Summary: Immediately after Abram gets "back to basics," a controversy develops. Did you know that "blessing" can lead to dissension? Did you know that walking in faith almost inevitably leads to opposition?
The Head-On Collision
Text: Genesis 13:1-18
When a corporation has some bad financial reverses, you are likely to read a press release that says something about getting back to the company’s core business. When a sports team gets outplayed, the coach’s press conference will usually have a statement about getting “back to basics.” In the Bible, there is a tradition of going “Back to Bethel.” Now, I believe “Bethel” is important because of the meaning of its name, “House of God,” and, in case you think I’m making too much of that, remember that the Bible speaks of it as Bethel in the Abraham story even though Jacob changes its name officially in Genesis 28 from Luz (“Scorned”) to Bethel.
So, we see Abram come back to Bethel in today’s text; Jacob commanded (in Genesis 31) to return to the land of promise by the “God of Bethel;” Jacob goes back to Bethel in Genesis 35 after his daughter is raped by a fellow whose last name was literally, “Son of a Donkey;” in both Joshua 16 and 18, Bethel is given as an allotment to the descendants of Joseph; in Judges 1, Bethel is captured by subterfuge fulfilling the promise in Joshua; Deborah sets up her camp between Ramah (“Great”) and Bethel; the Israelites go to Bethel to inquire about God’s will before starting a civil war to cleanse the nation (Joshua 20); after losing the initial battle in that civil war, Israel comes back to Bethel to find out what they’re supposed to do (Joshua 21); in I Samuel 7:16, we discover that Bethel was one of the places Samuel judged the people; when Elijah is passing his ministry to Elisha, they engage in a reverse conquest tour of Israel going from Bethel to Jericho (II Kings 2) and Elisha returns to Bethel after Elijah is translated (II Kings 2:23-24); after the northern kingdom (Israel) fell, a priest was installed at Bethel to teach the people how they should worship the Lord (II Kings 17:28); and throughout the prophets Amos and Hosea, Bethel is denounced as a holy sanctuary being used for the wrong purposes.
So, when we read in Genesis 13:3 that Abram has returned to that altar between Bethel and Ai, I don’t think it is unreasonable to claim that the patriarch was returning to basics and becoming dependent upon God once again. I don’t think this visible step in Abram’s pilgrimage is that unlike the believer who has failed, made a mistake or rebelled against the Lord such that she or he needs to confess sin, receive God’s forgiveness, and be filled with God’s presence in order to continue the journey successfully. Of course, if you think I’m reading too much into it, remember that the purpose of sacrifice in the patriarchal age was both to offer a gift to God and to gain forgiveness of sin—that mouthful known as “propitiation.”
Whenever we lose sight of God’s plan for our lives and end up investing too much of our lives in the secular world, we need to confess and get back on track. But one thing is sure, as soon as we’re acting with power and moving forward in faith, we’re going to experience some kind of push-back from the Enemy, God’s “disloyal opposition,” the Satan. But the dirtiest part of it is that, all too often, the conflict will come from someone close to us. In the church, it will often come from other brothers and sisters. And there’s worse news.