In June of this year many were stunned and saddened to learn of the death of Anthony Bourdain – a world-renowned chef, author and host of the hit cable TV show, Parts Unknown. This wildly popular television ‘reality’ series chronicled Bourdain’s treks to exotic, sometimes extremely remote places few had ever seen.
But the truth of the matter is that on these reality shows, when the adventure is over, and the cameras and equipment have been packed away, the stars get to go home. But try for a moment to imagine what would happen if the star of such a show discovered that he would have to remain in the last of these far-flung places for the rest of his life!
Now rewind 4,000 years. We meet a man named Avram (Abram) who lives in the major Mesopotamian city of Ur. Most of the world at this time is polytheistic, and the people of Ur are no exception. But in the midst of such theological confusion, Avram believes in the One true God, who is present everywhere, is all-powerful, and infinitely wise. This God instructs Avram to leave the land of his ancestry for parts unknown (or, at least, unspecified), informing him that he is never to return.
This was something all but unheard of at that time. In the modern era, people think nothing of relocating to other parts of the country, or even to other countries, for the sake of their career. After all, you can always fly home to visit the family. But in the ancient world, the idea of picking up and moving away from one’s ancestral home was almost unthinkable.
This week’s parasha is entitled Lech L’cha which is translated, “Go forth!” and spans Genesis chapters 12 through 17. The focus is on Avram (whose name God will later change to Avraham) – the father not only of the Jewish people, but in a real way the father in the faith to all who follow Yeshua the Messiah. Just as Noah was a singularly righteous man in his generation, so too Avram had a very real and close relationship with God.
What made this one man so different? In a word: obedience. Chapter 12 opens with God telling Avram: “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”
The journey had actually begun a generation earlier with his father, Terah. We are not told why Terah left Ur of the Chaldees. What we do know is that he intended to bring his family to Canaan, but got only as far as Haran (11:31), where he settled. Even that journey was considerable – nearly 550 miles on foot… or camel.
Notice there’s a three-fold aspect to God’s command to Avram to depart: Leave your country, your people and your father’s household. It moves from the general to the specific, from the public sphere to the very personal. He didn’t just leave the great city of Ur, but he was leaving his people, the Chaldeans, and the culture in which he’d grown up. And not only his people, but the household of his father.
I’m guessing that had to be difficult emotionally! It is in our nature to hold on to what is familiar. We tend to fear the unknown. Avram had remained those years in Haran with his father, Terah, as is fitting for a son. When Avram was 75, his father passed away (at age 205), and now Adonai summons him to leave. But included with that command are a series of remarkable promises.
- “I will make you into a great nation”
- “I will bless you, and I will make your name great” (honor, renown)
- “I will bless those who bless you”
- “The one who curses you I will curse”
- “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”
Do you remember how in the previous parasha, Noah spoke a blessing over Japheth, saying, “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem.” The implication of that prophecy was that blessing would come to many nations (represented by Japheth) through the covering and provision made through Shem (the Jewish people). Now, in chapter 12, that blessing is more narrowly focused, so that it will come through the ancestral line of one particular Shemite: Avraham. And verse four holds the key to that trans-generational, worldwide blessing.
So Avram left, as the Lord had told him;
That’s it – right there! If you want to know what was so special about Avraham, it’s summed up in one word: obedience. God said, “Leave,” and Avram got up and left. Command and comply. No questioning of orders; no protest; no plea of extenuating circumstances. He simply did what Adonai told him to do.
If you get just one thing out of this parasha, indeed out of the entire life of Abraham, let it be obedience. Do the things Adonai tells you to do. Don’t do the things Adonai tells you not to do. And for the most part He’s already told you what He wants you to do and what He doesn’t want you to do. It’s right here in the Scriptures.
Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.
Avram departed in obedience to God’s command – at age 75! So much for the excuse that someone is ‘too old’ to change. I think it is super encouraging when older people are willing to courageously part ways with the majority for the sake of following the truth! I’m reminded of Psalm 92, where it says, The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree, he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green. Maybe there’s somebody who’s listening in to this message who has been sitting on the fence; you know deep down that Jesus really is the Messiah, but you’re afraid of the repercussions if you declare yourself a believer. Let me urge you to follow the example of Avraham and be obedient to God, no matter what the majority says.
Avram set out for parts unknown, but firmly trusting in God, and taking with him his nephew, Lot. Lot was the son of Haran, Avram’s older brother. Haran had died many years earlier in Ur of the Chaldees.
Verse 5 says, Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew, and all their possessions which they had accumulated, and the persons which they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan; thus they came to the land of Canaan.
We tend to think of Avram traveling with Sarai and Lot and a few people, but that isn’t correct. He represented an enormous company of people; at least several hundred, and probably well more than that. We’ll revisit that in chapter fourteen.
A famine in the land forces them to sojourn for a period of time in Egypt. But a crisis ensues. In order to avoid potential conflict over his wife Sarai, who is described as ‘beautiful’ (probably referring to her regal manner of dress rather than her looks), Avram lies to Pharaoh, saying that Sarai is his sister. When the truth comes out, Avram and Sarai are promptly escorted out of town! It wouldn’t be the last time they tried to manipulate events instead of simply trusting in God.
In chapter 14, the family journeys to the Negev, at which point it becomes apparent to Avram and Lot that their flocks are far too numerous to occupy the same pastureland. Rather than quarrel over it, Avram suggests that he and Lot part ways, giving Lot first choice of which direction he prefers. Lot had taken a fancy to the (then) lush Jordan valley to the east, and so he chooses to settle in the vicinity of Sodom – described here in Genesis as ‘an exceedingly wicked city’.
Chapter 14 chronicles a war between the nine kings of that region. In the midst of the conflict, Lot is taken captive. When word of this comes to Avram, he sets out with 318 trained fighters, all of whom we are told had been born in his household, in order to rescue his nephew.
Think about this: if Avram had his own trained army of 318 men, how many people must have been in his household? My guess is that with all their wives, children and if we consider that there would have been other men who weren’t soldiers, we’re easily looking at a thousand or more people. I can just imagine seeing the caravan from miles away.
There’s something else to consider with that number: 318. It’s a very specific number. Like the 153 fish caught in the net after Yeshua’s resurrection, a specific and unexaggerated number like 318 reflects accurate and literal chronicling of an event, as opposed to the kinds of inflated numbers and hyperbolic descriptions that characterize mythology. Genesis is a reliably historical document.
By the way, I was always curious whether the number 318 had significance in the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters. I don’t generally delve into gematria, but in this case you might find it interesting to know that 318 corresponds to two Hebrew words/names. It can translate to the verb yashuv – meaning “he returns”; perhaps a sign that God would make Avram victorious in battle. And, it also corresponds to the Hebrew names Eliezer (“my God is a help”) or Azriel (“the help of God”) which would also point to God being with Avram and his soldiers, to give them victory. And that’s what happened. Avram quickly and thoroughly defeated those who had taken Lot and rescued his nephew.
Returning from battle, Avram is met by two kings, and presented with two very different, conflicting offers. In this moment he will make an important choice, the effects of which will reverberate across all of history. Bera, the king of Sodom, offers him riches – the spoils of the war, in exchange for an alliance. Avram flatly rejects that offer. He wants nothing to do with Sodom or its king. Next, Malki-tzedek (which means ‘King of Righteousness’), the king of Salem, who we are told is also a priest and a fellow worshiper of the one true God, offers him bread and wine. Avram gladly accepts, choosing to identify with Malki-tzedek rather than make an unholy alliance with Sodom. He even pays Malki-tzedek a tithe.
Many people wonder whether Malki-tzedek was actually Yeshua in a pre-incarnate appearance. It’s possible, but I think it more likely that he was simply a fellow righteous monotheist. The writer of The Letter to the Messianic Jews (Hebrews) points out that we don’t know anything about Malki-tzedek’s father or mother or family line, so like Messiah Yeshua, his origin is a bit of a mystery. Add to that his name, King of Righteousness, and it makes for great speculation – but only that.
In chapter 15 and again in chapter 17, God promises a son to Avram, who is nearly 100 years old and thus far childless – even telling him in advance to name his son Yitzchak – Isaac, which means ‘laughter’. Both he and Sarai, at different times, would laugh when they heard this news. But Adonai wasn’t pulling his leg; He meant it, and went so far as to seal the promise with a covenant. But Avram gets even more than he bargained for, as the Lord shows him the future – declaring that his descendants will be enslaved for 400 years in a foreign country, after which they will return to Canaan, and take possession of the land.
Chapter 16 is an object lesson on so many levels. Sarai, now almost 90 years old, and impatient at not having any children, convinces Avram to take her handmaid, Hagar, as a concubine, in order to bear children to Sarai by proxy. Avram goes along with the plan, and the result is Ishmael… and the further result would be generations of unremitting strife between Ishmael’s descendants and the descendants of their not-yet-conceived son, Isaac.
At the risk of stating the obvious, can I just say it: God doesn’t need you to help Him fulfill His promises. There’s a sign you’ll sometimes see in an automotive or motorcycle repair shop:
Regular hourly rate: $75
If you watch and ask questions: $100
If you offer advice: $150
If we are fixing your ‘repair’: $200
If it’s true that “those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength,” then I suggest that those who will not wait upon the Lord will renew tzuris – troubles for themselves. Usually when people try to ‘help’ God, embarrassment follows, and more often than not, the situation is made worse.
Finally, in chapter 17 God tells Avram, who is now 99 years old and still without a child by Sarai, that his name is to be changed to Avraham, meaning, ‘father of a multitude’. Likewise, Sarai’s name is to be changed to Sarah. Each acquires the addition of a letter into their name, possibly from the first letter of the Hebrew word (hamon – “multitude”) since God promises each of them that multitudes of peoples will descend from them. Avraham is still skeptical that he and Sarah, at their advanced ages, could have a son together, and he suggests that Ishmael be the heir. God promises that Ishmael will also be blessed and become a great nation, but that His covenant will continue through Isaac – a child to be conceived by miracle.
And it is at this pivotal time that Avraham is given the physical sign of the covenant: circumcision. Adonai commands that every one of Abraham’s male descendants, for all generations to come, be circumcised on the 8th day following his birth. Covenant ceremonies always involved blood. For example, when you read in Genesis 15:18 that God made a covenant with Abraham, you should know that the Hebrew word for ‘made’ is karat, which is actually translated ‘cut’. God cut a covenant with him.
Once again, Avraham did what God told him to do. He had himself circumcised, and circumcised every male in his home, according to the command. This wasn’t an easy thing. But being a true follower of the God of Israel isn’t for the faint of heart. Avraham’s courage and resolve matched his obedience.
Concerning the ‘cutting’ of covenants, and the necessity of blood, it was this very question that propelled Stan Telchin, a wealthy Jewish insurance salesman, to come to faith in Yeshua. Having studied these things extensively, he asked himself, “If circumcision was the ‘cutting’ on man’s end, where was the ‘cutting’ on God’s end?” Then it suddenly dawned on him – he envisioned Yeshua dying, shedding His own blood, much like the innocent animals sacrificed at the mizbeach (altar) of the Temple. Abraham’s sons would be cut as a token. God’s Son would be cut in the ultimate way. This, in fact, is how all the families of the Earth would be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:3) – by the atoning death and glorious resurrection of the greatest of his descendants: Yeshua the Messiah.
There was a couple who had problems trying to get their son to clean his room (they certainly weren’t alone, right?). It was so frustrating; the son would always agree to tidy up, but then wouldn’t follow through.
After high school the young man joined the Marine Corps. When he came home for leave after basic training, his father asked him what he had learned in the service.
“Dad,” he said. “I learned what ‘now’ means.”
Parashat Lech L’cha is filled with real history and with wise instruction. But as we bring this morning’s message to a close, I want to stress just one thing: Abraham’s obedience. He is the quintessential example of what a believer’s life should look like. He wasn’t perfect; in fact, far from it – but this man genuinely believed God’s promises, and he did what God told him to do.
Do you have the faith of Abraham? Do you have the obedience of Abraham? Do you have the courage of Abraham to journey wherever God leads you, even to parts unknown? Your destiny, and the legacy you leave behind you, depend on your willingness to go where He sends you, do what He tells you, and trust Him for the outcome.
Lord God of Israel, help me to walk in the footsteps of Avraham. I confess that too often I have been cowardly, too often I have been disobedient, and too often I have been anxious when I could have just trusted You. Please help me, Heavenly Father, to learn from, and imitate Father Abraham, b’shem Yeshua.