That Promise to Abraham … Overlooked but Everlasting

Tonight as I write this post the world sits on the eve of the largest one-day sporting event ever. Everyone’s attention is being drawn to the Super Bowl on Sunday and the drama that will be ours given that the Super Bowl features two brothers who are coaching the opposing teams. This Super Bowl will be a family feud! And then there is the anticipation of the Beyonce half-time show.  So much excitement abuzz in the air.

It is amazing to think that with all the attention focused on it now, the Super Bowl will be largely forgotten in just six months. What the world is taking great note of now will quickly be forgotten as we move on to other amusements, entertainment or political events. The rage one day quickly becomes ancient history the next.  Chances are, when you read this you won’t even know which Super Bowl or which teams are the rage just now.

We saw in our last post that this same pattern was true in the really ancient history of Abraham’s day. The important and spectacular contests, achievements and drama that captured the imagination of people living 4000 years ago are now totally forgotten, but a solemn promise spoken quietly to an individual, though totally overlooked by the world back then, is growing and unfolding before our eyes. I pointed out the obvious, but usually overlooked fact, that the promise given to Abraham about 4000 years ago has literally, historically and verifiably come true. This should give us reason to recognize that at the very least this Promise to Abraham provides an opening case for the existence of the God of the Bible. The story of Abraham continues with a few further encounters with this Promise-Making God of the Bible.  Abraham (and we who follow his journey) learn much more – even to the point of seeing this promise move from the realm of history to that of The Everlasting.  The story of Abraham is not a trendy but quickly forgotten event like the upcoming Super Bowl, it is one of an overlooked man setting a foundation to understand the gaining of eternity, so we’d better take note.

Abraham’s Complaint

Several years have passed in Abraham’s life since the Promise recorded in Genesis 12 was spoken. Abraham had moved to Canaan (the Promised Land) in what is today Israel in obedience to that promise. Other memorable events then occurred in his life except the one that he anticipated – the birth of the son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. So we pick up the account with Abraham’s complaint:

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.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)

 

God’s Promise

Abraham had been camping out in the Land awaiting the start of the ‘Great Nation’ that had been promised him. But nothing had happened and by this time he was around 80 years old. He complains that God was not keeping that Promise given to him. Their conversation continues with:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man 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.” (Genesis 15:4-5)

So in their exchange God basically reiterates His initial Promise by declaring that he would get a son that would become a people as uncountable as the stars in the sky – many for sure, but hard to number.

Abraham’s Response: Everlasting Effect

The ball was now back in Abraham’s court. How would he respond to this reiterated Promise? What follows is a sentence that the Bible itself treats as one of the most important sentences in the Bible (since this sentence is quoted several times later on). It lays the foundation to understand the Gospel and reveals the way to The Everlasting. It says:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is probably easier to unpack this sentence if we replace the pronouns with names, thus it would read:

Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is such a small and inconspicuous sentence. It comes and goes with no Super Bowl fanfare and so we are apt to miss it. But it is truly significant – and it contains the seeds of The Everlasting. Why? Because in this little sentence Abraham obtains ‘righteousness’. This is the one – and the only one – quality that we need to get right standing before God.

Reviewing our Problem: Corruption

From God’s point-of-view, though we were made in the image of God something happened that corrupted that image. So that now the Biblical charge is that

The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

The visual images that have helped me better understand this were the corruption of elves to orcs in the Lord of the Rings saga as well as the ‘missing’ the mark analogy used in the Bible. How this corruption occurred is explained in the account of Adam which I looked at here. The bottom line of all this is that we find ourselves separated from a Righteous God because we have no righteousness. Our corruption has taken and launched us into a Brave New World of autonomy from God and a propensity to not do good – reaping futility and death in its wake. If you doubt that just scan some news headlines and see what people have been up to that last 24 hours.

In fact our corruption has made us rather repulsive to God in the same way that the decaying body of a dead rat would be repulsive to us. We would not want to go near such a thing. The sight and stench would impel us to keep our distance. We are separated from the Maker of Life and so the words of Isaiah come true

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Abraham and Righteousness

But here in the conversation between Abraham and God we find, slipped in so unobtrusively that we can almost miss it, the declaration that Abraham had gained ‘righteousness’ – the kind that God accepts. So what did Abraham ‘do’ to get this righteousness? Once again, so unassumingly that we are in danger of missing the point, it simply says of Abraham that he ‘believed’. That’s it?! We have this insurmountable obstacle of being corrupt ‘orcs’ and so the natural, and dare I say universal, tendency of mankind down the ages is to look for sophisticated and difficult religions, efforts, ethics, teachings etc., – illustrated before our very eyes with the efforts of the devotees of the Mela Kumbh festival – to gain righteousness. But this man, Abraham, gained that prized righteousness simply by ‘believing’.

But what does that mean?  And what does this have to do with your righteousness and mine?  Everything!  We take it up in our next post.

Why would God allow suffering and death? Part 2

In my last post I posed the question as to why God would impose the Curse on the world. The hellish misery and death is one of the primary arguments used today to contend that there is no Good God. It was my experience in Africa contrasted to Canada that gave me a glimpse into why He may have done so.

Living in Africa

After high school, I took a year to live in Cameroon, Africa, where I worked in a machete crew that would hack its way through the steamy and dense jungle in straight lines to measure forest inventory. I was one of the crew that wielded a machete to clear a path. It was excruciatingly back-breaking work in the hot and humid jungle – wacking the vines, going straight through huge walls of thorn bushes, up steep slopes. We wore thick rubber boots (protection against snakes) and when we were done the day’s work we were exhausted.

The co-workers on the inventory team were simple and poor blue-collar men, on low wages trying to provide for their families. We became friends and I would regularly visit them after work. They lived in tin roofed, two-room huts/shacks by the road with no plumbing of any kind. I would sit with them on their mud floors, hearing the rats scampering in the darker recesses of the huts, eating their food. At times it was lizard tail, other times dried rodent of some sort, and bananas and other fruit growing around them. They shared their huts with a large family, there were lots of kids, often sick with something, and of course the elderly. The village ‘idiot’ was there. He was insane and would walk around naked, babbling some random ‘thoughts’. They could not put these kinds of folks away in care like we can here.

At one point we started to investigate the Bible together. It was at their suggestion after they had seen me reading my pocket Testament on one of our breaks deep in the jungle. We were an unlikely grouping; an upper middle-class, educated, white, Swedish-Anglo 18 year-old exploring the gospel with middle-aged, married, ‘simple’, Bassa tribe, African men in their huts. In the context of this study that went on through the year they surprised me. Though uneducated they astutely wondered why, if God was so good (as the Bible says He is), was the world around them so difficult, life so hard, things so unfair, health so fickle, the poor (themselves!) always exploited, work so tiring etc. They wrestled through the same issues, asking the same questions that Ehrman and the rest of us educated in the West ask. But what I noticed about my machete-crew friends contrasted so sharply with my experience in Canada at university.

Compared to Canada

After my year in Africa, I went to Canada for university studies. Here I was among my own: western, rich, educated, young, intelligent, healthy – by any global standard, and certainly my machete-crew friends. And once again there were some discussions regarding the gospel on the go, in the cafeteria, or the dorm, as part of university life. And the same questions were raised. But it was different now. In Africa, my friends were themselves in the experience they were asking about, and they asked from a posture of humility, feeling the personal relevance of the gospel solution to their situation and willing to wait patiently for it. They were, in a phrase, poor in spirit.

In Canada, my friends had never ever personally experienced one day of real hunger through their entire lives; they had not had real and personal brushes with death because the medical system rescued them long before anything got serious; they had never experienced one day of back-breaking labour in such heat; they had lots of gadgets to amuse themselves with.  So they asked the same questions with a totally different attitude. They were defiant and taunting, and would use these questions, not to see if there were answers, but to presume that there was no answer and to keep the gospel at arms-length. They were, to borrow a phrase, not poor in spirit. Thus they could dismiss the whole thing and continue living their lives the way they wanted to. The intellectual questions were the same, but the difference in attitude between Africa and Canada was so palpable to me – because here in Canada my friends felt very little personal need.

I would go to the university cafeteria (offering various hot meals, drinks and desserts available to us in all-you-can eat quantities, three times a day, seven days a week) with my friends amidst cursing of the poor food quality, grumbling that there was a wait in the line, and complaining when the ice cream ran out that day. The conversation revolved around which girl, amongst those we could see, would we ‘do’ and in what ‘position’, and if she was ‘worth’ it or not. The cursing would make sailors blush. Favorite events were the Roman Toga parties where everyone spent the night in drunkenness, debauchery and girl-swapping all night. Bootleg videos of a woman having sex with a horse; and a man with a rabbit – while killing it – made it around our dorm. I knew girls who were raped. Fires would be lit in the dorms for fun – so they could watch the firetrucks come in the middle of the night. Having piranhas as pets, so we could see hapless goldfish destroyed in a frenzy every week, made great sport. In one drunken party a guy fell out the 3rd floor window headfirst to his death on the pavement below; I awoke to see them mopping up the blood outside my window the next morning. The end of the year would be celebrated by busting doors and windows, and throwing TVs out the windows unto the ground below. “Yes indeed”, my friends would declare, shaking a fist at God, “He is unfair and unjust and has made a mess of the world”!

We may smile at the antics of university life and chide that most of us smarten up when we graduate and have the responsibility of a job, raising a family, paying a mortgage, and keeping our ‘Molson muscle’ belly from getting too big. And that is precisely the point. These things do smarten us up, but these are effects from the Frustration of the Curse. It is work responsibilities that the Curse has instituted to cause ‘sweat on our brow’ and ‘painful toil’. It is the heart-breaking and tiring process of raising children that comes from the Curse. It is aging that the Molson muscle represents – again from the Curse. It is the unavoidable and inevitable approaching of death that even keeps us moderately meek – again from the Curse. My friends in Africa were in touch with this all the time, and thus were open in some ways that my Canadian university friends were not. My friends in university could so mitigate the effects of the Curse for that period of their lives – thus their hearts remained hard.

Consider that the advances of technology and wealth that we in the West enjoy are only appreciated because they mitigate (temporarily) the brunt of the Curse from our experience. Medicine mitigates against sickness, cosmetics hide the effect of aging, scientific techniques supply us with an abundance and variety of food, technology has reduced the ‘painful’ aspect of work to the extent that we now are used to thinking in terms of ‘careers’ that can satisfy our desires, rather than provide for daily necessities. The motive for advancement in science and technology is never about gaining wisdom. We have the same motive that drove the magicians and alchemists of the Middle Ages (though with more success). We want to master Nature so that Nature’s sting on our lives is reduced. All my friends went to university so they could ‘get a good job’ – they were not interested in learning for learning’s sake – but with a good job they could enjoy all the benefits of a lessened Curse.

Now I am not against that, and I think our advancements are good. But they do not soften our hearts; it is the hard knocks of living in the Curse that do that – for me and for the others I have seen life’s sterner hand upon. I find it interesting that mostly in the West, amongst the rich and wealthy of the world, do we find this issue (of pain and misery in the world) advanced as an argument against the existence of God – the very ones who do not experience The Curse to the same intensity as our brothers across the globe and back in time do. The loosening of the grip of the Curse on our lives has hardened us.

And with that I get a faint glimmer of perhaps why God has brought about the Curse on the world in the first place. Without it we would never ever bother listening to hear God’s call no matter what. In imposing the Curse He faced the choice between having no people ever listen to him versus some listening and others calling Him evil. Personally, I am thankful he chose the latter option.