mysterious and righteous man, it is the first time a priest is mentioned.  He had come to bless Abram for the wondrous victory he had brought to the people of the land.  He had come to celebrate the warrior who fought by faith.  He said:

 

“‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High,

Creator of Heaven and earth.

And blessed be God Most High,

Who delivered your enemies into your hand.’”

Genesis 14:19-20

Let’s stand here for and think upon this high and holy moment.  Here was a man whose position before the LORD was so great that he could bestow blessings down upon Abram, God’s chosen servant!  This priest of God came to place the name of God on Abram.  We might be in danger of thinking that this blessing was just a polite way to honor Abram.  It was much, much more than that.  This blessing was powerful and potent to effect the life of Abram and to cause great good to move forward into his future.  God’s blessings move in history and make things happen.  God was moving in power to take the divine blessings that Noah had blessed on Shem’s line and focus them in on Abram and his descendants!  The line of Japheth would one day find salvation through Abram’s descendants.  The line of Ham through the Canaanites would one day become Abram’s slaves.

These blessings were from the one true God, the Creator, who made all the wondrous things of the entire universe burst out in a dazzling array by speaking words.  He is the one that continually brings life and newness to the hours of each day by His powerful Word.  God’s Words are a magnificent, effective force, and now His Word was being spoken through Melchizedek.  He declared that Abram had the blessing of God.  The same God Who made heaven and earth promised before kings that His creation power would move on Abram’s behalf.

After Melchizedek’s splendid blessing, Abram gave him a tenth of all the plunder.   This priest was a king to his Lord, and he would pay him his dues.  What a meeting of greatness this was!  These were two men of incomparable honor and nobility, and they stood together in the midst of the cursed and chaotic world with the dignity and blessings of God’s divine hand.

But the king of Sodom was an entirely different story.  He ruled over a land of wickedness and horrific sin, and Abram would have nothing to do with him.  This contemptible king came to Abram with a command.  His entire city had been plundered in the war.  His cowardly men had run from the battle scene and allowed an army to invade their city.

By the courage of his men and the work of his God, Abram brought all of those things back, including the men, women, and children of Sodom.  He saved them all.  He was their true hero.  But the king of Sodom did not come with a grateful attitude or a humble spirit.  He came with arrogant demands.  It would have been right for him to wait and listen to Abram, the man to whom he owed so much.  Instead, he jumped in and told Abram that he could keep all of the plunder, but asked him to return his citizens to him.  He had no right to give any instructions, it was not his role to tell Abram what he could keep or not.  He had lost the privilege of rule.

Abram looked at the despicable king and said, “‘I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even the thread of a thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, “I made Abram rich”’” (Gen. 14:22-23).

Wow. Abram knew that the King of Sodom was not a man of honor.  This king’s promises meant nothing; only a fool would trust him.  He was a ruler who led his own people into filth and shame.  Abram wanted to make sure that the glory of all his victories and his wealth went to the LORD.  This horrific man would have no chance to take credit.  Abram was willing to give up any fortune or wealth to protect the honor and image of God.  The blessing of Melchizedek was worth far more than the gold and silver of Sodom!

Abram’s righteous life would continue to reflect the strength and character of God to all the nations that knew his name.  By now, every city and nation of people far and wide would have heard of the righteousness of God’s servant.  Their eyes would have been watching his life.  They would have known his ways.  God was giving the wicked nations of Canaan a bright example of His goodness in Abram.  Would they turn from their wickedness and sin?  Would the king of Sodom think twice about the violence and perversion of his city?  Would Abram’s rebuke cause him to repent and change?  Or would the rebellion continue?

Story 23: Five King Conquest: Rescuing Fools from their Folly

Genesis 14

Abram had returned from Egypt with the wealth and riches bestowed on him by the Pharaoh.  The flocks and herds of Lot had also grown, so that it wasn’t possible for the two clans to live near each other anymore.  Their abundance was so great that there wasn’t enough for all the animals to eat.  So Abram gave Lot the first choice of the land, and Lot moved to the lush green plains of the Jordan.  This put Lot and his family right next to the city of Sodom, which was thoroughly corrupted by wicked and greedy men.

It is important to imagine what this city was like to understand the foolishness of Lot’s decision.  It was a place where it was acceptable to deceive, cheat, and bring harm.  It was a place where the vulnerable were not protected by honorable, powerful leaders.  The strong could do whatever they wanted at the expense of the weak, spending their power on getting their own pleasures instead of creating a healthy and whole community.  It wasn’t just a bad decision, it was a dangerous one.

Meanwhile, Abram chose to live off in tents under the trees of Mamre, and there he worshiped God.

At about that time, a war broke out between the nations and cities of the region.  Nations and cities back then were not the same as they are now.  Each nation was really more like a clan or tribe, and cities would only have a few hundred people at the most.  Today we would call them villages.  But even though they were small, they could still become warlike.  The human ability to create tension and hostility is everywhere.

The Bible shows that at Babel (see Story 18), humans turned their rebellious, broken nature against God.  Once humanity had so completely turned away from God, they had to direct their vengeance and malice somewhere else.  They began to turn on each other.  Sin was intensifying on the earth, and with it came all the suffering and loss that we still see around us.  The Curse that Adam and Eve plunged the world into was far more devastating and horrific than anything they could have imagined when they believed the lie of the Serpent.

Four kingdoms from the east were united together against an alliance of five other kings.  Kedorlaomer was the king of Elam, and he was among the allies of the first group of four kingdoms.  For twelve years, he forced the other five nations to live under his rule and power.  But in the thirteenth year, they rebelled.  In the fourteenth year, Kedorlaomer came back to fight again, and this time he and his allies conquered the entire region.  Imagine how terrifying it would be to live in one of those cities.

Their victory did not last long.  The five kings, marched out against them as a mighty army in the Valley of Siddim.  They were ready for battle.

The four eastern kings came out against the five and the fighting began.  As the four kings and their men began to win the victory, the armies of Sodom and Gomorrah began to run back towards home.  Instead of standing and fighting, they fled the field of battle.  The only problem was that the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits.  The cowardly soldiers fell into the thick, black pools of tar as they ran away.   The four kings chased them all the way home.  They plundered the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and carried off all their precious valuables and food.  They took their wives and children captive as well.

Can you imagine the terror of soldiers, fresh from battle, storming through your city?   They broke down doorways and ransack homes, grabbing anything they could find that might be worth something.  They would grab their men, women, and children as prisoners.  They would often force them on long marches back to the lands of the victorious army.  Once there, the captives would often be sold as slaves to whoever paid the highest price.  It is hard to imagine the horrors of warfare, but it has been common throughout the history of humanity since the Fall.

Now, Lot had moved from living out on the plain into the actual city of Sodom.  He was utterly foolish to build his life so close to such corrupt and depraved people. When the armies stormed Sodom, they took him, his family, and all of his things, too.   One of the men escaped and ran to tell Abram what had happened to his nephew.

Abram had wisely chosen a life set apart from the evils of the nations around him.  But now those evils were invading his world because of his nephew’s choice to live in their midst.

As the faith of Abram had grown over the years, his courage had grown as well.  As a wanderer in Egypt, he cowered before the king and offered him his wife.  But now he was roused to duty against the armies of four kings, and nothing could stop him.

Abram was also prepared.  He had trained three hundred and eighteen men from his own household to be soldiers skilled in battle.  He had also made an alliance with three of his neighbors.  Together, they would go after those four kings.  Such had become the wealth and wisdom of Abram!  What would happen to the army of Abram when they attacked?  Would they be able to rescue Lot?  Would it start a whole new round of battles and wars, with Abram right in the middle?

 

 

Story 22: Parting Ways: The Foolish and the Wise

Genesis 13:1-18

Abram was a chosen man.  Adam and Eve, the first humans, had plunged the world under a terrible curse by rebelling against God in the garden of paradise that he had provided with him.  They had sided with his enemy and given the enemy power over them and all of their descendants.  Yet God had a solution already prepared.  From those descendants, God promised that one of them would one day crush the power of God’s enemy (Gen. 3:14-15).

One of the most significant stages in the unfolding of God’s plan was the covenant he made with Abram (see Gen. 12:1-4 or Story 20).  God was going to make Abram’s descendants into a great nation, and somehow he would bless all the other nations of the world through them. God brought Abram out of the land of his own people and brought him to the land of Canaan, the Land of Promise, that he would give to Abram’s children.  Abram was called to stay there and live by faith in what God promised he would do.  Yet at the first sign of trouble, Abram took his wife and nephew, all his flocks and servants, and left the land.  A famine had come, and they fled to Egypt.  That didn’t turn out too well (see Story 21).

After a coming against a crazy situation in Egypt, Abram moved his family back to Canaan, to a place called Negev.  They returned to the region near Bethel.  This was the place where Abram had built his second altar to God.  That moment was a high and holy moment for Abram; it was a place of great remembrance.  Perhaps Abram felt the need to seek a recommitment of faith to the covenant that had come to him there.

As Abraham was traveling about, his nephew Lot went with him.  Both of them had huge herds of cows and goats and sheep.  There were so many animals that they were eating up all the grass.  There wasn’t enough for all the animals to eat. The herdsmen and shepherds of Lot and Abram began to fight with each other over the land and the grass.

So Abram said to Lot, “‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.  Is not the whole land before you?  Let’s part company.  If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left’” (Gen. 13:8-9).

Wow.  That was very generous of Abram.  He had already raised Lot.  Now he was giving his nephew first choice of the land.  Yet Abraham was the elder man, and the covenant promise had been given to him.  He had every right to claim the best of the land for himself.

What does his choice show us about Abram?  He did not need to grasp with greed.  He was demonstrating with his actions that he put his trust in the Lord.  He believed his future was in the hands of God.  That gave him freedom to give lavishly and graciously to his nephew.  His desire to keep peace with his nephew was greater than his desire for the security and honor of wealth and property.

Lot looked out over the land and saw the plain of the Jordan River.  It was lush and green with well watered plants.  It was perfect ground for farming and raising crops.  His livestock would have plenty to eat.  It was like the garden of the LORD.  Lot claimed the very best for himself. His decision was based on what he could see.  It was not a decision made by faith in God.  Abram honored Lot’s choice and moved on to the land of Canaan.

Lot’s first selfish choice was almost as unwise as his second choice.  Of all the cities on the plain, he chose to pitch his tents next to the city of Sodom.  It was known to be a place of great wickedness, where the people lived lives of filthy immorality and despicable sin.  The wrath of God was filling up against them.  They were not wise people for Lot to befriend.

After Lot left, the LORD spoke with Abram once again:

 “‘Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west.  All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.  Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you’”

Gen. 13:14-17

Isn’t it interesting that God waited for Lot to make his choice and leave before He continued with the promise?

The LORD was rewarding Abram’s faith with assurances of His promises. Abram was to go out and walk along the land, knowing it was truly set apart for him by God.  As a king surveys the realm of his kingdom, Abram walked his land and saw with his own eyes this good place that God had prepared for him.

When Abram was done with his tour, he and Sarai moved with all their servants, flocks and herds to a place with beautiful trees called Mamre.  It was in the region of Hebron. This area was not like the place where Lot chose to live, where rivers provided a constant flow of water.  It was not like Egypt, with the never ending Nile.  Hebron was an area that depended on rain for water.  The people who lived there were at greater risk for drought or famine.   There was no river to go to when things got dry.  Abram was well aware of the danger of drought, but he also knew that his God was the Lord over the rain systems of the earth.  He trusted these gifts from God’s hands more than the safety of living in larger numbers near a constant water source.  He could trust God as he separated his family and servants from the sins and temptations of the city.   This was the faith that was growing in our hero.  Think of how he had changed from the man who fled to Egypt!   Abram showed his devotion and gratitude to God by building an altar of worship to him.

After Lot left, the LORD spoke with Abram once again:

 

 “‘Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west.  All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.  Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you’” (Gen. 13:14-17). 

 

The LORD was rewarding Abram’s faith with assurances of his promises. Abram was to go out and walk along the land, knowing it was truly set apart for him by God.  As a king surveys the realm of his kingdom, Abram walked his land and saw with his own eyes this good place that God was preparing for him.

When Abram was done with his tour, he and Sarah moved with all their servants, flocks and herds to a place with beautiful trees called Mamre.  It was in the region of Hebron. This area was not like the place where Lot chose to live, where rivers provided a constant flow of water.  It was not like Egypt, with the never ending Nile.  Hebron was an area that depended on rain for water.  The people who lived there were at greater risk for drought or famine.   There was no river to go to when things got dry.  Abram was well aware of the danger of drought, but he also knew that his God was the Lord over the rain systems of the earth.  He knew that he was safe in God’s hands.   This was the faith that was growing in our hero!  How different he was from the man who had fled to Egypt!   Abram showed his devotion and gratitude to God by building an altar of worship to him there.

 

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