Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

BIBLE: Genesis 12 (The Call of Abraham)

Genesis 1 shows God busy at work creating the heavens and the earth. God works for six days and then rests. Work is a divine activity. When we work we are imitating God. But Genesis 3 shows work as a curse. Work is a punishment because we disobeyed God’s command in the Garden. Which view is right? The problem is not in the work itself but in the way we perceive the work we do. In other words, what is the meaning of our work? What is its purpose? On one hand we can view it from a socio-economic analysis. This is what Marx did in Alienated Labor. But we can also view work as part of the human condition. This is what Chekhov did in Rothschild’s Fiddle and Conrad in Heart of Darkness. The fates of Jacob and Kurtz revolved around their relationship to work. Jacob stayed home and died poor and unhappy; Kurtz travelled far from home and died rich and unhappy. They both died unhappily because neither man was ever really at home with his work. They were busy doing one thing but they both dreamed about doing something else. The story of Abram is the story of a man whose work and destiny are one. Abram was never busy doing one thing while dreaming about doing something else. Abram was a man with one mission. In Genesis 12 we read that the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee. The Lord had something special in mind for Abram. The Lord never tells Abram why his own land of Haran won’t do but he specifically warns Abram to get far away from his own kinfolk and his own father’s house. We never know the reason why it’s necessary for Abram to give up everything to follow this God from the desert. But in return God promises to turn not only Abram but his whole family into something special: I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. We also never know if Abram struggled with his decision. The text just says So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. Abram was not a young man when he set out to rebuild his life in some unknown land at some unknown time in the future. He just “departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him.” How did Abram know it was God asking him to leave his homeland in Haran? The text doesn’t say. Why did God pick Abram? It doesn’t say that either. But Abram must have been the right man for the job. Despite some serious setbacks he was able to accomplish the mission God set for him. Kurtz had some serious setbacks in Heart of Darkness too. So why was Abram successful and Kurtz wasn’t? For one thing Abram had a clearly-defined goal, to establish a new nation for his descendants: And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land. Abram had great plans because he was building on a foundation promised by the Lord. Kurtz had great plans too. But they were based on mercantile interests and soon melted into “the heart of darkness.” Abram and Kurtz were remarkable men. Even Kurtz’s enemies admitted that he was an extraordinary man. He brought home more ivory than all the rest of the traders put together. Abram was also a remarkable man. His journeys would carry him through the famine of the desert into the heart of luxury in Egypt. But throughout them all Abram kept his focus on his real work: forming a new nation. Did he die a happy man? That’s not the right question to ask. Abram had fulfilled his function, he achieved his goal. According to Aristotle this is as close as human beings come to attaining “happiness.” In another Great Books reading (Ecclesiastes) the Preacher says: I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? Abram did his work and did it well; one of the few people to ever know “what shall be after him.” It was a new people, a new nation.


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