Abraham’s Journey of Faith

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

Samuel Stennett, 1727-1795

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram left, as the LORD had told him. Genesis 12:1-4

The Journey

Four thousand years ago, a group of nomads left the city of Ur (near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) to seek a better life in the land of Canaan.

The remnants of the city of Ur – Abram’s birthplace – are still standing. They are located in Iraq, just west of Nasiriyah, where the first battles of the Iraq war were fought. The military convoys moving past Nasiriyah along the Euphrates river followed perhaps the same path that Abraham and his family followed some 4000 years earlier.

Abram and his family were part of a great migration that was taking place at that point in history. Although the land between the rivers was probably more fertile 4000 years ago than it is today, ancient technology could support only a limited population in the region. As the population grew larger, a great number of people moved north and west to look for open, fertile lands and new opportunities.

I’m not sure if the number of Mesopotamian emigrants matched the number of Americans moving to the great unsettled west in the late 19th century, but the motives were similar. One jumping off point for the American westward migration was St. Joseph, Missouri. In the late winter, crowds would arrive at St. Joseph and set up camp on the outskirts of town and wait for the first signs of spring. When spring arrived, all the settlers would set off at once to race across the great plains during the warm growing season. The settlers needed the growing vegetation as fodder for their animals much like we need gas stations on our route today. No grass, no go. The American pioneers faced a very hard life on the journey and in the first years of their new settlements. The Mesopotamian pioneers had it even harder.

The route from Ur to Canaan did not take the travelers straight across the desert, but along the “fertile crescent” – up the Euphrates and down the Jordan valley. It was about 1100 miles altogether. I’m sure that many families stopped along the difficult journey and said, “This is far enough.”

One group that settled along the way was the family of a man named Terah. Terah stopped in Haran, a town about 600 miles from Ur and located near modern-day Syria’s border with Turkey. It was a good place. From what I’ve read, the region was fertile and well watered. Terah settled there with his son Abram, his extended family and his servants. Genesis 12:5 suggests that the family prospered there.

At some point after they arrived, God called Abram to proceed with his household to Canaan. In my head, I always hear God’s voice booming like Bill Cosby’s in his “Noah” routine.

Abram.
Yes, who is it?
This is God.
(Pause) No really, who is it?

However God communicated to Abram, this was the message:

Walk from your land,
your extended family
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.

“Walk,” I think, is a better translation than “go.” Not only is it a more literal translation, that’s how everyone traveled. There were no pickup trucks or super-highways. The animals carried the baggage; the people walked.

“From your “land, I think, is also a better translation than “country” in 12:1. Nations as we know them did not exist. The word land is used twice: “from your land” and “to the land that I will show you.” It’s the same word (erets) in both phrases.

It was over 500 more miles from Haran to Canaan. That’s the distance in a series of more-or-less straight lines on a map. Of course mountain paths are not straight lines. How far would it have been on ancient roads and pathways? Imagine walking that distance at perhaps 10-20 miles a day when you’re really moving. Your entourage needs to find to find food and water for both animals and people. You must defend yourself from bandits along the road and and the people through whose land you must pass. You must endure harsh weather and nasty sandstorms.

Imagine doing this when you are 75 years old. My parents were active travelers all their lives. In their mid 70’s, they moved into a retirement home, settled down and stayed put. That’s what you do when you are 75. You don’t pack up everything you own to go camping for the rest of your life.

If it were me, I might think, “You know Lord, we made a long journey awhile back, and it wasn’t a lot of fun then – and I’m a lot older now. Traveling is very difficult. And what’s wrong with Haran? I like it here. You know, I bet all the best homesteads in Canaan are already taken.”

That would be me. The Bible simply reports, “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him.” (Genesis 12:4) Abram believed God and obeyed. The previous trip from Ur to Haran had been about economic opportunity. This journey looked similar, but at its heart it was completely different. This was a religious pilgrimage. This was a mission from God.

Upon his arrival in Canaan, Abram did not find a welcoming party and a brass band. “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” (Genesis 12:6) Other people owned what God promised. Unlike the settlers on the American west, Abram didn’t possess Guns, Germs and Steel to displace the previous occupants.

Abram pitched his tents at Shechem but didn’t take possession of the land. He moved south.

He pitched his tents at Bethel but didn’t take possession of the land. He moved south again.

In Genesis 12:9, we find him moving into the Negev, the waterless, barren, unpopulated land of the Arabian peninsula. He moved into land that nobody wanted. He survived by watering his people and pasturing his flocks on the edge of civilization, and moving on as the occasion required. He was on the outside looking in. Living in tents, he had no home of his own. Is this what God had in mind?

On Faith

The New Testament looks at Abram (or Abraham) as the model of faith. In Abraham, we see that faith means trusting God’s word enough to risk living by it.

In Genesis 12:1-4, God promised Abram that he would become the father of a mighty nation in the land that God would show him. Abram believed God. How do we know? He left home. As a response, Abraham and his household began a long, difficult journey to the land God promised.

When he arrived in the land of promise, however, Abraham did not take possession of it. Instead, he and his household lived in tents on the edges of civilization. They wandered from place to place, taking their flocks to new pastures.

Many years later, in Genesis 15, God again promised Abram that he would be a father of a large nation. The promise had not yet been fulfilled, and from the human perspective, things looked hopeless. But Abram still believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.

Many more years later, Abram and Sarah were still childless and now very old. Still, God made the promise to Abram once more, and gave to him the sign of the covenant – the sign of circumcision. “Abraham (for now God gave Abram a new name), I know you are old, but believe me, you and Sarah will have a child. And as a sign that you believe me, I want you to cut off the foreskin of your baby making equipment to mark yourself with the sign of the covenant I’ve made with you.”

Once again, Abraham believed God. He performed the surgery with a flint knife – that’s all they had. Shortly thereafter, in a great act of faith, this 99-year-old man recovering from very delicate surgery said to his wife, “Sarah, let’s make a baby.”

Abraham’s faith is found not in what he felt or what he thought, but in how he lived. He believed God, even though the promise had not yet been fulfilled, even though the situation sometimes seemed hopeless. God’s promises were real to him even though the land of promise remained in the hands of God’s enemies.

As the author of Hebrews says, “faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. ” (Hebrews 11:1 HCSB) It certainly was for Abraham.

On Home

As I read this story, however, I think not only about faith, but about home. Abram left two homes and never found another. There is something about “home” that is significant to human beings.

Abram’s story is the story of a great journey. It is an interesting contrast to another ancient story of a great journey: the story of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. The Odyssey is the story of a soldier trying to get home after 10 years of fighting in Troy. Odysseus’ homeward journey took another 10 years. To be honest, I never read Homer’s Odyssey, but I do remember seeing a B-movie matinée of the it when I was in the 4th grade. I could go the movies on Saturdays for 25 or 50 cents and the movies were usually worth every penny. Anyway, I remember that Odysseus had to fight a Cyclops, and get away from Sirens, and complete all sorts of heroic tasks to get home. It was quite a compelling film for a 9-year old, even with horrible special effects.

Throughout history, most people have felt a compulsion to go “home,” whatever “home” means for them. Here, by way of contrast, is Abram heeding a call to leave home – to go a place that is difficult to reach, that he does not know and where he may not be welcome. God does not call us into a life of comfort and ease.

Moving and traveling are part-and-parcel of the modern life. Many of you know the pain of moving and leaving friends behind (or being the ones left behind). It’s graduation season, and many parents are experiencing the pain of sending children off to school or the Army or some other adventure away from home. Many of those graduating or moving are experiencing the anxiety of facing the unknown. I know that I become anxious every time I have to move and enter an unknown world. If you do, too, you’re in good company. Abram surely felt that same anxiety but obeyed God anyway.

And when I read the story of Abram’s call, I always think of Jesus and his disciples. In a manner reminiscent of God’s call to Abram, Jesus called his disciples to leave home and follow him. They left homes, to be sure, but Jesus promised his disciples two compensations:

  • in this life, the disciples would have homes and families that they never knew before. The family of disciples would become their family and the homes of disciples would become their home
  • in the age to come, the disciples would have a home forever with God and each other. The kingdom of God would be their promised land.

The Story Of Salvation

Genesis 12:1-4 is one of the most significant passages in the Bible. It is the beginning of the story of Salvation. We’ve been looking at Abraham, but maybe we should have been looking at God. He is the one who in his grace calls Abraham and makes him a promise.

I will make you into a great nation
I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

Up to this point in the book of Genesis, things had been going downhill for the world: Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Cain slew Abel, the people built the idolatrous tower of Babel, Noah built an ark to preserve humankind (and the animals) through the flood, but sin returned.

Here is God’s plan for salvation: all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. God called a family that became a people that became a kingdom that became a religious faith that all worked together to reveal God to humanity and bring forth the savior of the world. That savior not only died and rose for the salvation of the world, he would come again to establish God’s kingdom in all its fullness.

There is a direct line leading from Abraham’s call to the coming of the kingdom in glory at the end of the age. At least the author of Hebrews thinks so. In Hebrews 11:8-10, the author connects the call of Abraham to the appearing of the city from heaven.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (9) By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. (10) For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

The author of Hebrews says Abraham was looking forward to a city, “whose architect and builder is God.” Compare this vision with the book of Revelation’s vision of God’s city, the New Jerusalem:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. (2) I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (3) And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (4) He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (5) He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 21:1-5

Hebrews 11:13-16 says of Abraham and all the heroes of the faith:

These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. (14) Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. (15) If they had been remembering that land they came from, they would have had opportunity to return. (16) But they now aspire to a better land-a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

The Author of Hebrews thinks we’re in basically the same position as Abraham. We are seeking a heavenly homeland, not in the sense of a home “in the heavens” but a home “from the heavens.” We are foreigners and temporary residents in this world in which we live.

Home is not back there in Ur. It’s not here in Haran. It’s out there – in God’s future, where God sends us. It’s in the land of Canaan, in the land of promise, even if we don’t fully possess the land right now. By faith, we make God’s world our home even now, trusting God and being willing to go wherever he sends us.

The kingdom of God is our true homeland. Even more than the United States of America even more than the states of Georgia or North Carolina or Missouri, even more than the house in which I was reared or the home in which I raised my children, my true home is in God and in the world that he will create anew.

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
and cast a wishful eye
to Canaan’s fair and happy land,
where my possessions lie.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

O’er all those wide extended plains
shines one eternal day;
there God the Son forever reigns,
and scatters night away.

No chilling winds nor poisonous breath
can reach that healthful shore;
There sickness, sorrow, pain and death,
are felt and feared no more.

When I shall reach that happy place,
I’ll be forever blest,
for I shall see my Father’s face,
and in his bosom rest.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.