Pages

Monday, May 21, 2012

Grace and Goodness from a Wasted Life

Grace and Goodness from a Wasted Life

Stephen, preacher and servant of Christ, has been arrested for heretical blasphemy. In the face of hateful, false witnesses and malicious judges, Stephen's appearance radically changes in the eyes of all at the trial, and he begins his defense.

"Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, - Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you." Acts 7:2-3 (ESV)

What was "your land" and how did it become their land?

MESOPOTAMIA: mesopotamia (Mesopotamia, region between the Euphrates and the Tigris); from mesos (middle) and potamos (a current, brook or freshet: running water that is drinkable)

The Old Testament account described Abraham's country as "Ur of the Chaldeans".

UR: ur (a place in Chald'a); from ur (flame, figurative for the East, the region of light); from or (to be luminous)

The inhabitants of "the land that I will show you" probably referred to Abraham's country of origin as "the land to the east", using a name that literally meant "land of the light". The first hint of light following the dark of night would come from the horizon to the eastward.

The Bible describes a world-wide flood that destroyed all human life except the family of Noah. From Noah's three sons came every tribe and nation that now lives on Earth.

One of Noah's son's was named Shem. Shem's great-grandson was Eber.

EBER: eber (a region across, or opposite, usually meaning the east); from abar (to cross over)

"Eber" became Ibri, the general name of all of Eber's descendents, including Abraham:

"The enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram's brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way. Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre" Genesis 14:11-13 (ESV)

HEBREW: ibri (an Eberite); from eber (Eber, the great-grandson of Shem)

One of Eber's sons was Peleg:

"The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. Arpachshad fathered Shelah; and Shelah fathered Eber. To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided." Genesis 10:22-25 (ESV)

Until Peleg's birth, humanity lived in one region of Earth. They had one language and they migrated as a group westward, settling in a land known as Shinar, on the Persian Gulf. The land would later be called Chaldea or Babylonia. We know that land now as Iraq.

The confusion exploding from the fall of the Tower of Babel caused all humanity to scatter, coalescing into groups according to language. Eber's descendents moved further southwestward from Shinar.

"The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east." Genesis 10:30 (ESV)

Shinar most likely is now known as Baghdad, in the center of Iraq. Mesha was to the west, on the Gulf of Aqaba, only about 50 miles from the southern tip of Israel on modern maps. Today's location of Sephar is in Yemen, over 1000 miles south of Mesha, near the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea.

All of what we know as Saudi Arabia was the country of the "Ebers", descendents of Peleg and his brother Joktan.

It appears that Peleg's family was not as adventurous as the rest of Eber's descendents. While most of the "Joktan Ebers" pioneered the entire area of what we know as Saudi Arabia, the "Peleg Ebers" kept the home fires burning not much further than a couple of weeks of travel.

Peleg's great-great-grandson, Terah was still living close to Shinar, near a town called Ur. Modern maps would place Ur near Nasiriyah, Iraq, about 200 miles south of Baghdad.

Terah was 70 years old when his wife bore a child, a son. Two more sons followed, giving Terah three heirs: Abram (Abraham), Nahor and Haran.

This was "your land and your kindred" from which God had called Abraham away. For generations Abraham's ancestors had lived in this region, surrounded by countless uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces.

It is important that we understand the conflict facing Abraham. Stephen is basing his defense on the faith demonstrated by Abraham. The depth of Abraham's faith is shown by his leaving a land in which his family had lived for generations.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you experienced a time in which it was clear to you that God was moving you from something long familiar to you? What was the circumstance and how did it affect your faith?

Out of the blue, Terah broke tradition and moved his family over 600 miles northward to a place he named after Abraham's brother, Haran, who had recently died and was probably Terah's favorite son. Modern maps would place Haran in Turkey, near the border with Syria.

What spurred Terah to to move? Perhaps it was recent disappointments. His favorite son, Haran, had died in his arms, probably from illness. Abram and his wife, Sarai, had not produced any children. To top it all off, Terah's remaining son, Nahor, was famous for only one thing: snoring!

NAHOR: nahor (snorer); from nahara (to snort or snore)

Terah's life in Ur was depressing, but it was probably not sufficient to explain the sudden break with tradition.

A better explanation would be the intervention of God:

"Now the Lord said to Abram, - Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Genesis 12:1-3 (ESV)

Stephen began his defense by reminding the Jewish court that the "God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. Abraham was a middle-aged man, a worshipper of many gods despite being descended from Noah, a man who had "found favor in the eyes of the Lord", a "righteous man, blameless in his generation", a man who "walked with God". (Genesis 6:1 ESV)

God spoke to Abraham, but it was Terah who made the decision to move. Abraham most likely told Terah of his encounter with God, and Terah took that as a cosmic sign, giving a reason to leave the place in which his favorite son had died.

God's words may have triggered the decision to leave, but Terah and Abraham still lacked any sense of dependence or faith in God.

"Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there." Genesis 11:31 (ESV)

Terah intended to go to the land of Canaan, the "land that I will show you", but halfway there they stopped, deciding that halfway was good enough. They named their new homeland after Haran and stayed for many years.

Terah died in Haran, 205 years old, meaning Abraham and Nahor were about 130 years old, with most of those years spent in Haran.

Haran was not Canaan.

We don't know how God showed Abraham that it was to Canaan that he was to go, but it's evident from the biblical account that it was obvious to Terah and Abraham. They had intended to go all the way, but they lacked the faith that God's plan was the best idea.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you experienced a decision that you now believe was made when you were unsure of the goodness or wisdom of God? What were the circumstances and how has the experience affected your faith today?

Stephen continues his account of Abraham:

"He went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living." Acts 7:4 (ESV)

The Old Testament adds a bit more detail:

"So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan." Genesis 12:4-5 (ESV)

After a glorious encounter with the living God...after knowing God's plan for his life, heard spoken by the lips of God Himself...Abraham remained at the halfway point for decades, until after his father had died. Abraham was 75 years old.

Abraham was old...he had put off following God's clear command for decades...but at last he takes his family and belongings and enters the land known then as "Canaan" (Genesis 12:4).

From the context it appears that Abraham had long been holding onto God's promise, but was reluctant to completely obey because of his relationship with Terah, his father. Perhaps Terah feared to venture deeper into unknown territory. Perhaps Haran was everything and more that Terah had been looking for and he stubbornly refused to let his family move on.

Whatever the reason, Abraham did not move into the new land until his father had died.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you experienced being constrained because of your relationship with someone close to you? How did the conflict resolve?

It may be that Terah, and Abraham, hesitated to move in the new land because it had a trashy, humiliating reputation:

CANAAN: kena'an (humiliated); from kana' (to bend the knee, to humiliate or vanquish)

Stephen didn't call the new land "Canaan"...he described it to the Jewish court as "this land in which you are now living." (Acts 7:1)

Why did Stephen avoid calling it by name? It may be that Stephen understood deeply the shameful, humiliating reputation held against the people known as Canaanites. From the very beginning of the nation of Canaan, two-thirds of the world's population, the descendents of Shem and Noah, and most of the descendents of Ham, had all regarded the Canaanites as servants, cursed and humiliated through the behaviour of Canaan, their ancient forefather.

The story of Canaan requires another look at the Old Testament, focusing on Ham, one of Noah's sons, and Ham's son, Canaan.

"Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside." Genesis 9:20-22 (ESV)

Ham showed extreme disrespect to his father by spreading the news of his drunken nakedness. Noah's two other sons, Shem and Japheth, tried to make up for Ham's disrespect:

"Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father's nakedness." Genesis 9:23 (ESV)

Noah eventually learned of Ham's disrespect:

"He said, - Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers." Genesis 9:25 (ESV)

After the Great Flood, the fall of the Tower of Babel, and the confusion of human languages, the descendents of Noah and his three sons spread throughout the world.

The descendents of disrespectful, humiliated Canaan formed clans, tribes and nations later known as Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.

"The territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha." Genesis 10:19 (ESV)

Abraham's first stop in Canaan was called Shechem, near a forest of trees, the Oak of Moreh. (Genesis 12:6)

Abraham's journey scribed a rough triangle. He traveled northwest from Ur to Haran, the tip of the triangle, a trek of about 600 miles. From there he traveled southwest about 400 miles to Schechem.

The distance as the crow flies, from Ur westward to Shechem, is about 600 miles.

When Abraham was still a young man, God appeared to him visibly, suddenly, gloriously, and directed him to a land inhabited by distant relatives, relations regarded as trashy, cursed and humiliated. Abraham clearly hesitated. He went only when his father was willing to move, and then they went only about halfway and settled down for decades. The route that Abraham took in obeying God involved scores of years and hundreds of miles of time and travel wasted.

Was it a waste?

What was God's plan in allowing Abraham to spend decades of years and hundreds of miles before reaching the land?

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you experienced a journey in your life, a journey that perhaps has included wasted years and misspent energy and money? Looking back, knowing that God is Sovereign, completely in control of all details, all-powerful, all-knowing, and utterly holy and good, what glimpses of good have you seen come from the wasted parts of your life?

Image of sunrise over Galilee provided by Mike Darnell, digitalartprintgallery.com, Creative Commons License

Image of maps created by the author using images from bibleatlas.org and maps.google.com, modified using GIMP.org