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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 29 - the Story of Abraham Part 1 (Genesis 12-14)

Up until this point, the story of Genesis recorded early human history in general relative to God's plan of salvation.  However, as Chapter 12 of Genesis begins, we begin to see a narrowing in focus of God's plan to one tribe in particular, and at its head is Abram.   The story of Abraham will pretty much cover the central section of Genesis, and Abraham dominates a large portion of the book from this point in that it is through him that God establishes a covenant people to relay His plan of salvation to the human race, and indeed, it is through Abraham's descendants that salvation will be manifest fully, as the culmination of Abraham's physical seed is in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God Himself come in the flesh.

Abram's story begins at Ur, where he was born about 45 years before the Tower of Babel incident recorded in Genesis 11.   Abram is a descendant of Shem's son Arphaxad, whose lineage we studied in Genesis 11 as well.  One thing to note here too is although I am using the name Abraham, at this point he is still called Abram, which means "exalted father."   As Genesis 12 opens, we have Abram leaving from the city of Haran, which is in northern Mesopotamia at the age of 75.   Abram and his family had left the city of his birth, Ur, sometime after Babel, as we read in Genesis 11:31.  He had stayed there with Terah his father for some time until Terah dies at the age of 205, and it is not long after that when God tells Abram to move on then.   We'll pick up that story in a moment, as extrabiblical writings give us a clue as to why Abram may have moved from Ur in the first place.  However, this time it is God who tells Abram to move to the land of Canaan to the southwest, and in doing so God made five very specific promises to Abram that are as follows:

1.  "I will make you a great nation." (verse 2)
2.  "I will bless you and make your name great." (verse 2)
3.  "I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you."  (verse 3)
4.  "In you all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed."  (verse 3)
5.  "To your seed I will give this land."  (verse 7)

The map above illustrates the possible route Abram took to the Promised Land, and as mentioned, it was God who directed him where to go.  There are a couple of possible reasons for Abram's migration, and I want to briefly discuss those now.

In the Book of Jasher 8:11-36, the story goes that Nimrod for some reason was threatened by Abram's birth and sought to kill him.  However, Terah took Abram and hid him in a cave where he was also under the care of his ancestors Noah and Shem.   Although this is from an extrabiblical source, the Christological imagery here is very vivid, in that like Christ many generations later (Matthew 2:7-17), Abram was a promised covenant child who incurred the wrath of a wicked king who sought to kill him, but he was sent away into exile for his own protection.  This also is repeated later in Exodus in the story of Moses too.  According to Jasher 11:13, Abram stayed in exile until he was around 50 years of age, but upon learning of Abram's return, Nimrod attempts to imprison and then kill him, and that is why he eventually ends up in Haran, as this persecution may have also corresponded with the Babel dispersion in Genesis 11.  Jasher is by no means Scripture, and doesn't carry the same inspiration at all, but it does correlate with the record of Scripture and possibly explains some gaps in the Scriptural record which were deliberately omitted because they don't figure too prominently into the legacy of salvation that Scripture is focused upon.  Abram is also persecuted by Nimrod for worshipping the true God, something we read both in Genesis 10 specifically but also foretold in Genesis 3:15 as being part of this whole conflict we see "between the seeds."  Nimrod, remember, was the first Antichrist figure we read about in Scripture, and Nimrod's story sheds light on what the future Beast in Revelation is going to be like, as it possesses the same spirit - it is a spirit that hates the worshippers of the true God, and seeks to destroy them in order to elevate itself to godhood.  And, as we continue this narrative, Nimrod continues to be a recurring issue for Abram and his family.

When Abram leaves Haran for Canaan, he takes with him his wife Sarai (whose name means "quarrelsome") and his nephew Lot ("a covering"), the son of his deceased brother Haran.  Scripture doesn't allude to how Lot became part of Abram's family, but my theory is that at Haran's death, Lot may have still been quite young and perhaps Abram agreed to take him and raise him as a son.  At some point, reading on in verses 5-6, Abram and his tribe settle in Canaan.  Note too the very first thing he does when he arrives at a place called Bethel (meaning "house of God," and historically thought to be connected again to the Temple Mount) is to build an altar to God and offer worship, possibly in thanksgiving to God for bringing him safely to this "land of promise."  However, Abram doesn't stay in Bethel, as it says he ventured further south but doesn't say where.

Beginning in verse 10, a sojourn in Egypt is recorded.  This is the first of three major journeys to Egypt that Scripture records, the second being Joseph's relocation of his family there toward the end of Genesis, and the third being Mary and St. Joseph taking the baby Jesus there to protect Him from Herod's wrath.  The relationship of the people of God with Egypt in Scripture is a rather odd one, for it is almost a love/hate thing throughout most of the Old Testament.  For one thing, Egypt was for some reason a special place of refuge, whether from famine (in the cases of both Abram and his great-grandson Joseph) or from persecution (as we read in Jeremiah, and also in the instance of the infant Jesus in the Gospels).  The Egyptians are obviously far from perfect, but for some reason God has given Egypt a special and unique dispensation of mercy over the centuries.  For instance, when we see Isaiah 19:23-25, God calls Egypt blessed, and also denotes them as "His people."  In relation to that, one of the oldest Churches in Christendom, the Coptic Church, was established in Egypt due to the evangelization of St. Mark the Evangelist - with over 10 million members today in the Middle East alone, the Copts are still a vibrant Christian community, although they have faced much persecution over the centuries.  And, in relation to that, once the Church was established, Alexandria in Egypt was one of the five original Patriarchates of the Church.  Alexandria was also the home of a vibrant Diaspora community of Jews dating from the time of Alexander the Great (after whom the city was named) and also the place where one of the oldest translations of Scripture, the Septuagint, was created.   It is also worth mentioning that during the time of Jeremiah, when the Assyrians and Babylonians were beseiging Jerusalem and many of the priests and nobles of Judah were going into exile, many of them went into Egypt, and a couple of things of note are worth mentioning here.  In the reign of Josiah at around that time, the Ark of the Covenant was not in Jerusalem, but during the earlier reign of the wicked king Manassah, a group of Levites had removed the Ark and tradition records them taking it to a replica temple on Elephantine Island in central Egypt said to have been constructed around the year 650 B.C.  Bob Cornuke, a Christian archaeologist and  explorer, notes in his book In Search of the Lost Ark of the Covenant (Nashville:  Broadman and Holman, 2002) on pages 101 and 102 that the ruins are still there today.    In II Chronicles 35:20, Josiah provokes a battle from Pharaoh Neco, who in verse 21 scolds and warns Josiah, saying that he needs to refrain from meddling with God, "who is with me, lest he destroy you."   The insinuation in this passage is that God is literally with the Pharaoh, and Cornuke and others believe this to be an allusion to the Ark being in Egypt (Cornuke, p. 107).  This would also connect the Ark's association with Ethiopia, as many believe (including myself) that this is where it eventually ended up.  Although the ancient Ethiopian Kebra Negast (meaning "Glory of Kings") records the affair of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba producing an heir named Menelik, the Ark would therefore have arrived much later in Ethiopia to protect it from invaders, and perhaps too the Levites it talked about in II Chronicles were headed there, as they knew a descendant of Solomon sat upon the throne of Axum, and would protect the holy object.  Any rate, Egypt still figures prominently in the story, and as we read Scripture, we see many interactions of Abram's descendants with Egypt, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad.  And, it started more or less with Abram's first trip to escape a famine in Canaan.

When Abram arrives in Egypt, we see a part of his humanity and concupiscence surface, proving that even the most righteous are prone to mistakes.  Fearing for his own life, he concocts a scheme to save his own skin at his wife Sarai's expense.  Sarai is described here as being an exceedingly beautiful woman, even at her advanced age.  Abram feared that the Egyptians would somehow covet and force her away from him, and maybe even kill him to take her, so he proposed that Sarai was to pass herself off as his "sister."  Abraham's mistake here is essentially the same one that caused Adam to fall back in Genesis 3 - Abram, in a weak moment, feared physical death more than he feared offending God by sin.  Abram's fear, much like Adam's, was as Dr. Hahn calls it a failure of faith, in that it kept him from his duty to guard the covenant God gave him.  It also kept him from trusting in God's care, and he was even willing to throw his own wife - as Adam also did - "under the bus." (Scott Hahn, First Comes Love.  New York:  Doubleday, 2002.  pp. 69-70).  It was unfortunate that Abram chose this solution, but unlike what happened to Adam and Eve at the Fall, God had a very bizarre way of preserving His covenant.  God sends a plague on Pharaoh for taking Sarai, in that He wanted to protect Sarai's virtue in order for His covenant to be fulfilled.  Although the Pharaoh rewarded Abram handsomely for "giving" him his wife (vv. 14-16), the plague also revealed to Pharaoh Abram's deception, and as you can guess, he was not happy (v. 20)!  Pharaoh though was surprisingly lenient on Abram, and the only punishment he exacted on Abram was deportation, as he ordered Abram and his family out of Egypt.   God, in essence then, was protecting Sarai from a stupid move on the part of Abram.

At this point, some time after the stay in Egypt, Abram is back in Canaan and as we bridge Genesis 13 and 14, we turn now to Abram and his nephew Lot.  A lot will be mentioned about Lot (pardon the pun!) in the coming chapters of Genesis, but as mentioned, Abram sort of "adopted" his nephew as a son.  As Abram became prosperous in herds and other wealth, Lot likewise benefitted, as Abram more than likely gave Lot a share of his own.  Lot too was to prosper, but in time a lack of designated grazing area caused their herdsmen to fight among each other.  Abram didn't want "bad blood" with his nephew, so he decided to allow Lot a portion of his own land to graze his herds, and he gives Lot the choice of what he wants.  Lot was enamoured of the lands to the east in the lower Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea, and chose to possess that land.  This would later come back to haunt him in a couple of different ways, as his close proximity to a wicked but wealthy city called Sodom would prove to be problematic for Lot later on.

In verses 14-18, a brief interlude in the story is documented, as God blesses Abram with all the land he can see, and also promises him again descendants (verse 16).  Abram's descendants, God promised, will be as the "dust of the earth" (extremely numerous) and indeed later his physical descendants (which the "dust" signifies) would be many (primarily today's Arabs and Jews).  Having been blessed by God with what is now his, Abram establishes a base of operations and a home at Hebron, and also builds another altar in dedication to God (verse 18).

As we come into Genesis 14, a major war breaks out.  Although the nations were dispersed at Babel some decades earlier, Nimrod's influence is still evident as a major regional power.  A group of cities in what is called the Valley of Siddim near the Dead Sea region rebels against one of Nimrod's satellite kings, an enigmatic ruler by the name of Chedorlaomer (meaning "he that dwells in a sheath").  The five cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar and their rulers wage a "war of independence" against Chedorlaomer, who is also the king of Edom in what is now southern Iran.  Chedorlaomer has an alliance of his own of four kings, all of whom were no doubt either satellites of the empire of Nimrod or allies, and one (Amraphel of Shinar) may have actually been Nimrod himself.   The sixteenth chapter of The Book of Jasher seems to affirm this connection, as does the Socino Babylonian Talmud, which records the following:

And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel.   Rab and Samuel are at variance.  One holds that his name was Nimrod and why was he called Amraphel?  Because he ordered our father Abraham to be cast into a burning furnace...Because in his reign he led all the world in rebellion against himself. 
( - accessed 8/6/2016)

This is also noted in the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan ben Uzziel (J.W. Etheridge trans., 1902 -  Accessed 8/6/2016) in which is recorded the following:

And it was in the days of Amraphel -- he is Nimrod, who commanded Abram to be cast into the furnace; he was then king of Pontos.  Ariok, so called because he was tall among giants....

The name Amraphel translates as being "one who speaks of dark things," and gives the reader the impression that this was a man who worshipped demons and possibly channeled them as "gods."  Also note something else - in this passage of Genesis, particularly 14:5, we also see Chedorlaomer defeating several tribes of giants in this valley of Siddim battle - many of the Canaanite tribes did exhibit Nephilim DNA, and this second race of Nephilim were to give the Chosen People problems for generations to come.  Now, the Talmudic passages as well as Jasher also record Amraphel (Nimrod) and at least two of his allies as being giants too, and one theory of Nimrod's description in Genesis 10 is that he is both a giant himself as well as a "mighty hunter" of men (to subjugate and enslave) and giants as well.  At any rate, the alliance led by Chedorlaomer of Elam utterly defeats the cities of the Plain, and as it does, it also takes captives, among whom is Lot, Abram's nephew.

A messenger who escapes the onslaught makes his way to Abram's camp, and advised of Lot's capture.  Abram assembles a militia of his own and goes to rescue Lot in alliance with the new king of Sodom (his predecessor, as documented in verses 6-10, perishes when the routing armies drove him and the king of neighboring Gomorrah into a tar pit near the Dead Sea shore). In verses 13-16, Abram's mission is successful, and he not only rescues Lot but also several other captives.  We now note something of further interest beginning in verse 14.

In verses 14-17, we see the appearance of an enigmatic priest/king called Melchizedek, and he is reported later to be the "King of Salem" (ancient Jerusalem).  The name Melchizedek is a cognate of two Hebrew words - malka meaning "king" and tzedekah meaning "righteous."   The name "Salem" is a name later Anglicized in recent Bible translations from the Hebrew word shalom, which of course means "peace."   It is believed that Melchizedek was a title rather than a proper name, and in other literature such as Jasher, the name is interchangeable with Adonizedek, which translates as "righteous lord."  Jasher 16:11 also maintains that Melchizedek was in reality Shem, the son of Noah and ancestor of Abram too.  In the name Melchizedek we see a Christological typology as well, and the Church has always maintained that Melchizedek prefigures Christ, even if in reality he was Shem.  His title, "Righteous King of Peace," mirrors the Messianic prophecies we see in Isaiah 9:6.  Looking also at verse 18, it is worth noting that Melchizedek comes out to meat Abram with offerings of bread and wine, which is seen also by the Church as a typology of the Eucharist as well.   This ceremonial (and sacramental) act of Melchizedek is a mark of the priestly "order of Melchizedek" that Christ institutes as foretold in Psalm 109:4 and affirmed in Hebrews 5:6 - the means of salvation is proclaimed through a superior priesthood, in other words.  We also note in verses 19-20 the blessing that Melchizedek bestows upon Abram by saying "Blessed be Abram of God most High, possessor of heaven and earth; And, blessed be God most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand."  Verse 20 concludes with Abram giving to Melchizedek a "tithe" upon receiving this blessing, and this is one of the first references to tithes and firstfruits in Scripture.

Melchizedek blesses Abram, from a medieval painting.

In the closing verses of Chapter 14, the battle has been won, the enemy routed, and those needing rescued (including Lot) have been liberated.  So, at this point, after Melchizedek's ceremony the king of Sodom and Abram meet to settle up on the spoils obtained in the battle.  The king of Sodom offers Abram the cavalry as a spoil of war, while keeping the prisoners of war for himself.  However, Abram doesn't really want any spoils, and suggests to the king of Sodom instead to divvy up his share among three valiant associates of his - Aner, Echkol, and Mamre - as they have need of it more than he does.  It is not mentioned specifically if the king was agreeable to the arrangement, but it can possibly be speculated that the negotiations were a success and Abram's three younger cohorts were rewarded for their service.  Abraham was more interested in serving God rather than acquiring wealth for himself, as he really had no need of it anyway.  And, in this, a virtue of Abram is reflected that we recite at every Mass in our Anglo-Catholic tradition in what is called the "Summary of the Law."  This Summary, also recorded in Matthew 22:38-39, and it summarizes the law of God well with two things it entails:

1.  Loving the Lord God with all one's heart, soul, and mind (the ancient Shm'a)
2.  Loving one's neighbor as one's self.

In reading it, we see that this is exactly the basic moral law of God given to us also in the Ten Commandments, and with Abram's example we see that it was as relevant in his time as it is for us today, as God's moral law is eternal.  As we pick up the story of Abram, we begin to see a growing in holiness in him, as God's supernatural grace continues to elevate, perfect, and heal Abram's finite nature.  But, it isn't without flaws - as we will see, Abram makes some dumb choices, but God works even with Abram's mistakes too.  

References used:

Cornwall, Judson, and Smith, Stelman.  The Exhaustive Dictionary of Bible Names.  Metuchen, NJ:  Bridge-Logos, 1998.

Johnson, Ken, The Ancient Book of Jasher.  Olathe, KS:  Biblefacts, 2008.

Morris, Henry III.  The Book of Beginnings Vol. 3 - The Patriarchs, Promised Nation, and the Dawning of the Second Age.  Dallas:  ICR, 2014.

The Orthodox Study Bible - NKJV.  Nashville:  Thomas  Nelson, 2008.