My father Abram was a giant of a man. He managed to move his business wealth from Ur across a thousand miles of hostile territory between the Tigris and the Euphrates. He then became a very successful rancher, and brought his herds of camels, donkeys, sheep and goats, and cattle another thousand miles down into Egypt (12:9-10). By the time our family had moved back and settled by the Oaks of Mamre (13:1-2, 18, present day Hebron) he was a very rich man (13:2).
To protect this vast wealth he needed a private army of highly trained warriors (14:14). I used to go on parade with them, and they would often describe his incredible courage and military skill. "There was the raid against an invading army led by four northern kings (14:1-2). They already were on their way back up the Jordan valley loaded with booty. But Abram took 318 of us (14:14) on a hundred and twenty mile forced march through the hills west of the Jordan. Then he divided us into two groups, and in a brilliant night attack we routed the huge army and pursued them to the north of Damascus"(14:15).
My father was also incredibly generous. He had a nephew who was my cousin Lot. His father Haran had died before the family left Ur (11:27-28). They named the town of Haran in memory of him. Lot was never much good, but my father brought him along on all his journeys and protected him like a son. My mother Sarai told me "When our family settled in the area of the Oaks of Mamre Abraham had given your cousin enough gold to last a lifetime and big herds of livestock. But his herders kept up a running battle with ours. Finally your father God gave him a choice of either the rocky hills where we lived or the lush Jordan valley below. Naturally Lot chose the rich cities of the plain, and set up his tent on the outskirts of the notoriously wicked city of Sodom" (13:5-13).
But that was not all. I discovered that the night attack my father's warriers had described was to save my wretched cousin. In the confusion of the rout Abram personally found Lot and his family members, and escorted them back with all their goods to the campsite outside Sodom (14:16). He also returned all the booty and prisoner taken from the king of that city (14:21-24).
The last straw was when Sodom and Gomorah were destroyed. There had been earthquakes and rumblings when I saw my father running to wash the feet of three strangers (18:1-4). He told my mother to cook bread and cakes, and he hurried off to get our best calf sacrificed so he could feed the visitors a sumptuous meal. I saw Abram standing outside our tent under a tree while they ate (18:5-8).
After the meal the visitors wanted to talk to my parents, so I disappeared to get myself something to eat. Then I saw the three men moving in the direction of the rumblings coming up from the area of Sodom (18:22). When I came back to ask my father what had happened, I was astonished to hear him talking to the Lord God. He was pleading for the city of Sodom. The Lord told him he would not destroy the city if he found fifty righteous people there. Abraham asked whether forty would be sufficient, then thirty, then twenty, then ten (18:22-32). I had never imagined you could bargain with God like that. But then my father was certainly familiar with the Lord.
And it amazed me that he cared so much for my cousin, who had behaved so badly in everything he did.
Obviously there were not even ten righteous people in the city, but in answer to Abram's pleading for the life of his nephew, Lot was visited by two angels who stayed with him that night (19:1-3). I won't describe the enormity of what happened (19:4-11). But the next morning the angels forced him to leave the city just before the city came to a fiery end. He escaped by the skin of his teeth with his two daughters, but Lot's wife looked back and got covered with a mound of molten salt and sulphur (19:14-26). I will come back to describe how Lot and his descendants eventually became Arabs in a later chapter.
But first I want to illustrate the strange powerful faith that moved my father.
When I had asked Sarai why our family moved into Canaanite territory she said "He thought God told him to come to this God-forsaken place." Finally I got an opportunity to ask Abram what God had actually said, and he recited word for word the prophecy he had received. He did not explain what it meant, but it obviously referred to a land, a people, and to all nations.
"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 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. 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" (12:1-4. This prophecy was repeated to Isaac in 26:3-4, to Jacob in 28:13-14).
I had to agree with Sarai that the land (12:1) God had chosen for us was a string of barren rocky hills. And the Canaanite inhabitants were the pits. But Abraham insisted God was not in a hurry. The Lord had explained to him that "the iniquity of the Amorites (Canaanites) was not yet complete" (15:16). It would take four hundred years before the land was ready to receive us, or rather we were ready to care for it (15:13).
My mother wanted to know why we couldn't have waited in Haran till things were ready? Abram thought we would need to learn the horrors of slavery and oppression in Egypt (15:13). That did not appeal to her one bit.
I liked the idea of the second strand of the prophecy. We were to become a great nation. (12:2). But there was not much sign of that happening. At the age of thirteen I was the only son of Abram and Sarai. And she was already ninety, far too old to have children of her own.
More mysterious was the third part of the prophecy. "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (13:3). What did that mean? My mother could see Sumerians being favored by God, but there was no way those arrogant Japhetities and the hated Hamites deserved anything. Abram thought our function was to make the blessing of faith in the Lord known to all peoples of the world. But I could see he had been shaken by the obvious anger of Sarai's disappointment in how things were working out.
As usual when he faced any difficult situation, he went out alone to pray. When he came back he said the Lord had appeared to him.. "What did he say?" As if in a trance Abram intoned "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous. As for me, this is my covenant with you: you shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram (exalted ancestor), but your name shall be Abraham (ancestor of a multitude); for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generation, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you" (17:1-7).
That seemed a wonderful promise, and I could see it had restored his confidence in our future destiny. But when he talked about circumcising my penis as a sign of this I thought he was going too far. "This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise (cut around) the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you" (17:10-11).
Sarai thought this would be dangerous, unhygienic, and terribly painful. But Abraham immediately called all the male slaves born in our family, and lined us up for the awesome ritual (17:26). Our family doctor objected, but my father told him to get on with it. Abraham had the awesome courage to be done first, and I followed. And like him I refused to wince or moan from the pain. If any tribe had attacked us during the next week we would have been dog meat.
As our wounds healed we lay on beds next to each other, and we had time to talk. He told me he had to share with me what God had said after he had ordered us to be circumcised. "As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her and she shall give rise to nations, kings of peoples shall come from her" (17:15-16).
Hagar was standing by waiting on us, and I saw her face drop. But I liked the idea of having a baby brother, though I began to wonder what my position would be. Abraham tried to reassure us. He said he had pleaded with God for me to continue as heir of the family line, but God said "No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation" (17:19-20).
In a flash I saw that circumcision was the sign of the covenant God had made with Abraham. But it would work out in two distinct nations. My circumcision was the promise of being the ancestor of a people as "exceedingly numerous" as the stars I could count in the sky (15:5). They would include a vast Arab (the word means desert dweller) people led by twelve Sheikhs descended from my own line (17:20). But when Isaac was circumcised it would be a sign his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, and his offspring would live in it.
That suited me rather well. Like my mother, I hated the land we were living in. When Sarah heard about this arrangement, she wasn't pleased. But she decided that having a child of her own far outweighed the horror of putting up with the Canaanites and their terrible land.
The next day a devastating surprise awaited me. Till the age of fourteen I had assumed that Hagar was our slave and Sarai was my mother.
A note on the covenant with Abraham : The three strands concerned
the land of Canaan, a vast number of people, and a promise of blessing
for all nations (Genesis 12:1-3). In the interpretative model used
for this story the Jewish people would define themselves by their promised
land. Arabs would define themselves as a brotherhood of desert people.
And Christians would view themselves as making the faith blessing of Abraham
known among all nations (Romans 4:12, Galatians 3:6-9, 14, 29).
Chapter 3 .....