By Ron Bailey
Abraham, My Friend
The Making of a Praying Man
Chapter Three: Entering the land
Time to move on, I think. It is one thing to come out, but quite another to enter in. Later in Israel's history there was a whole generation that came out, but never entered in. God's intention is always to bring us in, and He only brings us out because He wants to bring us in. Are you still following this? One of the descriptions of the child of God is found in Colossians 1:14 who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love. Many want to live on the borders and to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, but God cannot begin His new work until He has brought the old to an end.
Our narrative continues; And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. Gen 12:5,6 He is actually in the promised land now but doesn't know it. Sometimes it is like this in our experience. A single step takes us into new territory but we don't realise it until God reveals it. Many years later Abraham's grandson had the same experience; Surely the LORD is in this place and I knew it not. [Gen 28:16] Our responsibility is to take the next step; it is God's prerogative to show us its significance.
It is easy to miss what is happening here. Abraham is travelling on, not knowing whither; he still doesn't know where he is going. God has told him to travel and in his obedient travelling he just ‘happens' to come to Shechem. He knows nothing of the significance of this place until he receives a further revelation of God Himself. If my count is correct, this is the second vision of God. The first was in Ur of the Chaldees. [Acts 7] The word of God has come since, but no further vision. He obeys the word and it results in a vision. This pattern is worth noting. Some spend their lives waiting for a life's vision but it may be that the vision cannot be given to you in Haran, or whatever place you have paused in. There is no point in pleading for a vision; you must obey the word now, step by step, until God brings you to the place where He can reveal Himself again. There is often a weary slog between visions, but this is where character is shaped, not in the spectacular interruption but in the step by step obedience.
Finally, Abraham and his party arrive in Shechem. Take a moment to see this in your mind's eye. This has been a long journey in miles and time. Abraham doesn't realise it but he has arrived in the valley of decision. Shechem is a level plain between two small mountain tops; Ebal and Gerizim. Ebal and Gerizim are about one and half miles apart at their peaks, but only 500 yards apart at their bases. From the valley floor Gerizim rises by 800 feet and Ebal by 1000 feet; from their peaks can be seen most of the promised land. Almost 500 years after Abraham's visit a whole nation would gather on these hillsides in obedience to God's word and would hear Joshua cry 'choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah.' [Jos 24:15]
There are places in a nation's history which have great emotional significance. There is a seaside town in Northern France, on the English Channel, called Dunkirk, but there is a whole generation of British folks for whom Dunkirk will never mean a summer holiday spot. Dunkirk is not only a geographical location it is a vital point of history in a nation's memory. There are others; the Alamo, Gallipoli, Normandy, Guadalcanal. These are not geographical locations but markers in a nation's psyche. The very mention of these names has the power to trigger powerful emotions. God gave Israel a history rich in such places.
Shechem is the valley of decision. 2000 years after Abraham there was another encounter in this valley;'he left Judea, and departed again into Galilee.
'And he must needs pass through Samaria. So he cometh to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph: and Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.' [John 4:4-7]. Sychar is Shechem; for an uncircumcised Hebrew, for God's own nation, for a despised Samaritan woman with a dark personal history, Shechem is the valley of decision. For you and me too, we must make our way to some spiritual Shechem and hear in our spirit's the voice of Joshua-Jesus crying 'choose ye, this day whom ye will serve.' And we will have to voice our own response 'as for me...'.
In this valley of decision God appears to Abraham and speaks to him. For the first time in our narrative God makes a promise of inheritance. Abraham is in his mid-seventies [Gen 12:4] when he receives this promise. It is easy to miss the fact that according to what we know of this story God had not promised the land until this time. We presume that God made these promises in Ur of the Chaldees, but an examination of the record shows that God only commanded Abraham to travel to a land of God's choosing. There was no promise of land until he stood on it and even then it was a promise not to Abraham but to his progeny; thy seed.
Abraham's response is significant. He does not call a celebration but builds an altar. What instinct taught this man that sacrifice would become such a vital element of his life for the fulfilment of God's promise? There is something about the building of an altar that is very deliberate. This is no rush of emotion with an instant decision; it is the declaration of a steady intention that the altar will be at the centre of his relationship with God. It takes time to build an altar. We shall watch Abraham pitching his tent and building his altars. Notice the transitory things and the permanent in his life. This world was not his home, he was just passing through but the principle of the altar is a permanent feature.
If someone tried to track my life I wonder what would they use as markers? Successful projects, mega-churches, religious institutions, books, denominations? What shall we leave behind? If they tried to track Abraham's life they would have had to follow his altars. No institutions, no temples, just altars and ashes which testified that 'Abraham passed this way'. In the UK they put blue metal plates on walls to mark that some famous person lived here, God's men just leave ashes. A testimony which says ‘a fire once burned in this place' for God.
If we are going to become friends of God, we shall have to come to our Shechem and choose ‘whom we will serve'. And our service will not be measured by human units of measurement, but by our surrender, by the laying down of our lives in grateful sacrifice to the God who has appeared to us. This is authentic worship, a willing surrender. In my mind's eye I can see him. He has gathered a few stones together and kindled a fire. He has chosen a lamb from his flock and its life has trickled into the flame. Now he places the lifeless carcase into those flames. Nothing will be spared. This is Abraham's substitute for himself. This is not sacrifice for sin, but a life yielded utterly to God. The flames spit and flare, the smoke rises into the blue skies between Ebal and Gerizim, there is no way back. In the valley of decision, Abraham has made his choice.