Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What's in the Bible   Lesson 1.2  Abrahamic Covenant

This is part of my current Sunday School, which is a basic tour through the whole bible. The primary text is What's in the Bible by R. C. Sproul and Robert Wolgemuth. Most of the maps are from the Tyndale Handbook of Bible Charts and Maps

The approach here is big picture, less detail. The goal is to make you comfortable with the entire bible, so that when you look in detail at any one part you don't feel as though you're picking up a tome youv'e never read and starting in chapter 47.

I will maintain a list of links to the lessons in the left sidebar.

The Covenant with Abraham

Considering such a tiny fraction of the Bible has man enjoying an unhindered relationship with God, while the rest is about redemption and reconciliation, it is not a reach to suggest that God had fall-then-redemption paradigm in mind from the start. He was not surprised by Adam's sin. God knew that a creature made in His image would fall--in a sense God purposely made man with a susceptibility to wanting to be not just in God's image, but as God.

When, early on, the Bible turns to the theme of redemption, the central figure who emerges is Abraham. Abraham is the father of all who ultimately are redeemed. At first this is manifested in a literal bloodline--the Jews. Later his family adopts members from all races and nations.

Abraham was born somewhere around BC 1800. Before looking at his life, it is interesting to ask: what was the world like at the time Abraham was born? There is a tendency to think that not much had happened between the time of Adam and the time of Abraham. But in fact, a great deal had happened both biblically (the Noahic flood, the Tower of Babel) and in non-biblical history. So the first question, which is controversial, is how much time passed between Adam and Abraham? According to many timelines, something on the order of two thousand years passed from Adam to Abraham.

It's worthwhile to discuss the recent history of biblical timelines.

The King James translation was completed 1611. In 1642, John Lightfoot of Cambridge University analyzed genealogies to come with September 17, 3928 BC for the date the universe was created. Not to be outdone by an Englishman, eight years later James Ussher, Anglican archbishop of Ireland, corrected Lightfoot's work. He arrived at a date that would live in infamy: October 3, 4004 BC. (In a final iteration, Lightfoot corrected Ussher's correction, settling on October 18-24, 4004 BC as creation week, with Adam created at 9:00 AM on October 23.)

This date was so-ingrained in the Christians of that era that any child would recite 4004 BC as the year of creation. Ussher's timelines made it into both the marginal notes and the chapter headings of the King James Bible.

Their work ignored Hebrew scholarship. It was based, as mentioned, on biblical genealogies-even though it is well established that biblical genealogies are not chronologies. X begat (or "was the father of") Y does not always imply a one-generation relationship between the two. This both solves and creates problems. And while it is virtually meaningless in terms of the old/young earth debate, it does mean that accountings of the time since Adam roamed the earth are bound to contain errors.

On example we see is in Christ's genealogy in Matthew, where we read:
Asa was the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah. (Matt. 1:8)
which one can compare with
11 Joram his son, Ahaziah his son, Joash his son, 12 Amaziah his son, Azariah his son, Jotham his son, (1 Chron 3:11-12)
In this genealogy (Azariah is the same person as Uzziah) we see that there are three generations missing from Matthew's account, which makes Uzziah appear to be Joram’s son rather than his great-grandson. That is all fine and dandy considering Matthew's purpose was to explain Christ's Davidic (legal) bloodline. Nevertheless it calls into question the precision of Matthew’s concluding:
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the (10) deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the (11) deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. (Matt. 1:17)
I don't know a resolution to this issue, although I don't dwell on it very much. For a more striking example, we read:
Shebuel the son of Gershom, the son of Moses, was officer over the treasures. (1 Chr 26:24)
Shebuel is of the time of David, and yet Gershom is a true next-generation son of Moses (Ex. 2:22) . Thus there are 400-plus years between Gershom and his "son" Shebuel.

It is also well known that if genealogies are also chronologies then there are a whole host of additional problems, such as Noah not dying until Abraham was in his fifties. No, it is clear that the bible uses genealogies as historic flows rather than precise family trees. We all are sons of Father Abraham.

These simple examples show that we cannot place two much emphasis on derived, genealogy-based timelines. It is possible that there was much more than two thousand years between Adam and Abraham. I personally believe, based on scientific and archeological evidence, that it was on the order of 100,000 years.

Secular research indicates that by the time Abraham is on the scene, civilizations have risen and fallen. The Stone Age gave way to the Neolithic era (ca. BC 10,000 the era for which remains from the original walled city of Jericho are dated) which gave way to the Bronze Age somewhere around BC 6000. The Bronze Age is subdivided into early, middle and late. Abraham appears somewhere in the "late-middle."

By the time Israel emerged as a nation in the late thirteen century BC, civilization was already ancient. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian and Old and Middle Babylonian Cultures had already risen and fallen. Egyptian civilization, after an extended period of preeminence due to the predictability of Nile flooding, was waning. By Israel’s time, recorded Chinese history is well under way.

The picture from non-biblical history is: a great deal happened between Adam and Abraham. Or Noah and Abraham. Mankind spread about the world, civilizations rose and fell, and God waited patiently. Finally, however, God was ready for the next step in His redemptive plan: a covenant with Abraham. Why Abraham and not, say, some Indian or Chinese nomad? Who knows?--it wasn't because of Abraham's "goodness", it was because Abraham was chosen by God for God's good purpose.

One day, God spoke to Abraham (then still called Abram):
1 The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 2 "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. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Gen 12:1-3)
This agreement between God and Abraham is a covenant or a contract. Just like a modern contract, it is a legally binding document. Unlike a modern contract, which is arrived at by negotiation, this contract is unilaterally imposed by God. God is saying to Abraham, the first of the patriarchs: get up, move to a new land (1500 miles away, it turns out) and I will bless all the peoples of earth through you.

God promises three blessings to Abraham:
  1. The gift of land. This was for Abraham, who lived on a small piece of land near Hebron, but primarily for his descendents, who would inherit the entirety of the Promised Land.
  2. The father of a great nation. Although Abraham and Sarah would have only one son, the new nation of his descendents would number about 600,000.
  3. All nations will be blessed. Jesus Christ, who would bring salvation to all nations, would be a descendant of Abraham.

Patriarchal Blessing

There is one genealogy which we can reliably take as a chronology. Abraham and Sarah had one son Isaac. Isaac had two sons, one of which was Jacob. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are collectively known as the patriarchs. They were men of faith with their own human flaws--and they were privileged to be used by God as the roots of the vine.

Isaac was not Abraham's firstborn son. Abraham had a son Ishmael, through Hagar, Sarah's maid. As Abraham's firstborn, Ishmael would have inherited most of his possessions of land, tents, and livestock. God, however, had something else in mind. Ishmael would miss out on the most important inheritance: his father’s blessing:

After Abraham's death, God blessed his son Isaac (Gen 25:11a)

God would show further disregard for the "firstborn" rule; the next case was even more striking. Isaac and his wife Rebecca had twins. The blessing is passed not to the older, but to the younger. Even stranger, by all accounts the older (Esau) was the "good" boy, a man's man who worked hard, while the younger (Jacob) was a mama's boy, and something of a liar and a cheat--in fact Jacob conspired with his mother to steal the blessing by deceit! Nevertheless, in one of the most striking passages that display God's sovereignty, we read:
10Not only that, but Rebecca's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls—she was told, "The older will serve the younger." 13Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." 14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy (Rom 9:10-16)
Jacob receives the blessing when by every human standard we feel that he should be cursed. But God has His purpose, and part of it is to show, once again, his sovereignty when it comes to salvation. For Jacob is converted not because he seeks God, but because God found him, wrestled him, and made him say uncle:
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." 27 The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. 28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." 28 Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." (Gen 32:24-30)
The Patriarchal blessing was passed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob. Most amazingly, we inherit this same blessing. Like the patriarchs, we do not receive this blessing because we are good. We just receive it, because.

Next: Moses, Moses, Moses

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