June 12, 2005

Abraham’s Territory
Genesis 13:1-18

We often try hard to put ourselves in a favored position. I remember a recent concert when my daughter, Julie, along with Austin Hess and Kiersten Rossetto, were playing with the Hershey Strings. We arrived early—before the doors to the spacious auditorium even opened—and I was perhaps 10th in line. As I waited for the doors to open, more and more people filled the hallway and the line extended beyond my line of vision. And yet, here I was, 10th in line to enter an auditorium that seated hundreds, feeling increasingly uneasy about my position. As I stood there thinking about the irony of this, I could not help but be amazed at the depth of this urge to get the best seat in the house!

You’ve been there, haven’t you? You scramble into your assigned room on a retreat so that you can choose the preferred bed. You head directly for the dessert table at a company or church luncheon in order to grab a piece of your favorite pie before it disappears. You log in on your computer during the first hour of registration to be certain that you can receive a seat in a class that typically fills up quickly. You name it. Putting ourselves in a favored position is simply a part of who we are. Sometimes this urge is helpful and leads us to act wisely. At other times, however, it is self-serving and leads us to overemphasize our own welfare, even at the expense of others.

The story here in Genesis 13 is a fascinating case-study that helps us think more carefully about how we deal with this urge to find favored positions. Abraham, you will recall from last week, heard God speak and responded with utter compliance. He left the comfortable surroundings of Ur and headed into the unknown areas of Canaan. Now, after a brief sojourn in Egypt, Abraham and his family find themselves back in the hill country of what is today Israel—perhaps 10 miles or so north of Jerusalem.

Abraham, the writer informs us, was a wealthy man who possessed both a sizeable number of sheep and goats as well as a considerable amount of money. Lot, his nephew, is in a similar situation. God’s promise to bless Abraham and his family is, from all accounts, coming to fulfillment.

The fact that both Abraham and Lot possess sizeable flocks and herds, however, lies at the very heart of the upcoming tension in our story. Flocks and herds require ample grazing land, and suitable ground for this purpose is in limited supply in the area surrounding Bethel. There remain in the Middle East to this day people known as Bedouin—they are in my mind as close as one can get these days to the actual world of the Old Testament. The Bedouin live in goat-skin tents and wander all over the fringe areas of the Middle East, pitching their tents for weeks at a time in order to graze their animals. Once the animals have eaten the little plant life in any particular area, the Bedouin pack up and move elsewhere. When they seek out their next grazing lands, it is, as you might guess, crucial that they not infringe on the territory being used by other Bedouin. As a result, each clan will typically be miles apart from the others.

So the stage is set here in Genesis 13. Two men, an uncle and his nephew, each with extended families depending upon them. Each with flocks and herds in need of grazing land and water They are like two growing brothers sharing the same bedroom. Notice what transpires.

Abraham is the older of the two, the patriarch of the tribe. He is, therefore, in the position of making the final decision He delegates tribal responsibilities, and he represents the final word. Where we would likely expect Abraham to say to Lot, “My family will pitch our tents in this particular region, and you and yours go over there,” we find nothing of the kind. Instead, Abraham grows concerned over the mounting tension and expressed his desire that nothing, including such an important matter as land and water, come between his family and Lot’s. “Here are the two primary pieces of ground that are available to us,” he begins. “One is the fertile region in the valley down below. The other is up here in the hills where we presently are.” Good grief! Give me a break. Can you imagine two people standing together investigating real estate? One available property includes endless acres of prime farm land, a fresh stream, and a beautiful farmhouse and barn. The other property consists of rocky hills, dusty trails, and a lean-to. Which would you choose? Particularly if you, like Abraham, had the choice. You were in a privileged position—the choice was yours.

Abraham, stunningly, does the unthinkable. “You choose, Lot.” “Look over your options and let me know what you decide.” Do you remember some of the discussions you’ve been in over where to eat lunch or dinner when you and your family go out? I learned a long time ago that, if it matters to me where we eat and I want to give the choice to my children, I should present some options rather than leave it wide open. I want a decent meal, only to have them choose McDonalds! Abraham, faced with an issue of far greater importance than where to eat lunch, leaves the matter totally up to Lot.

Now think for a moment about Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot no doubt experienced some degree of surprise that Abraham extended to him the opportunity to make such a choice in the first place. Further, he probably thought that Abraham’s invitation was less than sincere given the wide disparity between the options. A mansion and an outhouse? What kind of a choice is that, anyway? Yet, Lot quickly seized the opportunity—perhaps thinking that he was calling Abraham’s bluff—and made his selection. He voiced his decision before Abraham had any chance of changing his mind. “I’ll move to the valley,” Lot responded, eyes fixed on the water and vegetation below. “You and your family can remain up here in the hills.” And that, as you know, is precisely what each of them did. Lot journeyed eastward and settled in the valley, while Abraham remained in the land of Canaan.

It is important to note, however, that that is not where the story ends. This incident—this choice—actually had significant repercussions for both Abraham as well as Lot, and there is much for us to learn here. We can learn, first of all, that prayer and worship provide a context for self-sacrificial living. Abraham, in a position of considerable authority, came back from Egypt and immediately went to Bethel. Bethel, according to 12:8, was the place where Abraham pitched his tent and built an altar—worshiped God—immediately after arriving in Canaan the first time (12:8). Now, after his temporary stay in Egypt, Abraham returns to the very same place. Bethel was for Abraham a place of great spiritual significance, the place where he encountered God in a profound way. It was a place of memories, a place of worship, a place of prayer. Knowing full well that trying issues, including those of land and water, lay before him, Abraham sought out a spiritual resting place and prayed.

This entire affair constituted for Abraham, I think, a sort of “mini” test, a preparatory test that would soon be surpassed by the upcoming call to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Gen. 22). Part of the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12 included the land that he and Lot were then standing on. That same land had disappointed him earlier—recall the famine in 12:10—and left him running to Egypt to survive. Now, for the second time, the land proved unsuitable, being incapable of sustaining both he and Lot. What would Abraham do? Move to the fertile valley and abandon the promised land, leaving Lot to contend with the second-rate acreage that God had provided? Use his patriarchal authority to protect his own interests? What would you do?

Abraham retreated in Bethel, and there he “called on the name of the Lord” (v. 4). In that context of worship and prayer, Abraham was prepared to appreciate the importance of unity over self-advancement. He was prepared to believe that the promise given to him was not in jeopardy, just because the land seemed less than ideal at the moment. He was prepared to forfeit his own rights for the sake of someone else. Paul wrote to the Philippians:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as
better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to
the interests of others (2:3-4).
“Lot,” Abraham said, “You choose.”

Now look at Lot’s response, in which we find another significant lesson. Choices based primarily on material considerations often lead to trouble down the road. Lot made his decision like most people probably would today. We find here no sense of reflection or soul-searching, no hint of inner turmoil as to what the right choice was. Instead, Lot analyzes the external data—streams, water, and supposed wealth—and quickly comes to his decision. We don’t even sense a trace of concern over Abraham and his privileged social standing, no attempt on Lot’s part to encourage Abraham to exercise his right as the family patriarch. Lot simply chooses—“I’ll take the fertile valley, and you remain here in the hills.”

What Lot failed to do was to prayerfully consider the other implications of his decision. We sense the potential repercussions of this already in Genesis 13:13, when the writer informs us that “…the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.” Lot clearly saw his profit margin rising as he headed toward the valley, but he failed to consider the disastrous consequences that might accompany his new-found opportunities. Just a short time after this event, the story continues, the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah—located smack dab in the middle of Lot’s preferred real estate—drew God’s wrath. Lot and his family were forced to flee, and he even lost his wife in the process! Clearly, looking at surface benefits and calculating earthly rewards is an inadequate measure for making life’s important decisions. What looks at first glance to be inviting and even irresistible might very well turn out to be our undoing.

And finally, we learn in this story about Abraham and Lot that God blesses those who choose faithfulness to him over self-advancement. Abraham, in contrast to Lot, never experienced such overwhelming hardship as a result of the choice that he made. Instead, God honored his faithfulness and blessed him beyond measure. God honors faithfulness. God honors a self-sacrificial spirit. God honors relentless confidence in him, even if everyone else in the world is moving in another direction. We all have the urge to look out for ourselves, to compromise, to play by the world’s rules. The Lord, the writer assures us, delights in and blesses those who live according to his ways.

The urge to gain a favored position. The best seat in the house. The lower-or upper bunk. The last piece of chocolate cake. You have felt it, too. Sometimes, however, the stakes are considerably higher and the implications far greater. The Bible in general and the story of Abraham and Lot in particular call us as followers of Jesus to live lives of service and sacrifice—to think more highly of others and often less of ourselves. And how do we do that? Through prayer and worship. By moving beyond a simple evaluation of material considerations alone. And by reaffirming and accepting this fundamental conviction: God blesses those who choose faithfulness to him over self-advancement.