Apr 17, 2013
Of them all, perhaps, verse 13 is the greatest surprise in Genesis 14. For the first time in the Hebrew Scriptures, the title “Hebrew” is utilized; “Abram the Hebrew.” A central feature of titles in biblical narrative is that they always convey something of character or identity regarding the one referred. Archeologically, evidence appears to suggest Hebrew comes from Hapiru—“dusty ones”—which originally referred to marauding Canaanite rangers who attacked lands in the fertile crescent. Originally, it was a disparaging term. For Abram, and his people, the name is redeemed.
The story centers around one issue: Lot, Abram’s nephew, gets in quite a pickle. He, and his people, are captured. One of the captured flees from the camp to tell Abram of Lot’s predicament. The back-story is that of a group of Canaanite kings who fall victim to a big pit. Literally, as the Hebrew text solicits, they fall into a “pit pit”—a linguistic precedent in biblical narrative of doubling a word to emphasize the magnitude of something. This isn’t a “pit pit”—it’s one big, nasty, huge pit. This same doubling device is found in 2 Kings 25:15 referring to the “purest gold” (lit. “gold gold”) and in Isaiah’s prophesy when the angels progressively cry out “Holy, Holy, Holy” in God’s holy presence.
Having fallen in the big, scary pits, the kings fleeing capture Lot and oppress him and his family.
Abram and Lot had earlier had a falling out. Notice here that Abram (the “dusty one”) patriarch-rescuer, father of God’s new people, stoops down to rescue Lot and his family. In fact, to be more accurate, he goes to “repent” them (Hb. shuv; v6). What our English translations fail to report is the nuanced word for “recover”, or shuv. This same word is used throughout the Old Testament referring to repentance (e.g. Gen. 3:19, 8:3; Ezra 9:14). Literally, Abram repents his nephew’s family. Or, (pun warning), Abram repented a Lot. When you are blood related, you do something about it.
That is a beautiful gem from this section. Scripture celebrates the rescuer. The lateness of this text lends volume to this. One interesting note about the timing of the writing of this texts is that Moses probably didn’t write it. Problematic is the use of the name “Dan” (v14). Interestingly, the place called “Dan” did not receive its geographical name until the Danites captured it following the conquest way after Moses’ death (Josh. 19:47; Jud. 18:29). Later hands had their hand in this story. What is going on here is that years later, after great space for reflection, someone is writing down this story. It becomes of note to the author that being a rescuer someone you are blood related is exemplary.
A story like this is rarely told in our culture. Not uncommonly, a story will come across the news of someone who watches as someone else is hit by a car, has a heart attack in a public place, or is in help and people simply drive by. We live in a hit and run culture. Rescuing has legal implications; if you mess up your rescue you might get sued. So, in the end, most don’t do it. We abrogate our human responsibility as rescuers to help others in their greatest need out of fear we might do it wrong.
Injustice in the Bible is always connected, on some level, to giving a fellow human in need the proverbial cold shoulder. Scripture calls us to hesed—unbounded love towards the other. And when we fail that, a curse falls on our head. George Farrell so wisely commented on hesed in his book Faith Active in Love. Here, in hesed, God is saying to us: “If you want to love and serve me, do it through your neighbor; he needs your help, I don’t.”
This doesn’t turn out to be a good gig for Abram. He gains a new responsibility to fight for his nephew, there is no mention of thankfulness, and he has to face the consequences of the king of Sodom. Being a rescuer does nothing for the pocket-book, rarely brings thankfulness, and makes one lose sleep (notice the rescue is at night). And so the rewards are far and few between.
Except the reward of peace.
Melchizidek, the King of Salem (“peace”), enters stage left bearing with him bread and wine. As named, he was a priest of el Elyon, or “God Most High,” a generic term used for God both by the Canaanites and soon the Israelites. In its cultural setting, this term would be one of power and authority over others of power and authority. Some have rendered this as the God who your god worships.
This King-priest, comes out and in response for his willingness to be a rescuer of others offers him some bread and wine. This King, the King of a city called peace, brings bread and wine that brings this peace.
If we were to continue in Scripture we would find that this, obviously, is not the final example of a mysterious person breaking out some bread and wine in response to a rescuer. In the upper room, Jesus took the bread and wine and with thankful lips offered up the sign of a new covenant (Mark 14:22). His Kingdom culminates in a new Jerusalem, a city of peace, where the new King of Peace is accessible to all at all times. Jesus, the King of Kings, at the Last Supper, offered consecrated bread and consecrated wine to God as worship (Mark 14:22-24). But this bread and wine are not possible because the disciples were good rescuers, but because God is the Rescuer from Heaven—the new dirty one.
Christians are blood related, in a sense. But this is not a message about caring for our own. Humans are blood related too. Being a human means we all become rescuers. Why? Because we’ve been rescued.
 Peter Farb, The Land, Wildlife, and Peoples of the Bible (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967), 28.
 George Forell, Faith Active in Love: An Investigation of the Principles Underlying Luther's Social Ethics (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 110-111.
Mar 23, 2013
By Ursula Crawford
Jesus asks his followers to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds really nice. Everyone likes to love and be loved. But what does it look like in practice?
When my husband and I first got married, we moved into a large apartment complex in southeast Portland. We soon met our next-door neighbors, an 18-year-old girl and her 26-year-old boyfriend. My first encounter with the girl was when she asked me if she could borrow my bicycle to ride one block to 7-11. Caught off guard by her request, I offered to drive her the one block instead.
Of course, this set up a precedent wherein she would often knock on our door asking for a ride or to borrow money or use our phone. Usually I, being a love-your-neighbor Christian, would grant her requests. Except for the times that I would pull the blinds shut and pretend not to be home.
This girl had a baby from a different daddy than her current boyfriend. Her baby was in foster care and his father was in jail. She was still in high school. She wanted her baby back. She would get him back soon, she often told me.
Her world was new to me. None of my high school friends had had babies or 26-year-old boyfriends or exes who were in jail.
Her circumstances were new to me, but the dynamics of our relationship were not. She was a Needy Person. I’d had other friends who were needy too, friends who made bad choices about drugs and promiscuous sex again and again. Friends who complained about their lives and asked for my advice and then would not listen to it. Friends who took and took and did not give back. Friends whose lives were black holes into which I tried to shine the light of Jesus.
Throughout the year, our neighbors’ problems seemed to get worse. They got jobs and lost jobs. Their car was towed due to lack of insurance. They borrowed our vacuum cleaner and gave us fleas. When they asked us for money to buy a flea bomb, we said we didn’t have cash. They asked if we could go to the bank and withdraw money. We said no.
We moved out as soon as our lease was up, quickly and quietly, without saying goodbye to them. Sadly and predictably, in the following years, I’ve been hesitant to get to know my neighbors.
What did I learn from this? I learned that loving your neighbor can be inconvenient. Sometimes you may get fleas, even though you don’t have pets. I also learned that it’s important for me to set boundaries with people. For example, I do not need to give someone a ride to a place that is within easy walking distance. I do not need to give money to someone who recently quit his or her job.
I do need to seek God’s will in my day-to-day encounters. God’s still small voice may ask me to buy a sandwich for this panhandler or go to coffee with that friend. Or it may ask me to spend a quiet morning recharging my spirit through prayer.
In the words of theologian Frederick Buechner:
“The place where God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
In order to love those around us, we first need God to fill us up with His deep gladness. The world may have an endless need for love, but thankfully God’s love is endless.
Ursula Crawford is a writer and editor living in Portland with her husband and beautiful daughter. She blogs at:
Mar 14, 2013
During the last two weeks of our journey through the story of Abraham, we discussed the trauma of Abram's call and the pain of entering the dry and dusty promised land. After some time in Egypt, Abram and his herds move back up to the land to enter their season of blessing in the land that had been set aside for them (Genesis 13):
The text before us has a plethora of potential interpretational trajectories. I’m secretly tempted, not least because of my ecological sensitivities and background, to examine this short chapter through the lens of sustainability and environmental ethics. “The land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together.” (v6) Land, unlike our modern forbears who would like us to believe otherwise, is limited. It can only support so much greed, and, we don’t own it.
But my task here is not to harp on the sustainability motif in Abram’s story. Furthermore, I believe a greater more readily applicable truth is afoot here: that of the story of the herders of Abram and Lot who couldn’t get along.
The story goes, quite simply, that Abram and Lot separate in the land of promise. After some time in Egypt, the two and their families, possessions journey into the land God had set aside for them: the Promise Land. Immediately they split into two different directions. Why? A major reason, of course, was other indigenous peoples who inhabited the land (Canaanites and Perizzites) were undoubtedly a displeased with their new neighbors from the south. The text, at this point, may have chalked up Lot and Abram’s division to their warring neighbors. But, it wasn’t that simple. Nor was it that pretty.
“And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s.” (v7)
Funny, isn’t it, that the ensuing quarrelling between Lot and Abram had nothing to do with an actual tiff between the two of them. In fact, it is as the text almost embarrassingly sighs, it was a disagreement between the herders, the shepherds, the people with the cows. Catch this: Abram and lot split, mostly, because of their herders who were unable to work together.
I can’t shake that image.
As we’ve all encountered, Christianity is largely in relational disrepair. One might say it is because we are under attack from the world; there is great truth to this. But this kind of disrepair comes from another source. The disrepair I speak is not primarily because Christians disagree with each other, or because of major theological differences, or the gates of Hades are (despite Jesus’ words) actually prevailing. The House of God is in disrepair, I believe, for another more subtle reason.
We’re increasingly a religion of herders at war with each other.
It goes like this: I’m sitting in a coffee shop listening to two Christians talk about their view of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (a year late, mind you). One of them starts talking about their pastors view of Love Wins and how he didn’t think it was all that bad. The other, almost offended, stood up for his pastors views which were a bit less congratulatory of Bell’s views on eternity. A battle ensues. And didn’t end until I finally left with Americano and shame in hand.
It left me wondering: at what point did Christianity become a culture of kingdoms that war with each other over what their pastor thinks or says about a book by another pastor in Michigan? At what point did American Christianity become a movement of warring herders? We fight for, defend, and argue the views of our heroes rather than being heroes ourselves who can think for what we believe Jesus is doing. Is this really the best we can come up with? The church, as the holy and anointed bride of Jesus, looks more like a battling playground of fiefdoms than it does anything else.
Some of you will remind me that disagreements are important. Yes they are. We need them. Truth is discerned through them. But, for God’s sake, can we share the Promised Land with grace.
A rabbi once told me the brilliance of Israel was they had 12 tribes that didn’t always agree with each other. But at least, together, they were will the children of Abraham.
Christianity needs tribes too. But the kind of tribes that can see beyond their tribal leaders views. The simple truth is: relational problems arise, primarily, but out of the most silly things, don’t they? Perceptions that one person thinks this or that about another. Doubts that one cares or loves the other. Periphery relational things like these divide people. Lot and Abram don’t actually split because they wanted to. In fact, I bet it tore them up inside. Their herders weren’t bit enough to share the land.
The best herder, as told in the New Testament, is the One who leaves the 99 sheep in order to find the 1 that is lost out in the hills. The best herders aren’t hoarders. Their vision isn’t focused internally but externally. That was, I believe, the problem with Lot and Abram’s herders.
Why is this important for us?
Just before passing away, theologian H.R. Rookmaker wrote an apologetic for the need of creativity in the church. In his prophetic and timely Art Needs No Justification, he points out that C.S. Lewis gave us eternal wisdom as to how people might see Jesus. Rookmaker writes:
"As C.S. Lewis says so beautifully we have enough little Christian tracts and books, but if we look for the re-Christianization of Europe or the United States, it will not come if people cannot look for a good book in a certain field that comes out of the Christian camp. The world did not become atheist because they preached so hard, but because they worked so hard." (p29; italics mine)
I can’t help but think that when American Christianity, the bride of Jesus, becomes a priesthood of herders more content with loving the 1 than being the right 1, atheism will run out of money. Tracts, Lewis rightly reminded us, don’t change hearts and minds.
Gracious herders do.
Mar 13, 2013
“How can this strange story of God made flesh, of a crucified Savior, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world which can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the gospel: a congregation which believes it.”
What does crisis do to faith? In my community—as countless individuals have been forced from their jobs, their dreams, and their ideal futures—they’ve appropriately been engaging this uncomfortable question. Where is God in all this? Why has God allowed this to happen to me? Where is this God that provided for me to earn a Master’s degrees (even, in some cases, Ph.D.’s) but now I’m forced to pull espresso shots? What kind of God does that? Those who can’t find work, of all people, should be able to whisper to us something about the relationship of faith to crisis.
Crisis has shaped my faith in very substantial ways. At a mall some ten minutes from my home, a young, angry, twenty-something pulled out a very large gun putting bullets into three holidays shoppers, killing two of them. It was a Tuesday evening. Our city was devastated. That Friday morning as I prayed in the mall after it had been re-opened, I turn on my computer to see that, across the country, another young and angry twenty-something had pulled out an even larger gun and murdered 27 school children and teachers while they learned the alphabet.
What does crisis do to faith? All told, I can tell you on that day and the days following I was much more aware of my belief in hell, judgment, God’s wrath, and the reality of evil in our world. A God who couldn’t react in anger, I felt, didn’t deserve to be a God of love. My emotions certainly got the most of me. Evil, and God’s presence, were both real on that day in tangible ways. Even knowing these sorts of atrocities occur all over the world on a daily basis, it changes when it is in your zip code. Theoretical or distant crisis doesn’t always effect faith. Crisis in your zip code can’t not effect our faith.
When we remember the Christians in history who’ve made profound contributions to the church’s understanding of God, we’d be wise to quickly acknowledge that their greatest work often took place in times of intense crisis. Luther’s crisis with the church, Bonheoffer’s crisis with the Nazi’s, Augustine’s crisis with his sexuality, and even Lesslie Newbigin’s (from the quote at the beginning) crisis with a near-dead experience. It was a near-death car accident that forced him back to England to enter a season of writing and reflection whereby he made his most important theological contributions.
In Christian history, it is often in the aftermath of real-life crises where the flowers of faith can bloom amidst the cracks of hard, cemented religion.
Isn’t this the case for the Christian’s entire life? I like to think about the role of crisis this way. Mircea Eliade, the famed religious sociologist and historian who did not have identify with Christianity, was quick to remind us that every culture has ‘initiation rites’; those cultural practices that mark a move into a new dimension of life. Initiation rites in the modern world, Elide points out, are “practically nonexistent.” This is important: the modern world more and more does not have symbolic events that shape the future. Sixteen, in this age, is no longer the age of knowledge, it is the age we can start smoking. Twenty-one is not the age of adulthood, is the age of drinking legally (finally!). Modern American initiation is nothing more than the ability to buy cigarettes, get a car, and get wasted.
What if we understood crises as the ultimate ‘initiation rite’ into experiencing a new dimension of Christ-likeness? We all experience crisis in the same way we experience twenty-one. What do we do with that day? Is it a day of honor or of silliness? I want to be careful here. It is true: the minute we start celebrating suffering, crisis, or pain, we will quickly find people to suffer, be in crisis, and take pain in order for Christ-likeness to be made. But a broader reading of Jesus’ teaching really leaves no room for anything else.
Jesus told his disciples to leave their families, trust him, leave behind their staff and moneybag, and follow Him. He told them to pick up a cross and die. The cross, or as the Latin’s call it crucis, was the initiation rite of Christ’s disciples; it marked a new dimension in life. Lot’s of people followed Jesus but never took up their cross. Jesus wasn’t after groupies, he was after cross-carriers.
The crisis of the crucis is our initiation into new dimensions of Christ-likeness.
Christianity has other ‘initiation rites’, sure. Yes, faith is where we initiate our trust. Yes, communion is where we are initiated into remembered grace. Yes, baptism symbolically initiates us into the death and resurrection of our faith.
But truth be told, I’m shaped most by the crisis of the cross.
Karl Barth, who faced a major theological crisis in his day, once said: “it is not by performing godly deeds that the Kingdom of God enters into our midst, but by the Kingdom of God entering into our midst that we will perform godly deeds.” We are shaped because the Kingdom of God is in the midst of our crisis.
So what does crisis do? Well, as Newbigin began this post, crisis invites us into a new way of seeing, believing, and hoping. The only real church is the one that enters into the resurrection by believing in it. Not by talking about it, reading about it, or even expounding upon it. But by believing in the crisis of resurrection.
What does crisis do to our faith? Sorry to say this, but I think we started with a wrong question which is laden with dangerous assumptions. The better question is, I believe:
What does faith do to our crisis?
 Lesslie Newbigin, “Evangelism in the City” (1987, Reformed Review). Thanks to J.R. Woodward for pointing this fantastic quote to me.
 Mircea Eliade, Birth and Rebirth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), ix
 Metzger, Trinitarian Soundings, 29
Mar 9, 2013