Abraham Conquers the Land

Abraham the Warrior
Genesis 12, Luke 11

Abraham is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. There is something about his character, his unassuming personality, his toughness that resonates with my own spirit. Not that I am tough or unassuming like he was, but just that…well, I just like Abraham. He, along with David and Moses, is one of the most often spoken of people in the Biblical narrative and what is ironic about it is that he just sort of appears out of nowhere. I know he is mentioned at the end of chapter 11 in connection with his father, Terah, and his brothers and Lot. But after all that took place in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, I guess I have always been somewhat surprised at the intrusive nature of the Abraham narratives.

It’s such a striking contrast, this call of Abram. One is forced to wonder: What is God up to? How does this seemingly new story flow out of the previous stories?

To be sure, it is startling to me, as a reader. That doesn’t mean his intrusion is altogether intrusive to the narrative though. The genealogies connect Abraham with the previous eleven chapters which suggests to me at least that the narrative assumed Abraham at some level. At least I think it is safe to say the author of Genesis didn’t find Abraham’s story an intrusion but that ‘he’ rather saw it as a necessary denouement to the first eleven chapters and also a perfect preface to the rest of Scripture. The call of Abraham is a watershed moment in the Biblical narrative, but perhaps there is something more to the narrative about Abraham that should be noticed.

I will branch into chapter 13 just a bit in this brief sketch, so I ask your patience.

Israel, Abraham’s son, eventually went into exile in Egypt. Long before that God had promised Abraham on oath, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” He had also promised him this: “ ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” To an extent, I am at a loss as to why Abraham would want this promised land, and I am at an even greater loss as to why God would give him this particular land. Time and time again we read, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” (These are the same Canaanites who were cursed by Noah in chapter 9, ‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.’) Why would anyone want to live in such a place, a place inhabited by people under a curse of slavery? Strange, but that’s what happened.

As time moved along, Abraham was forced to leave Canaan and go to Egypt. He was forced to go because ‘there was a famine in the land.’ This is the same circumstance that forced Israel to Egypt many years later. There is also no little foreshadowing in Pharaoh’s rejection of Abram, “ ‘Take her and go!’ Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.” While Abram was in Egpyt, he plundered them: “[Pharaoh] treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants and camels.” It’s all a rather brilliant scheme on the part of Abram. This all reminds me of the life of Israel in Egypt as we are told of in Exodus. Pharaoh didn’t change much in that period of time. Abram’s going up from Egypt foreshadows Israel’s going up from Egypt many years and generations later.

For the most part, however, Abram wandered around the land of Canaan. He lived near a tree at Shechem. Later he moved along to Bethel near Ai. Then Egypt. Then we are told of Abram’s ‘great wealth.’ Back to Bethel and as chapter 13 rounds out, he has separated from Lot and moved near more trees, the trees of Mamre at Hebron. He would go to a place and, evidently, live there for a while, pitch a tent, acquire wealth, the move to a new place. It’s rather brilliant never staying in one place too long and giving your enemies a chance to wrestle from you your wealth.

So here’s where all this comes together for me. Everywhere Abram went he did what? Not only pitched his tents and fed his cattle and grew wealthy, but what? Look, it’s there; in verses 12:7, 12:8, 13:4, 13:8: He built an altar! Well this is certainly not a mere side note to the narrative. The author is telling us something. Not only did he plunder Egypt (12:10-20), but he was, in effect, conquering Canaan! You see every place he went he built an altar which was Abram’s way of conquering that land for the Lord. Abram was dotting the land with not so subtle reminders of YHWH’s presence.

That’s also where Luke chapter 11 comes into the picture: “ ‘When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder’” (11:21-22). As Jesus went through the land, that’s exactly what he did. He plucked off a demon possession here, healed a cripple there, raised a dead man in this place, healed a bleeding woman in that place. That’s what Jesus did every single time he went about preaching the kingdom: he was building little or giant altars to God in the midst of Canaan. He was continuing the conquering of the land that was begun in the life of Abraham and continued under Joshua and David; the Land that was lost in the exile; the land eventually taken over by the Romans.

Everywhere Abram went, he built an altar. Everywhere he went, he conquered a small piece of the land–driving out all the demons and claiming that place for the Lord. He was taking it back for the Lord. I am hard pressed to believe that our goals are any different now. We are sent out, in the power of the Spirit of God, and commissioned, empowered, to take back the land, which in this case is the people of God, a little at a time. Abram wasn’t taking back the land for himself: he was conquering for the Lord. That is, he didn’t build altars to Abram; he did build altars for the Lord. Every life that Jesus touched was another altar he built for the Lord.

I’m hard pressed to think that it is any different for us now. (See Romans 12:1-2)

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