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God's Promise to Abraham

Before we move on, it is worth taking stock and establishing a foundation. This is crucial because we are about to enter a Biblical minefield. This is because it is fair to say that the promise in those three verses of Genesis, repeated and expanded in Genesis Chapters 13,15 and 17, is the root cause of the divisions within the Christian community, that have been mentioned in an earlier article. To be precise it is the interpretation of these verses that is causing the bother and so it is worth spending time strolling through the Bible text, to see what it is that has caused such a conflict between Christians.

So, first, let's decide exactly how we are going to read these verses.

The sensible first approach is the one that we take when we read anything, whether a shopping list or a weighty novel. It is what you are doing now. You read it word for word and your understanding is fed by exactly what you are reading. This is called the literal approach. If your shopping list tells you 'a bunch of bananas', you don't go and buy a loaf of bread! The literal approach to reading the Bible is defined as 'following the plain and obvious meaning of the text'. It was the approach taken by the earliest Christians and, significantly, by the Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin, as a response to the corruptions wrought by the Catholic Church, who had developed a system of reading the Bible - the allegorical approach - that allowed them to interpret the Bible in a highly symbolic fashion. In some cases this amounted to coaxing the Bible to say whatever they wanted!

Of course this doesn't mean that everything in the Bible is easy to read and understand, bearing in mind it was written centuries ago in the language and cultural alphabet of the Hebrews of the time. As well as straightforward narrative, there is poetry and a lot of symbolism alien to our ears, but if we look for the plain meaning first before accepting that, in places, a little more work is needed on our part to draw the meaning out, then we can’t go far wrong. We read again those words of Genesis 12:

'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.'

The plain meaning of this is that Abram himself is going to be a great nation, through whom everyone on earth is going to be blessed. Now one man does not constitute a nation so simple logic tells us that it is his descendants that are being talked about here (borne out in verse 7). The obvious understanding is that this points to Jesus, a far descendant, through whom the whole World will be blessed. This makes sense and all Christians would agree with this conclusion.

Back to our story. Abram was the first man to be called a Hebrew, a name coming from Eber, an ancestor and a descendant of Shem who, in turn, was a son of Noah. It is from 'Shem' that we get the name 'Semite', a term usually used for anyone of Middle-Eastern origin, and 'anti-Semitic', a term curiously only used in relation to Jews. Shem, who spent all that time in the Ark with Noah and his family, was still living at the time of Abram. Mind you, he was 465 years old at that time and probably the oldest man alive. What conversations they could have had together! Even more interesting was the fact that Canaan, whose clans now filled this new land, was Shem's nephew and possibly also alive. What interesting reunions they could have had!

So God called Abram and, as a reward for schlepping himself and his family hundreds of miles across the desert at the creaky old age of 75 years, He promised him that he would produce a great nation. God spoke to Abram again, pointed to the land around him and, despite the fact that it was inhabited at that time by the Canaanites, promised the land to his offspring in Genesis 12:7. In the next chapter - after Abram's brief sojourn in Egypt and a minor squabble with his nephew, Lot - God repeated the promise, but added the words, in Genesis 13:15, 'All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring for ever'.

Those two extra words 'for ever' seem to make a big difference, as a time element is now brought in, adding an element of permanence to the deal. Just like the loving Father that He is, God coaxes Abram to stroll around the land, 'Yes, son, this will all be yours'.

The rent book for the Land of Canaan had been handed over in that one act 4000 years ago.

Steve Maltz
June 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation)

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