Abraham’s cross-bearing crises

Abraham’s cross-bearing crises (Genesis 12:0 – 25:0)

Christian discipleship is often compared to an apprenticeship in which the learners have been yoked to an experienced trainer in some particular craft or trade; if they are successful in an entrance exam and an interview they are enrolled on a course of training. However, this analogy does not square perfectly with our Lord’s rigorous requirements for becoming one of his disciples, according to Luke 14:25-33 (New Living Translation, unless otherwise indicated). Three times to the ‘large crowd’ who were already his social followers he issued a warning about disqualification: ‘you cannot be my disciple’ unless –

[] ‘you … hate everyone else by comparison;’ not only all close relatives but ‘even your own life’ 14:26-27); and

[] you first ‘count the cost’ of character building discipline and spiritual warfare (14:28-33); and

[] ‘carry your own cross and follow me’ (14:27).

So what is meant by ‘carry your own cross‘?

The common phrase ‘she has a heavy cross to bear’ could refer to someone’s disability that simply has to be endured. However, Jesus emphasised that one’s individual cross must be borne by a personal and intentional choice. ‘So therefore everyone of you who does not say farewell to all the possessions of himself cannot be my disciple’ (14:33, Greek/English New Testament’s literal rendering).

Cross-bearing primarily means a daily discipline. But in every disciple’s pilgrimage there arise occasional crises, each requiring a life-changing decision at a crossroads that demands a major choice. This is exemplified in seven distinct such occasions experienced by Abraham in his life of faith. In each instance he faced a challenge and made a sacrificial choice to obey the will of God. And each time he did so he received a new revelation of God as his reward. In fact, we shall see that God’s fresh revelation was only given to him on the resurrection side of every cross-bearing crisis.

‘Cross One’ – Genesis 12:1-6

‘The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1). Significantly, The New Living Translation indicates that this divine command had been given to him already, in fact back in ‘Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of his birth’ (11:28). Initially he was taken by Terah his father as he ‘headed for the land of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled thereuntil his father’s death (11:31-32). Only after that ‘Abram departed as the Lord had instructed (12:4). ‘Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with foundations, a city designed by God … looking for … a heavenly homelanda city … God … has prepared … for’ him (Hebrews 11:10, 16).

Whenever my wife and I were called to move our family geographically, our children never suffered loss in their educational subjects and, leaving friends, always found new friends.

‘Revelation One’ – Genesis 12:7

Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your descendants.’

‘Cross Two’ – Genesis 13:8-13

Abram had not left his relatives and his father’s family for he still brought along some kinsmen – ‘his nephew Lot … went with him.’ Because ‘disputes broke out between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot’, Abram generously gave his nephew the choice of his preferred section of this promised land that you want.’ Of course, Lot chose for himself the whole Jordan Valley to the east.’ A carnal mind will readily ‘spiritualise’ its motives: ‘The whole area was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord’ but actually like ‘the beautiful land of Egypt’ where Abram had recently had a fall from grace and strayed from the paths of righteousness by persuading his ‘beautiful’ wife to protest that she was only ‘my sister’ (12:10-20) that had got her – thankfully only briefly and harmlessly – into Pharaoh’s harem.

Abram had now completed the terms of his calling by God to ‘Leave … your relatives, and your father’s family’ (12:1).

‘Revelation Two – Genesis 13:14-18

‘After Lot had gone’ – to an ‘area’ where ‘the people … were extremely wicked and constantly sinned against the Lord’‘the Lord said to Abram, “Look as far as you see in every direction … I am giving all this land … to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that … they cannot be counted’ (13:14-17). Significantly, he ‘settled’ at ‘Hebron’, meaning fellowship. No wonder then that; There he built … an altar to the Lord’ (13:18).

All too soon, Lot’s city and valley of choice would collapse beneath the salt water of the Dead Sea (Genesis chapter 19)! We too are often called to sever ourselves from our place of residence (compare Ur) and close relatives in order to advance in our spiritual pilgrimage.

‘Cross Three’ – Genesis 14:14-24

‘When Abram heard that his nephew Lot had been captured’ in Sodom and everything he owned’ (14:12) by an military alliance of four kings [including the king of Babylon, 14:1] in its attack on an alliance of five kings which included the king of Sodom (14:2), ‘he mobilized the 318 trained men … in … his household’ and recovered all the goods and persons ‘that had been taken’(14:14-16).

Another king (see Hebrews 7:2), ‘Melchizedek, the king of Salem [= Jerusalem] … brought Abram some bread and wine’ and ‘blessed Abram’ (14:17-20), whereupon ‘Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the goods he had recovered’ (14:21). Then when ‘the king of Sodom went out to meet him in … the King’s Valley’ to receive back Sodom’s prisoners of war he presented Abram with a genuinely generous offer: ‘Give me back my people … But you may keep for yourself all the goods you have recovered’ (14:21). But the man of faith chose once more to shoulder his cross and protested: ‘I will not take a single thread or sandal thong from what belongs to you. Otherwise you might say, “I am the one who made Abram rich.”’ He simply asked for his young warriors to be remunerated (14:22-24).

‘Revelation Three’ – Genesis 15:1-6

‘The Lord spoke to Abram in a vision …, “I will protect you and your reward will be great’, promising him as many descendants as stars in the sky, and ‘this land as your possession.’

Cross Four – Genesis 17:1-27

After 13 silent years ‘the Lord appeared to … Abram’ now ‘ninety-nine years old’ (16:15 – 17:1) offering to ‘make a covenant with you’ as his ‘guarantee to give you countless descendants’ and ‘the entire land of Canaan … to you and your descendants … and I will be their God’ (17:2-8), on the condition of their ‘continual responsibility’ that they ‘must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised’ (17:9-14). Abram obeyed ‘on that very day’ (17:23). The males of his household ‘all were circumcised with him’ (17:27), and he was renamed Abraham (17:5).

Revelation Four – Genesis 18:1-33

‘The Lord appeared again to Abraham,’ accompanied by two angels (18:1-2, 20-22). He speedily (18:6-7) prepared them a cooked meal, after which he was promised: ‘this time next year … your wife, Sarah, will have a son!’ (18:10). As they departed, ‘the Lord told’ him (18:20) he was going to check out the immoral ways of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ and destroy those cities. But because Abraham pleaded for them to be spared if the Lord found ‘fifty’, ‘forty-five’, ‘forty’, ‘thirty’, ‘twenty’, or even ‘ten righteous people’ – that is Lot, his wife, his two daughters and his two sons-in-law plus just four converts! – he was given God’s guarantee that the cities would be spared judgment. Yet not even four extra righteous inhabitants could be found! However,‘God had listened to Abraham’s request and kept Lot safe, removing him from the disaster that engulfed the cities of the plain’ (19:29).

Cross Five – Genesis 21:8-21

Have you ever been caught, as I have, in a scenario such as the following? It could have occurred in a static traffic tail-back as you were driving urgently along a motorway, or during a power failure that prevented you meeting a final deadline of some vital business. As your vision clouded over with that red mist of rage, you cried out in sheer frustration, ‘Why do I have to put up with this at my time of life?’ And the Lord replied, ‘To teach you patience,’ talking to you in your daughter’s voice as she sat beside you. That caused your vocal chords to shift up a gear both in pitch and volume as you complained to her, ‘Patience? Patience? I learned that years ago when you were an infant! Your crying would wake me up every few hours, night after relentless night. I’m a post-graduate in patience, with a thesis in longsuffering!’

Was Abraham tempted to complain that he had settled the question of loosening his family ties when he separated from Lot? He and Sarah no doubt had laughed a lot as their infant son Isaac lived up to the meaning of his name – ‘laughter’ (21:1-7). ‘But [when] Sarah saw Ishmael – the son of Abraham and her Egyptian servant Hagar’ getting cheap laughs by ‘making fun of her son, Isaac,… she … demanded, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. I won’t have it!”’ Once again Abraham must choose to ‘leave your relative, and your … family’ just as he had been commanded to do at the beginning of his pilgrimage (12:1), as when he separated from his nephew Lot.

This upset Abraham very much because Ishmael was his son. But God told Abraham … “Do whatever Sarah tells you”’ because his covenant descendants would be those of Isaac, while Ishmael would also have a nation of descendants. So he rose early the next day to prepare ‘food and a container of water, and … sent [Hagar] away with their son’ trusting God to watch over them (21:11-14).

Revelation Five – Genesis 21:22-34

He received a visit from the local Philistine dignitary, ‘Abimelech … with Phicol, his army commander’ requesting his sworn promise to ‘“be loyal to me and to this country where you are living as a foreigner”.’  And he became that day the owner of ‘the well of the oath … named Beersheba’ (21:30-31).

Cross Six – Genesis 22:1-19

‘God tested Abraham’s faith’ by commanding him: ‘Take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah … and sacrifice him as a burnt offering’ (22:1-2). Knowing the delightful conclusion to the story can so easily cancel out for the reader the raw reality with which Abraham was suddenly confronted. But here are a few factors that will help us to appreciate his perspective on this divine demand.

[] A question of devotion

It was a known fact that Canaanites ‘even burn their sons and daughters as sacrifices to their gods’ (Deuteronomy 12:29-31). This test of Abraham’s faith probes the issue: Is his faith in the living God as strong as the devotion that the pagans express by sacrificing their offspring to their gods?

[] A vision of resurrection

‘Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son’ because he ‘reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead’ (Hebrews 11:17-19).

[] The location of the future construction of Solomon’s temple

‘Solomon’ would ‘build the temple of the Lord on Mount Moriah’ (1 Chronicles 3:1).

Revelation Six – Genesis 22:15-19

‘This is what the Lord says: “Because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your son, your only son, I swear by my own name that I will certainly bless you. I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed – all because you obeyed me”’ (22:16-18).

Cross Seven – Genesis 23:1-20  

It is tempting to convince ourselves that there on Mount Moriah Abraham had experienced the climax, indeed the zenith, of his series of challenges, because that event foreshadowed Calvary when ‘God … did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all’ (Romans 8:31-32); and with ‘the ram … sacrificed … as a burnt offering’ he had enacted the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). But we must not project a peaceful retirement for Abraham onto the events that followed. Our faithful spiritual forefather had yet one more crisis of faith and in fact it was “more of the same”!

Sarah died aged 127 years in Hebron, which now did not fulfil the significance of its name, “fellowship” because: ‘There Abraham mourned and wept for her’ (23:1-2). His subsequent cross-bearing consisted of buying ‘a piece of land so I can give my wife a proper burial’ (23:3-4), because he insisted: ‘I will pay the full price in the presence of witnesses’ for ‘Ephron’s … cave’ as ‘a permanent burial place for my family’, which the owner and his Hittite elders pleaded with him to accept as a gift (23:5-13). In the end they let him exchange ‘400 pieces of silver’ for ‘the plot of land …, the cave that was in it, and all the surrounding trees … as his permanent possession’ (23:17-20).

Revelation Seven – Genesis 24:1-67  

Now as ‘a very old man’ Abraham entrusted ‘his oldest servant, the man in charge of his household’ with the solemn duty of bringing from among ‘my relatives …  a wife for my son Isaac’ (24:1-4). How well Abraham had schooled this unnamed steward can be grasped from how he conducted his assignment. On arriving at the ‘well just outside the town’ of ‘Aram-naharaim’ he prayed that God’s choice of bride would overflow with generosity, and: ‘Before he had finished praying, he saw … Rebekah coming out with a water jug on her shoulder’. Not only was she generous but ‘very beautiful and old enough to be married’ (24:16). Getting water from the well and refreshing all his camels was done quicklyas she ran back to the well’ as often as was required (24:17-20), before she ran home to tell her family’.

The marriage was agreed even before supper was eaten (24:33). And when he was invited to ‘stay with us at least ten days’, he pleaded, ‘Don’t delay me.’ The bride-to-be agreed, and they were released with her family’s blessing next day! So her aged father-in-law was able to meet her before ‘he died at a ripe old age’ of ‘176 years’ (25:7).

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