With these chapters we’re onto the next stage of the Bible story. Tom Wright calls this ‘Act two’ – in Act one of God’s great unfinished drama, God has dealt with the whole universe, then with all of humanity. Now and for the rest of the book of Genesis, he deals with one family – even though it’s a rather large and complicated one by the end of chapter 50. And with the start of chapter 12 we emerge from the pre-history of myth into a world recognisable as the Ancient Near East of c.1800BC. And after a lot of short stories in a few chapters, we start on a kind of saga with a different kind of character – Abram.
As Paul will write a couple of thousand years afterwards, Abram starts following God in a world before Moses and the Law – he’s discovering who God is as he goes, with nothing more than the call and promise of God to guide him. Along the way he makes some decisions that seem wrong to us (like here, in 12:11-20, when he passes Sarai his wife off as his sister to avoid Pharoah’s jealous anger – with worse to come later) or to misunderstand who God is. But he doesn’t have the benefit of all the Bible which we have. He really is discovering what God’s like from scratch.
Go…to the land I will show you…
And that’s really how Abram’s story starts. God tells him to leave behind his home and start travelling. He doesn’t have to go alone, and he can take his flocks and herds with him, but he does need to get moving. He doesn’t have to stop being who he has been, but he does need to start finding out who he’s going to become. And that starts by believing the promise of a homeland and getting moving.
God often seems to start working great things through people by getting them out of their comfort zones. Whether it’s Abram leaving the city, Moses out in the wilderness with the sheep, Jesus being driven into the desert, Peter, James and John being called away from their nets – if we’re going to let God lead us into his future for us, we have to be willing to leave behind the security of the familiar and comfortable. And we may have to do it with only the most open-ended of promises to guide us into God’s future.
Today is St Columba’s day – and I can’t help linking him to Abraham. Columba left Ireland for the heathen land of Scotland (under a cloud of political and warlike guilt, if we believe some early stories) to see where God would take him. He founded the community of Iona. From there monks came to Lindisfarne in Northumberland, and from there Chad came down to Lichfield and founded our Cathedral. Columba didn’t know how far his message of God’s forgiving love would spread – he just got into the boat when God said ‘go’ and followed his call.
May I have the courage, like Abram and Columba, to step into the boat of God’s calling and see where he takes me – even if it feels like a great risk.
Reading through Genesis so far, one thing that strikes me is how we’re given fascinating hints of characters who are never really explained. I’ve mentioned Enoch; yesterday there was a bit about Nimrod, the first mighty warrior. That’s even before we come back to the Nephilim. Today we’ve got Melchizedek, the mysterious king and priest of God in Salem (later Jerusalem). He turns up again in the letter to the Hebrews, as well as lots of later Jewish writing. But who was he? Maybe I need to start a file of things to follow up once I’ve finished this series in 360 days time…