“He was a coward.” That was Banu’s comment on reflecting how Abram had Sarai pose as his sister. That is, he had her pose as his sister in order to save his own neck. Upon entering Egypt, he knew that the Pharaoh’s officials would want to take her, because she was a good-looking woman.
I will admit that it might be hard to argue with her assessment of Abraham’s decision. (That is, his being a coward!) We’ll look at what might have been behind his choice in a few moments.
Once again, and I mention this from time to time, the lectionary compilers tended to edit out embarrassing or troublesome verses. The reading in Genesis for today ends at verse 4. Showing one of the great figures of faith like Abraham treat his wife the way he does might not seem especially heroic. But we need to pay attention to that stuff. If God’s calling of Abraham is to have any real meaning for us, then we should see how that gets worked out in, say, our own messy and complicated lives.
Still, as I just said, we’ll be getting to the too-often deleted aspect of the story momentarily.
As for the commonly-agreed-upon heroic aspect of the story, it’s not for nothing that Abraham is given the title “Father” Abraham—that the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their history back to him. The whole thing got started when, somehow, the Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (v. 1).
What precisely does that mean? How did Abraham receive that call from God? Was he hearing voices? Did he have an exceptionally vivid dream?
Maybe it was a gradually growing awareness. Some have suggested that Abraham grew disenchanted with the worship that was practiced in his homeland—worship of the sun and moon. At some point, he couldn’t take it anymore, or perhaps, some people couldn’t take him anymore!
In any event, as one writer tells us, “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was…no routine expedition of several hundred miles. Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history. The all-important commencement is…‘Go forth.’”
The part of the message that seals the deal is in verses 2 and 3: “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.” Okay, not bad: God will bless me, and I will bless others. Now those others get drawn into the picture. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
That last line can also be translated as “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
What can we make of all that blessing? As Christians, we stand in that tradition, the blessing of the call of Abraham and Sarah. It’s important to include Sarah; Abraham could not have done very much without her. Apparently, one of those things would be using her to make sure he stayed alive while in Egypt!
Verses 2 and 3 promise the blessing of becoming a great nation—of being a conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth. Being a blessing means several things, among them being a source of good will, a source of shalom, a source of light.
“God’s call upon Abraham’s life,” he says, “is a call that’s repeated to each one of us today. It’s a call that subverts conventional wisdom, and so it can feel counter-intuitive, for it’s a call to move beyond three very human, powerful and deep-seated fears—fear of the unknown that we can’t control (ignorance), fear of others who are different from us (inclusion), and fear of powerlessness in the face of impossibilities (impotence).”
Whenever I’ve thought of God’s call to Abraham to “go forth,” I’ve usually had the first of those three in mind. I’ve thought of the unknown, with whatever fear and foreboding go with it. He and some close family members are launching out into foreign territory. This involves a different culture, with unfamiliar customs. This involves moving from one’s kin, which would leave one vulnerable in many ways.
Clendenin combines the fear of the unknown with fear of others who are different and fear of powerlessness. He says that Abraham “had to leave not only his geographic place. He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger,” the tendency to exclude the alien.
Which of Abraham’s three “movements” speaks most to you: fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different, or fear of powerlessness? Which of the three would most likely hold you back? Is there one of those fears that you’ve seen someone else conquer that gave, or continues to give you respect for them?
This speaks to us not only as individuals, but also as a congregation. The same “movements,” the same fears to confront, affects churches as well. All of this goes into answering the question, “How are we called?” We can emphasize different words in that question and come up with different nuances.
Now, as for that apparently less-honorable part of our story, in which Abraham portrays Sarah as his sister, things become a little fuzzy.
E. A. Speiser tells us, “In Hurrian society [Abram was from Haran] the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the [legal] status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister, in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. Violations of such sistership arrangements were punished more severely than breaches of marriage contracts.”
In other words, it’s going to be bad news if you touch my wife, but if you touch my sister, you’re in for a world of hurt!
I mention all this, though not mainly for judging Abraham’s quality of character. Instead, I’m wondering if Abraham is being obedient or disobedient to God’s call. More specifically, I’m wondering if adapting to culture constitutes part of what it means to be called.
Admittedly, it is difficult to compare moral codes. We are separated, not only by the distance, but by the time—four thousand years. Their world was quite different from ours.
There’s also the element of desperation. As verse 10 tells us, after Abraham arrived at his destination, there was a famine. He was forced to go “to Egypt to reside there as an alien [we’ve just heard that word], for the famine was severe in the land.” He was a refugee, dependent upon the kindness of others. Factors beyond his control influenced him, even compelled him. Factors beyond our control can do the same thing to us.
Still, the question of culture is timeless. In working out our calling, we always have to deal with the culture around us. It’s inescapable; we are immersed in our culture and in our subcultures. Fish in water don’t know they are wet. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) Culture shapes how we perceive the world. That’s why it’s important to learn about other cultures; it helps us to be more objective about our own. It helps us, as best we can, to stand outside of it and look through the eyes of others.
There is also church culture; there is also congregational culture. In a congregational system, there are written rules on how to behave, on how things are done. We have our congregational bylaws. As Presbyterians, we have our Book of Order. But there are probably hundreds of unwritten rules on how to behave, on how things are done. One reason for that is because everyone brings their own culture, their own experiences, to the table.
Imagine a pond on a quiet day. Now picture throwing a rock into that pond. The ripples spread out in all directions. If someone else throws a rock into the pond, the ripples intersect. Now imagine all of us throwing rocks into that pond. Ripples are bouncing around everywhere. Those interactions lead to the unwritten rules. Otherwise, there is chaos! (Although, sometimes a little chaos can be a good thing!)
What names, what rules, does our culture give us? I’m fond of being called a “consumer.” According to our economic system, my calling is to “consume.” Maybe it’s just me, but I find that to be more than a little unsettling.
A few years ago, Banu and I were invited to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh. We were asked to do some workshops while there.
I did one which was inspired by an instructor I had in Clinical Pastoral Education. What that meant for me was a student chaplaincy at a hospital, the result of which was my discovery that I was not cut out to be a hospital chaplain! Still, I’m glad I was required to do it, being mandatory for Presbyterian ordination. It was a good experience. I really liked our instructor, although at times he tended to have a bit of a potty mouth!
There was one thing he had us practice which I thought was especially valuable. He would challenge us to not use “God talk.” That is, to avoid language that, for example, referenced “God” or “salvation” or “faith.” It really forced us to stretch ourselves, to dig deep, to say what we meant by those words.
You might find this impossible to believe, but there are people who have actually had bad experiences with church or with Christians. “God talk” can be a trigger for all kinds of negative stuff. And then, there are those who simply don’t know what we’re talking about.
So that was my challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using “God talk.” For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?
Some of them welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot! For others—not so much. And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces. Some of them let me know their displeasure. They were not happy with me.
I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language. I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care. It does require change. Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change? Dead. Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.
For many of them, they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends. They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work. In my defense, this little exercise didn’t even take a half hour, but that was enough to tick them off.
(There is a nice postscript to this story. That night, they broke out the board games. Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in. Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)
I will freely admit, it is not easy for us church people to avoid using “God talk.” It is not easy at all. It’s not easy for me. Again, it forces us to explain what we mean. But it is well worth the effort; it is well worth practicing. It helps us to speak with others with understanding and one hopes, with compassion.
In the end, this business of culture pays off well for Abraham (and dare I say, Sarah). He entered Egypt without; he is leaving Egypt with—a lot! The chapter closes, “Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had” (v. 20). He’s on his way, following the call to “go forth.” It’s central to how he is called.
How are we called?
 Speiser, 92.