Father Abraham

A lot of time was spent on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, but that all set us up to transition to Abraham. You’ll notice that from the beginning of Genesis until this point, God has selected individuals out of a group to represent Him in the fallen world. Adam and Eve were intended for this purpose, but they failed. Out of their two children, the good one was murdered for being good, and the murderer was further exiled from God. They bore another son through whom came Noah, and God hit the reset button on creation. Out of Noah’s sons, Shem would be the forefather of Terah, who’d have three sons, and out of those three sons, just like with Noah, one would be selected, Abraham.[1]

When we’re first introduced to Abraham, he goes by the name Abram (Gen. 11:26). He lives in Ur in Babylon, and our focus stays on him from here until he died in Genesis 25. Terah takes his family and leaves Ur, and they make it as far as Haran, some 600 miles northwest of Ur, where Terah dies. After his father’s death, Abram receives the call of Yahweh. They intended to make it to the land of Canaan (Gen. 11:31–32), but that didn’t happen. In these patriarchal times, the father, or head of the family, guided the family life. We know that Terah led the family in idolatry (Josh. 24:2). Still, we don’t understand why he left Ur and why they were headed to Canaan. However, this mirrors Israel in their later history because they would end up in Babylon because of idolatry, only to be allowed to return to the Promised Land, similarly to how their forefather traveled.

God wanted His first humans to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28), and God issued the same mandate to Noah (Gen. 9:1–3). The same request is made of Abram (Gen. 12:2; 15:5). Not only is this Israel’s story in a miniature form, but it’s also God trying to do what He intended to do from creation. In a world that’s fallen, God is redeeming it through one person, one family. “The Adam story looks forward to Israel’s story; the story of Abraham looks backward to creation.”[2]

No sooner than Abram arrives in the land God has promised to him, he leaves to go to Egypt because of a famine (Gen. 12:10). Sound familiar? This is the exact same trek Israel will follow for the same circumstance years later. Abram is concerned because his wife is beautiful, so he hands her over, and she is taken by the Egyptians. No worry, because Abram becomes rich in the process (Gen. 13:2–6). Yet, God plagues Pharaoh, and he sends Abram and Sarai off—just like He’d do for Israel. Abram and his nephew would settle apart from one another since their herds and flocks were too numerous. Lot would fall into enemy hands, forcing Abram to take his forces and retrieve him from captivity. Again, reminiscent of Israel and Egypt in a way.

After successfully retrieving Lot from bondage, Abram meets Melchizedek (“righteous king”), a king-priest of Salem, an early name for Jerusalem. This foreshadows the Davidic line from which Jesus came and the order He fulfilled. David himself somewhat fulfilled priestly roles and was also a priest-king in a sense. Much more could be written about this point, but it is an exciting study, to say the least.

Abram becomes concerned with how God will keep His promise. He proposes to God that he make an heir from his household, but God tells him that he will father a son (Gen. 15:3–4). To keep His promises, God binds Himself to Abram with an oath, a covenant (Gen. 15:9–21). This covenant’s meaning is that God will become the pieces of the sacrifices offered if He doesn’t come through with what He promised Abram. At the Exodus time, this was the promise invoked (Exod. 2:24–25).

All is well, right? Well, after some time, we’re not told how long Abram figures on helping God again. His wife, Sarai, offers her Egyptian slave, Hagar. Once the latter became pregnant, she despised her mistress, believing herself to have been elevated in status now. They have a tiff over this, and Hagar is sent away only to return after a divine revelation. Her son, Ishmael, will be a patriarch himself, and the Arabs claim descent from him (cf. Gen. 25:12–18).

A Turning Point in the Abrahamic Narrative

Let’s pause for a moment to remind ourselves how Abram has fared thus far. He has gone to the land only to leave because of famine. Talk about trusting in God, right? He lies and passes off his wife as his sister. The noble husband that he is. He returns to the land and has to divide from his nephew because their herdsmen aren’t getting along. He doesn’t want the problem to boil over into a family dispute. Good thinking here, at least. Since he’s not had children, he wants to name an heir from among his household servants, but God says, “No.” Then, after God makes a covenant with him, he goes on ahead to help God, at the behest of his wife, in keeping that promise by having a child with one of the maids. Still, that wasn’t what God had in mind, and, plus, it led to a family feud.

Between chapters sixteen and seventeen, thirteen years have passed. Ishmael is a gangly son that Abram has had the joy to watch grow up. Hagar has gone back to her place of being a submissive servant, and Sarai is happy. Yet, still no land and people. Out of nowhere, Yahweh shows up, commands that Abram walk before Him and be blameless. You kind of wonder whether or not that was an indictment of his early years of following God. Thus far, Abram has followed God for twenty-four years (cf. Gen. 12:4). Now, God commands that Abram have some skin in the game (pardon the pun). He commands circumcision (Gen. 17:9–13), likely a manner of God claiming the organ to indicate that Abram’s offspring was His and that Abram’s and Sarai’s future were in His hands. Anyone not circumcised, funny enough, would be cut off (Gen. 17:14). His (“Exalted Father”) and Sarai’s (“Princess”) names are both changed, akin to a monarch ascending the throne.

Abraham’s visited by angels who confirm Yahweh’s promise and even give him a timeline of one year (Gen. 18:10). The way it’s phrased, it was as if they said, “This time next year, I’ll return.” A condition of this promise is Abraham walking before God and being blameless, and this too is reiterated in Gen. 18:19. This time, however, Abraham is to examine God in a manner of self-discovery about himself as well as the character of Yahweh. Abraham is here and later depicted as a lawfully obedient follower of God (cf. Gen. 26:4–5), so the Israelite is simply following in his footsteps. Within the law are blessing (children) and curse (destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). Whenever people act as depraved as those of Sodom and Gomorrah’s cities, they have nothing but to be cursed and incur God’s wrath for the pain they cause.

The promised, anticipated son is finally born. Abraham and Sarah had waited for this moment for so long, and now it had finally came to pass. After a couple of years or so, Isaac is weaned, and a big celebration follows. Sadly, the festival would turn to a wake because Sarah would finally have Hagar and Ishmael banished. Abraham isn’t thrilled about it, but God tells him to listen to her because the promise would be fulfilled in Isaac. Oh, and God would take care of Ishmael too.

Several, perhaps many, years later, God asks the impossible of Abraham—to sacrifice Isaac. Critical to understanding this story is the laws regarding the firstborn. God says that the firstborn belongs to Him (Exod. 13:1, 11–13). That which opens the womb is God’s, and in the case of animals, we can accept this because sacrificing an animal to God was a part of the customs. God took the Levites to Himself, and they served in the tabernacle/temple, and for Isaac, he would be God’s too. Yet, God would make the exception in the case of humans. He wouldn’t accept human sacrifices because that’s what the pagans did (cf. 2 Kings 16:3). He would, however, take a substitute (Num. 8:17). We know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say.

Abraham’s life points to the theme of God wishing to bless all peoples of the earth. He began with Adam, which was a bust, then through Seth, we’d find Noah, Shem, and Abraham. Abraham’s relationship with God is at times shaky. Still, overall he is the patriarch of the family of God in faith. He occupies many pages in the New Testament. To understand Abraham is to see the fulfillment of the promises God made over 4,000 years ago. In Abraham, we have that family through whom God promised to bless the earth in the flesh and in spirit. We are children of Abraham, who worship Jesus Christ, the Son of Yahweh.

[1] In case you hadn’t noticed, parents have a triad of children out of which one is selected. Adam and Eve bore Cain, Abel, and Seth, and Seth is selected. Enosh is named from Seth, and through him comes Noah, who also has three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Shem is from whom the Israelites would descend, and his lineage would go through Arphaxad to Terah who had three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Abram is selected, so the next logical sequence would be one son, and Abram’s one son out of two would be Isaac.

[2] Enns and Byas, Genesis for Normal People, 99.

The New Testament Canon

The twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament appear in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (c. 367)—a prominent bishop—and this is the typical starting point for many as to their history of the canon. Because of such a detailed letter regarding the New Testament, some have concluded that the canon was a late invention considering the letter’s dating. Still, as our last lesson demonstrated, the canon was emerging in the first century itself and is evident in the writings of the early church fathers as functional before the fourth century. Athanasius wrote this letter to end the disputes about other orthodox letters believed to be equal to apostolic writings—Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas. It also detailed Peter’s epistles and Revelation’s authenticity, something that was questionable to some.

Earlier than his festal letter, a catalog from North Africa listed twenty-four books, named the Mommsen Catalog (c. 359). Cyril of Jerusalem had earlier listed all the books except Revelation (c. 350), but the Council of Nicea is often the canon’s accepted settling point (c. 325). However, the council’s entirety wasn’t about the canon, but the divinity of Jesus, hence the Nicean creed. Because they affirmed the canon doesn’t mean that they “created” it. Similarly, regional church councils also acknowledged the canon, but they also didn’t determine it. As Michael Kruger puts it, “These councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.” 

Around 250 CE, the early church theologian, Origen produced a list of the New Testament in his commentary on Joshua.

Matthew … Mark also; Luke and John each … Even Peter … in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John … through his epistles, and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles … in fourteen of [Paul’s] epistles.

Hom. Josh. 7.1; cf. Hom. Gen. 13.2

This list would have included Revelation in John’s epistles and Hebrews would have counted as a letter of Paul because many in the early church believed that Paul wrote Hebrews. 

What, however, precipitated the list and the official declaration of the canon? It all began around 144 CE because of an early church heretic named Marcion. He only listed the gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, omitting the pastorals and Hebrews. A harmony of the four gospels appear in 170 CE by Tatian and entitled Diatessaron. About the same time, Melito of Sardis identified the Old Testament canon used by the Jews. The earliest response to Marcion’s list with a list is what’s called the Muratorian Canon (c. 180), so named after its discoverer. It contains twenty-two of our twenty-seven books, omitting James, 1 & 2 Peter, 3 John, and Hebrews. Interestingly enough, around the same time as the Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus was the first to refer to a New Testament (Adv. Haer. 4.15.2).  

This leads to the truth that some books we now acknowledge as inspired weren’t always regarded as such by everyone in the early church. Athanasius explained the reasoning for excluding two well-regarded writings, but a few were disputed earlier such as 2 Peter, 2–3 John, Jude and James. Other writings were outright rejected: Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias (Eus. Eccl. Hist. 3.25). 

The Emergence of a New Testament

One can easily make the case that a New Testament, or a canon of the new covenant Scriptures, was expected. When we examine the Mosaic covenant, we notice in Hebrews 9:18–21 the facets making up the first covenant that appears in Exodus 24:3–8, and among them is the book (Heb. 9:19). Unlike the first covenant, no tabernacle or vessels in the New Covenant are cleansed because the church and individual Christians are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Nevertheless, we who comprise the church and are of the Way are sprinkled with the lamb’s blood in our baptisms, and in due course, a book would necessarily emerge. Now, this perspective isn’t accepted by everyone. Some scholars contend that the New Testament could not have been foreseen and wasn’t expected. Others contend that the canon wasn’t created until the end of the second century CE, but I tend to disagree with both of those propositions. 

The earliest hint of an emerging canon appears in 2 Peter 3:16. Peter recognizes Paul’s writings as on par with Scripture. What he has in mind when referring to Paul’s letters isn’t altogether clear, because Paul wrote some letters that were widely accepted while others were questionable. Peter assumes that his audience knows what he’s talking about, and he likely expects that they receive his own letter similarly given that he addressed himself as an apostle (2 Peter 1:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:2). Another hint at recognizing authoritative writings in the first century is 1 Timothy 5:18, which is a quotation from Luke 10:7 and Deut. 25:4. The opening phrase, “For the Scripture says,” recognizes both passages as being Scripture. This initial phrase comes from Deut while the rest is identical to Luke’s wording. Thus far, Paul’s writings and Luke’s gospel account are considered Scripture on the basis of internal evidence from the letters. 

Another aspect worthy of considering is the nature of public readings in the assembly. In several New Testament letters, we observe the command to have them read publicly which indicates that they carried authority (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Cor. 10:9; Rev. 1:3). We’re able to base this conclusion, in part, on how portions of the Old Testament were read in synagogue meetings (Luke 4:17–20; Acts 13:15; 15:21). Other scholars have additionally pointed out that the Greek structure of Matthew and Mark lent itself to a liturgical structure—which means that they would have been used for year-round public readings. The fact that such letters were urged to be read publicly along with Paul’s command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) may in fact suggest that he already believed his writings to have been such (cf. 2 Peter 3:2). 

The earliest historical source about a Christian assembly details the authority of the apostolic writings. 

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3

What’s clear from history is that Scripture were not exclusively read in early church assemblies. Some popular writings that were often read in the church, but that were not placed among the acknowledged books, was The Shepherd of Hermas (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 3.3.6; cf. Rom. 16:14) and 1 Clement (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 4.23.11). Serapion, the Antiochian bishop (190–211 CE) wrote to dispel the Gospel of Peter that had been read in Rhossus because it had led some astray (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 6.12.2). Certain epistles were well esteemed because of the author, while others were forgeries.  

Some might find the notion of reading non-canonical letters in the assembly challenging. However, the reason these writings weren’t ultimately included in the canon was because they were not universally accepted. There were three criteria for canonicity: 1) universality, 2) apostolicity, and 3) orthodoxy. If a writing fit into all three, it was accepted into the canon. However, there’s debate over another point: did the church create the canon? If so, authority primarily rests with the church—which is what Catholics and Orthodox believe, their definition of “church” here meaning the priesthood. However, while it’s true that prelates assembled to formalize the canon, they didn’t “determine” so much as “acknowledge” what had, up to that time, been regarded as Scripture. From the latter point of view, Scripture is more authoritative. This is the great divide between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox. 

God Confuses Languages

The story about the Tower of Babel is sandwiched between genealogies.[1] Still, these are more than portions of Scripture we’d want to skip. It’s what’s often referred to as the Table of Nations. It comes between two toledoth (10:1; 11:10), the second of which is followed by yet another (11:27). The sections become more extended from here out, so while we have ten in total and six already used, their frequency becomes less. What’s interesting to note, first, is that all of these nations have their own language (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31). Still, when we arrive at Babel’s story, it begins with everyone having the same language (Gen. 11:1). Some might see this as a contradiction, but it’s actually a literary device that beckons the reader to pay attention.

We could detail the various people and the nations from them, but I want to focus on the point leading up to the story about the Tower of Babel. Cush (Ethiopia) is the father of Nimrod, a name often used to insult someone else in our time. Nimrod built Babel and Nineveh, who would later be two of Israel’s greatest enemies (Gen. 10:8–11). Jonah would preach to Nineveh, which later became the Capitol city of Assyria—who conquered the northern ten tribes of Israel. They led them into captivity while importing foreigners to intermingle with them, thus diluting the bloodline in 721 BCE. Years later, Babylon would subdue Judah and Benjamin, the Southern Kingdom, and lead them into captivity in 586 BCE.  

Centuries before, however, these two enemies of Israel can be traced to one person, Nimrod, who we eventually trace back to the degraded son of Noah, Ham. When we look at Ham’s sons, all of them are later enemies of Israel (Gen. 10:6). Cush, whom we’ve already looked at, birthed enemy kingdoms of Israel. Ham’s son, Canaan, well, we know about him. Mizraim was the Aramaic name of the Egyptians, who were often hostile to Israel. Put (Libya) was further west than Egypt and often supported the Egyptians and other Israel enemies (cf. Nahum 3:9; Ezek. 27:10; 30:5; 38:5).

Let’s say you’re an ancient Israelite who lives either before, during, or after Jerusalem’s siege by the Babylonians. This story and the Table of Nations are especially intriguing to you. The part about the Tower of Babel appears mid-genealogy in explaining your own lineage, so you sit up straight and take note. These post-flood people come together in the plain of Shinar (11:1; cf. 10:10), which is Iraq today. Iraq was, long ago, Babylon, and before then, it was the land of the Chaldeans. That’s important because it’s where Abraham came from, Ur of the Chaldeans.

Nevertheless, these people come together to build a city and a tower. This ancient tower is what’s known as a ziggurat. This sort of structure was common in ancient Mesopotamia. They weren’t built for people to go up despite it looking like a pyramid with stairs around it and the top having an altar. Ancient people often sought high places to worship the gods because they were “up there,” so the higher you could get, the closer to the gods. In this case, the ziggurat was for the gods to come down more than for the people to go up. In Genesis 3, humanity lost the presence of God by being cast from Eden, so they build this structure with the hope that God would come to them. They were often made next to temples, and the thinking was that God would come down and enter His temple to occupy it and so that they could have His presence among them once more.  

The two indicators of what might have been wrong here are that they 1) wanted to make a name for themselves, and 2) didn’t want to be scattered (11:4). I’m going to get to what I believe was wrong here, keeping in mind the story of Genesis up to this point. Still, God’s solution is to balal (“confuse”) their language. Literally, God is going to balal babel. It’s sort of punny. Ok, so what’s the problem? Humanity is at it again. From the beginning, humanity has crossed the boundaries of being creatures. We, time and again, want to be gods. Our initial fall was aspiring to have God’s wisdom (Gen. 3:4). Sons of God come down once again, transgressing the earthy and heavenly boundaries (Gen. 6:1–4). Humanity, or a portion of humanity, wants to break through those exact boundaries, not by going up (Gen. 11:4), but by making a name for God rather than self. That was their sin. That was what displeased God. There were several ways they could have made a name for themselves, but when it came to sacred space, that was to be done for God and not for oneself.

God is the one who creates and orders. Still, in building this tower and city, these people were making their own order and unity around themselves and not God, so He confuses and disperses them. Yet, God undid His work at Babel on Pentecost (Acts 2:1–7). The Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in languages for which they were untrained, but what’s even more marvelous is how everyone present heard in their own language. They listened to the good news about Jesus, who came to rectify humanity’s errors plagued upon the earth. He did this by dying on the cross, and those who have faith in Him will be saved. They exalted the name of Jesus rather than themselves.

[1] Archaeologists have uncovered a relief detailing the building of a ziggurat during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. The archaeological evidence, including bricks from the ziggurat in question, plus the story in Genesis has caused scholars to date the account here to the exilic period that began in 586 BCE. A redactor is believed to have inserted it as a fictional story with a very real meaning.

%d bloggers like this: