The Name Above All Names

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb. Genesis 12:4-9 ESV

Abram followed in the footsteps of his ancestor Noah, who “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 ESV). When God told Abram to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 ESV), he went. And the text makes it clear that Abram went, “as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4 ESV). He not only proved to be compliant but comprehensive in his obedience. He did everything just as God had commanded him to do. But there is one small detail that stands out.

When it came time for Abram to comply with God’s command, he “took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:5 ESV). It all sounds good, except for the fact that God had clearly told Abram to leave behind his country and his kindred. The Hebrew word for “kindred” is מוֹלֶדֶת (môleḏeṯ), and it can refer to “offspring” or “relatives.” Considering the context, it seems clear that God was telling Abram to leave his extended family behind. Abram and his wife, Sarai, had no children because she was barren.

And yet, the text reveals that Abram brought along his nephew, the son of his brother, Haran. A look back at the genealogy in chapter 11 reveals that Haran had fathered a son named Lot while the clan was still living in Ur of the Chaldeans. But Haran died, leaving his son, Lot, without a father. Under the circumstances, Terah, the boy’s grandfather, assumed responsibility for his care and protection. He became a surrogate father to Lot. So, when Terah moved his entire extended family to the land of Haran, Lot accompanied him. But in time, Terah died as well, leaving Lot fatherless once more. It seems that Abram and Sarai, without children of their own, assumed responsibility for the boy’s well-being. And when they packed up their belongings to follow God’s will and move to Canaan, Lot was in their company.

Abram was not explicitly violating the command to leave his kindred behind. Lot had become part of his immediate family. It is almost as if he and Sarai had made the decision to adopt this young man. After all, she was barren and they were doomed to a life without children of their own.

But what can’t be ignored is the distinct possibility that Abram and Sarai viewed Lot as a possible heir and the means by which God would fulfill His promise to produce a great nation from them. In a way, Lot could have been Abram’s ace in the hole – a security blanket that helped mitigate any doubts he may have had about God’s plan and promise. If one believes in the sovereignty of God, then it seems obvious that the death of Haran and Terah was no surprise to God. And the fact that this young man had twice been rendered fatherless was not a byproduct of chance or bad luck. There was a divine strategy in play in which God was providentially orchestrating the details surrounding Abram’s life. Terah’s decision to leave Ur had been God-ordained. The birth of Lot and his father’s eventual death were also part of God’s plan. And Abram’s “adoption” of Lot when Terah died in Haran must also be seen as the handiwork of God.

There is no indication as to how long the journey from Haran to Canaan took. But it would have been an arduous and extremely lengthy trip as Abram and his retinue made their way through strange lands occupied by many of those foreign-speaking nations that had been scattered by God after His judgment at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

Evidently, Abram was leading a rather large caravan, transporting all the possessions and people he had “acquired” while living in Haran (Genesis 12:5). It would appear that Abram had livestock and slaves in tow. A few of these unnamed servants or slaves will play important roles as the story unfolds. But their presence in the traveling party would have made progress slow and demanded greater resourcefulness when it came to provisions and protection.

But eventually, Abram arrived in the land of Canaan, just as God had commanded. And Moses indicates that Abram “passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh” (Genesis 12:6 ESV), where “he built there an altar to the Lord” (Genesis 12:7 ESV). While there’s no indication from the text that God directed Abram’s steps by providing him with detailed navigational instructions, it seems only logical that God was guiding His servant all along the way. Once again, the sovereign hand of God was determining every aspect of Abram’s pilgrimage from Haran to Canaan, even choosing Shechem as the place where Abram would erect an altar. Two times in verse 7, Moses discloses that God had appeared to Abram. These divine theophanies or manifestations of God’s presence had probably occurred all along the way, providing Abram with guidance and assurance that he was not alone.

Shechem was located in the center of Canaan, and it was there, in the heart of this foreign land that God instructed Abram to build an altar and offer sacrifices. Most likely exhausted by the long and arduous journey, Abram still obeyed God and did just as he was told. He “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8 ESV). This phrase refers to much more than just worship. It reveals an underlying awareness of the holy and righteous character of God as embodied in His divine name. The first occurrence of this phrase is found in Genesis 4:26, where it reads, “To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

The “name of the Lord” is synonymous with His character.  To devalue God’s name is tantamount to profaning His character. To call upon His name is to recognize that God alone is God. He is the transcendent and holy “other.” There is no other god besides Him. Man was made in the image of God and given the unique role of glorifying His great name by living in humble submission to His will. To call upon His name is to acknowledge one’s complete reliance upon Him and trust in Him. That is why God would later command the Israelites to treat His name with respect.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. – Exodus 20:7 ESV

To treat God’s name vainly or flippantly has much more to do with behavior than speech. Later on, God would provide His people with an example of what it meant to treat His name vainly.

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. – Leviticus 18:21 ESV

Proverbs 30:8-9 indicates that a life of self-sufficiency is a way to profane the name of the Lord.

Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.

When men make the false assumption that they can be their own benefactor and provider, they rob God of glory and profane His name. The prophet Isaiah described the anger of God against those who give Him lip-service, but whose actions reveal that they have no respect for His name and character.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

At this point in the story of Abram’s life, he is revealing his deep dependence upon God. He recognizes that his journey from Haran to Canaan has been the work of God and he wants to express his gratitude through sacrifice and praise. And having completed his sacrifice to God, Abram continued to his journey to “the hill country on the east of Bethel” (Genesis 12:8 ESV). And there, he pitched his tent, erected a second altar, and called upon the name of the Lord. Here we have a picture of the nomadic lifestyle that Abram would come to know. He would spend his entire life on the move, relocating from one place to another within the land of Canaan. Even after pitching his tent in Bethel, Abram would eventually break camp and continue his tireless trek through the land God had promised to give him as a possession. And the author of Hebrews reveals that Abram’s transient lifestyle was motivated by a firm belief that God had something great in store for him.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV

He was a man on the move, but with a faith that was firmly founded on the faithfulness of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Law and Blessing.

30 At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33 And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. Joshua 8:30-35 ESV

ten_commandments-720x340Joshua and his forces have just defeated and captured the city of Ai. The men of the neighboring city of Bethel, who had joined forces and fought alongside Ai, were also defeated. So, in essence, the Israelites now had three cities they had conquered in their relatively short tenure in the land of promise. And now, Joshua leads the people to a place called Mount Ebal, where he builds an altar to the Lord. What is going on here? What prompted Joshua to do this? Was it simply because they had enjoyed two rousing victories over their enemies and he wanted to express thanks to God?  And why would he choose to travel all the way north to Mount Ebal in order to build his altar there? This would have entailed a 30-mile journey on the part of the people, so Joshua must have had a good reason for making this arduous trip immediately after a major military engagement against the city of Ai.

To understand what is going on in this passage, we must recall the instructions that Moses had given to the people of Israel concerning their entrance into the land of promise. He had been very specific, providing them with detailed instructions as to what they were to do as soon as they crossed over the Jordan. But it would appear that the people of Israel were behind schedule, having taken time to capture Jericho and Ai before they actually obeyed what Moses had told them to do.

1 Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.” – Deuteronomy 27:1-7 ESV

Mount Ebal was located near a place called Shechem, a site with historical and religious significance for the people of Israel. It was at Shechem that Abraham had built an altar to the Lord after having arrived in the land of Canaan for the very first time.

Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. – Genesis 12:6-7 ESV

So, Joshua’s selection of Shechem and Mount Ebal were not arbitrary. He was following the commands of Moses and replicating the actions of Abraham, the great patriarch of the people of Israel. On this site, Joshua and the people of Israel renewed their covenant with God, recommitting themselves to keep His law and live as His people in the land He had provided for them. They built an altar to the Lord God, the God of Israel. This monument built of stones would be a tangible representation of Israel’s presence in the land and their dedication to worship their God as opposed to the many false gods of the inhabitants of Canaan.

The people erected an altar to God and offered sacrifices on it. But, in addition, Joshua “wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written” (Joshua 8:32 ESV). This seems to indicate that Joshua wrote the law on the stones of the altar, not two tablets of stone as Moses had done. And while it is not clear what the text means by “the law of Moses,” it is possible that Joshua wrote the entire contents of the Book of Deuteronomy. The text states that, once Joshua had written the law on the stone, “he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law” (Joshua 8:34 ESV). The blessing and the curse is a reference to the content found in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. In that chapter is spelled out all that God will do for the people of Israel if they remain obedient to His law and all that He will do to them if they choose to disobey. They had already learned a painful, yet invaluable lesson about obedience in their initial defeat at the hands of the people of Ai. They had failed to keep God’s command regarding the plunder from Jericho and had suffered because of it. Now, with the building of the altar and the recitation of the law of Moses, the people were receiving a powerful reminder that their hope of receiving blessings from God while in the land was directly tied to their willingness to live in obedience to His law. And God had made it very clear what would happen to them if they chose to disobey.

15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. – Deuteronomy 28:15-19 ESV

Their ability to conquer the land was dependent upon their willingness to obey God. He would bless them beyond measure, if only they would obey Him without question. This ceremony was more than just a religious ritual. It was a solemn and sobering reminder that their God was serious about obedience. He was a holy God who demanded that His chosen people live lives that would be set apart and distinctively different than those of the people living in the land. He had given them His law in order that they might live in keeping with His divine will. The law was to regulate all their behavior and all their relationships, including their relationship with God Himself. God had not left it up to their imagination. Right and wrong was not going to be a subjective issue for the people of Israel, because God had established an objective, black-and-white criteria for life and godliness.

With the reading of the law, the people of Israel received a much-needed reminder of their covenant commitment to God. Nothing had changed since God had given the law at Mount Sinai all those years before. The original tablets of stone, on which were written the commandments of God, were still in the ark of the covenant. His law had led them across the wilderness and over the Jordan. It had gone before them as they marched around the walls of Jericho. Now, they saw it written on the stones of the altar at Mount Ebal. And it would remain there, a permanent memorial, visible to Israelites and Canaanites alike, declaring the holiness of God and His unwavering demand that His chosen people live according to His will.

“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:2 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Return To God.

Ephraim feeds on the wind and pursues the east wind all day long; they multiply falsehood and violence; they make a covenant with Assyria, and oil is carried to Egypt.

The Lord has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us—the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his memorial name: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” – Hosea 12:1-6 ESV

Jacob was the common ancestor of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. His life had been a contentious affair, and it started at his birth. He had come from the womb clutching the heel of his twin brother Esau. He would grow up to be a man who depended upon trickery and deceit to get what he wanted. But it was after his face-to-face encounter with God, where he wrestled with the Lord, demanding that He bless him, that his name and his life were forever changed. Jacob called the name of the place where his encounter with God took place, Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:30 ESV). had been given a new name. And it was there that God gave him his new name. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28 ESV). Israel means “he strives with God.” Jacob, in desperate need of God’s blessing, was willing to physically fight with God in order to receive it. For the first time in his life, he knew he needed God. He could not live his life on trickery and deceit any longer.

Much earlier in his life, Jacob had had another encounter with God. It was at a place called Luz. Moses records what happened there.

And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:11-15 ESV

Jacob had renamed the place, Bethel, which means “House of God.” And years later, after God had changed his name to Israel, he was instructed by God to go back to Bethel.

“Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem. – Genesis 35:1-4 ESV

It is interesting to note, that while Jacob commanded his household to put away their foreign gods and worship God alone, he did not destroy the idols, but hid them under a tree near Shechem. His obedience to God was incomplete. While the idols had been buried, the peoples’ desire for them had not gone away. Years later, when they had been returned to the land after their more than 400 years of captivity in Egypt, the descendants of Israel would continue to prove their unfaithfulness to God through the worship of false gods. And Bethel would be one of the cities where Jeroboam, the king of the northern nation of Israel, would set up a golden calf and command the people to worship it. He turned the place called “House of God” into a place to worship false gods. It was as if the idols Jacob had buried under the tree had been dug up. Their influence upon the people of Israel had never really diminished.

When Jacob had wrestled with God, he had recognized the divine nature of the place. He had said, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:16 NLT). And now, generations later, his descendants had turned Bethel into gateway to idol worship and apostasy. But Hosea begged the people of Israel to return to the Lord. He wanted them to remember the faithfulness of God and turn away from their love affair with false gods. “The Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, the Lord is his name! So now, come back to your God. Act with love and justice, and always depend on him” (Hosea 12:5-6 NLT). As Jacob had learned his need for God, the people of Israel needed to rediscover their desperate dependency on Him. Like Jacob in his early years, their lives were characterized by deceit, trickery, manipulation and self-sufficiency. They wanted the blessings of God without obedience to God. Now Hosea was calling them to live lives that reflected their status as God’s children. They were to exhibit love, justice and obedience. Their lives were to be characterized by faithfulness. No more wrestling with God. No more contending and conniving. Jacob’s wrestling match with God had left him with a permanent limp. And the people of Israel were going to find out just how painful resistance to God can be. God wanted to bless them, but they were too stubborn to let that happen. And sadly, there are believers today who refuse to let God bless them. Rather than submit to His will and walk in His ways, they stubbornly demand to live their lives according to their own terms. Rather than return and repent, they resist. They may bury their idols under the tree, but their love affair with them remains.