I have been thinking about the way we teach a Biblical basis of Christian mission starting with God’s call and promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t root Genesis 12 in the chapters that precede it. Here I endeavor to introduce this topic. I hope to follow it up with some more articles covering specific aspects of the Genesis narrative.
Sunlight streamed through the open windows of the study center, and the shadows from fluttering spring leaves dappled the room. The air flooding in was warm in the cool morning of the classroom-cum-library. A gathering of occasional students sat with Bibles open, and pens held to notepads as they listened to the lecture.
Some were obviously attentive; others, with eyes glazed over, seemed to drift as a slight breeze ebbed and flowed. Of the nine participants in the class only four were official students. The others were all volunteers in one capacity or another. Jake, the Messianic Jew from Philadelphia, was attentive as ever, round thick-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose as he read the Genesis passage. James, the son of a vicar from the north of England, was a recent Theology graduate of Corpus Christi in Cambridge. He was now taking a year before training for ordination. Lindsay, traveling the globe together with her southern accent was from Alabama. Gabi was from Mannheim, Germany, and clearly the most bored attendee; though whether that was because of the subject or her struggles with reading Scripture in the English language remained unclear. And then there was me, taking time out to volunteer on a construction crew renovating the old hotel in an ancient city on the shore of the Mediterranean; a building that was slowly being transformed into a Christian community center.
This class was my introduction to the Biblical basis of Christian mission. The teacher was a parish priest from Northern Ireland who, together with his wife, had volunteered a year to lead this diverse community of young people. We loved them. They were warm and generous of spirit. They hosted frequent suppers for us, kept an open door, and while not always able to answer questions with facts, were quick with responses full of wisdom.
The student body, having completed an overview of Luke’s gospel were now embarked on a mission class beginning with God’s call to Abraham recorded in Genesis chapter 12:1-3:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
This was the 1980s, and my own missionary calling was being informed by the call to a man whose name would change from the exalted father Abram to Abraham, the great father of a multitude. Here I was in Jaffa, a port from where Jonah had taken ship fleeing his mission, and where centuries later Peter, had a vision that sharpened his call. Where one man rebelled against God and another was given direction, I was now being shaped.
Traveling forward through thirty years of adventures in a multitude of mission roles I revisit a moment late in the second decade of the twenty-first century. I’ve noted that Genesis chapter twelve begins with the words: The Lord ‘had’ said to Abram, and not simply: The Lord said to Abram. If the Lord said it, then surely the moment was there in the passage, but if the Lord had said it, then the moment was sometime in the past. The only way we can get to the past from Genesis chapter 12, is to turn back the page and read: Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.
The cities of Ur and Haran were located along the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the first recognizable rivers to be mentioned in the Bible, for they are referred to in the second chapter of Genesis as headwaters of the river that watered Eden. This region is known as Mesopotamia, literally between the rivers. According to those who have studied the ancient Sumerian culture of the Middle East, life was a series of cycles. The cycle of the moon, born to wax and wane and die; the cycle of the harvest from sowing through to reaping; the cycle of the flow of rivers from flood to ebbing through the dry season; and the cycle of human life, being born, growing, reproducing, and dying, governed every aspect of life.
Into this world a voice speaks, and at its command a man called Abram embarks on what has been called The Unaccountable Innovation[i]. Out of an endless cycle a journey begins. It is a journey with direction and purpose. It is as though a slingshot, whirling at a steady pace is broken by a tangential departure toward a distant target.
We can choose to view the endless cycle as a cultural origin, or we can look back beyond the last verses of Genesis chapter 11 and rediscover the foundations upon which Abram’s society was grounded, and with them, the first principles that have always been there in God’s Word, and without which, as the tedious genealogy of the chapter tells us, Abram would not have been born.
We can regard the beginning of Abram’s journey as a random embarkation from a collective to a personal narrative. Or we can look at the scattering of peoples resulting from the Tower of Babel and say that out of a shattering moment for early civilization came a call to momentous purpose for one man.
As the world of the missionary has sometimes neglected the story before the call to Abram the modern church has sometimes followed the way of the world and consigned those early chapters of Genesis to the world of myth and fantasy. We do so at our peril, and we see the fruit of that ignorance in our broken society. We do so at ever greater risk, for they are anchors for our souls.
I have heard many objections to stories contained in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Commentators have taken issue with the literality of a six-day creation; they have dismissed genealogies that ascribe hundreds of years to one man; they dismiss the possibility of a cataclysmic flood with no thought to narratives that contain an inundation in the folklore of many peoples other than those of the Bible. How often do we stop and ask not what is contained on these pages, but why is the narrative there and what is the reason for these specific stories reaching us?
Eleven chapters tell us about creation, fall, rebellion, salvation, renewed rebellion and then dispersal. But they also lay foundations for understanding a triune God, His redemptive purpose, the uniqueness of mankind, human sexuality, the purpose of work, creation care, the depravity of sin, and the relevance of geo-politics. These eleven chapters, 299 verses, and 1,946 Bible years until the birth of the man who embarks on the incredible journey are the foundation for the rest of scripture and the rest of the human story. They are the crucible in which are cast the anchors for our souls.
[i] The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill, Anchor Books, 1998, p.50