people in thoughtful conversation

Reflecting on Genesis 12 1-7 and 15 1-7

Often, when we read the stories about Abraham, we ask ourselves “Could I have done what Abraham did?” or “Would I have been able to do what Abraham did?” But what if we asked ourselves “What experience did Abraham have of God?” What kind of experience of God would have impelled Abraham to do what God says to do? Or, convinced Abraham, or persuaded Abraham … we might want to think about what verb we imagine applies here, too.

This seems like an important question, and also a question we might be able to think of more than one answer to. Which answers come to our minds? Why those, do we suppose, and not others? What can we learn from all that, about how we think about God, or relate to God ourselves? What can we learn from that about how we think about faith, and about acting on faith? What does that seem to be about, for us? [That is: Duty or obedience? Adventure? Self-interest? Other?]

This line of inquiry seems important. It seems like it goes to the heart of the way we often think about these stories, and the vision we ourselves have of the God who is interacting with Abraham.

[We are studying Genesis 12:1-7 and Genesis 15:1-7 for Sunday, September 4. Some notes on the text are here.] Here are a few more questions we might want to think about, or discuss:

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Do we ever get an image of Abraham when we study these stories? What is it? Where does it come from? [e.g., Western art, Sunday school books, sermons, movies … ?]

How would our picture of Abraham change, do we suppose, if we thought about some of the 75-year-old men we ourselves have known in real life? If Abraham had been like … or like … or like … ?

What do we learn from that thought experiment? About Abraham? About the way we think about the Bible?

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Do we ever think about the relationship Abraham might have had with Sarai, or with Lot, to have involved them in the story the way they become involved in it? How do we envision that? How could we envision it?

Does it make any difference how we envision those relationships? What difference?

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Do we ever think about the decisions and behaviors involved in doing what Abraham does in these stories? Have we ever known anyone in real life who has done something similar? A big move … with a lot of open-ended-ness to it … ? Or, have we ever done anything similar ourselves? Similar in what way or ways? Different in what other way, or ways?

What did we think and feel about those situations when they were happening? [For instance, if it was a friend of ours, did we support them? Or try to talk them out of it? Or think they’d lost their minds? Or … ? If it was us … what was that like for us?] What happened? What do we think and feel about those situations now? What did we learn from those stories? What did they mean for us? How have the affected our lives so far?

Does thinking about those stories change what we think is going on in the Abraham stories in any way? What way? What difference does that make to our understanding of these stories?

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Have we ever thought about the specific promises mentioned in these stories? What are the promises? What makes those specific promises … promising? Enticing? Worth pursuing? Would they entice us, or seem worth pursuing to us? Why or why not? What does that tell us about Abraham, or about God, or about their relationship, do we think?

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According to the curriculum we use, our lessons this quarter are organized and linked together by a theme of “unlikely [divine] choices” – old people, youngest sons, timid generals, etc., and by forming a kind of overview of “salvation history” – God’s dealings with God’s people from “the beginning” (more or less) through to Jesus Christ. [With Jesus Christ being dealt with in a set of lessons on Ephesians … which presumably works.] Keeping that theme in mind – “What does this story have to do with God’s dealings with God’s people?” – might be helpful, too.

This week, though, I realize I’ve gained a little more clarity about my objections to the way Bible study lessons often read “[Famous Bible Character] MUST have felt X and MUST have thought Y.” Because if we do begin to think about what a real life person, rather than an illustration in a Sunday school book, would be looking like and acting like and thinking and feeling in real life – that is, if we think about real life people we ourselves know, or are – what I think we’ll see is that it could actually be lots of ways. Lots of different ways. Because real life people are lots of different ways. It seems highly unlikely that there’s any MUST about any of it.

So taking the “must have thought … must have felt …” route doesn’t seem honest, or helpful, to me. But maybe, taking the “how could that have been … and how else … and what difference would it make how it was … ?” might teach us something. If only, something about ourselves.

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Men in conversation

Image: “The Conversation,” Arnold Lakhovsky, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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