March 10, 2011

No One is on Their Own

Illustration by Ralph Butler
When God calls, He calls us not alone—a kind of lone-ranger call. We may have to give up possessions, leave our families behind, and then go to a strange country—but then, we may not. God’s calling of Abraham provides a convenient matrix for all of us to consider our divine calling to serve others in whatever capacity.1 It is a familiar story that may, however, provide fresh insights into a topic that requires our full attention. After all, it is God who calls, not just anyone. 
Abraham’s Call
Have you noticed that God’s call to Abraham did not expressly mention any specific place or destination? God simply called it the place that He would show him (Gen. 12:1). Without a doubt, the call demanded faith on the part of Abraham (Heb. 11:8). Although God told him to go to an unnamed land, God promised that He would make Abraham a household name (Gen. 12:2).2 What a promise! Abraham’s call was not for his benefit alone. His call would benefit the whole world. The Bible says that “through you all the people of the earth will be blessed” (verse 3).3 In the call privilege was coupled with responsibilities.
The Hebrew text contains two imperatives in the first three verses of Genesis 12. The first one is the verb “to go” (verse 1) and the second is the verb “to be” as in “be a blessing.” The former involves action, while the latter focuses upon being. The root word of the imperative “to go” in Hebrew is halak, which literally means “to walk.” In another important instance in the Abraham narrative the word halak refers to Abraham’s living before God (Gen. 17:1). In this sense the command of “going” expresses the idea of “living” and of “being.” It suggests then that in our calling as disciples of Jesus the “being” is as essential as the “doing.” Also, “being” precedes the “doing,” for the messengers themselves are powerful messages. What impresses you most in other people (including your fellow church members or your pastor)—what they do or who they are?
2011 1507 page22Sarah’s Call
The Bible records that when Abraham heeded the call of God to go to Canaan, he did not go alone. He brought his wife, Sarah, with him. Sometimes we feel that God’s call to serve others and proclaim His message (in whatever cultural setting) is extended only to us—individually. Spouses, children, the larger family, just appear to be an addendum, tagging along. But a closer look at Abraham’s call suggests that Sarah was part of God’s call to Abraham, that God called them as a couple.
It must have been difficult for Sarah to leave their place of stability and abundance. She probably wanted the security and safety she was experiencing at home. Perhaps she was not used to moving from one place to another. Also, considering her age, Sarah might not have wanted to travel to a place she had never seen or visited before. I wish I knew the conversations Abraham and Sarah had in Haran. Somehow Abraham must have helped Sarah realize that she was included in God’s call, that she was part of God’s design. At the end of the day she was to be the mother (and grandmother) of the people who would bless the entire world. She definitely was a key part of God’s dream for Abraham and his descendants.
I’ve personally witnessed many cases of successful husband-and-wife teams in ministry (and I am not referring only to pastoral teams). There is no better way to be successful in ministry and service for others than for husband and wife to be partners in the Lord’s work.
Scripture tells us that there were three things that Abraham had to leave behind as God commanded him to go. He had to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s household (Gen. 12:1). Those three pertained to Abraham’s relationships. In ancient Near Eastern culture (similar to many parts of the world still today) it was not easy to leave family relationships behind. However, when Abraham left those three entities behind, he took four new ones with him. Genesis 12:5 notes that Abraham brought his wife, Sarah; his nephew Lot; the people he had acquired in Haran; and all the possessions he had accumulated. Obviously Abraham was not going alone. He had a big household. He left three, but brought four. Abraham left behind important relations, but maintained and nurtured more valuable ones. Heeding the call of God is losing some things but gaining others—many times, more valuable ones.
The Call of Lot and Abraham’s People
When reading the biblical text we get our first surprise by the fact that Lot actually went with his uncle Abraham to a strange place whose coordinates he did not know (verse 5). He might have opted to stay with his uncle Nahor and aunt Milcah and be with his cousin Bethuel. Lot could have chosen a more stable and familiar life in Haran. In Haran he did not need to establish new relationships. He did not need to travel long. Life was easy if he would stay. How could Lot afford to leave such a place, most probably named after his father, Haran, who had died there? It must have been difficult for Lot to leave his home. What caused him to make that life-changing decision? Somehow, it seems that the influence of Abraham’s life must have been so compelling that Lot was prepared to leave familiar places and people and be part of the divine call to Abraham—ready to enter the great unknown.
However, God’s call included not only Abraham’s nephew but also the people working for Abraham (verse 5). The Bible notes that Abraham brought with him the people who were working in his households. Servants, maids, shepherds, perhaps some artisans, together with their families and their children—people he had acquired during his stay in Haran (which, judging by all accounts, must have been prosperous). Abraham probably had cast a vision of his sacred calling to his family and these people. He probably encouraged them to consider the same call and go with him. The Hebrew Bible describes these people literally as hannepesh, “the lives,” which may suggest that they should be considered not only Abraham’s workforce but actual converts of Abraham.4 As he left his father’s household and country he took with him fruits of his influence and ministry. Even at the beginning of his faith journey, God had already blessed Abraham’s labor for his own household. Abraham had already demonstrated that he was ready to take the name of God to a strange land and serve his Master there.
Abraham’s Possessions and His Call
Aside from his relationships, Abraham brought with him his accumulated possessions when he responded to God’s call (verse 5). Sometimes we think that when we are called to serve others we have to abandon everything, including our material possessions. That appears to be a misconception. Based on our reading of the story of Abraham, one’s wealth is an essential part of our calling. Material blessings can be used for God’s work. Since God is the real owner of everything we have, these must be used for the advancement of His kingdom. And Abraham just did that. He managed his earthly riches for the glory of God and for kingdom purposes.
One can note that when the Bible records that “Abraham took . . . all their possessions . . . and went out” (verse 5), it suggests that he was not controlled by his belongings and riches. Rather, he took control of his riches and went out to advance God’s kingdom. He did not go to Canaan to make money. He did not go as mercenary or businessman, but as missionary. He took the risk of bringing his possessions with him, exposing himself to marauders on the way to Canaan, in order to use them for God’s plans. In turn, God blessed Abraham even more abundantly.
Responding to the call of God is not a solitary decision. It has to be shared and lived with family members, friends, and other people who may respond to the same call. At times, because of our passion and preoccupation to the call itself, the call may become the reason for severing relationships. Focusing too much on the call itself, we lose sight of the real purpose of the calling. As a result God’s call may turn into a curse instead of a blessing. Our divine call to serve others must include our family members, friends, and people who are dear to us. It involves a community that shares the same vision and passion for the Lord. After all, the call of God is a call to connect in a world of disconnection, where people feel disconnected from one another and from God. It is a call to restore, maintain, nurture, and establish relationships—relationships with God and fellow human beings.
No one is on their own.
1 For the sake of simplification I have chosen to stick with the name Abraham throughout the article (instead of Abram and then Abraham following Genesis 17:5).
2 I am indebted to Philip R. Davies, “Abraham and Yahweh: A Case of Male Bonding,” Bible Review, August 1995, p. 26, for the phrase “household name.” Davies captured well the modern equivalent of the Hebrew words wa’agaddelah shemeka, “and I will make your name great.”
3 Scriptural quotations in this article are by the author.
4 See also Andrew Schmutzer and Allen P. Ross, “Genesis,” New Living Translation Study Bible, ed. Mark D. Taylor (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), p. 43.
Ferdinand Regalado, Ph.D., is an Old Testament professor at Montemorelos University, Mexico. Originally from the Philippines, Ferdinand and his wife, Charito, and two daughters, Lyndsay and Samantha, serve in a cross-cultural context—as did Abraham. This article was published March 10, 2011.