June 5, 2005

Abraham’s Call
Genesis 12:1-9

In his recent book entitled Shift, Carlos Ghosn recounts his adventures as the newly appointed CEO of the Nissan Motor Company. Ghosn, a Brazilian-born, French-educated son of Lebanese parents, had previously worked his way up through the ranks of the Michelin Tire and Renault Motor companies, leaving behind him a record of efficiency and success. When Renault took control of Nissan, a company running out of gas and sputtering toward bankruptcy, Ghosn was selected to steer Nissan back to prominence. And so, in 1999, Carlos Ghosn packed up his belongings, traveled half way around the world to an entirely new place, and began what is now recognized as one of the more remarkable industrial revivals in recent memory.

While the differences between Ghosn’s story and Abraham’s here in Genesis 12 are numerous, the similarities are also striking. The opening eleven chapters of Genesis record a deteriorating situation that begins with the creation of the earth and its inhabitants, passes through humanity’s fist-clenching rebellion against God, and climaxes in the building of a tower so that people can “make a name for themselves.” While Genesis 1-11 begins well—God creates and he enjoys what he creates—the story increasingly unravels and ends with the world in near total disarray. Just when it seems that world affairs have reached rock bottom and the company is about to go under, so to speak, God selects this previously unknown man and instructs him to pack his bags, leave his homeland, and begin a major reclamation project that far eclipses even Ghosn’s. Ghosn’s call: rejuvenate Nissan. And Abraham’s? Serve as God’s instrument in renewing the world.

Abraham, the story begins, somehow heard God speak to him (12:1-3). This is, in fact, the first of three speeches in Genesis in which God speaks to a patriarch—a father of the people of Israel—and instructs him to take a journey. In 26:2-5, Abraham’s son, Isaac, is told to go and settle in a land of God’s choosing. “I will be with you, and I will bless you,” God assures him. In 46:1-4, God directs Isaac’s son, Jacob, to travel down to Egypt. “I will make of you a great nation there,” God promises. Abraham is but the first in his family to hear the call.

The text, as is typical of such biblical narratives, refuses to engage in theoretical discussions as to precisely how God communicates with people like Abraham, or you and me, for that matter. Did Abraham hear an audible voice? Was he inspired by a vision or a book that he was reading? I’m not sure—God can speak through any number of means. What matters to this writer is what usually matters to the other writers of the Bible: God speaks—communicating with us is of great importance to him—and those who have ears can hear. If we listen.

This is, of course, of fundamental importance, for probably no urge runs deeper in our human makeup than the one to know what is on God’s mind. People throughout history have gone to extreme lengths to discover God’s will. They have summoned the dead, read the stars, analyzed palms, and examined animal organs. Here in Genesis 12, a few simple words suffice—“God said to Abraham…” Again and again, we encounter in Scripture a God who speaks, who communicates clearly to ordinary people like Abraham. Like you. Like me. God spoke, and Abraham heard him.

And note what God says. “Go from your country…to the land that I will show you.” Note also the accompanying two-fold promise involving God’s “blessing.” We have, as you well know, often reduced the word “blessing” to a mere social nicety. If you hear someone near you sneeze, for example, you would likely respond, “God bless you.” Or we may say “God bless you” to someone else as a sort of theological version of “Good luck.”

In the Bible, however, pronouncing or enacting a blessing actually involves passing on “life” and the resources necessary to live that life. In various societies outside of the Bible—past and present—the passing on of a blessing often carries with it magical connotations. But in the Bible, passing on a blessing involves an extension of divine grace. God, who is the author and sustainer of life, is the supreme “blesser.” He blesses people with life, and he blesses the steps of those who follow him.

At the same time, God invites human agents like Abraham, not to mention you and me, to serve as his designated “blessers”—people who function as distributors of God’s rich and inexhaustible resources. We can, and unfortunately sometimes do, curse other people. We can do them harm and serve as hindrances along their journeys. Or we can bless them. When we bless someone—a parent blesses a child, a priest blesses a congregation, a friend blesses an enemy, a congregation blesses the world—we become for them a channel through which God’s Spirit works. That is precisely what God has in mind for Abraham. “Go to this new land, Abraham. I will bless you, and through you and your descendants I will begin cleaning up the mess described in Genesis 1-11.” God spoke, and Abraham heard.

Abraham, however, did far more than simply hear God speak. Without apparent hesitation, “Abraham went, as the Lord had told him.” As we imagine Abraham’s response, you and I might, with good reason, be tempted to think in terms of moving a small family from one place to another, the kind of move that is increasingly common in our culture. Get the moving crew at the Grantham Church together. Rent a U-Haul truck for the day. Bring a dolly or two. The Jones’ are moving. “Abraham was just a wandering nomad,” after all. “What is the big deal?”

For one thing, consider the place that he left. While the context of 12:1 implies that Abraham was in the city of Haran when God spoke to him, selected passages actually place Abraham’s initial call back in the city of Ur (Gen. 15:7; Neh. 9:7; Acts 7:2-3). Ur was situated in an area controlled at that time by the Sumerians, a people who continue to amaze modern archaeologists and linguists. And Abraham was most likely there during the hey-day of Sumerian culture. We know from some 100,000 business documents which have been uncovered in that area that times were rather prosperous. There were transactions in grain, vegetables, fruit, cattle and other commodities. Economic conditions were stable and dependable—inflation was low! Ur was also a cultural center, full of skilled artists, capable contractors, and active business people. There were wood-workers and metal workers. Schools flourished. People secured an education. Ur, in other words, was not a backward place—not a mere desert stopping point. It was, instead, a place of opportunity, a place where a person of capabilities could thrive. But Abraham went.

Consider also where Abraham was sent. The writer of Hebrews informs us that Abraham went, not knowing where he was going (11:8). The writer of Genesis informs us that he headed for Canaan. In reality, both are saying much the same thing. I remember well how I felt when I rode the train into Paris several years ago—at 11:30 p.m. With no advance reservations. And the hotels there close their doors at midnight! I knew full-well that I was headed for Paris, but I had absolutely no clue where I was going. What, after all, did I know about Paris? What, after all, did Abraham know about Canaan? But Abraham went.

And finally, keep in mind that Abraham had a sizeable party traveling with him (v. 4). Abraham had undoubtedly accumulated a fair amount of wealth in Ur—notice Genesis 14:14. Further, when in difficulty, Abraham summoned 318 trained men from his party to assist him. If he had at least 318 trained men, how many other people comprised the group?!? I’ve led groups to Israel, but never more than 32 people at one time. This is an enormous endeavor—a cross-cultural trip of epic proportions. Just imagine all of the luggage! But Abraham went.

Abraham, once again, heard God speak to him, and he went. He left a land of opportunity for an unknown destination. He went, even though he bore the responsibility of a sizeable group of people who he might very well be putting at risk. Why would he do such an apparently fool-hardy thing? Because God told him to. Because God promised to bless him. Because God gave him an inspiring vision—“I will bless the world through you.” Obeying God cost Abraham plenty, but that cost paled in comparison to the promise.

Note one final item here about Abraham’s call and response. Not only did Abraham go, but he left no provisions for turning back (v. 5). Everything that he and his family gathered went with them. The rest, I suppose, was discarded or sold at auction. Abraham left nothing behind that he could rightfully call his own, nothing to go back to, nothing that would require a trip home once he was on his journey. He even closed his account at the 1st National Bank of Ur. Once Abraham was on his way, there was no turning back. No safety nets, just in case things got tough while in route. Abraham was not caught between two options. He was not looking over his shoulder all of the time. God had called him, and he was determined to follow.

“Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go from your country…to the land that I will show you…. So Abraham went.” What a wonderful, straightforward exchange. God speaks. “”Leave your attachments to this world and go.” God promises. “I will bless you and make you a blessing to the entire world.” And Abraham responds. Unlike Adam and Eve, who reach for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in their attempts to be self-sufficient, “Abraham went.” Today, we are still telling his story. Will people remember Carlos Ghosn and Nissan 4,000 years from now?