As a former Bible teacher, I discovered early on that whatever lesson I taught had to first be learned — not with just my head, but by experience. One of my favorite quotes about the subject is from Benjamin Franklin: “Experience is a hard school, but a fool will learn in no other”. That, and the one where he said, “Fish and visitors stink after three days”. But, I digress. In my case, I have to go back to that hard school for a refresher course now and again.
Since it all started with Abraham, I’ll have to give you a mini-bio about him before he got introduced to God, so don’t go to sleep. Remember, Grasshopper, the journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. But don’t panic. We’re not going that far.
To begin with, Abraham’s full and unquestioning faith in God did not come all in one fell swoop. It is doubtful Abraham had even heard of the God of his early ancestors because he was born and raised in Ur. This was the New York City of the ancient Sumerian city-states. Prosperity, art, and knowledge flourished there, probably somewhere in Iraq. It was located on a fertile plain between the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers. It was also the sacred city of the moon god, whose name varies with different languages and regions.
Abraham’s story comes many generations after the fall of the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the the descendants of Noah into various parts of the earth. From Genesis 10 through 11, the genealogy winds down and focuses on one family – the sons of Terah, one of whom was Abram. (God renamed him Abraham, so we’ll just call him that to avoid confusion. Mine.)
Terah and his family, like everybody else from those parts, were moon worshippers. This is according to Joshua (24:2) who said that their forefathers “even Terah, the father of Abraham . . . served other gods“. So we see that Abraham did not have a Baptist upbringing. Therefore, God had to have a word with him personally. That must have rocked his world, because I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts the moon god never had a heart-to heart with him.That was the beginning of Abraham’s faith, and his long relationship with the Lord God Jehovah.
From there God took Abraham on a journey. Not just a journey to the Promised Land, but a journey that took Abraham from “faith to faith” (Romans 1:17). You see, Abraham’s faith, like ours, had to grow. And maturity comes with experience. The story of Abraham is the story of his experiences, and how he climbed the steps of those experiences to the ultimate faith spoken of in “the faith chapter” in Hebrews Eleven.
The first place God took Abraham in the land of Canaan was called Shechem, where God appeared to him and told him “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:6-7). There Abraham built his first altar to God. Shechem was “a place apart” from the distractions of outside influences, and far from the world that Abraham had known. It was his place to come away from it all, and focus on God alone. No relationship grows without “a place apart” from the world’s pull. It is where Abraham, and all God’s children, find strength for the road ahead.
The next place God led Abraham was to Bethel, where he built another altar for worship. Bethel means “House of God” and was located about 12 miles north of Jerusalem. There Abraham “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8). Generations later, it was to Bethel that the Israelites went to “inquire of the Lord” after a couple of disastrous defeats (Judges 20:26-27). So the house of God was a house of prayer, where Abraham learned to talk to God. It was where, as some scholar put it, that “Abraham turned his face toward God, and his back to Ai”, a real city, but which stood as a metaphor for “the worldly place of desolation”. To look to God was life and hope, whereas Ai was a place of death and despair.
Then a famine in Canaan caused Abraham to take his beautiful wife Sarah, his self-serving nephew Lot, and all their servants and herds into Egypt to wait it out. It was also where Abraham wrestled with a moral dilemma and lost (Genesis 12:9-20). So Abraham, leaving Egypt in dishonor and defeat, went back to Bethel, back to the house of God, the house of prayer, and there he “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 13:1-4).
After this, Abraham and Lot separated, and in Hebron, his next step with God, Abraham came to know that true fellowship with God can come only after that sweet communion with Him in prayer (in the house of prayer). Since the Bible tells us that our bodies (in Christ) are the temple of the Holy Spirit, we have direct access to God in prayer. The victory of Abraham’s ascending faith at Hebron came only after he sent the worldly Lot one way, and he another. This was Abraham’s last fleshly (not of God’s spirit) connection with the world, and his former life.
Just remember, Christians are people too. God Himself helps and guides us in our life’s lessons. And everyday is an experience.
These were great lessons for me, learned from the wisdom and discernment of Bible scholars who built upon them long before me, and which I pass on to others. In this vein, I wrote my letters to God on March 17, 2008. The last of it reads:
I come to a place of strength, apart — Shechem
I come into your house in prayer — Bethel
I come into fellowship with you as the things of this life, and the desire for them, fall away — Hebron
I trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength. (Isaiah 26:4)