32. Genesis 11:27-32

III. The Covenant of Revelation

A.  Abraham

1. The Early Years

a)  Abram’s World (Genesis 11:27-32)

With Abram we are getting to the edge of datable history, though the precision of the dating is not very great. In my discussion of Genesis I will state precise dates for events, but they are not really much better than guesses. I derive my guesses from trying to honor the statements in Scripture as accurate and from fitting Genesis into the rest of the Bible, so sometimes the dates I assign things derive from much later parts of Scripture and it may not be apparent where they come from. Just to be clear, the date of Solomon’s reign forms a baseline and I date events backward from there. There is a lot of room for error. These dates are to be taken lightly, as possible dates that may have to be adjusted as our knowledge of the ancient world and the Bible increases.

As to our present knowledge of the ancient world outside the Bible, the experts disagree about most dates; this is justification enough to give only approximate dates, to the nearest century or so. On the one hand, that is a more strictly truthful thing to do. On the other hand, I believe there is much to be gained from fitting everything into a careful and precise chronology, and it is no less truthful if we are clear that the dates are hypotheses rather than facts. By assigning precise dates, we open the biblical narrative to correlation with the rest of history, we gain a greater sense of the vividness of the events, and the secular history provides some added dimensions to the stories. Assigning precise dates here plays a role similar to a scientist making precise predictions with his theories. It is always helpful to have statements that are falsifiable, even if they are ultimately falsified.

First, let’s sort out Abram’s family. His father Terah was 70 when he fathered Abram, Nahor and Haran. Like the account of Noah’s children, they are all telescoped into a single event, but these were not triplets. Terah died at age 205 just before Abram left Haran at age 75, so Abram was born when Terah was 130 or a bit later. Thus the three sons were born over a sixty year time span. Abram was the youngest of the three, though he is listed first because he was the star of the show. Haran was probably the oldest, partly because he died first and partly because one of his daughters married his brother Nahor. Haran had at least three children: Lot, Milcah, and Iscah. His daughter Milcah was the one who married her uncle Nahor. So Lot could have easily been older than Abram, but since Abram assumed guardianship of Lot when Haran died this isn’t likely. Lot was a son of Haran’s old age, more than likely. Finally Abram married Sarai, his half-sister, the daughter of Terah by a different woman.

So I suggest the following chronology: Abram was born in approximately 2159 b.c. probably in Ur. This means that Haran was born about 2219 b.c. Abram’s and Terah’s ancestors seem to have been one of the Amorite tribes that were settling around Mesopotamia in those centuries. Abram’s nearest relations came from the area around the city of Haran (his brother being named for the city, apparently) in what is now Syria near Turkey. There is evidence that immigrants from the region of Haran had participated in the founding of Ur in the previous millennium. Hence it is possible there were close ethnic ties between Haran and Ur that led Terah to go from Haran to Ur before Abram was born and then to return to Haran as an old man. Haran was their real home, as the use of place names for sons indicates. It was business  that took them to Ur, and successful business at that.

Around the time of Abram’s birth, civilization was at a low ebb in the Middle East. The Old Kingdom of Egypt had fragmented into two minor, inglorious states, the First Intermediate Period; it was the northern one of these that Abram would visit in chapter 12. The Akkadian empire, founded by Sargon the Great, fell just as Abram was born. It was destroyed by a barbarian tribe, the Gutians, who then dominated much of Mesopotamia in a informal sense. The most important city in Mesopotamia at the time was Lagash, which the Gutians adopted as their base of operations. But in 2112 b.c. when Abram was about forty seven years old, Utu-khegal, the king of Uruk, defeated Lagash and the Gutians and made Ur-Nammu the governor of Ur. This Ur-Nammu soon set himself up as king of Ur and founded the famous Third Dynasty of Ur. Ur shortly became the center of an empire, and the center of one of the great civilizations of the ancient world; and Abram and his family were right there to see it happen.

It would appear that Ur was at the pinnacle of its glory when Terah, Abram, and Lot left it to return to Haran. The young Abram would have seen the founding of one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, and perhaps saw its second king, Shulgi, one of the most successful and dynamic rulers in Mesopotamian history. It may have been the death of his oldest son, Haran, that motivated Terah to return to his relatives. At this point, Nahor and Milcah do not seem to have returned to Haran with him, but sometime in the next few decades they did. In Acts 7:2 Stephen quotes a tradition that says God appeared to Abram first in Ur; Genesis doesn’t mention that appearance, but it does say that Terah left Ur intending to go to Canaan. Whatever his intentions, however, Terah died in Haran.

When Abram was 75 years old, in 2084 b.c., God appeared to him (maybe for the second time) and told him to leave his relatives in Haran to go on to … somewhere. It is likely that Terah was a man of high social standing in Haran before he went to Ur and that Abram had high status there before he left. Abram seems to have been fairly wealthy even at that time, and therefore politically important. That Abram took his half sister as his wife would not have been unusual if Abram was of a noble family, or a family imitating the customs of the nobility. The title “sister-wife” was an honorific among the rulers.

Terah may have intended to go to Canaan, but it is not clear that Abram knew it and God did not specify the destination in this passage. God only said, “the land which I will show you”. In Acts 7:2 Stephen states that the call to Abram came while he was in Ur before he went to Haran. Was Stephen’s understanding of Genesis given as an authoritative one, or was he simply speaking from memory with no endorsement from the Spirit being implied? I must go with the latter. For one thing, in Acts 7:16 Stephen remembered Abraham as buying a field from the sons of Hamor in Shechem but we find in Genesis 33:19 that the field in Shechem was actually bought by Jacob, not Abraham. Stephen misremembered; he was filled with the Spirit, but the Spirit did not correct his mistake and, of course, was under no obligation to do so. We should be cautious interpreters.

The call to leave Haran came near the beginning of Shulgi’s reign in Ur. The early years of Shulgi’s reign are not well documented, possibly because the Elamites were disrupting things for a while. The Elamites were a tribe native to Iran who had long harassed the Mesopotamian cities. They may have tried to take advantage of the inexperience of the young Shulgi and increase their raids in the area. They were unable to take Ur itself at this point, but they went around it and attacked the fringes of its empire. The Elamites extended their influence over much of the Middle East and as far as the land of Canaan and collected tribute wherever they could. Their rule was not direct. They were not creating an empire, just extorting tribute. It was more like gangsters controlling a neighborhood by collecting protection money. It is doubtful that they would have taken much notice of a nomad like Abram, even a rich one.

Abram was in the line of people who had been preserving an oral tradition that we now have in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. There is no indication, however, that Abram had previously heard directly from God. God’s call to Abram seemingly came out of the blue, but God Most High was familiar to him in his traditions. It is worth thinking about what Abram did and did not understand about God. It is a mistake to read back in to him much of what we understand. He was from the culture of that time and only had that knowledge of God that God had preserved in the world and in the oral tradition of his family. Basically what we have in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is what he would have heard, but he would not necessarily have had a deep or mature understanding of his tradition. He was also a product of the culture of that time and place.

As far as we can tell, with no written records, the very earliest religions were monotheistic. This is based on the assumption that the modern stone age tribes are similar to the ancient ones. It was a “primitive” monotheism, of course, not like the sophisticated monotheism of Genesis 1-11. Only with the rise of the cities did ancient religions become polytheistic. Each city was the home town of its own god, and the authority of the city’s god was generally localized to that city. The Sumerians and other Mesopotamians understood the gods as being organized into a governing council of gods with no single god in absolute control of the world. They imagined earthly events mirroring heavenly events, so that when one city became politically dominant its god had just won a corresponding spiritual dominance over the other gods. The people of Ur belonged to Nanna-Sin who was believed to live in their city. Nanna-Sin was the god that was identified with the moon.

God (Elohim) or God Most High (El Elyon) – the two names were used interchangeably – was not a Sumerian god, nor part of the Mesopotamian religion at all. There were no myths about Him in the Mesopotamian tradition though the Canaanites, who came much later, would tell myths about the god they called El. The only stories about God Most High in Abram’s day were the oral traditions contained in these few chapters of the Bible, and so far as we know these were not written down in the only existing form of writing, cuneiform. Though no city-state belonged to God Most High as His particular home (except that Salem under its king, Melchizedek, may have had an unusual devotion to God Most High), plainly God Most High was known to some extent in that general culture if only among some of the nomadic Amorites scattered through the area. It is noteworthy: Cain built cities, and his gods lived in them, but the Creator of the world chose to associate with the nomads from the beginning.

God had contrived to keep knowledge of Himself alive but without tying Himself down to a single place. To tie Himself to a particular city would have been to join in the human religious game that was going on. It would have been to acknowledge the other gods as really existing entities, as His peers. One principle that God adheres to in His self-revelation: He does not compete. The God disclosed in the Bible never presented Himself as one among many. He did not engage in what we might call apologetics with the ancient world. There was no argument from God, no attempt to prove that He alone was the real God, no persuasive speech to win their allegiance away from Nanna-Sin, no logical treatise to show them that Nanna-Sin must be false. Instead God had preserved a fairly minimal and general knowledge of Himself in the culture and otherwise ignored their gods entirely.

Why didn’t He set Himself up with a city state of His own, like Salem, and proceed to conquer the whole world using Melchizedek or Abram as his general? That would have shown everyone who the real God was. Why all of this wasted time, all this fooling around over the millennia, when He could have accomplished everything with a few spectacular military victories? That God did not, and never does, behave in that way proves that He was and is trying to do something very different than merely asserting His authority. To do such a thing would perhaps have proven that He was the only true God, but in the process He would have become a different God. He would have been untrue to Himself.

On the other hand, in a millennium or so after calling Abram, He would seem to do just what I have maintained that He did not do. He would establish Israel as His own nation among the nations of the world. Why then and not with Abram? Why would it have been untrue to His nature to conquer the Middle East through Abram and not have been untrue to His nature to conquer the Middle East through David? I must put off a more complete answer until I can discuss David more thoroughly. At this point I can only suggest two points. First, establishing the kingdom of David was something that God did with some reluctance, in something of the same manner that he allowed executions of murderers; it was a compromise. Second, His purpose in establishing the kingdom of David was not to compete with the other nations in any way that we could recognize; the kingdom He established was unlike any other kingdom and carried out a completely different agenda in the overall scheme of the revelation. It is a question that deserves more careful consideration in the future.

We imagine that the process of self-revelation for God would have been straightforward. He need only give us a series of propositions, like a creed, do a few miracles to get our attention and intimidate us into believing, and then we would know Him. In fact a series of propositions/miracles is exactly what He did not give us, and therefore we ought to realize that such a revelatory style can never reveal who He really is. The truth is that the way we think had become so alien from God, our minds had become so crippled and corrupted, that self-revelation was (and is still) a tricky thing, one that had to be accomplished over millennia and at great cost. The kingdom of God is so unlike any kingdom in this world, so unlike what any kingdom in this world can ever be, that He could not assume the role of god to some city and proceed to show His superiority. It would have been automatically false. God simply cannot speak or act in terms of this world and remain true to Himself.

 


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