A MAN I GREATLY RESPECT as an expositor of the Scriptures and a minister of the gospel once stood before the student body at Dallas Theological Seminary to preach on purity. He began his message by saying, “I carry in my vest pocket a small book that helps me guard my moral integrity. Because I am a minister of the gospel who stands before gatherings of people, I must remain true to my public testimony. But I have lived long enough to realize many start ministry well but do not finish well. Therefore, in this book—which I will never reveal to anyone—I continue to add the names of people who were once strong representatives of Christ but have since fallen, and thereby forfeited their moral authority to lead. This morning I recorded a forty-second name.”
Sometimes the faithful fail. The good and the godly are nonetheless imperfect. The strong can become weak. The powerful and influential invariably stand on feet of clay. Heroes can falter. The mighty sometimes fall. Those we respect can leave us feeling so disheartened that we begin to wonder if anyone can be trusted.
There are at least two reasons we should avoid putting people on a pedestal. First, we set ourselves up for disillusionment because we’ll inevitably see flaws in our heroes. Second, pedestals come with expectations no mere human can meet. We don’t do the people we admire any favors by placing unrealistic burdens on their shoulders. That’s true for people today as well as for our Bible heroes.
The first verses of Genesis 12 portray Abram as a hero, on balance. While it is true that complete obedience came gradually for him, let’s give the man credit. Having heard from God, he abandoned his lifelong home, denied his culture, disconnected from his family, left his friends, sacrificed his real estate, and threw away any future he may have planned or hoped for. As a man in his midseventies, he left all behind to go . . . who knows where. He willingly exchanged the familiar for the unfamiliar—a commitment very few septuagenarians would be willing to make. He abandoned the settled, comfortable life of a city dweller to become a nomad, both physically and spiritually. With eyes set on God, he said, in effect, “I’ll trust You, God. I’ll follow wherever You lead.” I find all of that nothing short of admirable.
Abram left the thriving, cultured city of Ur, traveled northwest along the banks of the Euphrates River, and then settled for a time in Haran. After his father, Terah, died, he followed a busy trade route west and then south to the mountain city of Shechem, a bustling trade town that lay between two mountains revered by local religions: Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. This location gave Shechem a long history as a sacred site.
Abram camped beside the oak of Moreh (see Genesis 12:6), which could also be translated, “the tree of teaching.” It was most likely a large Tabor oak that served as a prominent landmark. The Hebrew expression suggests it had become a local shrine or place of gathering where teachers spoke to crowds. Historical records indicate that “the Canaanites had shrines in groves of oak trees, and Moreh may have been one of their cult centers.” Worshipers of fertility gods believed that large trees were evidence of the reproductive power associated with the area; they thought one could become more fertile by worshiping there.
As Abram camped near this pagan shrine, God appeared to him again to reaffirm His great redemptive plan. He repeated His earlier promise to give Abram offspring and reminded him that this nation would ultimately become teachers of divine truth to the whole world. He said, in effect, “These people come here to worship gods that do not exist, and they cling to a superstitious hope of becoming fertile. Trust in Me, Abram, and your seed will form a mighty nation.”
Abram responded by building an altar and then offering an animal sacrifice of thanksgiving. Even after he continued on his journey, Canaanites who gathered at the tree of teaching would have immediately noticed his architectural contribution. The new stone altar stood as a monument to one man’s obedience to the one true God. It announced to local residents, “The God of Abram has come to Canaan.”
Abram continued south—and up in elevation—to a place that would later become significant to the nation of Israel. Today we know the place as Jerusalem. There, he constructed another altar. Like the other in Shechem, this monument expressed Abram’s devotion: “Lord, I trust You and I believe in You. I rely on You. I need You. I’m Your servant. Help me along this journey of faith so I may walk with confidence and receive the promises of Your covenant.”
History shows that the sites where Abram constructed altars to God later became major centers of Hebrew worship.
Abram’s Default Response
Having erected a second altar, Abram continued south to the Negev region, which means “dry, parched.” While in this harsh region, Abram faced his first challenge when a severe famine swept the land. The Hebrew word used in Genesis 12:10 means simply “hunger.” The cause could have been drought, diseased crops, a plague of locusts, or simply a failed harvest. This area of the world has always teetered on a delicately balanced ecology. If rains come at the wrong time, crops yield little produce.
As a newcomer, Abram may not have known how frequently food became scarce in this region. Having come from a part of the world known as the Fertile Crescent, he may have expected lush grass for his flocks along with bumper crops of wheat and barley. Compared to the land on the banks of the Euphrates, the Negev looked like a wasteland.
For Abram, this season of hunger represented a major test. The famine carried a sobering unspoken message from the Lord: “In all your praying and altar building, Abram, let Me reveal the true depth of your faith. This difficulty will show how little you trust Me to provide for your needs now that circumstances have turned against you and the only thing you find in abundance is hunger.” While God didn’t cause the famine, He certainly used it as an instrument in the development of Abram’s faith.
God doesn’t use difficult circumstances to find out what we’ll do. He already knows what the future holds. He uses tests to reveal us to ourselves!
You can expect more than one divine test in your own faith journey, but God doesn’t use difficult circumstances to find out what we’ll do. He doesn’t test us to observe our response of faith. He already knows us better than we know ourselves, and He already knows what the future holds. He uses tests to reveal us to ourselves! He often uses a test at the beginning of a lesson to show us where we need improvement. A season of learning often follows.
A divine test usually exposes what might be called our default response to crisis. Everyone has a default response when confronted with a challenge to his or her faith. It starts as a self-preservation reflex. We then learn to cultivate this natural reflex into a strength. In time, we learn to respond to stress with expert agility without even thinking. And before we know it, we have a full-blown coping mechanism that takes over, keeping us from trusting in God. For Abram, it was deception. Lying. He didn’t tell untruths to people to cheat them or to gain an unfair advantage. He fibbed to save his own skin. It seemed he had gained an ability to spin believable falsehoods in the past, and in time, he became an expert.
Abram failed his first test when he rushed down to Egypt instead of seeking God’s counsel. Until the famine, he had talked to God and built altars to memorialize his relationship with the Almighty. Once the severe famine struck, however, we hear no more prayers; we see no more altars. Rather than seeking God’s instruction, Abram made a beeline for where caravan merchants said he could find food in abundance.
F. B. Meyer describes the literary and symbolic meaning of Egypt in biblical literature. Abram’s choice of destination has far-reaching theological implications.
In the figurative language of Scripture, Egypt stands for an alliance with the world. . . . [Abraham] acted simply on his own judgment. He looked at his difficulties and became paralyzed with fear. He grasped at the first means of deliverance that suggested itself, much as a drowning man will catch at a straw. And thus, without taking counsel of his heavenly Protector, Abraham went down into Egypt.
Ah, fatal mistake! But how many make it still. They may be true children of God, and yet, in a moment of panic, they will adopt methods of delivering themselves that, to say the least, are questionable, sowing the seeds of sorrow and disaster to save themselves from some minor embarrassment. . . .
How much better would it have been for Abraham to have thrown the responsibility back on God and to have said, “You brought me here, and You must now bear the whole weight of providing for me and my family. I will stay till I clearly know what You want me to do.”
Charles R. Swindoll, Abraham: One Nomad’s Amazing Journey of Faith (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014).
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