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The Word of God For Abraham and Today

Donald J. Wiseman, O.B.E., M.A., F.S.A.

 


The Campbell Morgan Memorial Bible Lectureship, No. 11 Wednesday, 17[th] July 1959 Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Gate, London, S.W.1
[Reproduced by permission]

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Through faith also Sara...
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth…
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac... his only begotten son… accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.
Hebrews xi. 8-11, 53, 17-19.

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It is not without design that the subject of this lecture in memory of a great Bible teacher and preacher is the Word of God to Abraham, the friend of God and father of the faithful. The story of the progenitor of the Hebrew race is of special interest and importance in both the Old and New Testaments. 'it was therefore a subject close to the heart of Dr. Campbell Morgan and occupies a large place in at least three of his published works and in his exposition of the message of the Bible, whether first spoken to man in the twentieth century or in the first century A.D. in all his dealing with the ancient narrative Dr. Morgan sought to point out its application to us to-day, Also, it may not be without significance that just fifty years ago he completed a series of addresses in this place on the Patriarchs devoting, as does Scripture itself, most emphasis to the life of Abraham.

Now fifty years ago the current trend of scholarship was inclined to dismiss Abraham as an eponymous ancestor, the mythological hero of a camp-fire saga, the projection into the past of later ideologies searching for a 'founding father'. Indeed the narratives were in the main considered unreliable and lacking a historical basis. Many of these Biblical historians believed that the mature faith expressed in the Genesis account could not have been realised by one person and must therefore have been the product of some long evolutionary development in keeping with their views on the late literary composition of the text. In general they did not believe that it was possible to go back before the time of the settlement of Israel in the Promised land. It was well that Dr. Morgan confined himself to the message of the Bible and to the detail of the narrative itself and by his Bible-dominated thinking stood independant of the theories of his day, for to-day many scholars take a radically different view of this same Patriarchal Age. As a result of archaeological discoveries the life and times of Abraham as recorded in Genesis can be shown to accord perfectly well with our new knowledge of the early second millenium B.C. This conclusion has been recently described as "one of the most important contributions which archaeology has made to Old Testament studies during the last four decades."[1] Yet regrettably this increasing respect by scholars for the Bible history does not necessarily imply a full belief in the historicity of the text in the minds of many even to-day.

Our subject then is the examination of the record of Abraham's life in the light of archaeological discoveries with the purpose of furthering

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the understanding of God's message to us through the written Word. It is not, as some would suppose, the primary or necessary task of the science of archaeology to prove the accuracy of the Bible. The revelation of God to man and His dealings with him is independant of, and transcends, such a form of proof. Since His revelation is in time and place sometimes known to us by the limited enquiries of modern research the concurrence of material facts as recounted in the Old Testament, and recovered by archaeology, may reasonably result in some confirmation of the historical accuracy of the biblical narrative. That it is a justifiable use of archaeological evidence to clarify and explain the Biblical events few would deny. At the same time I would reaffirm my own belief in the wise practice of Dr. Morgan who found within Scripture itself sufficient illustration and explanation for the right understanding of the Word of God to us. Yet he embodied his own experience also when he wrote in discussing 'rightly dividing the word of truth' that "here, of course, is the place where you need all the help of all the scholarship available. There is a fine and ever growing exegetical literature for which the true student of the Word is profoundly thankful and of which he will avail himself to the utmost of his ability."[2]

Let us then examine the life of Abraham with special reference to those aspects of his life which the writer to the Hebrews noted for our following as examples of true faith in God. He gives more space in the eleventh chapter to Abraham than to any other individual in the list of 'Triumphs of Faith'. First, his obedience to the call of God - 'by taith Abraham, when he was called to go out... obeyed, and he went out not knowing whither he went' (Hebrews xi. 8). Secondly, Abraham's life as a sojourner among peoples who served other gods; 'By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents' (xi. 9); and thirdly, his family associations which involved the testing of his faith - 'by faith Abraham when he was tested, offered up Isaac...' (xi. 17-19).


I

THE CALL OF GOD

We are told that "the God of Glory appeared unto Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Harran, and said to him: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee'. Then he came out of the land of the Chaldaeans and dwelt in Harran" (Acts vii. 2-4). That this was no new interpretation by Stephen can be shown from the words of Joshua: "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, your fathers dwelt on the other side of the river (Euphrates) in old time... and I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many" (xxiv. 2-3). To Abraham, when in the land and expressing his belief in the Divine promise, the

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Lord said, "I am the Lord who brought thee out of Ur of the Chaidees, to give thee this land to inherit it" (Genesis xv. 7). The call had come by the direct word of the Lord to Abraham, 'Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father's house unto a land that I shall shew thee" (Genesis xii. 1). Abraham lived and married Sarah in Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of his grandfather, a Semite tracing his ancestry back to Shem. It was from this same civ: that we are told that 'Terah took Abram his son and Lot... and Sarai... they went forth from Ur of the Chaidees to go into the land of Canaan' (xi. 31).

For the historical setting of this first step of faith it is necessary to enquire into both the place and time of the event. From 1922-34 the joint expedition of the British Museum and University of Pennslvania, under the leadership of Sir Leonard Woolley, worked at Tell Muqayyar in Southern Iraq near the Persian Gulf and there is much evidence to locate the Biblical Ur of the Chaldees there. The same area was, from the ninth century B.C. at least, better known as Kaldu or Chaldea, and the native ruler of these 'sea-lands' founded the well-known Chaldaean dynasty of Babylon whose ruler Nebuchadnezzar was to take the faithless and covenant-breaking Judaeans into exile into these same lands from which Abraham had migrated. While this identification of Ur is generally accepted there are those who propose to locate the Ur 'of the Chaidees' further north in the district of Akkad near Babylon and Sippar. But the few references to a little known Ur in that area are contemporaneous with the better known city by the Euphrates in the South. Any historical inferences from the latter could be justly applied to these sites 150 miles to the North. Recently the idea has been revived that a trading town named Ura' (modern Urfa, classical Edessa) only 15 miles N.W. of Harran is meant.[3] Apart from the philological difficulties of equating this with the Hebrew Ur it is most unlikely that Terah, in setting out from Ur for Canaan, would first move eastwards knowing that he would have to retrace his steps. Moreover, this short distance would hardly constitute the noted movement of Terah and his family and the district was never known as Chaldea, though it came within 'Mesopotamia', a geographical term of very general use which could be applied to all the identifications proposed.

The detailed background of the history of Abraham is true to the conditions of the twentieth or nineteenth centuries B.C. but does not appear to fit the evidence of subsequent centuries as at present known. This does not mean, however, that there is complete agreement among scholars. Professors Albright and De Vaux place Abraham between 1900 and 1700 B.C.; Rowley in the eighteenth-seventeenth centuries and Cyrus Gordon as late as the Amarna Age (fourteenth century). This variance is due in part to the present uncertainty as to the precise date ot Hammurabi the principal Amorite ruler of Babylon. Here again the diversity of views, apart from Gordon's late date which has little acceptance, does not materially affect the issue. Incidentally, that much

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criticised chronologist, Archbishop Ussher, was probably not so far out in dating Abraham, from internal Biblical evidence, at c. 1996 B.C.

The political and social conditions at Ur in the period after 2500 B.C. are known from more than a hundred thousand clay tablets written in both Sumerian and the Semitic Babylonian dialects. Most have been found in Ur itself and in the neighbouring towns. It is thus possible, combined with the archaeological discoveries to reconstruct a reliable picture of the great city itself. The population at this time numbered at least a quarter of a million whose well-being depended on commerce and manufacture. Raw materials and rare luxuries were imported by ship from as far as Southern India via transhipping ports in the Persian Gulf. They brought in gold, ivory, pearls, perfumes and spices and these supplies were supplemented by the caravans from Arabia which came via Ur into Western Asia. Local fishing fleets also used the harbour, while into a separate port to the north of the city barges came laden with precious stones, stone-blocks and wood down the canals leading from the Persian hills. The city was specially renowned for its textile industry and many records survive of a firm of weavers making twelve different types or grades of cloth. The wool and flax came from the well-watered plains around the city where grazed immense herds of cattle and sheep, sometimes numbering more than three thousand to a single owner. The local market was the centre of business activity, for here in separate quarters the different trades congregated. The jewellers made ornaments and vessels of gold, silver and lead often decorating the finer objects, like musical instruments and gaming-boards, with inlays of mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli set in bitumen. We can be sure that the highly skilled arts shown by the discoveries made in the royal graves at Ur of five hundred years earlier were never wholly lost. In the noisy copper market agricultural and other implements were cast and hammered; nearby, carpenters in their booths built furniture or waggons or made the fittings for the new rows of houses going up in the suburbs. On the slipways by the harbour they built the local type of fishing boats. Leather-workers, potters, seal-engravers, and confectioners plied their skill, while all manner of merchants traded their wares in the busiest of market towns. Many houses were occupied by wealthy merchants whose correspondence, letters of credit, bills of exchange and ledgers show in detail the manner in which they controlled large workshops or factories, some privately owned, others controlled by the temple. Representatives and salesmen from Ur regularly moved along the trade routes from Ur to Persia, Elam, Turkey and Syria. The, route to Harran would be well-known and much discussed in the city. Dockets listing the travel expenses and itineraries marking the caravan stages from Babylonia to the heart of the Anatolian plateau have been recovered. The same routes as had been taken by kings of Southern Babylonia since c.2400 B.C. were followed.

The prosperity of the city as an influential trading-centre owes much to Ur-Nammu and his successors in the Third Dynasty of Ur. An

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extensive rebuilding programme concentrated on the citadel which dominated the whole city. Here he laid a solid brick platform as a foundation over the ruins of previous buildings and on it erected a temple-tower or ziggurat, three stages of which rose to one hundred and fifty feet above the street level. On the top, surrounded by terraces lined with trees, stood a blue and silver temple dedicated to Nannar, also called Suen or Sin, the moon-god and the principal deity served by many classes of priests. At the foot of this massive structure lay two temples, subsidiary shrines and administrative offices within an enclosure wall pierced by a single public entrance. The whole precinct within the oval city walls with their massive foundations of brick and buttresses gave the impression of a city with foundations whose builder and maker sought righteousness by the works he had done. The numerous building inscriptions show this to have been the aim of much of the effort and expenditure.

The temple area was itself a vast market, for here all dues to the god, as owner of much of the town and land, were paid in kind. Here too lay the 'house of the tablets' and the temple library and school. Other schools were held in ordinary private houses where boys of the higher class - freemen, priests, government officials and some merchants and landowners, or middle class - the traders, professional men and some agriculturalists - were educated. The Bible does not say that Abraham went to school but it is possible that a person of his standing did so. The scholars sat on mud-brick benches, while under the direction of monitors and tutors they learned the eight hundred complex signs needed to master the Sumerian and Old Babylonian languages, both spoken at this time, but the former, like Latin in the Middle Ages, soon to give way to the latter except for religious and legal purposes. By dictation and exercises, copies of which survive, the fundamentals of writing, reading and arithmetic were mastered before the student specialised in accounting and banking, mathematics and astronomy, botany, geology or medicine or in the religious texts among which the divination literature rook a prominent part. All students copied wisdom literature, proverbs and extracts from the great epics dealing with creation and the flood. School reports give us insight into the problems of discipline and the reaction of parents, teachers and pupils to the whole system.

Religion in Babylonia at this time was polytheism of the grossest type. The texts mention the names of at least three thousand Sumerian gods many, of course, titles of one deity. This shows, however, that more than three hundred distinct gods were worshipped. Some were found as poor idols in the little shrines situated by the wayside or in the wellbuilt, capacious and individually designed homes of the wealthy.[4] Small idols, images and ligurines (possibly the teraphim mentioned in Genesis xxxi. 19) were manufactured from clay by potters near the temple area. According to Jewish tradition Abraham's father traded in these idols and

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this polytheism was a feature of Abraham's early home life from which he revolted. His father is said to have worshipped twelve different gods, one for each month of the year. "Your fathers dwelt of old beyond the river (Euphrates), Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor; and they served other gods" (Joshua xxiv. 2). The religious ceremonies involving processions, dark rituals, superstition and temple-prostitution form a dark background to a society which Sir Leonard Woolley has described as "highly individualistic, enjoying a great measure of personal liberty, materialistic and money-making, hardworking and most appreciative of comfort and the good things of life. A society that could only exist if safeguarded by an intricate system of law and by a government that could enforce it."[5] Copies of contemporary laws, later incorporated into the famous Code of Hammurabi, were discovered in the Ur. Even if Abraham was a semi-nomad living outside the city much of this material and mental wealth would have influenced him.

Against this background the faith of Abraham shines the brighter. The call of God to him was to leave the amenities of such a city with its materialistic foundations for the hardships of the tent-life of a semi-nomad. The element of sacrifice might well be comparable to that of Moses who "chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt" (Hebrews xi. 25-20). The challenge to Abraham was in its way comparable to the call of God to us to-day to leave the amenities of our civilization for the so-called under-developed dountries.

The way the Lord led Abraham out of Ur is not specifically mentioned in Scripture. There was the direct command to go out (Genesis xii. 1) and the Divine leading out. 'I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur' (xv. 7); '1 took your father Abraham from the other side of the River and led him...' said the Lord (Joshua xxiv. 3). It may be that Abraham's circumstances were also so ordered as to facilitate the move to Harran, for about 2000 B.C. there was a great rise in the political power of the Amorites - Semitic semi-nomads who inhabited the desert borders from Syria to the Persian Gulf. These peoples, called 'Westerners' by the Babylonians, took over in Syria, the Euphrates valley and Babylonia where war had weakened the power of the principal cities. Texts from Ras Shamra, Alalah, Mari, Babylon and Hr confirm this. If Terah had not left Ur at the height of its prosperity, which is perhaps unlikely, the sudden change of fortune may have encouraged him to move with his family to an area where kindred Amorites held sway. It is of interest that at this same time the Mesopotamian name of Abram (but not of the Biblical person himself) is first found in the tablets of Babylonia (as Ab(a)ram, meaning uncertain) and later in Syria. The final form Abraham is probably a dialectical form.[6]

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THE MOVE TO HARRAN

Torah and his group would have moved by stages by the Euphrates or Tigris routes used by the commercial caravans to the city of Harran 560 miles to the North-west, by the river Balikh. Not knowing whither he went (Heb. xi. 8) does not apply to the individual stage of the journey so much as to the ultimate goal. Harran itself, now in the course of excavation, was also a centre for the worship of the Moon-god Sin and this, together with its influential market, may have occasioned Terah's choice of a stopping-place. The place (the name means 'crossroads' or 'highway') was the meeting place of many trade-routes and here would be found men from Canaan and from Babylon. The general circumstances, if not the luxury, would be reminiscent of Ur.

It is of interest that the Man letters, written in the same 'Hebrew' language as Abraham would have spoken and only a century or so later, mention places near Harran like Serug (Gen. xi. 23) to the West, Turah (Terah) and Nahor, the place to which Abraham sent for Rebekah (Gen. xxiv. 10). The identification of one name with an ancient town might be a mere coincidence but of several in the very area from which Abraham came is significant. It is, of course, not possible to say whether the names were given by the families to the places where they lived, as often in the ancient Near East, or if these were areas taken over on immigration. The Bible is clear that in this area lay Paddan Aram (Gen. xxv. 20; xxviii. 5; xxi. 20, 24) or 'the plain of the Aramaeans', the home territory of the Patriarchs where those of the family who did not emigrate stayed on and, like Laban, pastured their flocks. The family later referred to their father as 'a fugitive (refugee?) Aramaean' (Deut. xxvi. 5). It is noteworthy that the name of Abraham and later of Isaac and Jacob are never used as the names of tribes - another indication of their individual and historical nature.

The call of God to Abraham came to move from this new place of settlement to the land promised from the first as a permanent possession (cf. Gen. xi. 1), even to Canaan (Gen. xii. 15) How gracious the Lord is to call us again when we tend to settle down at each phase of life short of the final goal.


II

BY FAITH HE SOJOURNED… AS A STRANGER

Only a brief journey westwards from Harran brought seventy-five year old Abraham with his wife and nephew Lot and party across the River Euphrates. From now on he moved further and further into the promised land. This part of his experience is characterised by terms expressing constant movement 'He left...' (xii. 4), '...passed through the district of Sichem (Shechem)..,' moved on (xii. 8; xxvi. 22); journeyed or 'moved by stages' literally 'plucking up (his tent-pegs)' (Gen. xii. 9;

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xx. 1). Past Hazor and Shechem, past the Canaanite temple flourishing there at this time, he went between the towns of Bethel and Ai to the vicinity of Hebron (xii. 6), then through the Negeb ('Southland', 9) and down into Egypt (10). Then back through the Negeb by marches, to the place of the altar which he had made there 'at the first and there Abram called on the name of the Lord', (Gen. xiii. 3-4). He dwelt for a time between, but not close to, the cities of the Canaanites (the name probably means 'merchants') only to move South-westwards again into the hills to settle with Mamre, an Amorite with whom he was allied (xiv. 3) and whose name was later given to the district outside Hebron. This move into the barren hills took place when the Lord had reiterated the promise of the gift of the whole land and after Lot had chosen to move his tent into what was apparently the more prosperous and pleasant Jordan plain.

Abraham was mobile enough to pursue the defeated kings as far as Hobah, north of Damascus (xiv. 55). Then, after ten years centred at Mamre, he moved southwards to stay between Kadesh (probably the Kadesh-Barnea of the later wandering Israelites) and Shur before moving on again deep into the Philistine territory of Gerar (xx. i). After a bitter experience, reminiscent of an earlier failure in Egypt, Abraham moved a little way eastward to Beersheba (xx. 22-34). From here he made the special journey into the hills of Judah to the 'land of Moriah'. Finally he moved back into Canaanite territory to Hebron (then called Kirjath-arba) where Sarah died and, like Abraham himself later, was buried in the nearby 'field of Mamre' (xxiii. 19; xxv. 9-10). Such journeyings involved 'rising up early in the morning' - literally, 'putting the shoulder to it' or 'putting the burdens on the shoulders (of the beasts for the day's travel)'. This is characteristic of all the outstanding men of God in the Old Testament and holds a lesson for us to-day to follow their endeavour.

It will thus be seen how apt is the description of Abraham as 'taking up permanent residence in tents' (Heb. xi. 9). He moved among the polytheistic Canaanites, Philistines, Hittites and the other inhabitants settled in towns, keeping to the open country outside the cultivated fields which surrounded their villages. Since he owned sheep and cattle (literally 'flocks and herds'), donkeys and camels (xii. 16) his stopping places were near water. It may be helpful to remark here that recent archaeological discoveries provide answers to two of the much criticised aspects of this history of Abraham. It is said that Philistines were not present in Palestine until at least six centuries later. While the main occupation of 'Philistia' as such came with the Sea-peoples' invasion of c. 1200 B.C. there are now signs of their earlier movement from Cilicia via Cyprus to make settlements on the Palestinian coast as early as c. 2000 B.C. Again, it is claimed that it is an anachronism to ascribe camels to Abraham, wealthy though he might be, for such animals, we are told, were not domesticated until the eleventh century. However, inscriptions from Alalah dated about 1850 B.C. show that camels are

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included among animals given fodder there - a sure indication of their use by the semi-nomads at this earlier date.

Abraham also had numerous 'servants'; the unique Hebrew word employed in Genesis xiv. 14 (haniqim) has been found elsewhere only in one of the few inscribed clay tablets yet found in Palestine at Taanach and in Egyptian texts of this same period, the late nineteenth century, when referring to the retainers of Palestine chiefs. With three hundred and eighteen of these men, counting those supplied by his fellow Amorites, Abraham successfully pursued and defeated the retreating forces of Chedorlaomer and rescued Lot and all the booty taken from Sodom and Gomorrah.

It is of special interest that Abraham is called 'the Hebrew' at just this time when he takes decisive action in defence of his own family (xiv. 13). He is the first person in Scripture to be so designated. Now, there are more than two hundred references in contemporary texts to Habiru, an ancient and much discussed term; these enable a comparison to be made with the 'Hebrew', an allied term. A brief survey will show how fittingly Abraham is called by this name. The Habiru were not just bedouin or nomads from whom they are carefully distinguished. The earliest mention occurs in the tablets from Hr under the Third Dynasty of Ur, a time already described. Soon thereafter they are found in the documents from Mari on the Euphrates, Alalah and Ras Shamra in Syria and later in all parts of the desert borders from Egypt, Palestine (in the Amarna letters) and East of the Tigris (Nuzi). They are only named during the second millenium B.C., mainly early on, never thereafter. These men worshipped their own gods and had their own legal and social organisations. They appear as independent migrant groups and are foreigners, not native to the place where they are found at the time when the text was written. Their names show that they were drawn from different places and, possibly, peoples. Among the Habiru were persons of differing status, both the wealthy master and the poor slave. Some were employed as soldiers, messengers, scribes and others as unskilled labourers. When in sufficiently large numbers the Habiru were able to control political shifts of power and to intervene in disputes, as did Abraham between the coalition of kings against Sodom and Gomorrah. Because of this power to control the country between the towns and their consequent ability to welcome refugees, the sedentary population often viewed the Habiru with a measure of anxiety and disdain. Hence in later times the term 'Hebrew' bore a derogative sense, for many poor migrants had to resort to raiding the settled population to acquire sustenance. One of the Alalah texts of the Abrahamic period describes a ruler, Idrimi, who fled to live for seven years among the semi-nomads living in north Canaan until such time as he was, with their help, able to regain his kingdom. All these texts show that the term Habiru denotes a man or people who 'move from place to place, migrants cut off from sedentary society'. It covers the idea of 'the stranger who has left his country and crossed a frontier' or, as Professor Alt put it,

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'one who seeks a new means of existence after having lost his place in the old order of things'. The Greek text of Genesis xiv. 13 describes Abraham the Hebrew as 'the wanderer, the transient; the one who passes through'.

Abraham then is our example in faith also in that he lived as one of those 'strangers and pilgrims (exiles) on the earth' (Hebrews xi. 53). To-day we, as their spiritual successors, must confess and declare plainly that we seek a heavenly country (Heb. xi. 14, 16); that 'here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come' (xiii. 14). We are what Campbell Morgan commenting on Hebrews called 'lodgers'.


THE STRANGER IN HIS OWN LAND

Another test of faith came when Abraham moved through the land he had been promised by God as his possession. We have seen how he found the Canaanite in possession of the large cities, though archaeological surveys show that the land was now sparsely populated. Abraham himself normally avoided the Canaanite strongholds which Hazor, Shechem, Bethel, Ai have been shown by excavation to have been. He spent much of his time in the more desert southlands (the Negeb) which at this time was more inhabited than at any time until late New Testament days. The continuing explorations of Professor Nelson Glueck shows that at the time of Abraham, known technically to the archaeologists of Palestine as the Middle Bronze Age I period (c. 21st-19th centuries B.C.), the archaeological evidence is in complete accord with the Biblical records of the life and times of Abraham. Glueck tells us that after the nineteenth century B.C. 'there was a break in the history of agricultural settlement in the Negeb which lasted till the establishment of the Judaean kingdom in the tenth century B.C. The only archaeological framework into which the person and period of Abraham in the Negeb can be placed is the Middle Bronze Age I'. In the eighteenth or seventeenth centuries B.C. Abraham would have found neither settlements nor safety in the Negeb. He and his retinue would have been fair game for the wild Bedouin who tented in the Negeb and occupied all the grazing lands and particularly the springs, wells and water holes there between the eighteenth and eleventh centuries B.C.

As it was Abraham and his people found settlements where they would be welcome and where they could make reasonably long halts, and find sources of water which were shared with them by an agricultural population that accepted their coming and their sojourn among them.'[7] The life would be hard and, when famine came, the temptation must have been strong to go down to the crowded cities and to the luxuries of Egypt. There the Egyptian XII-XIIIth Dynasties of the Middle Empire (c. 2000-1780 B.C.) enjoyed what was later considered to be the golden age of their history. They traded with Palestine and Babylonia, and

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Semites from Asia are shown on the tomb paintings going down into Egypt.[8] The Egyptian kings were careful to seek the co-operation of the Semites (see xii. 16ff) and their texts show many names of Amorites in Phoenicia and Palestine. They also refer to royal marriages with 'sisters' and when the full import of this is known the nature of Abraham's action will be clearer. Abraham's main purpose in introducing Sarah as his sister may have been to invoke the special. protection which the 'sister-wife' status afforded according to the laws current in Nuzi. His aim would then have been that both he and his wife might be inviolable and that thus his family would survive.[9] It was only by gracious Divine intervention through plagues, which themselves foretold the later redemption of Israel, that Abraham escaped. But his failure had a bad influence on Lot. When strife followed increased prosperity he parted from Abraham. Lot's choice was based on material motives. 'He was', said Campbell Morgan, 'a good man who acted upon a wrong principle with disastrous results.'[10] The plain of Jordan by Jericho was a visible paradise, well-populated and prosperous. Archaeological evidence confirms this view, "well watered everywhere... like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt" (xiii. 10). Lot's sin lay in his failure to sustain the life of movement to which Abraham, and he with him, had been called. He settled down in the cities, pitching 'his tent toward (better 'near by') Sodom' (xiii. 12). Soon he was a local magistrate and governor, as is implied by 'sitting in the gate of Sodom' (xix. 1, 9), and had a house within the city-walls (xix. 3). The wickedness of Sodom was so great as to be a perpetual example for all time. The 'overthrow' of Sodom and Gomorrah was an act of Divine judgement to which the prophets like Moses (Deut. xxix. 23), Isaiah (xix. 19), Jeremiah (x/ix. 18; 1. 40), Ezekiel (xvi. 49), Amos (iv. 11) and Zephaniah (ii. 9) referred as a warning. Our Lord Himself told of this historic event (Matt. x. 15; xi. 23-24) and the Apostles took up the challenge (2 Peter ii. 6; Jude 7; Rev. xi. 8).

Abraham after communing with God now interceded on behalf of Sodom and God spared Lot, 'yet so as by fire'. As the Patriarch sat in his tent by Mamre about thirty miles away, he could have seen in the East the billowing smoke rising from the Dead Sea 'like smoke forced from a furnace' (xix. 27-28), where the earthquake ('overthrow' xix. 25, 29) was followed by the 'burning coals and fire' probably caused by the bitumen, oil and naptha gases of the area Jebel Usdum miraculously igniting as the agent of the Divine hand. The presence of bitumen deposits ('slime pits') in the Dead Sea area ('vale of Siddim') is specifically mentioned (xiv. 10).

This intercession of Abraham was not his first intervention for Sodom. Not long before this warrior of faith had rescued Lot and recovered the property of Sodom which had been carried off by Chedorlaomer and his three allies after their defeat of the Sodom and Gomorrah coalition.

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His action granted the cities of the plain a respite after twelve years of foreign domination. But this opportunity of repentance before the final overthrow, was not taken. it is worthy of note that Abraham was greatly outnumbered even if his action were interpreted as a raid aimed at rescuing prisoners in a straggling column, and the Scripture statement clearly states that it was a night battle pressed to the point of killing the hostile kings (xiv. 17).

Recent archaeological discoveries show that such coalitions of local rulers were made for specific purposes. Hammurabi claimed that he had ten such allies. It is by no means certain that the traditional identification of Amraphel of Shinar with Hammurabi of Shinar or Babylon is correct. There are at least two other contemporary Hammurabis known from the texts - the kings of Aleppo and Kurda - and one might well have claimed to rule over San'ara in Syria. It is not impossible that Hammurabi of Babylon, as an ally of the Upper Euphrates kingdom of Marl, could have penetrated so far, for there are references to contact with Hazor in Palestine at this time. Also one Mari correspondent put in a claim for a new chariot having worn his out with hard travelling to the west. However, Amraphel might equally well be the Amut-piel of the contemporary documents. The coalition of Amorites, Hittites, Hunnians and even Elamites at this period of history is by no means unlikely. Scripture does not state the size of their forces and it is not necessary to assume that the full military might of these great powers is involved. Chedorlaomer of Elam may well be a semi-nomad in the service of Elam, much as Kudurmabug of Elam, the later conqueror of Ur, now seems to be.[11] The latter's sons were certainly Semites and bore semitic names, Tidal may be a Hittite Tudhalia and Anioch a Hurrian prince named Ariukku, for such a name occurs at this period. In short the names are one of the indications of the antiquity of the history recorded in Genesis xiv. The same applies to the places along the route taken by the invading forces. Archaeology shows the occupation about 2000 B.C. of such places as Astaroth, Ham, Qiniathaim (Khibet el Qaryatain) along the road from N. Transjordan to the Red Sea.

For our present purpose it suffices to note that in this history Abraham ascribes his victory to the LORD, the Most High God (xiv. 22) and this was acknowledged by the Canaanites he had helped (xiv. 22, 19).[12] Abraham had acted alone, without any comprising Canaanites (17) and with only Amorite families with whom he dwelt (13, 24), in order that the glory might he ascribed to the Lord alone. To the Lord he had prayed for help and Abraham would accept no personal credit or reward for what was an act of faith. He was one 'who through faith subdued kingdoms... escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens' (Heb. xi. 34). This ascription surely applies to Abraham as to his successors in the life by faith.

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THE CAVE OF MACHPELAH

There is one other group with whom Abraham was in contact, and of this encounter a word must be said. For almost a hundred years Abraham had been a sojourner, most of the time in the land promised by the Lord to him and his successors for a permanent possession, yet when at the end he needed but a small plot of soil within the broad acres of the God-given territory stretching; from the River of Egypt (the Nahalmusur near Gaza) to the Great River (Euphrates), he had to buy it from a group of foreign extraction forming part of the mixed population of Palestine. How this must have tested Abraham's taith in God's promise that He had given the land to him (xv. 18).

The conventional interpretation of Abraham's purchase of the cave of Machpelah (ch. xxiii) as a burial place for Sarah emphasises the cunning of the 'sons of Heth', and of Ephron the Hittite particularly, in wresting a high price from Abraham. It is thought that the trading was the centre of the negotiations in that Abraham, requesting permission to acquire a permanent burial site, was merely offered a lease. His request for Ephron's cave by outright purchase gave the latter the opportunity to ask a very high sum after some hard bargaining common in the East.

The increased knowledge of the various laws then in force in the Near East now enables another estimate of this incident. The Hittites (whose presence at this time in Palestine has long been disputed, but of whom there is now evidence in the contemporary documents) had special regulations for the tenure of property. The acquisition of a complete, but not of a share of, property carried with it the obligation to perform certain feudal services. It would seem that Abraham, mindful of this consequence asked only for 'the cave of Machpelah which is at the edge of the field' (xxiii. 9). However, Ephron refused to divide the property and to bear the dues saying 'I will sell you the field and I will sell you the cave which is in it' (11). Abraham, faced with the necessity of acquiring all or nothing, paid the full price asked (9, 15). It is noteworthy that contemporary contracts of this time include the details of the number of trees, that payment is classified by 'the silver at current merchant valuation' which is duly weighed. In a number of documents from Nuzi passers-by are listed among the witnesses and the iransaction is proclaimed and settled at the city-gate (vv. 16-18). M. R. Lehman concludes that 'Genesis 23 is permeated with an intimate knowledge of intricate subtleties of Hittite laws and customs, correctly corresponding to the time of Abraham and fitting in with the Hittite features of the Biblical account. With the final destruction of the Hittite capital of Hattusas about 1200 B.C. these laws must have fallen into utter oblivion. This is another instance in which a late dating must be flrmly rejected. Our study again confirms the authenticity of the "background material" of the Old Testament.'[13]

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On this evidence it will be seen that Abraham's action over Machpelah was yet a further step of faith. He trusted in the promise of the Lord that the family, born through Sarah, would settle in and possess the land permanently. Moreover, there may well be in this transaction, with its implication of the responsibilities consequent upon ownership of prooertv, an illustration of the necessary duty of the people of God though strangers in the land. This is expressed in the words of Jesus Christ, 'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the. things that are God's' (Matthew xxii. 21).


III

THE TRIAL OF FAITH

Important as were all these historical events as a means of quickening and deepening the faith of Abraham there were certain incidents in his life which both tested his faith severely in those ancient days and yet serve for all time to illustrate other unchanging Divine truths. The birth and the offering up of Isaac are outstanding examples.

When Abraham left Ur, his father's house and his kindred, the promise that he would be a great nation and a great and universal blessing (xii. 2-3) seemed impossible of fulfilment. "Sarai was barren; she had no child' (xi. 30). That Abraham's desire for a son was great can be seen in his own attempts to preserve his own life in the episodes in Egypt and Gerar. Yet God graciously reiterated the promise - 'to thy seed will I give it…' (xiii. 13-16). When the Lord appeared to him after the victory over the kings in which Abraham had acted with valour and integrity saving 'I am thy exceeding great reward', Abraham's first thought was of his own childlessness and need of a son.

The importance of succession was a dominant factor in the legal and social customs of the ancient Near East. Normally the eldest son of the family was the heir. Failing a son the property owner had two courses open to him. He could acquire a son either by adoption or by a subsidiary or 'second' wife who might legally bear the son to carry on the family name. Family property was inalienable and the ancient texts are full of legal devices whereby even a buyer was artificially adopted just for the purpose of a sale or transfer of title. Where inheritance was the primary concern a man might adopt as heir either a freeborn man or a slave. By the law such an adoptee must care for the man in his old age, perform the customary funerary rites and then inherit the property to continue the family name. if, after his adoption, a true son was born to the owner the heirship would revert to him, the adoptee having a lesser share.

There would seem to be an instance of this old procedure in Genesis xv. 1-5. Abraham and Sarah, now old and perhaps anxious, had adopted Eliezer, one of their own free-born slaves, as heir. The Lord's reply to Abraham's wavering faith was a further elucidation and repetition of His original promise. "This shall not be thine heir, but he that shall come

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forth from thine own bowels shall be thine heir" (4). At the same time He' taught Abraham that, though without even a single child now, his family would be as innumerable as the stars in the heavens. Abraham believed the word of the Lord, still unrealised, and it was 'counted to him for righteousness' - a lesson Paul emphasises in stressing this essential aspect of the Christian life (Romans iv. 1-5).

To Abraham's growing faith the Lord responded with yet a further revelation, based on the already stated fact that Abraham would inherit the land, yet his seed would follow Abraham as strangers into Egypt and then return (xv. 14-17). The promises were fixed in a covenant. Now a number of covenants are known from the second millenium B.C. but all are made between men. In them the stipulations which may involve the succession aim to guard against any possible infringement or eventuality of disagreement. They are hopefully worded as enforceable 'for ever' and witnessed by numerous deities worshipped by the parties concerned in the transaction. The texts end with a list of blessings and curses promising life or death for those who keep or who break the provisions. These covenants were enacted with great ritual and ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep or animals.[14] Where the terms were imposed without discussion by a suzerain the vassal had to respond with an affirmation, as did Israel on hearing the Ten Commandments which are in covenant form (Exodus xix. 8; Deut. vi. 24-27). The implications of the curses and blessings are well shown in Joshua's speech to the people (xxiv. 16-24; xxviii). The covenant of God with Abraham. stands in sharp contrast in its uniqueness. It is made and witnessed by the Lord, the Most High God, who swears by Himself. Its provisions, all gracious, cover the physical and spiritual well-being of His chosen people. The benefits will last for ever. God will be the 'God of Abraham and of his seed after him' (xvii. 7-9, i.e. the 'God of Isaac and the God of Jacob', Exod. iii.15). The outward sign of the covenant was the mark of circumcision by which the covenant community was separated and distinguished (xvii. 14). The change of Abram's name to Abraham ('Father of Multitudes') and of Sarai's to Sarah served at the same time to remind them of the blessings yet to stem from the covenant.

This covenant was given by God at just the moment when the faith of Abraham had been further tested by the birth of Ishmael. For ten years they had been in the promised land without the son necessary to possess it. Sarai therefore urged Abram to follow the normal legal procedure frequently attested in the Old. Babylonian and Nuzi texts. The law required a wife who did not bear a son to provide her husband with someone who would. She gave him a slave girl, perhaps, because of her name, one acquired in Egypt, in the hope that the succession might not fail and the inheritance pass out of the family. The legal requirement was sometimes incorporated into marriage contracts of this time when it was clearly specified that if, subsequent to the adoption of

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an heir or to the birth of a son by a 'second' wife, the first wife should bear a son, then her son would be the true heir and successor. In that event the concubine's offspring should not be sent away but receive a share of the estate.

Sarai also acted in accordance with the common Babylonian laws in dismissing Hagar for despising her position (xvi. 4-6). It required the special act of God to bring the runaway slave-girl back to her master's house where Ishmael was born. However, after the true son Isaac had been born Sarai acted contrary to the law, as shown in these same Babylonian and Nuzi texts, when she dismissed Hagar and Ishmael in her evident desire that the latter should not share in the inheritance as was customary (xxi. 10). Abram was worried by his wife's persistence in this attitude (11), for he was acknowledged by God to be one whose character was 'to command his children and his household after him that they might keep the way of the Lord in doing justice and judgement' (xviii. 19). It therefore required a special command from God for Abraham to send Hagar and Ishneael away into the desert (xxi. 12).

This clear distinction between the status and privileges of the son of the freewoman and the son of the landwoman is used by Paul as an illustration of the spiritual as opposed to the flesh (Galatians iv. 22-31). Isaac only was the true seed distinguished by faith. He was the heir not just because of 'physical descent from Abraham and circumcision by themselves, for Ishmael had both of these. Rather it was what he possessed in addition, the election and promise of God, and a divinely-wrought, supernatural birth'.[15]

It will be clear then that to Abraham, Isaac, so miraculously born in their very old age, was a gift from God. He had been long awaited, then 'born out of due season'. Abraham's faith may well have tended to centre more on the visible expression of God's grace than on the Giver. What a tremendous test of his faith it must have been to respond to the command to take and offer as a sacrifice his beloved son. The writer to Hebrews stresses that Isaac was his 'only begotten' son. He was apparently sacrificing all his hopes, for the only way he knew whereby he could give his son to God was by death.[16] Yet Abraham deliberately obeyed. With what faith he called his act one of 'worship' knowing that even the act of sacrifice would not be the end for 'we will come again to you', he told his servants (xxii. 6). 'Faith is not blind unbelief or superstition. Faith works by reckoning on God.' Abraham was exercising true faith 'counting that God would be able to raise him up from the dead, from which he received him in a figure' (Hebrews xi. 19).

Much has been written concerning the sacrifice of first-born children in the ancient Near East, but there is no certain archaeological or literary evidence of human or child sacrifice in Mesopotamia or in Palestine at

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this time.[17] The references to the sacrifice of children in the Old Testament are later and this dire expedient was apparently only adopted by pagan rulers at moments of extreme national crisis. The action of the king of Moab who 'took his eldest son who should have reigned in his stead and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall' is an example of this obviously rare practice (2 Kings iii. 27). The exact meaning of the term 'to cause a child to pass through the fire to Moloch' is not known, though it refers to some horrible pagan practice it is not certain that this is child sacrifice. The act of Abraham, seen both in relation to contemporary thought and practice was one of great faith. The ancient view of sacrifice as a substitution was voiced in the ritual sayings already current in Abraham's day:

"The lamb is the substitute for humanity;
He has given a lamb for his life:
He has given the lamb's head for the man's head;
He has given the lamb's neck for the man's neck."

For Abraham the provision of the substitute sacrifice enabled him to receive his son 'as from the dead'. It pointed onward to the greater substitution when Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us.


IV

WRITTEN FOR OUR LEARNING

The valuable lessons of these steps of faith in the life of Abraham will be well-known to all diligent students of the Bible. Some aspects of these have already been mentioned, for it has been the aim of this brief survey of the salient points in Abraham's experience in the setting of his own time to underline the importance of the lessons for us to-day. 'The just shall live by his faith'. To-day God still calls us to forsake all others for Him. The steps of life may be unknown to us but not the final goal. As we enter into the promises of God to us we too must face the reality that we are 'strangers and pilgrims'. We are 'sojourners' always seeking for the eternal city of God, the establishment of the Kingdom of God here which should foreshadow the heavenly Jerusalem. So Abraham sought for the foundation of a real city (Jerusalem), he died never having received the promises but having seen them afar off.

We shall have learned too of those things which detract from faith. There was Abraham's desire to ensure the succession by self-effort, using methods right in the eyes of his contemporaries, through Eliezer and Hagar. Or, as in the case of Lot, we see the shortsightedness of choosing upon the basis of selfish enrichment and the absolute futility of attempted compromise with evil. God by turning 'the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and he rescued righteous

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Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked (for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority' (2 Peter ii, 6-10).

God still desires the close personal relationship with His chosen people repeatedly expressed by Him in the covenant with Abraham and his successors. 'I will walk among you and will be your God and you shall be my people' (Lev. xxvi. 12). He still desires that we may respond to Him in faith by calling upon the name of the Lord, as did Abraham (xii. 8). For this privileged relation is now extended to countless peoples 'who were once, separated from Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once afar off have been brought near in the blood of Christ... so then you are no longer strangers and sojourners but you are fellow-citizens with the saints and members of the household of God' (Ephesians ii. 12-13, 19).

In this way 'God having foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect' (Hebrews xi. 39) desires that we should look to Him in faith. Surely the study of the faith of Abraham should make us hear again the word of the living God - 'Have faith in God'. We are the true children of Abraham and share in his blessing only if we share his faith (Rom. iv. 9-12); we who are born 'not of the flesh' but 'by the Spirit', who receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. iii. 14). So may the Lord help us to understand more fully how 'these things were written aforetime for our learning' (Rom. xv. 14).


References

[1] G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology, p. 40.

[2] The Study and Teaching of the English Bible, pp.45-6.

[3] C. Gordon, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 1958, pp.28-31.

[4] See my Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology, pp. 22-23.

[5] C. L. Woolley, Abraham, p. 131-2.

[6] But see p. 17.

[7] N. Glueck in The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No. 152, 1958 p. 20.

[8] See my Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology pp. 28-29.

[9] E. A. Speiser, Orientalia XXV, p. 13.

[10] The Westminster Pulpit, Vol. 6 (1911), No. 3.

[11] So J. R. Kupper, Les Nomades en Mésopotamie, pp. 174ff.

[12] As also my Abimelech and Phichol (xxi, 22-23).

[13] Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1953. No. 129, p. 18.

[14] See my Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon, 1958, pp. 25-28; Journal of Cuneiform Studies XII, 1958, p. 125.

[15] A. M. Stibbs, God's Church, 1959, pp. 17-18.

[16] C. Morgan, The Triumphs of Faith, pp. 57ff.

[17] Most instances cited 'by archaeologists can be better explained as burials of children. Their graves are frequently found beneath the floors of private houses of this period.

Prepared for the web by Robert I. Bradshaw in July 2005. Reproduced by kind permission of Westminster Chapel, London.