Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 13:1-18
by Chelsey Harmon
Have you ever returned to a special place from your past? The place you got engaged, for instance, your old dorm room, your first job. What about a place where you distinctly heard the voice of the Lord? Even sadder places seems to pull us back or make us speed up as we pass them: tombstones and graveyards, the roadside where a loved one lost their life, the place you committed a shameful act… Each time we return to a place that has a hold on us, we take a trip down memory lane to pinnacle moments that changed the trajectory of our lives, periods of time that shaped us into who are, moments that seem to build our identities and attitudes whether we realize it in that moment or not. When we return so as to remember, we choose to accept the notion that life is made up of moments in the present and they all matter.
That seems to be the overwhelming feeling that leads Abram back to a special place in his past in Genesis 13. Our text tells us the story of Abram returning to the altar he made “at the first”— what an interesting phrase to use— and our minds immediately return to the events depicted in chapter 12 when Abram heard distinctly the call and promise of Yahweh. While Abram and his crew were on the road to nowhere in particular, Yahweh spoke loud and clear, promised greatness, blessings and success, allegiance, protection, and growth; he also promised to use Abram to bless the nations.
It doesn’t take much reflection to realize how large this call and collection of promises was in the face of Abram’s actual position in the world. Abram was a man without a homeland, surrounded by very powerful nations— nations that he had trekked past and through in his sojourn thus far. Yet, immediately after hearing from the Lord, Abram built an altar to mark that place between Bethel and Ai as one of those special places in his life, worshipping the God who has promised to change his future, understanding that the moment was a game changer and it would take great courage for him to live as though the words of Yahweh were actually true.
And almost as soon as the altar’s built, there was a famine in the land, making our chosen family even more vulnerable. Did God orchestrate this turn of events to see, when push came to shove, if Abram believe and live this new truth? Would Abram, having marked with an altar the special place he experienced a life-changing event, remember when the going got tough? Or would he forget what he wanted so badly to remember when forced from the land and deeper into the unknown? The rest of Genesis 12 tells the tale of failure. In a nutshell, Abram acted as one who did not trust in the allegiance and protection of Yahweh, instead choosing his own method of protection at the cost of those around him. But even though Abram didn’t help his cause with God, God still showed up and maneuvered the situation to one of blessing for Abram and his kin, provided financial security as they headed back north, “to the place where his tent had been at the beginning.”
After seeing God at work, Abram returned to the special place, returned to the land between Bethel and Ai so that he could “call upon the name of the Lord.” I get the sense that Abram was looking to recommit when he returned to the altar. Having failed to honour the God who literally promised him the world and asked little in return, Abram knew what he needed to do: he needed to remember, to worship, and to talk to Yahweh. Where better to do that than the place where God first talked to him?
Many couples choose to celebrate major anniversaries with vacations to their honeymoon destinations, hoping to relive some of that original exhilaration, and rekindle the romance. The reality TV show Undercover Boss depicts CEOs returning to the “mail room” (aka places of humble beginnings) and having experiences that change their perceptions and future direction. Though they are not places that I can easily return to, I regularly find myself returning in my mind to places where I heard the Lord speak his truth to me when I feel like I’ve lost my way and need to realign my priorities, direction, and commitment in the face of the day-to-day demands and challenges I face.
This returning, remembering, reflecting, it makes perfect sense because it roots us, and roots need land to sink deep into.
But there are other places, places that are painful to remember, places that we don’t want to stop at because of the shame we feel when we are near them. Sometimes the shame stems from our own sinfulness, mistakes and law-breaking; other times, it’s the sins committed against us that sting very deeply. Egypt probably became one of those places for Abram— a stage in his life that he would rather just forget. But because of the wealth of possessions he and Lot gained as a result of their time in Egypt, Abram had lots of reminders of his disobedience and the shame he put his wife through all around him, every day. He had no choice but to remember the black mark on his covenant relationship with Yahweh (so early into it to boot!) so that the place between Bethel and Ai with his first altar to Yahweh could easily have become another place of shame to avoid. For having heard the call and promise of Yahweh in that amazingly awesome moment, Abram’s decisions in the singular moments that followed failed to show that he remembered and believed how much that moment truly mattered.
But by the grace of God, Abram returns to remember and he starts a long cycle in Hebrew culture of recounting and remembering the wonders and steadfastness of Yahweh towards his people. Having learned his lesson in Egypt the hard way, Abram realized just how much he needed to trust God. Now knowing intimately that life in this world was only going to present more challenges to his faith, Abram goes back to the altar, pulled back by Yahweh really, to “get his head on straight” and to give all that he is back to God.
And it’s a good thing he did because even though they had more possessions than “at the beginning”, he and his family’s status in life wasn’t much better. In fact, their wealth became a new challenge to their survival. So Abram turned to his kin, Lot, and offered him the choice to split up, trusting that whatever happened, God would be with him. By doing so, Abram chose who he knew because of what he knew. Lot, on the other hand, chose what he knew rather than who he knew— and what he knew was the wealth he’s just brought with him out of Egypt along with what makes for some good land. In the process, Lot rejected who he knew: the uncle who had watched out for him all these years and the God doing something in and through Abram’s clan.
Lot looked around and set his eyes on a land in the East, the symbolic direction of those who turned their backs on God in the Genesis narrative. Before Lot, there was Adam and Eve, driven out of Eden through the gate on the east of the Garden; Cain too was driven east after sinning against God and his brother; the builders of the Babel Tower headed east when they set out to connect heaven and earth by human strength. Lot is added to the list of those who reject the good gifts of God as he headed to a land that Abram did not walk through (a symbolic act in the narrative of taking possession of the land), settling on the very edge of the Promised Land. It did not go well with Lot.
But the Lord encouraged Abram after his nephew broke his heart. After Lot headed out, Yahweh spoke again to Abram, “Raise your eyes now…” Physically, when you lift your head in order to raise your eyes, your shoulders open ever so gently and your chest/heart slightly lifts along with your eyes. So as Abram obeyed Yahweh’s command, he saw and felt, with his head, heart and soul, the expansion of that initial promise of God from Genesis 12. Fittingly, since such a thing is truly worth remembering, and such a moment will truly transform the rest of his existence, since Abram has proven through his attitude and actions that he believed God’s words to be true, he built another altar that he could return to, physically or in his memory, any time that he needed to remember and believe.
You’ll notice that I’ve closely connected this text with the ones that come before. That’s because I see the larger story of ‘failure’ and ‘success’ in covenant keeping important for modern-day followers. Even though Abram had such a clear understanding of Yahweh’s good for him, the very next story show him failing to live into it. Genesis 13 is the continuation of the story of Abram’s character growth.
If you were to treat this as a stand-alone narrative, however, it would be worthwhile to explore the Ancient Near Eastern Bedouin culture. On a recent study trip in the Middle East, I learned that the expected response from Lot when Abram offers him first dibs isn’t to take possession of a land, but to sell parts of what they have so that they can stick together. Like many of us, Lot couldn’t let go of what he had in order to serve the good of the community— and in trust of the Lord.
There’s not much about Lot in the narrative up to this point, but his character is one that all of us can really relate to. There’s a lot of temptation to choose what we know over who we know, yet that’s exactly what God is asking us to do at the cross. We know our sinfulness, we know how much we don’t deserve his grace, but God says, “Know me. Trust me. I have forgiven you and taken your place.”
If focusing on Lot’s choice, a useful New Testament text to pair with this story: The Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19, Mark 10 or Luke 18.
Chelsey Harmon is the pastor of Christ Community Church, Nanaimo, British Columbia.