It’s agonizing to care more about another person than they care about themselves. The foolish choices, the difficult consequences, the broken promises. It’s tempting to want to bail them out, to renegotiate the boundaries, to try to find a way to set the bar so low they can be successful…until you realize you’re enabling their foolish behavior.
This is something of Abram’s situation with his nephew, Lot. Lot seems determined to go his own way, which isn’t really a bad way so much as he’s merely drifting along. But he keeps getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
God shows how far he’s willing to go to bring all sorts of sinners back to him.
Abram and Lot are family–uncle and nephew–traveling together because God called Abram to leave his father’s home and go to the land he would show him. As it turns out, the land is Canaan, the future “promised land” for Abram’s descendants, the Hebrews. Though God said for Abram to leave his father’s family behind, he brings Lot anyway, Ge 12:1. Abram must have felt responsible for this nephew without a father to guide him. I wonder if Abram saw the way Lot’s life was going and decided he’d better let him tag along.
During their journey, they find themselves in a land of famine, so they take a side trip into Egypt where food is plentiful and where Abram tries to pass off Sarai, his wife, as merely his sister. It’s true that she’s his half sister, but he leaves out that she’s also his wife, because he’s afraid he’ll be killed by anyone who wants to steal her away, Ge 12:11-13.
The marriage customs of the time are lost on me, but this much I understand: she’s so beautiful that Pharoah decides to make her his wife. “He treated Abram well for her sake” and made him wealthy. But Pharoah comes to regret his new bride since everyone breaks out with “serious diseases” after she comes, and Abram is called on to take her back. God was looking out for Sarai, even if Abram wasn’t, Ge 12:14-20.
Abram’s business is with livestock, and he’s grown wealthy during his wanderings. Evidently Lot has, too. Their flocks and herds are so vast, the land can’t support them grazing in the same area, and their herdsmen begin to quarrel with one another over the land, Ge 13:1, 5-7.
Abram suggests to Lot they part ways since their flocks and herds have grown so large and tells him to choose which part of the land he wants. Lot likes the look of the plain along the Jordan River, so Lot goes east and Abram goes west to the land of Canaan. Where Lot chooses to live is near Sodom, and the very next verse begins to tell the story that gets hold of Lot, “Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord,” Ge 13:8-13.
Did Lot know about the wickedness of Sodom when he chose to live nearby? The Bible doesn’t say. But he knew there was a city there. It’s interesting in hindsight to watch the progression of Lot toward Sodom. Here in chapter 13, he just pitches his tents nearby, but before long, he’s living in the city and participating in its leadership, 19:1.
And then Lot and his family get abducted by a band of kings raiding Sodom. Abram is called in and rescues the whole city, and Lot returns. Lot doesn’t ask questions, like why God let the raiders carry off everybody in the first place? Maybe he had too much business in town to think about pulling out and starting over somewhere else. But it was a tragic choice he made to go back, Ge 14:11-12, 19:1-2.
Eventually, he has to be rescued again. This time by an angel of the Lord, who comes to tell him to get out of town before fire and brimstone fall out of heaven and burn the city and everyone in it. Who knows why Lot is still living there. Abram wants to believe Lot is righteous, yet he chooses to live in a city so wicked, its only legacy after it’s destroyed is the word “sodomy,” Ge 18:23-33; 19:12-17.
Giving Lot the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible that he thought he could influence Sodom for good, but if he did, it’s a naive thought. I’m guessing that Lot’s true motive for living in Sodom was because he liked it there. Maybe he was getting rich supplying sheep and goats in town. Money speaks, after all.
Maybe he liked the reputation he had there as a city leader, sitting in the gate and doing business, Ge 19:1. Maybe he liked living on the edge in a culture like Sodom. If he had any thoughts about going in and turning things around, he was deluded by them. Sin is more seductive than we think, and sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way.
As it turns out, he eventually loses everything he has there, including his wife. He’s reduced to living in a cave with his two daughters who flee from the city with him before fire falls from the sky and burns it all up. But the daughters are tainted by Sodom, and they bring its ways with them: they make a plan to get Lot drunk so they can have children by him, Ge 19:26, 30-38.
It’s a sordid tale, and I’m guessing it’s one that didn’t just start inside the cave. It started when Lot moved his tents near Sodom. The tug of a worldly, sinful culture is a powerful thing. Lot’s not the first fool to be taken for a joy ride and find himself on the ash heap when it’s over.
Contrast Lot to Abram. When he and Lot part ways on the plains of the Jordan that day, God speaks to Abram and says for him to look the land over, because God will give it to him and his descendants. “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,” Ge 13:14-17.
Abram moves his tents and lives “near the great trees” of someone named Mamre, and he builds an altar to God there. Abram’s first thought in a new place is to get set up for worship, and this isn’t the first time. It’s not unusual for him to build an altar. His relationship with God is a priority.
Even without a priest or temple or written laws to go by to worship God (400 years later, God would give Moses and his descendants instructions for these things), Abram understands that connecting with God is what matters most. And he does it with an altar and a sacrifice. Over a thousand years before Jesus is born, Abram understands that he needs a sacrifice to come to God, because he’s a sinner who needs an offering.
Earlier in his journey when he first gets to Canaan, God appears and says he’ll give the land Abram’s on to his offspring, “So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” He pitched his tents between Bethel and Ai and “called on the name of the Lord,” Ge 12:7-8.
Then the famine comes, and he gets tangled up in Egypt until Pharoah finally sends him and Sarai away, Ge 12:19-20. Abram didn’t build altars in Egypt, and though he goes to the Negev when he first leaves, he doesn’t build an altar there either. It’s not until he gets back to his camping spot between Bethel and Ai where he’d built the first altar, that the Bible says he “called on the name of the Lord” again, Ge 13:3-4.
What’s happened between God and Abram? I’m guessing that Abram’s failure to trust God when he got to Egypt is what’s between them. He took matters into his own hands by telling Sarai to lie about being his wife, and from there, Abram’s marriage takes a beating and Abram narrowly misses one himself. Though he gains much wealth, I wonder if it was worth the price he paid to get it.
Not only does he lose face with Pharoah, he and Sarai must have struggled to put their marriage back together. And maybe the greatest cost was in his intimacy with God. Repentance can come slow and hard. His lack of altar building from Egypt to Bethel/Ai is telling. But when he gets back to his first altar, he calls on the name of the Lord again.
Despite Abram’s sin, God had never forsaken him. In Egypt, God punished Pharaoh for nabbing Sarai. And despite his lying and hiding, God gave Abram great wealth. When he left Egypt, “Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold,” Ge 13:2.
Abram’s no doubt learned a lot about God’s goodness and faithfulness despite his own unfaithfulness. It seems to be a lesson he took to heart, because when he and Lot part ways, he’s not haggling with Lot over who gets the best piece of land for their animals. He lets Lot make the first choice. He’s gracious. If God protected him in Egypt and provided for him, even when he didn’t trust him, he knows God’s got his back.
Then there’s a dramatic piece of warfare between kings who fight for control of a valley. The winning kings take all the people and plunder from the losers, which includes the city of Sodom, where Lot lives. Someone escapes and gives Abram a heads’ up, and he rounds up the other men in his neighborhood plus “318 trained men born in his household,” and they go after Lot and the rest of the folks from Sodom and Gomorrah, Ge 14:1-14.
Abram is wealthy beyond anyone in my experience. He not only has 318 servants, he has 318 who are trained and armed for battle. Abram himself has a military mind. He comes up with a plan to divide his men and attack during the night, and when he does, he routs the enemies–four kings and their armies–and chases them far to the north, Ge 14:15-16.
Somehow I’ve missed this kick-ass side of Abram during my Sunday school days growing up.
He recovers all the people and possessions that were carried off, including Lot, and then he meets up with Melchizedek, a mysterious king and priest of Salem, who’s thought to have been from what will become “Jerusalem.” Melchizedek worships “God Most High” and brings Abram bread and wine as a gesture of goodwill that was common in that time, (NIV Study Bible note, and see Jdg 19:19). Melchizedek blesses Abram and God, the creator of heaven and earth, “who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abram tithes a tenth of the plunder to Melchizedek, Ge 14:18-20.
The King of Sodom shows up and tells him he’ll take his people back but will leave the rest of the spoils to Abram. But Abram refuses to take them. Except for the food his men have eaten and a fair cut for his neighbor-friends who helped him, he says he’s vowed to God he won’t take any of the plunder, because he doesn’t want to be beholden to this king, “I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich,'” Ge 14:21-24.
This is a very different Abram than the one who went to Egypt and tried to hide behind his sister-wife so he wouldn’t be killed. This Abram isn’t thinking about himself and his safety. He makes sure the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are rescued, and that his friends get rewarded for their help, and that his servants get to eat. And he tithes to God from an evidently massive amount of plunder, but he won’t take even a thread of it for himself.
Abram’s learned that God is the one who protects and provides for him. Look at Egypt. The plan Abram made brought dishonor and even threatened his life, the very things he most wanted to avoid, and his wife was likely compelled to be unfaithful. Abram’s not going to make the same mistake twice. He’s not going to plot and plan to try to save his own neck as he did before. He’s learning to trust God instead.
Melchizedek’s appearance is well timed. This priest/king shows up exactly where Abram is, in the Valley of Shaveh, bringing drinks and snacks and blessings from God. Is this just a coincidence or is Someone looking out for Abram, down to fast food on the road?
It gets better…
“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward,'” Ge 15:1. The only reason I can think of that God would say not to be afraid is because Abram is afraid. He’s likely afraid of reprisals for beating those four kings. Maybe he’s concerned about the five other kings he’s helped, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah among them. What’s to keep them from coming and attacking him now that they’ve learned of his wealth?
Hearing God say Abram has no reason to fear would’ve encouraged him. God saying he’s not only Abram’s “shield” (his protection), but also his “reward” (his provision), would’ve been good news, too. This is the same lesson he learned in Egypt and in the war he’s just won. Who needs the spoils of war when the God of the universe hangs out and helps?
But Abram’s too honest to get all worked up about what God’s just said. He says this instead, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless…so a servant in my household will be my heir,” Ge 15:2-3. What Abram really wants is a son. It’s likely that a trusted servant will inherit everything he’s got. God may have promised he’ll become a great nation, but Abram still doesn’t have a child, and he’s been waiting ten years since God first came to him.
He was 75 years old then, and not much has happened since. What exactly did God mean–he’s gotta be wondering–when he said he’d be “a great nation” and be a blessing to all people on earth? These are all such general terms, it’s hard to know what God has in mind. And God’s promised him land, but he doesn’t have a deed, Ge 12:1-3, 7.
All he’s got is God’s word.
God flatly says this servant won’t be his heir, and then God takes him outside. “Look up at the heavens and count the stars, if you can…So shall your offspring be.” The Bible says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness,” Ge 15:4-6. It’s the first mention in the Bible of someone’s faith in God being credited to him as righteousness, Ro 4:11, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/genesis-15/).
It’s the message of Jesus and Paul and the rest of the writers of the New Testament, but it’s also the message of the Old, and here it is for the first time. While faith in a Savior isn’t mentioned here, Abram eventually comes to be called Abraham and finds out that the offspring he will have will include the One who is to come, the Messiah, who will take away the sins of the world.
God reminds Abram of the land he’s promised him, too, but Abram wants more than just words. While he believed God about having as many offspring as stars in the sky, he wants a guarantee about the land, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” Ge 15:7-8.
God doesn’t reprimand him for needing reassurance, he just gives him a shopping list: a 3-year-old heifer, goat, and ram, as well as a dove and young pigeon. While I’m scratching my head over what’s going on here, Abram obviously knows what to do. He gets what God’s asked for, cuts the animals in half, and arranges the pieces so that the halves lie opposite each other on the ground, Ge 15:9-10.
Evidently this is the way a contract was signed in the ancient world. Animals would be halved and lined up on either side of a path, wide enough for both of the parties in the negotiation to walk through together. The walking part was considered to be their signature on the deal, and meant, in effect, if I fail to keep this contract, may I be cut in half like these animals have been, (NIV Study Bible, note).
It was customary for both parties to walk the path through the animals, repeating the terms of the agreement aloud, and Abram waits for God to show up so they can sign. Birds of prey come and try to eat the carcasses, but Abram drives them away. And then he falls into a deep sleep as the sun goes down, Ge 15:11.
It’s not clear why God doesn’t come right away to walk through and “sign the deal,” but regardless of why, a “dreadful darkness came over him” after he fell asleep, and God tells him that his descendants would face slavery in a foreign land for 400 years but afterwards, God would bring them out with great riches, and they would inhabit the land where Abram now is, Ge 15:12-16.
Maybe God just has a flair for the dramatic and that’s the reason he delays coming. Once the sun sets and night’s fallen, a smoking firepot and a blazing torch appear and pass between the pieces and do so without waiting for Abram to walk, too. God alone speaks the terms of the covenant, which is really only one term, and it’s this: God will give “this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” to Abrams’ descendants, “the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites,” Ge 15:17-21.
There’s nothing for Abram to do except to receive it. Not only does he not walk, he doesn’t even speak. God does it all.
I think about the goodness of God to Abram thus far, to make the initial promise to make him a great nation and to bless all people through him, to overlook the inconvenience of Lot, to bear with Abram’s unbelief in Egypt, to walk him through Canaan and repeat his covenant promise, to give him victory over the combined forces of four kings and get everyone who’s been stolen back, to send Melchizedek to say “attaboy” and “praise God” and “here’s a little bread and wine,” to bear with Abram’s doubt about God’s promise of an heir, and then to give him a legal contract for the land because he needs a guarantee.
What kind of God is this?
The covenant God made with Abram is called “unilateral” by the folks who know such things because Abram never signed it. He watched while God signed it for both of them. Because of that, this covenant is based on who God is and what he does, not on who Abram is or on anything Abram does. Abram can’t break it, because he never signed it. It doesn’t depend on him at all—it depends on the God who cannot fail, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/genesis-15/).
The covenant signing symbolized more than just the giving of real estate. It was the giving of prosperity and place, of home, of a rich and full life in relationship with God himself. The animal sacrifice is literally ripped apart so that God can pass through it to confirm his promise to Abram, a promise as binding as God’s own word and dependent on God to do all the work.
One day, God would reach through the broken body of his Son, providing all that’s needed with his perfect blood, so that Abram and anyone else who wants him can find their home in him, even the “Lots” among us. All we must do is believe and receive.
Is there anything God won’t do to be home for those he loves?
Here’s a conundrum:
In Genesis, God just demonstrated his complete work to do what it takes to save his people with the firepot and the torch between the animal pieces.
And yet, in Matthew, Jesus says this, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Mt 5:48.
If God does it all, why does Jesus tell us to be perfect, too? Why does it matter what we do?
God’s “doing it all” isn’t because he’s relaxed his standard. He’s a holy God and his holiness demands perfection in his people: “Be holy, because I am holy,” 1 Pe 1:16.
Thankfully, Jesus came and lived a perfect life. And when we trust in him, his goodness counts for us. We get his perfect record, “…and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” He 5:9.
But that perfect record doesn’t give us the freedom to go out and live as we please. If we’re truly trusting in Jesus, his perfect record frees us to love and serve him out of gratefulness, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart…,” Ro 6:17.
God’s love in Jesus moves us to love and obey him, not turn away from him.
Today’s Proverbs sound like they could have come from Lot’s and Abram’s tombstones:
“For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,
and the complacency of fools will destroy them;
but whoever listens to me will live in safety
and be at ease without fear of harm.”
I see that being simple and naive isn’t innocent, it’s foolish and self destructive. And so is not giving a flip. Lot’s sin wasn’t so much his wickedness as it was his refusal to see the truth all around him until judgment fell out of the sky and sent him running. This is a kind of willful waywardness.
I also see that listening to your words makes me safe and at peace, unafraid of what comes, because you’ve got me.
Keep me from the folly of thinking how I live doesn’t matter because of Jesus. This is just the sort of deadly simplemindedness Solomon warns against. It’s not by ignoring your words that I find safety–it’s by listening to them and doing what you say.
My take-away today is God’s gift of Jesus, the one who would be torn apart so that I would never be turned away.
When I think about how well you loved Abram and how you kept all your promises to him, far greater than he could have imagined, I realize that Jesus was the one you promised who would come through Abraham and bless “all peoples on earth,” Ge 12:3.
Jesus is the reason for your blessing rather than your cursing. Jesus is my shield against your anger and wrath so I don’t have to be afraid. Jesus is my “very great reward,” Ge 15:1.
Thank you Father for your words…and for Jesus who lived them…and for the Spirit who enables me to believe and obey them.