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Christianity, Politics and a Promise - Genesis 14

Sunday, March 23, 2014

There is a unique difference in perspective between the American who was born here of a family whose previous generations also lived here and the American who immigrated and took the oath of U.S. citizenship.  As one who was born here, I am blessed to be married to a wonderful woman who wasn't.  In January of 2010 my boys and I enjoyed the unique experience of watching their mom take the oath of U.S. citizenship.  Listening to a few of the others who were also becoming citizens talk of what this meant was eye-opening and inspiring.

But I write on the Lord's Day having just listened to a sermon which reminds me that this isn't necessarily our home - at least not in the eternal sense.  We have another allegiance.  It is one which an otherwise difficult-to-interpret chapter in Genesis points us to.  If we were to use 'New Testament' language to describe this, we would call it the 'kingdom of God'.  But if we pull back to the very beginning of the Bible we see in Abraham ('Abram' at this point in Genesis) an allegiance to a 'Promise'.

When we look at commentaries on Genesis 14 the presuppositions of the commentator becomes very clear very quickly.  A typical commentator form my Evangelical tradition will almost always start by observing at least the opportunity to locate Abraham in history by way of the names of the kings, five of whom ally against four others in this chapter.  (More recently John Walton does this, as does Gordon Wenham earlier.)  While Wenham posits possible corresponding kings known from archaeology (it is not uncommon for the same name to have different spellings in different Semitic languages) Walton pretty quickly admits that no really convincing evidence has yet been found outside of the Bible for the kings listed in this account.

But when a commentator like Robert Alter, coming from a modern Jewish point of view more concerned with discovering the story-telling conventions of the Hebrew Bible, the first observation is entirely different, and reveals a very different perspective.  Alter's first note has nothing to do with how to locate these kings in history from non-biblical sources.  He notes how different the form of the story is here from the chapters which precede it.

Ancient Near Eastern literature is rich with examples of what could be called 'Annals of the King'.  These are written accounts kept by a royal court, usually of the daily activities of the king.  Also very common are accounts of the king's successes in battle.  So, if we are reading Genesis from the start, and we get here to Chapter 14, if we have been paying attention to how the stories are being told, this chapter should be a bit jarring.  Alter's first observation is how this chapter is 'annalistic'.  If we, as Evangelicals, set aside our preoccupation with factual accuracy as we are used to expecting it in historical narrative long enough to recognize the biblical author's conventions may differ substantially from ours, there are some very compelling observations to be made by recognizing the 'annals of the king' form which this chapter takes.

The first of these observations is that a story told in the 'annals of the king' form would be expected by the reader/hearer to be told from the perspective of the royal court.  Because the stories in Genesis have been told to this point from the perspective of the narrator - as one who belongs to the people of God - this use of the 'annals of the king' form would likely be found very intriguing.  The reader/hearer is powerfully drawn into the story because the perspective of the story has changed so dramatically.

This change in perspective is then the key to understand the rest of what we note in this chapter.  When Abram's nephew Lot is taken captive by the alliance of kings which have come against the king of Sodom and his allies, a 'fugitive' makes this known to 'Abram the Hebrew'.  As Walton explains in his commentary, each time the word 'Hebrew' is used in the TaNaK/Old Testament, it is how God's people are described by others.  Also noted is a term common in ANE literature - the 'habiru' or 'apiru'.  This term was not used to describe an ethnic group as much as a social class of people, and came with negative connotations like mercenary and bandit.  'Habiru' were people who did not subscribe an oath to the political order of the day - which in this case would mean to one of the 'city-state' kings like the ones described in this chapter.

The habiru were also know to flout what was otherwise the expectation of  the 'civil society' of the time.  If a slave were to flee his owner and come upon another group of people, it was expected that the slave be 'extradited' to its owner.  Interestingly enough, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 explicitly forbids Israel from extraditing a fleeing slave.  So to hear of a 'fugitive' coming to Abram strongly suggests that in Abram's household such fugitives could find refuge and would neither be returned nor mistreated.  It seems quite likely this fugitive would have been a slave conscripted into the army of one of these kings.  Because of these things, which are known to us from outside the Bible, the description 'Abram the Hebrew' could very well be 'Abram the habiru' and reflect the pejorative perspective of these royal courts.

To then read - in an account stylized as an 'annal of the king', no less - of Abram and his 318 men routing the previously victorious alliance of kings is terrifically rich with irony.  Remember, the 'annal of king' would report the king's activities and success in battle.  The very last thing you expect from an annal of a king is report of defeat.  But that is what we have here.  The literary form is literally turned on its ear to associate Abram's success in battle to the very thing which had him scorned by the royal court as a 'habiru'.

Abram's allegiance was not to any earthly king.  His allegiance was to the LORD and His Promise.

And we see this upon his return.  Melchizedek, 'king of Salem' (who was not part of the reported battle) comes out to receive Abram, blesses him and ascribes his victory to 'God Most High'.  Abram honors this 'priest of God Most High' with a tithe of his booty.  And then the king of Sodom, in dialog which seems contemptuous compared to what is said by Melchizedek, asks for his people back.  Abram responds by not only returning the people, but also the booty because he has taken an oath to God Most High that no one be able to say that Sodom had made him rich.

And so here we are.  Many thousands of years later, looking back to Abraham as a 'father in the faith' we are left to make sense of such ancient stories.  In its original setting, Israel would regularly have to decide their allegiance.  Would it be to the rulers of the people among whom they lived?  Would they serve the foreign gods of these people instead of the LORD?  For them, a recognizable form of story draws them in to an unexpected end and drives home the allegiance to which the covenant (which is introduced in the next chapter) calls them.

We find ourselves in a situation which is similar in what might be seen as a dangerous sense.  Our American political scene is one where prominent and politically active Evangelical leaders often contribute to a sense that Evangelical Christianity and Republican politics are one in the same.  This is dangerous because the perception of spiritual authority in the minds of our church members can confuse an allegiance to the LORD and His Promise with a political allegiance to a party and its 'anointed' candidates.  And those who refuse to so subscribe to a supposedly anointed political orthodoxy are then denigrated - they are the 'habiru' of our day.

Scriptures speak powerfully and authoritatively on many issues which are politically charged.  We should not shy away from an honest effort to explain the Scriptures on these issues.  But the Scriptures speak from a dramatically unique point of view - one that is not political in the temporal sense, but rather one that is from beginning to end a story of redemption.  Where Scriptures speak to issues which are current in our politics, it speaks not of organizing our side to defeat their side, but of our side acting from beginning to end out of allegiance to the LORD and to His Promise - that in Abraham all nations would be blessed.  That the Seed of the woman would come from his loins to redeem the heavens and the earth.

My allegiance to Him and His Promise is an oath to see my own life as part of His story of redemption, that others might also be drawn into the story.


  1. Well said. To me the involvement of many believers in the realm of politics has had negative consequences. Loyalty to God and His promise has been upstaged by party politics. Thanks for your provoking article.

    1. Russ... Thank you for taking the time to respond...

      I agree, but in a qualified sense. The worst thing we can do about politics is wish it would go away. It will not, of course, If you, me and a third person were to be asked to do something together, at least some form of politics would develop; it is an inevitable part of our human nature.

      For about six years now I have been heavily involved in community work and it has caused me to step back a bit and examine some of what I assumed to be true about politics. I am quite willing - and I will admit to even enjoying it somewhat - to mix it up with our local government here in San Diego. I'll even admit to being 'ideological' - at least in the sense that I have defined ideas about the role of government and the relationship of government to the individual.

      What I have discovered, though, is I am less interested in whether my neighbors agree with me on the abstractions of political philosophy and more interested in supporting those who show up to share the burden of the work that needs to be done in the community. This has me working with - and developing friendships with - people with whom I otherwise disagree on politics. But we leave those disagreements for the times we get together for a meal AFTER the work at hand has been done.

      My loyalty to God and His Promise means I am always looking for an opportunity to 'bless' the community. This can come in something as simple as getting together with neighbors to paint over graffiti, convincing the City to put up a stop sign and crosswalk near a school, etc. If something in my community is broken, fixing it is not someone else's job. Sometimes, though, fixing it means diving into politics.

      I am OK with that. But for me, I seek to interpret our politics in light of my community, not the other way around.



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