Venturing into the Unknown – Genesis 11.27 – 12.4
11:27 This is the account of Terah’s family line. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milkah and Iskah. 30 Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive. 31 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 Harran, they settled there. 32 Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Harran. 12:1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household 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.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.
The story of Abram, better known as Abraham, is well known. And so, we all need to do a bit of pretending. We need to act as if we know nothing about Abram, that he is a stranger, an obscure figure that appears as if from nowhere. Because, if you’re following the Genesis narrative, Abram does appear as if from nowhere. And with his appearing, or better, with YHWH’s appearing to Abram, nothing is ever quite the same.
But who is this obscure man? Where does he come from? What makes him special? Why is he chosen? Or is he too much like us for our comfort–believing he is more special or valued than the rest of his family, his friends, his neighbors? Is Abram not really chosen but was wise enough to pay attention to the voice most of us are too preoccupied to hear?
All the reader knows is that Abram is of the lineage of someone by the name Shem, who is the father of Arphaxad, who is the father of Shelah, and the list goes on for five more generations until we reach the birth of Terah, who seems to be more important to the story than his ancestors because we learn more about Terah’s family than the other eight generations prior. Terah’s wife is unknown, or perhaps he never married. Whatever the circumstances, Terah has three children—Abram, Nahor and Haran. His youngest, Haran, dies, leaving two daughters named Milkah and Iskah and a son named Lot. No mention is made of Haran’s wife, so apparently he wasn’t married either, or his wife was just forgotten along with Terah’s. Nahor married his dead brother’s daughter, Milkah, while Abram married a woman named Sarai. We know nothing about Sarai at this point, but that seems better than what we know about Nahor’s wife, which just proves that our families aren’t as dysfunctional as we may have thought and sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.
Sometime after Haran’s death, Terah gathers up his family and journeys toward the land of Canaan. The reason for the move is unclear, the feelings of his family unknown. And as much as the reader may wish they knew more about this sudden decision, after the story about the marriage of Nahor to his niece, perhaps it is better left unsaid. All we know is that his youngest son dies and Terah leaves for Canaan. Perhaps Terah is much like you and me. Maybe he simply wanted to get away from those things that evoked memories of his dead son, which had become too painful to bear. So, rather than deal with his grief he chooses to flee. Maybe it worked. Maybe he never had to deal with his pain. But since we never truly get over our losses, maybe he died with unresolved grief that became more deep-seated the more he tried to suppress it. Or maybe the move had nothing to do with his son at all. Who can really understand these things anyway? There are times when we can’t even understand our own feelings and decisions, much less explain them anyone. As Pascal put it, “the heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”
The mystery surrounding this family broadens since nothing about the journey is disclosed, except that Terah and his family settle in Haran, a town that bears the name of his dead son and is much closer to Ur than Canaan. Did his strength give out? Did his will to go any further leave him? Did his heartache make it too painful to go on? Were his steps into the unknown so plodding that he felt like he’d journeyed across the world only to find he had barely left town? The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu was right, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” But what do you do when each step seems like you’ve ventured a thousand miles?
It seems likely that there was more to this journey than a simple change of location. But, maybe for Terah that is all it was, a change of scenery. But somehow, for one of his sons, this brief move cast a vision for the future that could not be set aside. We’ve all had moments like that, I think. We were perfectly content with where we were and with what we were doing until something shifts and a vision of another place, another possibility, another world, another life was set before us and we couldn’t get over it. A seemingly ordinary, everyday event like a handshake, a news report, a phone call, an email, a meeting, a smile, a sunrise, a song, a book, a conversation or, on a very rare occasion, perhaps even a sermon changed our lives forever for reasons that we cannot fully comprehend. Or maybe we’ve heard about these mystical moments of life and can only hope for something, anything to impart to us an experience that seems as mysterious, terrifying and wonderful as life itself.
The butterfly effect of the chaos theorists suggests that small differences in the initial condition of a system can produce drastically differing results. Perhaps Terah’s family demonstrates the validity of this concept, particularly in human systems, in which we are all fundamentally the same yet radically different. This seemingly innocuous move from Ur to Haran produced vastly different effects on this family. Terah appears content to move to Haran, where he would die at the young age of two hundred and five. Abram, on the other hand, seems to have been unsettled by this move, so much so that the idea of reaching the land of Canaan never left his vision. What the rest of the family felt we cannot say, but for these two, life was never the same. Perhaps both found new hope—one in a new life, the other in a new future.
What prompted Abram to continue the journey his father began? Why was he not content to stay with his family in Haran? The story says it was because YHWH told Abram to depart Haran and journey toward “the land that I will show you.” Did Abram hear an audible voice or just get an impression that this was what he was supposed to do? How did Abram know that it was God telling him to go? How did he know it wasn’t simply his own dreams and desires compelling him to leave? Was Abram sure this was the right decision? What would happen if he stayed? How did he know what was right, or did he? How do you and I know, or do we? Can we ever be sure we’re making the right decision? Is there only one path, one right way, one will of God for our lives and if we miss it we will forever wander through life slightly askew from what was intended? Or is everything fated to happen and we just need to get on with living because we can’t change anything anyway? Or are there many paths from which we can choose, any of which God will weave into a plan for a hope-full future?
These are questions that plague us. Did they plague Abram? Wanting to do the right thing, to make the right decision, to take the right path. The ubiquitous journey through Frost’s yellow wood when suddenly the path splits and both seem good, seem fitting, seem equal. Life is full of such decisions. How, in these moments, do we choose? If one path is right, doesn’t the other one have to be wrong? Or can both be right and one still seem better than the other? Or worse, can both be wrong and yet we still have to choose? Did Abram ask these questions or did he just go? And if he just went, how could he be so sure? Can we ever be that sure? Can we ever choose without worrying that we might have chosen poorly?
Terah was seventy when Abram was born and Abram is seventy five when he leaves Haran, which means that Abram leaves his elderly father of one hundred and forty five because of a sense of divine calling; or at least what he considered a divine calling, which makes the decision a matter of divine will regardless of whose will it is that is actually being obeyed.
One can only wonder how the rest of the family reacted to the news. Abram was, after all, the eldest child. He was supposed to be the responsible one. But, as the eldest child, he also thought his way was the best way, which is a blessing and a curse. The sense that your way is best can either lead you to great triumph, to great failure or, most often, to a promethian end in which defeat and triumph are eternally interlaced. Maybe Abram knew this, but decided that failure was better than never trying.
Haran, the youngest, had died in Ur, which meant Nahor would be responsible to care for their father when Abram left. How did he react to Abram’s decision to go on a trip to…where did he say he was going? Was there some sense of Abram being the prodigal son, going off to the far country on some wild-eyed adventure that no one, perhaps not even Abram, fully understood, while he, Nahor, was the good, responsible son who stayed at home to take care of the family? Was there bitterness that he couldn’t go? Or was there joy that he would, finally, receive his father’s attention and love and respect? Did Abram share his reasons for leaving? Did he tell his family that he was to become a great nation, to receive exalted status and to become a blessing to everyone? Or did he keep his mouth shut, as Joseph would later learn is the often wisest course of action, and simply announce his decision to leave with no explanation given? Was there even an explanation to give?
Such monumental, life changing decisions are never simple. There’s always misunderstanding and confusion, as much for the one deciding as for the one’s hearing about the decision. There’s always a conflict between duty and destiny. And what could anyone say to Abram anyway? If they’d asked him why, he could have played the “God-card,” which makes it hard to argue. After all, who are we to argue with God? How can we dare judge what someone heard or didn’t hear God say? How can you respond to such a statement? And just when you get frustrated by such a declaration, you remember the time you made the same claim, and are left to choose between a seemingly imprudent silence and an equally imprudent response.
Did God tell Terah to leave Ur? The story doesn’t say. Maybe Terah just decided he wanted to leave. Maybe God’s will was the furthest thing from Terah’s mind when he packed up his family and moved, and maybe Terah’s choice to stay or leave didn’t really matter to God. Maybe it wasn’t necessary to leave, but maybe it was. Who can say? Did God tell Abram to leave Haran? The story says God did just that. But maybe it was just Abram wanting to leave and convincing himself that it was God’s will. He was, after all, not that different from you and I, and perhaps we’ve done much the same. What we do know is that Terah’s actions put Canaan in the mind of Abram, and when God called Abram (or when Abram thought God called him) to leave for an unknown land, the land he headed toward was Canaan. Perhaps Abram headed toward Canaan because it was the only place he knew to go. Whether it was Abram’s will or God’s will, or Abram’s will becoming God’s will or God’s will transforming into Abram’s will, Canaan became the land of blessing and promise and hope toward which Abram journeyed.
There are times that we all sense that we are called to do something, and maybe we even share this sense of destiny with others. Sometimes we may even share our sense of a divine mandate or at least a divine affirmation of our decision. Yet there is still a lingering doubt as to whether it is God or just our own will projected onto God being done. And sometimes the only thing we know is that it is our will and our decision, but we tell someone about it to convince ourselves as much as the person we are telling that it is the right path to take. Whatever the circumstances, we often feel embarrassed to share what we believe God is leading us to do. After all, we’ve heard others say that God told them to do something and we had to try hard to suppress a smirk and to avoid rolling our eyes at the absurdity of the idea. We feel silly saying it. We feel silly hearing it. Why? Because somewhere deep within we wonder how anyone can be bold enough to claim to know what God would have them do. Because we envy those who feel so certain that they are choosing the right path. Because we’re surprised when someone says their decision is “God’s will,” because God’s will regarding specific decisions has never been that clear to us, and we feel a deep-seated skepticism that leads us to question and often reject the validity of such claims almost instinctively.
But maybe you’re thinking that it’s in the Bible, so I shouldn’t be asking these questions about this story. Maybe you’re right. But, setting aside the fact that it is a Bible story, if a friend of yours came to you claiming that God told him to leave his family and his elderly father to go on a journey to somewhere as yet unknown, how would you respond? Would your initial, unthinking reaction be to accept such a statement as valid? Is Abram’s claim any more believable? And does it matter if it’s believable anyway? We all wonder how we can know whether our choices and decisions are God-directed, or at the very least God-approved; and even in those rare moments when we feel confident about our decision, there is always a tinge of doubt about our own claims much less the claims of someone else.
So how do we know? How can we know? Maybe we can’t. Maybe it’s not possible to know with absolute certainty that the choice we are making is the right one. Maybe it’s part of the mystery of life that we have to make decisions without being sure. Maybe it’s part of the mystery of the divine presence in our midst that we can never be sure whether it’s our will or God’s will or a combination of the two working together that is leading us toward a decision. And sometimes, perhaps most of the time, there isn’t any more clarity or direction than this: do what you think is best and trust that your mistakes and wrong decisions are not fatal, are not final, are not irreversible and that even your worst failures can be redeemed. And who knows, maybe the decision isn’t about right or wrong, better or best, but simply a choice of which way you’d like to travel on our journey to….somewhere other than here.
There’s an old saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Perhaps this isn’t true after all. Maybe acting with good intentions is better than not acting at all. Maybe good intentions are what truly count. Maybe God isn’t always concerned that we succeed at everything we do, but cares that we strive to discover and to do what is holy and just, righteous and merciful, loving and kind. Perhaps we need less discussion about finding God’s will and more discussion about making the best decisions possible based on what we understand God’s will to be. Because maybe, on many occasions, God’s will has nothing to do with which path we choose and more about the quality of our journey down the path we have chosen. Maybe we need less people who sit and do nothing for fear of making a mistake, and more people willing to act even if it means messing up now and again. Perhaps wisdom is found in doing the best you can with what you have and what you know, trusting the rest to the mystery of the divine moving in us, through us, with us, and even in spite of us for the healing of all things. Maybe God’s will isn’t a precisely defined roadmap that we have to try and discover. Maybe God’s will is a way of life that leaves open a myriad of possible paths from which we get to choose. And maybe many, if not most, of our decisions matter little to God, in so far as God’s concern is that whatever we do, we strive toward making God’s dream for shalom present everywhere on earth as it is in the realm of the divine, wherever and whatever that realm may be. Perhaps Jesus was right: those who hunger and thirst for righteousness truly are blessed. Perhaps the hungering and thirsting after the right path is enough. Perhaps God meets us in the struggle and pronounces us blessed; not because we know the way to go, not because we always manifest justice, search for mercy and live in humility, but simply because we hunger and thirst for a way in which all things are as they ought to be.
The Bible is full of stories that leave more questions than answers, just as life is full of stories that leave more questions than answers. And maybe there are no answers to be found. Maybe there is only an everlasting choice between two roads that diverge, both of which are acceptable and good, and the decision of which to take lies more in the eye of the beholder than in a cosmic, unbending will. Perhaps the error is not made in choosing one path over another. Perhaps the error is made in standing at the crossroads afraid to decide, because maybe all the paths end up at the same place in the end. Maybe, somehow, by some unfathomable mystery, all roads lead to a land of hope and promise, and what matters is not the path we choose, but the decision to venture down a path at all. Maybe the difference is not in the end point, but in the experience one has on the journey. Perhaps that is all that matters, because whether it is God or ourselves or a combination of the two that is guiding us, I believe that all of us will discover that God can use all of our choices, however foolish or wise they may be, to good ends; and that God calls each of us by name, telling us that we are to love and bless because we are loved and blessed, and that all can be blessed through us if we will but open our eyes and our hearts and our minds to the possibility that whatever path we travel, it can and will be made holy if we will but journey toward the voice that calls and leads all of us home.