Summary: This sermon is about God's covenant to Abraham and how it is lived out in the following generations
The beginning of Genesis shows a continuing widening chasm between man and God. We left off last week at the tower of Babel, and God’s punishment of giving them different languages so they could not communicate with one another and then dispersing them. And there is a major question hanging over this drama: "What is the relationship of God to humanity.” The story of the Tower of Babel gives us no answer. Biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad writes, “the story about the tower of Babel concludes with God’s judgment on mankind: there is no word of grace. The whole primeval history seems to break off in shrill dissonance, and the question . . . now arises even more urgently: is God’s relationship to the nations now finally broken; is God’s forbearance now exhausted; has God rejected the nations in wrath forever?”
Genesis 12-50 tells the story of one family, that of Abraham and his offspring, that lived near the northern Mesopotamian city of Haran. The lifetime of these patriarchs is clearly set before the period in which Israel was in Egypt. Scholars date Abraham anywhere between 2000 BC and 1500 BC. This was a time of great political unrest as one group of people would seize power only then to be overtaken a century later by another. As a result, archaeology has discovered finds of a strong westward movement of people from Mesopotamia called the Amorites. If Abraham was not a part of them, it at least reveals to us that such travels were common in his day.
These stories give insight into the life and customs of semi-nomadic people living in the Middle Bronze age from marriage customs to inheritance rights among heirs, all of which have been confirmed through archaeological finds. The general description of the lifestyles of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob indicate they were the chiefs of wealthy clans whose livelihood depended mostly on raising small livestock such as sheep and goats. They seemed to have semi-permanent roots near a large city, most likely for supplies, trade and protection in the event of attack. Trade miust have been part of their livelihood as the clan probably had more people than needed for shepherding. This is also supported by the fact that the journeys of Abraham take him to major cities and trading centers. But the nature of having flocks meant moving to new pastures according to the seasons of the year, especially during the dry season of summer and during droughts. Despite their travels, they maintain their connections to their homeland as both Isaac and Jacob go back to marry wives from Haran.
The story of Abraham begins with answering the question of the status and nature of God’s relationship to humanity. Abraham is now past retirement age and is old and weak. At a time when he should have been slowing down and thinking about retirement, God calls Abraham to pick up and leave everything and everyone he knows and move to a strange land with a strange people. But in this call, God makes a covenant filled with promises that God will fulfill. The word covenant comes from the ancient legal system meaning contract. But while contracts are usually between people of equal value and rights under the law, Israel’s covenant is with God has been initiated by God. While contracts are conditional, you do this and I’ll do that or the contract is null and void, God’s covenant is unconditional, meaning His commitment to Israel is not based on who we are or what we do or don’t do. In fact, God has made a commitment to Israel with no conditions and has said that the covenant cannot be broken. Instead, God places conditions or promises on himself.
There are two promises made in this covenant. First is the gift of land and a home. It’s in this covenant that God promises to Abraham who is now homeless and nomadic that God will give him and his descendants a home. The land is at the heart of what it means to be Jewish and God’s chosen people. In the time of Abraham, the Holy Land was the land of the Canaanites. To own land not only meant security and comfort, it meant you are someone. Use the analogy of the first time you bought a home and what that meant to you. So land played a unique role in Israel’s identity. The second promise is that Abraham will be a father to a great nation and his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. Remember, this promises is made to a man and a woman in their 70’s and who are barren. But to be a people and great nation, you need land and not just any land. Good land in the Middle East is very similar to land in New Orleans: it is in short supply and that makes it very valuable. The land God gave was the most fertile and arable land in the Middle East, something that Biblical scholars have likened to the breadbasket of America. It is also the most strategic land in the Middle East as it is the land bridge between Asia and Africa. Thus, it has been the most fought over piece of land in the Middle East for the last 4000 years. Add in the fact that the land was a gift from God and you begin to see its significance in Israel’s life and identity. These things together meant that the land is at the heart of what it means to be an Israelite and to be God’s chosen people.