Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
In his now classic work, God: A Biography, Ancient Near Eastern scholar Jack Miles offers a developmental reading of the character of God in the Bible. Taking seriously the characterization and chronology of the narrative, God, Miles says, has never been god for anyone before. His potency notwithstanding, God’s lack of experience will manifest itself strikingly in the opening chapters of Genesis, as he struggles to deal with his surprisingly non-compliant creatures who thwart his plans and subvert his intentions at every turn. First, the couple placed in the garden could not live within its basic limits. When cast out of the garden, the family did not learn its lesson, but set upon one another, one child killing his brother. The consequence given to the murderer this time also does not work. Having already lost the idyllic garden through disobedience, the sibling slayer is marked and condemned to live as a nomad. Yet the creatures do not learn from this experience any more than they had from their previous punishment, and therefore violence spread from the first family outward over the whole earth.
In exasperation, God himself becomes violent, reverting the creation to its watery, chaotic, pre-Adamic state, in hopes that a fresh start might yield a different outcome. This time, however, discontented and unsatisfied with their place in the order of things, the creatures collectively decide to build a tower to the heavens in quest of becoming like their creator. Having recoiled in horror at the ferocity of his own wrath in the Flood, and having vowed never again to bring such devastation upon the creation, God foils the schemes of humankind by confounding their ability to understand one another, thus scattering them to follow their own paths alone.
Genesis 12, the Old Testament reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the Second Sunday in Lent (Year B) harks for Miles a decisive shift in the orientation of God to the creation. Having tried twice before to work with humanity on a macro level, attempting to guide their affairs collectively, God instead decides that this time he will invest his time and energy in developing a relationship with a single family, and through that family to bless everyone else.
The journeying motif as a characteristic act of biblical faith has many examples. Abram’s journey to Canaan will be followed later by Jacob and his children traveling to Egypt to find food security, and the children of Israel will reverse that journey 400 years later as they throw off the shackles of servitude and head for the Promised Land. Judah will lose that same land and will be carted off in the exile, from which it will return three generations later. In the New Testament, the birth of Jesus will involve a journey for his parents, both to Bethlehem before his nativity (Luke) and after with his parents down into Egypt (Matthew). The gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as symbolically re-enacting the wilderness sojourn of the children of Israel as Jesus moves towards the culmination of his ministry in Jerusalem. After his crucifixion, it is at the end of a journey to Emmaus that those who had walked with the Risen Christ recognized him. And in Acts, Paul, like Jesus, is repeatedly engaged in long journeys to the far-flung corners of the empire following God’s leading to carry the Good News to the Gentiles.
The overarching lesson which pervades the scripture is that following this God, who comes as uncontrollable Wind in both testaments (ruach and pneuma), requires a kind of unsettled, at times rootless, way of life characterized by detachment from people, places, and things upon which we might otherwise be dependent.
Commitment to that manner of living thus carries with it the requirement that we adopt the identity of what is referred to in biblical terms as “the stranger” or, as we might put it today, the immigrant, which is precisely what Abram is called to be in Genesis 12. It is difficult in the Information Age to imagine the position of Abram when God called him to leave kin and country. In thirty seconds, anybody can go online and get a street view of virtually any address in a major city and a bird’s eye view of even the remotest corners of the planet. We can get 500 customer reviews of the most pathetic fleabag motel or unsanitary diner. Anywhere you can go, somebody has already been there and has left their thoughts about it for posterity. No one ever need venture to any location without being armed with mass quantities of data.
Abram has none of this, and the reader’s awareness of his situation seems designed to elicit two responses. First of all, as a model of the willing servant of God, Abram’s example of detachment and obedience summons the reader to emulate his example. Indeed, he will become the very paradigm in scripture for faith in God because of his openness to a summons out of his familiar surroundings, believing himself to be safe, wherever he was going, in the care of the Summoner. This is the most familiar application of the episode, with which anyone who has ever heard it will already be familiar.
Less well-recognized is the second response that Abram’s calling seems intended to elicit in the reader: empathy towards Abram’s situation. Put differently, the first reaction of the reader to Abram’s calling, “That’s supposed to be me,” gives way to the second realization, which is “That COULD be me.” And it is in imagining the fear and anxiety normally attendant to leaving everyone and everything behind that the seed is planted in the reader’s heart for concern for real-life strangers. In case the plight of strangers is missed the narrative will reinforce the point more bluntly just a few chapters hence in the tale of the strangers who show up in Sodom. Being a stranger can quickly land you in mortal danger unless the ethics of the community provides the means to reduce the fear that comes from the appearance of difference in its midst.
It seems to me that the challenge of the stranger in our midst is more pressing than it has been in perhaps a long time. In the US, we have faced several substantial waves of immigrants over the last 250 years, which have precipitated periods of social upheaval. Confronting difference is hard work and too often it’s simply easier to resist it. We are in a period, once again, during which many strangers have crossed our borders, with many more at the gates. The US shares this situation with European countries, as the vast populations of the Southern Hemisphere are now moving towards the prosperity of those of us in the north. In the US, this wave of immigration is more troubling for our society. In the past, whether they were Irish or Italian or Polish or Jewish, for the most part, at least these people looked like “us”, and, more importantly, they were often willing to shuck off their previous identity and adopt what we considered the generic, white American one. The result was that, in a generation, the differences between us would be erased.
That’s not happening in the current situation. These folks don’t look like white America and they aren’t particularly interested in becoming like us, but rather seem determined to hold onto their differences. A similar situation developed in the immigration of Chinese workers in the 19th century who came here to work on the railroad. They could be funneled into one part of town, thus containing their differences. But these immigrants want to live where they please. They want to send their kids to our neighborhood schools. And they want to be catered to—”Para continuar en Español, marque número dos por favor.” We fear that they want our stuff and that they want us to change to adapt to them, rather than the other way around.
Abram’s immigration thus has something important to say to those of us who might feel that our space and culture are being ‘invaded’ by all these strangers. The community of faith sprang from the faith of a stranger who was following God. When he came to his new place. He did not assimilate, but held fast against social pressure to the God who had come with him. How can we who look with pride at Abram’s trust in embracing this call and who are proud and thankful that he did not jump into the “melting pot” but held onto his beliefs look down our noses at the strangers in our midst who “won’t stop with that gibberish and speak American”? Why are we, who know the promise of God in this text to bless the nations through this stranger, so certain that “our” strangers who just moved in across the street won’t likewise enhance and benefit our community?
What the text calls us to do in our current situation is to treat each stranger like he or she was Abram, plotting ourselves into the story and thus imagining the way we would ourselves want to experience being a stranger. If Abram is truly a paradigm of faith, and if his calling is also our calling—to live an obedient and unsettled life, cultivating detachment from people, places and things—then the prospect forever remains that tomorrow we, too, might be called to get up, go, and become a stranger ourselves in someone else’s space in response to the call of God on our lives.
Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.