Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Abraham

Blood lines

I received my DNA test results yesterday, then signed up for a 14 day free trial  with ancestry.ca. I spent the rest of the day filling in the gaps in my family tree with the information they already have on file from kinfolk near and far.

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It’s a fascinating exercise. I am a mix of English, French, Dutch and German, which the DNA test corroborates, but doesn’t quite know how to differentiate. They peg my background as 61% England, Wales and Northwestern Europe, 36% Germanic Europe, 2% French and 1% Baltic states. The map shows considerable overlap of the first three groups. In fact, the circle that they identify as the source of French ancestry does not include northern and western France at all, but the next two groups do. My great-great-grandfather came from Lorraine in the north of France.

My Dad thought he was part Scottish, but I have found that the Kelloggs came from the county of Kent, just below the Scottish border. The name was given to a pig butcher: “kill hog” morphed into Kellogg. Really romantic that, eh?

My great-great-grandfather was a swordsman in Napoleon’s army. Does that sound romantic? He didn’t seem to think so. Almost 200 years ago he and his children left France and settled in upstate New York, not far from some people named Goodnough. In the course of time there was a wedding which is how he got into my family tree.

This is all quite interesting, but not very significant. Mostly it’s interesting to me and my daughter.  I don’t plan to put other people to sleep by expounding on my ancestry at the Sunday dinner table.

There are extensive genealogical records in the Bible. Some people find them boring, but they are there for a reason. First of all, they show that the Bible is talking about real people, who lived, married, begat children and eventually died. Secondly, and most importantly, they show God’s faithfulness in fulfilling the promises He made.

The New Testament has only two genealogical records, both leading to the birth of Jesus Christ, the long-promised son of David, the Messiah.

The record in Matthew begins with Abraham, the father of all faithful, to whom the promise was made that in his seed all nations would be blessed. Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish believers to record the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. He includes four women in his genealogy of Jesus, three were Gentiles and are named. The fourth was Bathsheba, an Israelite, who is not named but her first husband, a Gentile, is named. It would seem that Matthew wanted to make it clear that Jesus belonged to all people, not just one small ethnic group.

Matthew’s genealogy traces the lineage of Joseph, who was the earthly father of the heavenly child. It shows his descent from David to whom the promise of the Messiah was first made. It is generally accepted that Luke’s genealogy shows the lineage of Mary, to establish that she was also an heir of David. The two lines diverge after David, to Solomon in Joseph’s line and Nathan in Mary’s line. Both were sons of David and Bathsheba, but Solomon was king.

They come together again with Zerubabbel, who was of the kingly line and governor of Judah after the return from Babylon. Then they diverge again.

These are the last genealogies that are of any real importance. They establish that Jesus was the promised seed of Abraham and the son of David who would rule forever over spiritual Israel.

After the time of Jesus there is still a blood line that identifies those who are heirs of Abraham, having the promise of the eternal mansions. That is the blood of Jesus, not something we can inherit from our earthly fathers and mothers, but only from Jesus Himself, through the new birth.

Oral history of God’s works

In the beginning, people’s memories were better than they are today. Somebody once asked Albert Einstein for his phone number. He went for the phone book to look it up. Incredulous, his colleague asked “You don’t remember your own phone number?” “No. Why should I memorize something I can look up in a book?”

There were no books, no alphabet, no means of written information sharing at the beginning of time. So people gathered around their campfires in the evening and the storyteller would tell them their history. Storytellers had a prodigious memory, but so did the people who listened. If the story teller didn’t tell the story right, his listeners were sure to notice.

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This type of oral history is still found in non-literate societies, and is considered just as accurate as written history, possible even more so due to its collaborative nature. The book of Genesis was first oral history of this kind.

Various peoples developed pictographic styles of writing that used stylized shapes to depict people, animals, places and happenings. There was a limit to how much information could be conveyed in such a manner.

Historians say that the Sumerians began to develop something approaching a phonetic alphabet which was later adopted and refined by the Hebrews. There is a missing link in this theory. The Sumerians never did go on to develop a phonetic alphabet and there is no evidence the Hebrews ever experiment with earlier forms of symbols that developed into a phonetic alphabet. But we are told that 50 days after leaving Egypt, Moses came down the mountain with tablets of stone in his hands. On these tablets, God Himself had inscribed what we now call the Ten Commandments, in a phonetic alphabet.

There is no evidence of a phonetic alphabet anywhere before this moment that forever altered human history. The second commandment says: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.” How could this ever have been communicated in pictographic writing that consisted of images of creatures?

Up to this moment, the people had always wanted to see God as being like some creature that they were familiar with. Now God was telling them He was not anything like that, nor anything else they had ever seen. The Almighty, invisible God wanted His people to stop trying to imagine what He looked like and rather think of Him as the embodiment of qualities like righteousness, mercy and love.
This was the beginning of abstract thinking, the ability to grasp that the invisible God was always near to His children and to consider the consequences of their actions and the actions of others.

The Hebrew alphabet consisted of 22 letters, all consonants. It was written from right to left and had no punctuation. The fast letters were Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet. Many years later diacritical marks were added to indicate vowel sounds.

The Greeks took this alphabet and added vowels. The first letters in the Greek alphabet are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. The Romans adopted the Greek alphabet and provided the letter shapes we use today. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters: Alef-Bet in Hebrew, or Alpha-Beta in Greek.

Moses now had the tools to provide God’s people with a written history, beginning with the creation and following the lineage of those who were faithful to God, from Adam to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He continued to write the history of the exodus and the giving of the law. The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses and are called the Law.

There is one book in the Bible that seems to be outside the history of God’s chosen people. This is the book of Job. It is quite possible that this was oral history that Moses heard told and retold during the years he was shepherd for his Midianite father-in-law.

Job is from the land of Uz, an area in the kingdom of Edom, the possession of the descendents of Esau, the brother of Jacob and Abraham’s grandson. Eliphaz is from Teman, also in Edom. Bildad the Shuhite would be a descendant of Schua, Abraham’s son by Keturah. He would have been from an area close to Edom. Zophar was a Naamathite, indicating descent from Naamah, a son of Esau. Elihu, son of Barachel the Buzite appears later. Buz was a son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law was a Midianite. Median was another son of Abraham and Keturah.

All the people mentioned are descendents of Abraham or his brother and inhabited an area east and south of the Dead Sea. Moses would have led his flocks in this area, often meeting the people of this heritage at oases. I am surmising that the story of Job became familiar to him and God told him to put it in writing for the instruction of His people. I don’t know this, but this seems the most logical route for it to have become part of our Bible. Except for the first two chapters and the last ten verses, the book of Job is a poem. An epic poem that stuck in the mind and taught eternal truths.

Promises to Abraham

Abraham was a pilgrim and stranger in the promised land all his days. He believed the promise of God that his descendents would possess this land, even into old age when it seemed that all hope of having children was slipping away from him. God told him: “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee” (Genesis 13:17).

When Abram decided that the only heir he would ever had would be the son of his servant who was born in his house, God spoke to him again. “ This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:4-6).

Sarah, Abraham’s wife, wanted him to have a son in fulfilment of God’s promise. She had no child and was past normal child-bearing age, so she gave her servant Hagar to Abraham as was the custom of the day. This worked, Ishmael was born and Abraham now had a son who was his own flesh and blood. But this was still not the heir that God had promised to Abram.

When Abram was 90 years old God renewed His promise and made a covenant with Abram, changing his name to Abraham, father of a multitude. “ And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Genesis 17:7). It was at this point that circumcision was made the sign of the covenant.

Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 90 or 91 when Isaac, the son of the promise was born. Their faith had been tested for many years, but now they could see the beginning of God’s promise of a multitude of nations as their direct descendents.
God had yet one more test for Abraham. He told him to go up to the top of Mount Moriah and there offer his son as a sacrifice to God. Isaac could not have been a small child by this time, probably more like 20. Josephus says 25. Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice to Mount Moriah and up the mountain, not something a small child could have done. This leads us to believe that Isaac shared his father’s faith, for he must have fully cooperated when Abraham bound him and laid him on the altar.

Abraham took the knife in his hand and raised it. At this point God stopped his hand and said, “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Genesis 22:13). In the providence of God, now Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket and offered him on the altar in place of his son.

“And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:15-18).

There is so much for us bound up in the story of Abraham. Like him, we have been given an heritage. This heritage is revealed in the pages of the Bible and it is up to us to walk through the length and breadth of those pages to grasp all that God has is store for us.

Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have an abundance of heirs; that faith was counted to him for righteousness long before he received the covenant of circumcision. As the apostle Paul explains in Romans 4:9-14, this demonstrates that the promise to Abraham is to the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised. In another place the apostle explains that the circumcision that counts is the inward circumcision of the heart, not the outward form. All who are circumcised in heart by faith are then heirs of Abraham.

The New Testament also explains that the promise to Abraham is not for the children of the flesh, typified by Ishmael, but for the spiritual descendents of the son of promise.

Finally we have the picture of a father preparing to offer his only son as a sacrifice. In the New Testament we have the awful picture of the only Son of God dying on the cross as an offering for our sin. The ram that Abraham offered on the altar in place of his son is another piece of the great salvation story that God has provided a spotless Lamb to be sacrificed that He could forgive us and set us free.
Here, very early in Bible history, God has provided a complete picture of the whole salvation story through the events in the life of Abraham.

Abraham our father

The apostle Paul tells us that Abraham is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11-16). If we want to talk about faith then, discovering who Abram was, and what he did, seems a logical starting point. We first encounter him in Genesis 11, still named Abram, one of the three sons of Terah.

The family lived in Ur of the Chaldees. For many years the only Ur known to Bible scholars was the large city located south of the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf. The difficulty is that this Ur was Sumerian, not Chaldean. More research has led to the discovery of references to a smaller Ur, far to the northwest, between the Tigris and Euphrates. This was in Chaldean territory and was no doubt referred to as Ur of the Chaldees to distinguish it from the larger Sumerian city.

The Bible does not tell us the circumstances of God’s call to Terah to leave Ur and go to Canaan. Perhaps we can take from references in the Bible that God spoke to Abram and all his father’s family went with him. Genesis 11:41 tells us that Terah and his family left Ur to go to Canaan, but stopped at Haran. This may have been halfway or less. By this time Terah’s son Haran had died, but Haran’s son Lot accompanied his grandfather and his uncles Abram and Nahor.

The family lived in Haran until Terah died. Then God again spoke to Abram, telling him to leave and go to Canaan, promising him “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Lot and his family accompanied Abram, but Nahor remained in Haran. When Abram and Lot arrived in Canaan, God appeared to Abram again and said “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (verse 7). Abram was already an old man, and he had no children, yet he believed the promise.

Abram and Lot lived close to each other until their flocks increased so there wasn’t enough pasture for both. Abram gave Lot the choice of where he wanted to go with his flocks. He chose the plains near Sodom where there was abundant pasture and water, leaving the mountains for Abram.

Abram continued to trust God and prosper. His herdsmen dug a well and their Canaanite neighbours filled it with rocks. He didn’t protest, just moved further away and dug another well, with the same result. Finally he found a place where he could dig a well for his flocks without opposition from his neighbours.

A picture emerges of Abram as a man who often has encounters with God and fully trusts His promises. He is a man of peace, avoiding quarrels with his family and his neighbours. Lot was not as trusting, seeking an assurance of prosperity for his flocks. His choice had disastrous consequences for his family and he barely escaped with his life when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are spiritual parallels in the lives of Terah and his family. God calls them to depart from wickedness and travel to a land that He promised to them. Nahor is content to go halfway. Abram and Lot get to the promised land, but Lot does not fully trust God to provide for him and reaps the consequences. Abram believes the promises of God and trusts that God will make them happen in His own way, in His own time. This faith echoes through all the subsequent pages of the Bible.

Inherit the earth

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth

I guess by now it is evident that I have been meditating on the Beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount is the cornerstone of Mennonite doctrine. Things like the right understanding of prophecy and the sacraments are important to us, too, but not nearly to the same extent as in many other church traditions.

God promised a land to Abraham and to his seed. Finally, during the reign of Solomon, the children of Israel possessed the full extent of the promised land, in peace. And that was it, that land has not had peace at any time since then.

What happened to God’s promise? The epistle to the Hebrews has this to say of Abraham: “For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” And a little later: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. . . But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”

The promised land will have its full accomplishment in heaven, where there will be no more wars, or rumours of wars. Yet there is even now a place of safety and stability for the children of God. Perhaps not always a place of physical security, but a place of peace and contentment, and of spiritual security, for those who truly are seeking that better country.

The meek will find that spiritual land and make it their home. Those who battle for their right to be left in peace, those who feel it their duty to defeat all who are hostile to their belief, make themselves incapable of recognizing that place of peace when they see it. It is the heritage of those who are strangers and pilgrims amidst the turmoil of this world.

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