• Rev. Izzy Harbin

8 Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” 10 Lot looked about him and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. 11 So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus, they separated from each other. 12 Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom.

14 The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.

In our passage for this Sunday, we have another occasion where separation is occurring, this time between Abram and Lot. After spending time in Egypt during one of the many famines that seem to occur during the early history of the Israelite people, Lot and Abram must decide where to settle. Lot, in surveying the land, saw the bounty before him in the plain of Jordan near Sodom and Gomorrah and chose to settle there. Abram settled in the land of Canaan.

While not obvious, this separation sets Abram up for his next encounter with God. When God tells Abram to leave Ur, his homeland, God intends to lead him to a particular destination. Abram, Lot, and others leave Ur of the Chaldeans, their homeland, and intend to go all the way to Canaan but stopped in Haran. We don’t know how long Abram, Lot, and the others were in Haran, but God comes to Abram and says, “Time to go.” Abram and Lot pack up their things and head on to Canaan, their original destination. When they arrived, God told Abram that all that he could see would become a possession for Abram’s people. When famine strikes the land, they traveled down to Egypt. Upon return, Abram and Lot must now divide their households because the land will not support both of them. Without any prodding from Abram, Lot chooses to take the land in the plain of Jordan. God’s plan for Abram is thus fulfilled in that he settles once again in the land of Canaan.

It is critical to know that the land where Abram settles is already occupied. The Canaanites were generous with Abram and allowed him to settle in their land. This was how God intended for it to be. From chapter 11 up to chapter 15 we read about the various movements of Abram and Lot and their families, the famine and retreat to Egypt, the return of Abram and Lot, the settling of Abram and Lot in two different locations, the kidnapping of Lot and his possessions, and how Abram orchestrated a rescue and in the process received a blessing from the King Melchizedek of Salem who met Abram and Lot upon their return saying, “Blessed by Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

It was after this blessing and after everything returned to “normal” that God returned to Abram (in chapter 15) and blessed Abram, made a covenant with Abram, and changed Abram’s name to Abraham.

Why did Abram and Lot need to separate? What is it about this separation that furthers God’s agenda here on earth?

The text is vague, but a careful reading helps us see that each of these men needed to become independent of one another. They each had their own role to play in establishing the people of Israel. Lot’s role would be diminished while Abram’s role would be heightened. It was always about Abram, and Abram’s ability to continue loving God regardless of the circumstances.

At it simplest, the writers of the text portray God as a promise keeper. God told Abram that he would lead him and guide him to a land that would become a perpetual holding for him and his people. He did not promise this to Lot. The covenant God made was with Abram, not Lot. The fulfilment of the covenant comes through Abram’s faithfulness, not Lot’s. Abram consistently chose the path of righteousness, of being in right relationship with God, while Lot was more concerned about physical comfort and gain.

In the one verse that I left out of the passage for this week, it interjects rather abruptly that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked. It might be that this tidbit of information is provided to us as a way of understanding the heart of Lot and his motivations for choosing the plain of the Jordan. Yes, the land was choice land, but why would anyone want to position themselves near a wicked people unless they saw it as an opportunity to grow and prosper among them.

God also uses this separation between Abram and Lot to clearly define their stories as they move in different directions. Abram becomes the father of all nations. Lot’s story takes a dramatic turn when he loses his wife during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and destroys his family unit when his daughters violate their father. We can look at these events and see how Lot’s life takes a dramatic turn from the parallel path of Abram. It is as if we are seeing two halves of the same coin.

The story of Abram is critical to our understanding of our own calling. It isn’t always clear where God is telling us to go, but he has invited us to journey together. We don’t always see a clear path to our future, sometimes we must make pitstops along the way, or journey to another land because of famine. But eventually, God brings us to the place he has called us to reside. God is showing us, even now, that if we are faithful, space will be provided for us. With every step we take, we are following God’s plan for our lives, personally and corporately as a church. These are exciting times. We have been given a unique opportunity to experience God up close and personal through this journey. As we pay attention, listen to God’s call, and follow without hesitation, I believe, just like Abram, we’ll make our way to the promised land.

At the time when Abram is blessed by King Melchizedek, the King of Sodom is also present. Abram, out of generosity to the blessing of King Melchizedek, gives him 10% of all he owns. The King of Sodom wants the people, but not the goods. Recognizing the trap created by the King of Sodom, Abram proclaims, “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say ‘ I have made Abram rich.’” Abram was clear he didn’t want to have anything to do with the King of Sodom or anything that was wicked.

The offering he gave to Kick Melchizedek, however, was an offering of good will. King Melchizedek didn’t ask for anything but received a return blessing for his own generosity.

This trait, central to the figure of Abram, is a trait that should be instilled in all of us, that of generosity of spirit. In the ancient world, the idea of sharing of one’s possessions was key to the success of any community. When all shared of their possessions, the whole community thrived. The promise to Abram from God for the possession of land in Canaan wasn’t just about blessing Abram with something that he would keep for himself, but it was about blessing the whole of the community yet to come. The promise, the covenant, made with Abram was about the whole community’s survival and ability to thrive in a foreign land.

There are so many lessons we can take from God’s interactions with Abram. We may not be transporting hundreds of people across the desert with countless livestock and provisions, but we are traveling together toward something new; something important for the life of our whole community. Just as Abram called on the whole community to help rescue Lot from his captors, we call on the whole community to participate in the unfolding of God’s kingdom in our midst. We pray that the whole community of First Congregational Church will be joined together for the promises that God has in store for us.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (NRSV)

They say that the first inhabitants of the earth, glorying in their own strength and size and despising the gods, undertook to raise a tower whose top should reach the sky, in the place in which Babylon now stands; but when it approached the heaven the winds assisted the gods, and overthrew the work upon its contrivers, and its ruins are said to be still at Babylon; and the gods introduced a diversity of tongues among men, who till that time had all spoken the same language; and a war arose between Cronos and Titan. The place in which they built the tower is now called Babylon on account of the confusion of tongues, for confusion is by the Hebrews called Babel.—(Euseb. Præp. Evan. lib. ix.; Syncel. Chron. xliv.; Euseb. Chron. xiii.)

I love the story of the Tower of Babel. We have another moment early in the biblical text when God decides that greater separation needs to occur between humanity and the divine. The Biblical text is sparse regarding the actual reason for wanting to build the tower, or why God was so displeased with their efforts. This is another passage where we have to look outside of the Bible to other writings available in the day to understand the full context of this story.

The key figure in this story is a guy named Nimrod, identified in Genesis 10:8-9 as the son of Cush (who is the eldest son of Ham, son of Noah) and “the first to become a mighty warrior upon the earth; a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The story in chapter 10 not only reveals the genealogy of Noah’s sons, but also the beginnings of the first cities in the Mesopotamian region. Cush, and subsequently Nimrod, are credited with the development of Babel (later called Babylon), Erech (better known as Uruk), and Accad (known as Akkad), all located in the land of Shinar (Babylon). When talking about the ancient world, there are a variety of sources that offer what appears to be conflicting information. These conflicts, however, are mostly related to language differences. Most scholars now associate many of the early Biblical names with those found in the ancient writings from Mesopotamia and more specifically the Kings of Assur or Sumer. If this is true, then Nimrod is one of the kings of the ancient world that also correlates with the development of the city of Babylon.

In our passage, we find the story of the Tower of Babel built in the Land of Shinar. In the Book of Jasher, we find a few more details which help explain how the tower came to be. In Jasher 7 we are told that Nimrod built up all the cities of the region and that Nimrod ruled over all the sons of Noah. In verses 31-39 the Book of Jasher tells us that Nimrod was a mighty warrior defeating all of his enemies. And in verse 40 is says, “He set over his subjects and people, princes, judges, and rulers, as is the custom amongst kings.”

[Side Note: One such prince was Terah, the son of Nahor, who would become the father of Abram. This is the connection between Nimrod as a ruler over the land and Abram who is called by God to leave this land and go where God would instruct him to go.]

Nimrod, and his son Mardon, were extremely wicked, however, even more so than those prior to the flood. Sadly, there is only a brief mention of Mardon, so we have no idea what happens to him. From the end of chapter 7 in the Book of Jasher and all through chapter 8 we are told this incredible story about the birth of Abram, son of Terah. Finally in chapter 9 we return to the story of the Tower of Babel, which mirrors the story in Genesis. It becomes clear through the extra material provided in the Book of Jasher that Nimrod’s failing was to place himself above all other beings, including the “god” of the heavens. Nimrod believed that he could conquer and subjugate the whole of the earth because of his might and strength. What was originally a gift from God, he turned to greed and power.

The story of Abram is interjected into the story of Nimrod as a counterpoint to the evil machinations of Nimrod. As predicted by several of Nimrod’s spiritual advisors, on the day that Abram was born, they observed in the night sky a bright star streaming across the sky and swallowing up 4 stars at differing points in the sky. They knew from this portent that Abram would become the ruler of all the land and that his family would multiply exceedingly. When this incident was shared with Nimrod, the spiritual advisors knew that it would be the end of Abram. Terah, however, acting in concert with God’s wishes, delivered to Nimrod a day-old infant from one of his servants to stand in place of Abram.

When we reach the moment of the Tower finally being built, Nimrod believes that he has the capacity to reach to the heavens, to conquer the gods, thus placing him as the supreme being of all the world. He believed that his massive tower would save him from anything that the gods might hurl at him. If the earth flooded again, he would survive because of its height. If God sent fire to destroy the earth, he would survive because the tower was made of bricks already burnt by the sun.

God, realizing rather quickly the mindset of Nimrod, devises a plan that Nimrod could not have expected. Instead of sending another flood or raining down fire from heaven, God simply confounds the languages of all the people. Quite the plan, really, because after bringing all of these people under one ruler, one language, one government, suddenly they could no longer understand each other. The confounding of their language hampered the building of the tower and led to their destruction and dispersal. God scattered the people all across the known land.

According to the Biblical text, each of Noah’s sons ended up settling in different regions of the world. But we don’t have a clear sense of the timeline for these events. It cannot be determined from the text alone whether the brothers, upon exiting the Ark, immediately went their separate ways, or whether it happened at the time of this remarkable event where God scatters the people. We also don’t know the methods with which God used to scatter the people. Did they just pack up and start walking? Did God pick them up in one location and drop them off in another? We just don’t know.

What we can witness for ourselves today, though, is nothing short of a miracle. We know that life began somewhere in Africa, that the Mesopotamia region is one of the earliest regions settle by larger groups of people who established cities and governments with laws and civic life. We know that there are strange connections between the ancient people of Mesopotamia and other people around the globe such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and various Indigenous tribes in the Americas and in Australia. We can ignore the connections, or we can embrace them, get curious about them, and attempt to see how the Biblical text gives us a glimpse into the earliest history known to man.

God’s closing of the heavens after this incident brings additional separation between God and humanity. It is this act by God that is more difficult to understand than God’s previous acts of separation. God doesn’t want to be removed from the daily contact with humanity, but humans, designed to be curious and inquisitive, keep looking for ways to return to their creator while enjoying the bounty of earth. I would like to believe that God knew this was a necessary step in the evolution of man, to recognize that there is something greater in the universe than that which exists on earth.

When we begin to grow up, it seems inevitable that we’ll start asking questions like, “Where do we come from?” or “Why are we here?” These questions are fundamental to our development as a species and the fact that we don’t know the answers to these two questions keeps us searching for our creator. It is in our searching that we find something bigger than ourselves, something more profound than our own ideals, that has moved upon the earth and shaped it into what we now witness daily. Our connection to our creator is what draws us back to these ancient stories in the first place. We want to know more about God and how God works in the world.

Ultimately, this story provides context and linkages between the ancient world and the heavenly realm and the continued misguided efforts by humans to operate on the same level as the gods. It provides a plausible, albeit unrealistic, explanation for the varieties of peoples that exist on the planet today and the vast language cache that in many cases shares the same root language. And we cannot ignore how God created more separation between humanity and the heavens. We can look at this separation as something to fear, or we can look at this separation as God’s way of putting his faith in humanity.

As a species, we have been able to accomplish many things. Not always the God thing, but certainly we have achieved beyond our wildest dreams. What God desires most in our endeavors, though, isn’t purely the act of becoming, but rather our ability to see and know the other and how we are intricately connected. I am convinced that at the moment of building the Tower of Babel, there wasn’t any kind of mutual respect happening in the kingdom, just another tyrant lording it over his subjects. This is not who our God is, nor does God want us to behave in this way. We must be the ones, now, to reveal and live according to this newfound (yet ancient) interconnection between all life. We must honor the separation given to us by God by using it to create the connections here on earth that God intended. We were never intended to make our way to heaven by scaling the walls of a tower, but rather by loving one another and creating community here on earth.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

6 When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abidein mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

This is one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible. It is a mystery. And, if I’m honest, this passage raises so many questions, but the point in this passage that I’d like to focus on is God’s declaration that, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”

In this fragment of text, included by the author known as “J,” or the “Yahwist” author, we see a connection to ancient Near East motifs of rebellions of and with/from the gods, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian myth regarding the flooding of the world. It is in the Epic of Gilgamesh that we first experience the co-mingling of gods and humanity and the infighting that occurs as a result of the volume of noise humanity makes; noise that irritates the gods. The coming flood story in Genesis mirrors that of the Epic of Gilgamesh and was most likely used as a basis for the Genesis story.

What is important to note is that, once again, we see God instituting separation, between God and God’s creation, this time because of the blurring of boundaries between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. As the text reveals, the “sons of God,” described in the Book of Jubilee and the Book of Enoch as “angels” saw the daughters of men as pleasing in their sight and choose to take them for wives. This suggests that the veil between heaven and earth was much more fluid and that the boundaries between heaven and earth, although defined, were not necessarily sealed.

The outcome of this coupling, the creation of giants, is what leads God to, once again, modify his creation. He will call upon Noah to build an Ark in preparation for the oncoming flood that will wipe out all of humanity. Before we get to the flood, however, God makes a clear proclamation that God’s spirit would not dwell among men forever. This proclamation is not clear in its meaning or intent, but rather challenges us to question whether we will continue in God’s keeping or not.

There are several ways to interpret God’s proclamation. First, God could be saying that humans will no longer live for hundreds of years, but instead will see their bodies expire after 120 years of life. Once the body expires, the Spirit of God no longer resides in that individual. Second, God could be predicting that there will be 120 days until the flood at which time all life will be extinguished. Third, that God’s Spirit, freely given to humanity in the beginning as the animating force that is all life, will be revoked at the end of 120 years. Most scholars gravitate to option one, that humanity’s lifespan would decrease to 120 years and no more. We don’t know why God chose 120 years or why God felt the necessity to limit the amount of time humans spend in one lifetime on earth, but based on the rest of the Biblical text, option two is unknown and option three is proved wrong by God’s continual engagement with humanity to the present day.

God’s engagement with humanity in the early chapters of Genesis feels otherworldly. We reach a point in the Biblical text where God no longer interacts directly with humanity. The authors are depicting God as more distant, even outside of human events; one that “cannot be looked upon,” or death will come immediately. We see this transition with the story of Moses and the burning bush, as well as his time on Mount Sinai. Eventually, God speaks through the prophets and until Jesus emerges on the scene, God doesn’t interact directly with humanity beyond the earliest stories in the Hebrew text.

The idea of separation appears to be built into the narrative as a necessity for survival of all humanity. When we frame our separation from God as a fundamental flaw in human action, we take on guilt, and perhaps even shame, for actions that we did not commit. Calvin, and Augustine before him, implied that at our birth we were born into sin; born with a sinful nature so depraved that we could never find our way back to God without the intervention of Jesus. Sadly, what we ignore in this assumption is that God, through the act of creation, designed us to be fluid beings who are capable of experiencing every emotion and aspect of being fully human. It is by this separation, intentionally structured and instituted by God, that we achieve the fullness of humanity.

I assert that the authors of Genesis were able to see the flaws in humanity from the start and were curious about how and why God allowed such flaws. Genesis is a collection of stories written by a variety of authors to expose the complexity of creation and the interconnectedness of all life. By taking the stories in Genesis too literally, we have failed to understand the gift of knowledge of good and evil, that to be fully human and emersed in this human experiment, we must know both for one would be lost without the other. As we approach the story of Noah and move beyond the flood to the covenant that God establishes with Abraham, God is asking us to choose life over death, to choose compassion over indifference, to be fully engaged with loving neighbor and self.

What we think of as irreparable separation is instead part of God’s design. In this moment in the Biblical text, God see that further separation is necessary so that the integrity of creation may be protected. The writers of this text are surmising that God, even in his infinite wisdom, did not account for every eventuality. God could not foresee “angels lusting after human females.” Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t, but whatever occurred in the ancient world is most likely beyond our comprehension. If we are comfortable with the science and are willing to date our earth to at least 4.3 billion years old, then God has been active in this world for a long time. There is no doubt in my mind that all the stories ever written about human existence in the ancient world gave them hope that there was more to know, more to experience, and more to God than we can comprehend in our rudimentary languages.

Whether God made a definitive decision to limit our years to 120, or not, the simple fact remains that we are all born into this world on a given day, we live, and then we die. I believe that God is waiting to see what we will do with our lives. The choices we make every single day have the capacity to destroy us or to create a greater capacity for empathy and compassion for all life. Ultimately, the only question about this passage that really matters is, “What are we going to do with the time we are given?”

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