The brilliant beauty of the Bible is that the narratives of the Old Testament illuminate the issues of the New. For example, the experiences of Abraham1 strongly influenced Paul’s understanding of grace (Rom. 4; Gal. 3:6–9; 4:21–31) and, thus, Christian theology to this day.
Abraham’s call, loaded with seven blessings,2 is described as the thematic center of the Pentateuch.3 Luther thought it “one of the most important in all Holy Scripture,”4 while R. R. Reno claims it is not possible to overemphasize the importance of this call.5
Abraham was called to leave his country, kindred, and father’s house (Gen. 12:1), which is a call dramatically corresponding to the last-day call to “come out” of Babylon (Rev. 18:4), the end-time successor of Babel. Abraham responded laudably to God’s call and physically “came out” of Babel’s culture, but it took many years for Babel’s culture to come out of him; that is, for him to follow God with total commitment.
Tracing Abraham’s struggles to become free from his culture offers valuable insights into what Christians in general, and pastors in particular, need to recognize and overcome in order for them to “come out of” Babylon today. The following thoughts were birthed and learned in the crucible of sorrowful self-examination following the mistakes and pain of my personal experience.
Them versus us
Abraham’s response to his call shows his strong commitment to God compared with that of the comfort-loving, achievement-focused nations from which he came. He recognized the spiritual failure of Babel, but his determination to follow God tended to a “them versus us” mentality. This approach proved valuable when he joined forces with his Canaanite neighbors and fought the invading kings (note that one was the king of Shinar, the territory of Babel/Babylon). His victory was spectacular, retrieving his nephew Lot and the stolen booty, with notably no mention of any casualties (Gen. 14).
But a citadel approach to Christian living is counterproductive. Abraham’s famine-generated Egyptian sojourn (Gen. 12:10–20) and, even more pertinent his encounter with Abimelech, king of the Philistines (Gen. 20:1–18) demonstrate that his polarization of people into “good and bad” was not in accordance with God’s view. Abraham was afraid of the people he was living among, believing they did not fear God (v. 11) and tried to save himself by giving his wife a false identity. In Egypt, God plagued the people (Gen. 12:17) until Pharaoh recognized his appropriation of Sarah was not right and expelled Abraham from the country. Years later, when, once again, Abraham presented Sarah falsely, God spectacularly appeared to Abimelech (not Abraham) in a dream, and, unbelievably, shockingly, this heathen Philistine king became the outraged prophet of God reproving His pious servant Abraham (Gen. 20:6–13)! Abraham, the man, looked on the outward appearance of Abimelech, but God looks on the hearts of all people (1 Sam. 16:7). The same tragic “them versus us” attitude blinded Jonah’s eyes to the miraculous work God was doing with the Ninevites (Jon. 4).
Society is still polarized. The widespread popularity of sporting events strongly emphasizes the raw appeal of opposing sides, of a “them versus us” approach to life. But this is not God’s way. Abraham was, as we are, called to be a blessing, to be the instrument through which God could connect with and bless all the families on earth (Gen. 12:1–3). Paul recognized that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3:27–29), but importantly, God also made of one blood all the nations of this earth that we might all find Him (Acts 17:26, 27). Just as Abimelech the Philistine appeared to Abraham to be the least likely person to respond to God (but he did), so God’s people cannot, even while giving the most solemn warnings from God, denigrate, depreciate, or defame any person or group of people, religious, cultural, or racial.
My (call) versus our (call)
Abraham clearly understood that he was called of God. But he failed to realize his call also involved the call of his wife, Sarah (Gen. 11:30). Twice, as indicated above, he dangerously risked his wife’s life by hiding her true identity and failing to understand her call. He admitted it was a “kindness” that he asked of Sarah, and she was sufficiently devoted to her husband, and his call, to be willing to make this sacrifice (Gen. 20:12–13). Although Abraham valued his wife and her suggestions (Gen. 16:1–4), he apparently did not think she was capable of being involved in the fulfillment of the prophetic promise. He focused on himself, on the importance of his own call, to the long-term, historical detriment of his family and its relationships. Like Jonah, he reduced his vocation to his own performance.6
Like Abraham, Sarah was steeped in her Babel culture of origin. Her words, “perhaps I shall be built [or built up]” by her maid’s bearing children echo the attitude of the Tower of Babel builders.7 Further, by encouraging Abraham to use human methods to attempt to fulfill the prophecy of God, Sarah may have delayed the fulfillment of the promise by 14 years.8 Thus, it was not just Abraham who failed to recognize that his call involved Sarah.
Imagine what would happen if pastors helped congregants to understand their calls rather than have congregations merely follow pastoral plans and strategies.
What would happen if pastors were to recognize that their calls involved not just themselves but also their spouses and the congregations with which they are called to work and encouraged them to respond to their own God-given calls? In contrast to his father, Isaac responded to his wife’s infertility with prayer and was rewarded with twins (Gen. 25:19–23).
During the Middle Ages, the called kleros of God, the clergy, failed to realize that the laos, the laity, were equally called by God. What in apostolic times had been the laos kleros, the “people called,” became two distinct groups: those called by God, the clergy, and the ordinary people, the laity.9 Like Abraham and Sarah, both the clergy and the laity had a serious lack of appreciation for the value of the laity. But this had disastrous results for both of them, then and now.
Eugene Peterson has recognized the “Babel” tendency both of congregations to idolize their pastor and of him or her to provide them with, in the fashion of Aaron, golden-calf idols of their market-culture choice. Peterson noted that it is not enough to get rid of the trespasses of the morality of the second tablet of the law, but pastors must be vigilant regarding the easily camouflaged spiritual sins in the first tablet.10
A pastor must be true to his or her own calling, while ever leading the congregation to recognize their own godly vocations. A congregation does not exist to fulfill the pastor’s vocation, but the temptation to think that it does, and practice this error, is ever present. Imagine what would happen if pastors helped congregants to understand their calls rather than have congregations merely follow pastoral plans and strategies. Peterson observes how easy it is to move from managing people’s gifts for the edification of kingdom work to manipulating people’s lives for the augmentation of pastoral ego.11
My (will) versus Thy (will)
Abraham’s call was to start a prophetic movement. Through him were all the families of the earth to be blessed (Gen. 12:3). But, all too often, he tried to bring about prophetic fulfillment according to his own understanding.
In the Babel narrative, the people “expressed a naive and total confidence in what human achievement could effect,”12 and the aims of the tower builders represent an arrogant usurpation of the rights and prerogatives of God. These people wanted to demonstrate their greatness by a work of their own hands, and behind them lie the claims of the “king of Babylon” who wanted to be like the Most High (Isa. 14:4, 14).13
From the human perspective of the prophetic promise, Abraham achieved greatness when he fathered Ishmael. He had fulfilled his call. He pled with God to recognize Ishmael (Gen. 17:18–22), but this God refused to do. The call was to both Abraham and Sarah, and it would be she who would produce the prophetic son. God would not be diverted from His purpose or from the miracle that He planned to perform in the body of the aged and apparently useless-in-childbearing Sarah.
Eventually, with much rejoicing, the prophetic son was born. But there must have remained in Abraham some Babel-like hubris that God needed to deal with. Abraham’s second call, using words reminiscent of His first, “Go! Go!”—is surely one of the most emotionally heartrending passages in all Scripture. It lies at the chiastic heart of the Genesis narrative.14 Significantly, this passage contains the first use of the word “love” in Genesis, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love” (Gen. 22:2, NIV).15 Jacques Doukhan points out that there are significant passages of “silence” in this narrative, which suggest an emptying of all human hubris and total acceptance of God’s plan.16 Abraham was now willing to give up his deepest human love for God.
When Abraham submitted to divine leading and raised the knife, God revealed the planned substitute: a lamb/ram. Abraham realized that God’s provision was planned all along, that He was indeed Jehovah Jireh, the God who provides, and sees (Gen. 22:14).
For Abraham, coming out of Babel was ultimately to abandon human strategies and focus on the Lamb. How much he understood when he began his journey to Moriah, Scripture does not reveal. But that he did have faith in God, and not his own ideas, is clear. He told his servants, “Stay here . . . ; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you” (Gen. 22:5, NKJV, emphasis added). He had no plan of his own but trusted that God would somehow preserve his beloved son. And God’s plan proved to be the Lamb.
God calls pastors and other people out of the place of great human ideas and magnificent human plans. Instead, He asks for total trust in Him, with a focus on the Lamb whom He provided for their salvation. This call is not a self-affirming, polite appeal but a soul-searching, painful walk with God to the place of sacrificing our precious will, our deepest loves, even our cherished church plans for Him. Jesus called His people to leave their careworn existences, focused on human work, human achievement, and human plans, to “ ‘come [out] to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ ” (Matt. 11:28, NKJV).
In these last days, God calls us, as He called Abraham, to come out and be a blessing to all the families of the earth. This can happen only as we wait prayerfully in the upper room and receive His power, the Holy Spirit, who glorifies Jesus the Lamb (John 16:14, 15).
- For simplicity Sarah and Abraham’s full names are used throughout this paper, but it is recognized they did not receive these names from God until later in life.
- U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two: From Noah to Abraham (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964), 312.
- Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2001), 208.
- Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 6–14, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, trans. George V. Schick, vol. 2, Luthers Works (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1960), 253.
- R. R. Reno, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010), 139.
- Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 161.
- Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 237.
- Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1994), 13.
- Gordon Preece, “The Threefold Call: The Trinitarian Character of our Every Day Vocations,” in Faith Goes to Work: Reflections From the Marketplace, ed. Robert J. Banks (Washington DC: Alban Institute, 1993), 12.
- Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 81.
- Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 181.
- W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 63.
- C. Westermann, Genesis 1—11: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1984), 554.
- Elizabeth Ostring, Be a Blessing: The Theology of Work in the Narrative of Genesis (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock: 2016), 142–158.
- JoAnn Davidson, “Eschatology and Genesis 22,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 11, nos. 1–2 (2000): 243.
- Jacques Doukhan, “The Center of the Aqedah: A Study of the Literary Structure of Genesis 22:1–19,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 31, no. 1 (1993): 18–28.