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Six Reasons why Abraham is a January Role Model

Jozsef Molnar, Le voyage d’Abraham d’Ur à Canaan, 1850,  Galerie Nationale Hongroise, Budapest

With a new year, who better to look at biblically than Abraham, that Scriptural template for new starts.  His life spans 14 chapters in the book of Genesis (from 11 – 25) and weaves an extraordinary story of faithfulness, mistakes, and renewed efforts.  I’ve loved reviewing the sweeping events of this Patriarch of Israel’s life, not just because he is a key figure in the world’s three great religions –Judaism, Christianity and Islam –or even because his story launches the Bible’s ancestral narratives.

Rather, Abraham embodies timeless qualities we can model today:  flexibility, openness, willingness and especially faithfulness.  As you think about 2019 and your spiritual progress, it’s hard to aim higher than hearing and following God’s direction which requires trust and obedience, qualities that Abraham models – most of the time!

Below are six key events with lessons that yield, like interconnected threads of a tapestry, a life shaped by spiritual pursuits that grow into blessings for an entire nation.  This process of examining some of his pivotal moments has been instructive in discerning turning points that can fill a life with contribution, meaning, and influence.

Please share what these mean to you or add any of the other signposts you’ve noted in his spiritual journey that are helpful on your own.

  1. Abram, his original name, received God’s call (Gen. 12) to leave Ur in Mesopotamia–south of today’s Baghdad, Iraq—to relocate to an initially unnamed land God would provide. The unstated outcome of following this divine directive meant forfeiting his inheritance –all the animals, household possessions and land–from Terah, Abram’s father.  The fact that God promised the blessing of new land still meant turning away (as the expression goes) from ‘the bird in the hand (Ur) worth two in the bush (the promised land)’.  Attributes:  willingness, readiness, humility.
  2. Abram’s faith in God causes him to obey, a singular act so powerful that 2000 years later a young Pharisee-turned-apostle, Paul, will point to it as the model for the faith that new Christ followers (“all who believe”) will need on their spiritual journey (see Rom. 4:11). This obedience is all the more remarkable considering the promise of heirs in spite of Sarai’s barrenness, the central challenge of the Abraham saga.   Attributes:  trust, conviction, faith.
  3. Abram’s story is not just his own but a precursor to the nation of Israel’s experiences as well. In fact, God’s call in Gen. 12:1-3, is considered a ’fulcrum text’, meaning one that is central to both past and future events.  For the past, the text declares that God’s call to Abram will bless ‘all the families of the earth’, meaning those mentioned prior to Abram in Gen. 1 – 11 (Noah, his son Shem, and others).  These verses of God’s call then point forward to the rest of Genesis where the beginning story of the ‘great nation’ commences with the stories of Abraham’s heirs (Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph).  How Abraham answers God will affect all those future children, families, and tribes, although Abraham himself won’t see this.  The patriarch’s positive response to the sudden divine directive of his calling reveals more spiritual qualities. Attributes:  obedience and vision.
  4. Abraham is already in his 7th decade, not exactly the time most people call the moving van and take off!  The journey was 560 miles northwest through the Fertile Crescent, along the Euphrates River to Haran, in eastern Syria. Attributes:  grit, persistence, stamina.           
  5. Along the route of his journey, Abraham is not told where this land or final stop will be, yet he continually builds altars as an acknowledgment of his faith in this God he cannot see. How beautifully this tees up what his grandson, Jacob, will do in Gen. 35, when he too will build an altar, acknowledging the Almighty’s presence every step of the journey: “He has been with me wherever I have gone” (Gen. 35:3).  We can only imagine how Abraham and his family told the stories of such stops and how this thankfulness for God’s blessings carried to subsequent generations.  Attribute:  gratitude.
  6. When in Haran, Abram is again directed to pick up and move the family, flocks and possessions.  Now seventy-five, he is finally told that Canaan is indeed the promised land.  Yet on arrival, he discovers no milk and honey but a terrible famine, one more test for Abram’s faith.  So he heads South to Egypt in order to survive, an act later generations will imitate. Like many life journeys, Abram makes a bad decision to ensure his own survival, positioning the much-desired Sarai as his sister.  (He reasoned that if the Egyptians knew she was Abram’s wife, they would kill him and take her.)  Gen. 20:12 reveals that they actually were half-siblings.  But failing to truthfully acknowledge Sarai also as his wife enables Pharaoh to take the beautiful woman into his home, paying Abram a significant amount in servants and animals as a dowry.

What a terrible price Abram’s cowardly, self-serving actions have cost:  he loses Sarai, and she loses her honor since the ‘marriage’ with Pharaoh was no doubt consummated.  Yet in spite of Abram’s duplicity, the deceived (Pharaoh) is punished instead of the deceiver (Abram).   Although the Pharaoh experiences plagues for his involvement with Sarai, he is a model of generosity, allowing Abram and Sarai to leave Egypt with all their possessions, thus becoming an example of how God is always in charge, saving his children even when they’ve erred.   Attribute: learning from the sin of self-centeredness.

Perhaps this last episode is the nadir of the father of Israel’s life, yet it is also the precursor to what the nation of Israel will itself experience:  the ups and downs of obedience, not unlike our own lives perhaps.   This is one of the dozens of reasons the Bible continues to guide us on our journey from whatever ‘Ur’ we come from to our own ‘promised land’.

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Thanksgiving Psalms for the Season

Praise the Lord!”  And so begins one of the glorious types of Psalms (Ps. 111) from the Psalter, built on a recognition of God’s many blessings.  What a perfect time of year to consider the Thanksgiving Psalm more deeply and maybe even write your own!

David dictating the Psalms.  Codex binding in ivory, from the Treasure of Saint-Denis, France, end of 10th century.

There are many types of Psalms, but two predominate:  the praise psalm and the lament.  The former is often sung as a hymn and the latter, a lament, is a prayer.  Both types of Psalms are found applying to either individuals or whole communities.  The Thanksgiving Psalm begins where the lament leaves off– the gratitude expressed for the very thing or situation that had before seemed so insurmountable.

Thanksgiving Psalms are complements to laments because they provide concrete testimony to answered prayer.  Just as laments are cries for help during a crisis, Thanksgiving Psalms are their natural corollary because they declare:  “My prayer is answered.”

Yet Thanksgiving Psalms are more than hymns of praise because they relish the language of proclamation of what God has done and is doing for both the individual and community.

The Psalter has long served as one of the most loved portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, treasured by Jew and Christian alike, and quoted more in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. Perhaps one reason for the Psalms’ timeless appeal is that all 150 Psalms teach us how to pray, how to feel God’s presence.  They show why we can have unwavering confidence in God’s power to deliver men, women and children from every kind of evil that would intimidate, threaten or bully.

An example comes from one of my earliest childhood memories.  My mother, brother and I were shouting the 23rd Psalm together as we held hands in our Oklahoma home’s small hallway, the only room where flying glass couldn’t reach us. It was our way of remembering that God’s power is greater than any tornado funnel, including the nearby one which sounded like a freight train about to come through the house.  Not just that year but all our growing up years, we experienced protection and safety from diseases, accidents, school challenges and sports, and the Psalms were a significant part of those prayers.

Here are some Thanksgiving Psalms you might enjoy reading this season (Ps. 30, 46, 48, 66. 76, 126, 135, and 147), along with an extended portion here of Ps. 111.

*Praise the Lord!

I will thank the Lord with all my heart

as I meet with his godly people.

How amazing are the deeds of the Lord!

All who delight in him should ponder them.

Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty.

His righteousness never fails.

He causes us to remember his wonderful works.

How gracious and merciful is our Lord!

He gives food to those who fear him;

he always remembers his covenant…

All he does is just and good,

and all his commandments are trustworthy.

It is always a joy to hear from you, our thoughtful readers.  Please share how you think about these Thanksgiving Psalms, or better yet, share a verse of one you’ve penned to capture your own gratitude this beautiful season of giving thanks.

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A Surprise Lesson from Joshua

The burning bush and Red Sea parting may be some of the most well-known stories of the Hebrew Bible.  But do we realize Joshua had his own exceptional signs of God’s guiding presence?  This came to light recently while rereading Joshua.

Some quick background:  Moses had finished his role leading the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, guiding them through the wilderness for a generation.   Finally, the twelve tribes were within sight of the land Yahweh promised and, in one of the tougher parts of the Bible, Moses’ story abruptly ends.  This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there (NRSV, Deut. 34:4).

Brass serpent sculpture at top of Mt. Nebo. Photo courtesy of Travelfeatured.com

One of the special joys of traveling to Jordan is seeing this site of commemoration at Mt. Nebo.   An immense snake sculpture stands as tribute to the Hebrew lawgiver recalling one of the many ways Moses’ obedience saved his people.   As Numbers 21 relays, Moses followed God’s directive to create a brass serpent fixed on a pole for the people who had serpent bites for their disobedience.  Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!  (NLT, Num. 21:9

And now, it’s Joshua’s turn.  As second in command under Moses, we read:   Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses (NRSV, Deut. 34:9)

That ‘spirit of wisdom’ Joshua demonstrated included exceptional leadership qualities we need in today’s leaders as well:   courage, strength, humility, obedience, and single-minded focus on mission– to name just some the text cites.  Reading Joshua is a handbook in leadership development – whether in a family, school, community organization, church, business or politics.

The surprise that stood out in this reading is an event that occurs after the Jordan crossing into Canaan.  Joshua needed ‘signs’, indicators that he wasn’t alone but being guided by the unseen power the Israelites knew to be God.  The people also needed it.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses (NRSV, Joshua 3:7).  The parting of the Jordan, so similar to what they had either seen firsthand or learned from their parents’ generation, was one of those.

But now that they have crossed into a land filled with tribes and Joshua’s leadership is far from over.  Suddenly Joshua has a vision:

“…he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand… “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” 14 He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” 15 The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so (NRSV, Josh 5:13-15).

This was one of those sweet surprises that come when we’re quietly reading our Bibles.  I realized Joshua needed his own version of the burning bush Moses had seen, his own unique assurance he was never alone.  He must have heard Moses share the story of suddenly seeing a bush that wouldn’t burn and then hearing that directive voice to leave the desert and confront Pharaoh to free his people.  Joshua knew that was the beginning of Moses’ journey that would change not only the Hebrew people’s lives, but the world – with the Ten Commandments becoming the basis of Western civilization’s law codes for centuries.

Now Joshua needed his own sign, knowing his role was to clear the land of Canaan and fulfill the Biblical promise harking back to Abraham, the covenant promise of not only ancestors but of a land where they could live.  An image of someone with a sword must have been exactly what Joshua needed to boost his courage and forge ahead.

And that’s how Biblical signs continue:  precisely suited to meet our individual needs.  I hope every reader of this column has discerned at least one such sign created just for you, on which you are building your life.  Such signs have been for me, the greatest treasure and encouragement.  Reinforcement of the importance of these spiritual markers in our lives is one of the many reasons that daily Bible reading brings such appreciable joy.

Example of markers for Horner Reading Plan.

We offer a specific reading plan on the Bibleroads website.     If you’ve tried reading the Scriptures straight through, beginning in Genesis and getting bogged down around Leviticus, perhaps the Dr. Horner reading plan is also for you.  Here’s the Bible I’m reading through this year with its markers as an illustration of how simple it is to set up. Please let all of us know how you’re doing with any reading plan and what it has meant for you—especially those surprises, tailored for your unique spiritual journey just as they were for Joshua.

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Jerusalem: City of David – part 1

Jerusalem–the holy city for the world’s three monotheistic religions.  It evokes life-changing events for millions and history unparalleled for centuries with political,  religious and archaeological claims to every holy square inch.  To see it for the first time, perhaps standing on Mt. Scopus at sunset, is to have a moment forever etched in memory.

 

Byzantine mosaic map in St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan.

The city’s importance through the Byzantine period, in the 6th century CE, is tangibly seen in Madaba, Jordan.  Here a mosaic map, created to show not just locations of sites, but their importance by size, reveals Jerusalem as the center of the world.  As the photograph reveals, “The Holy City of Jerusalem” contained six gates and twenty one towers surrounded by city walls, all displayed in stunning mosaic that covers 15′ square feet of floor in the St. George Byzantine church.

Today, 3000 years later, the City of Jerusalem, working capital of the country of Israel since its founding, continues in daily news headlines as a center of political and religious controversy. Whether it is the potential relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, or the response of Palestinians to sharing their beloved city with others, Jerusalem seems anything but the city of peace.

Bible Roads will be sharing four brief videos from a recent trip to Jerusalem, each one explaining a different facet of the city.  This current vlog (video blog) highlights the Dome of the Rock, that iconic gold dome in virtually every city skyline photograph of this ancient capital city.  It serves as a sacred destination for Jews since it is thought to be the rock on which Abraham started to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  It also is thought to be the site where the holiest of holies was located for both the Temple Solomon built in the 9th century BCE, and the second Temple built after return from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE.

For Muslims, this site is a shrine — not a mosque–for those pilgrims who want to commemorate where Muhammad was supposed to have ascended, and was built in the 7th century CE.

The Dome of the Rock sits on what is known as The Temple Mount, which rises above the Kidron Valley and sits directly across from the Garden of Gethsemane.  Following his night in the garden praying, Jesus was taken to the Temple Mount where the palace of Annas, the High Priest, was located.  After his questioning, Jesus was transferred to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, nearby.   As mentioned, every square inch:   holy ground.

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Mt. Nebo and Moses’ Lessons in Obedience

If you’ve ever looked forward to something, really wanted it, strove for it but in the end didn’t realize it, you can identify with Moses as he gazed across at the Promised Land from today’s Jordan, realizing he would not enter.

This month’s video blog takes place at this special site, Mt. Nebo, the place in ancient Moab where Moses got only to preview Canaan from a distance before he died and was buried.

Did you wonder why such a faithful follower of God didn’t get to realize his dream? I did. The book of Numbers has answers, but first some context.

In that first month of the Exodus, the people had started murmuring about why Moses brought them up from Egypt only to die of thirst in the desert, their initial provisions having run out.

Anyone who has served in a position of leadership can identify with the frustration and end-of-his-rope feeling Moses must have experienced. Doing what he had always done when in trouble, the great leader turned to God for answers, retreating into the ‘tent of meeting’ constructed for the worship of God. There, Moses and Aaron experienced a theophany, a divine appearing, as recorded in Numbers 20:6, 8 –“They fell on their faces and the glory of the Lord appeared to them” (Common English Bible).    The continued instructions are clear: “You and Aaron your brother, take the staff and assemble the community. In their presence, tell the rock to provide water (vs. 8, emphasis added).”

Instead of following divine instructions, however, we learn: “Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice Numbers 20:11, emphasis added).“

It’s a subtle difference and the end result seemed not to matter: the people got their water.

But that moment of disobedience revealed far more than how water was extracted. It was about Moses either trusting God fully to obey His commands, or determining he had a better way. And in this case, that ‘better way’ appeared to be filled with anger (Moses striking the rocks), something that was completely contrary to the loving provisions that God was supplying.

Once again the Bible illustrates that the best leaders are those who follow the leadership of God.  It’s somehow a bit reassuring to realize that even history’s greatest leaders, like Moses, have their moments of doubt or ego.  Yet Moses seems to have learned a significant lesson at this early stage of the Exodus:  we don’t find another example of him choosing a way other than how God has directed him.  That is a leadership example we can all follow.

Sitting on an ancient wall at Mt. Nebo overlooking Roman milestones and the valley below where Moses is thought to have been buried. The view is tremendous!

The video blog from Mt. Nebo is an example of where the Bible’s physical geography teaches us spiritual lessons. Israel is so close, the promised land right there to enter.  Yet it wouldn’t be for Moses.   Mt. Nebo’s high ground overlooks nearby Israel, just West of the Transjordanian River Valley which serves as the border between Israel and today’s Jordan. Much of Israel spreads out before you like a vast desert carpet. Here Joshua would, as Moses’ first lieutenant, take the leadership command and begin his mission of conquering Canaan, but only after burying the great leader that had given Israel so much.

Deuteronomy sums it up: The Lord spoke to Moses that very same day:  “Hike up the Abarim mountains, to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab opposite Jericho. Take a good look at the land of Canaan, which I’m giving to the Israelites as their property.  You will die on the mountain you have hiked up, and you will be gathered to your people….You can look at the land from the other side of the river, but you won’t enter there” (Deut. 32:48-50, Common English Bible).

Another Biblical lesson in obedience.

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