What do you mean God speaks?

S3E3: Why Genesis won't say -how- Abram heard God

May 10, 2022 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 3 Episode 3
What do you mean God speaks?
S3E3: Why Genesis won't say -how- Abram heard God
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The Genesis account of Abraham, Sarah, and their children, invites its readers to follow in their path, and continue their journey toward God.  There's one, big problem: it doesn't tell us how to start. Their journey begins with God speaking to Abraham (Abram), but Genesis does not describe how God first spoke to Abram, and how Abram heard God for the first time. So, can we get an answer?

This episode will explore and consider what it means to say Abraham, Sarah, and their family were real people, and what it was for them to begin their journey with God.

 2:04     What can we say about Abraham as a real person?       

 6:54     What Christians are concerned about regarding the Bible        

13:17     The silence on Genesis about how God spoke to Abram          

19:10     How God speaks to all people according to Genesis          

22:01     The voice that spoke to Abram          

27:58     Did Abram know it was God speaking?          

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[ pendulum ] 

“The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household, to a land that I will show you.’”

The title of this series is drawn from a question that I had long ago when I read these words that began the Genesis story of Abraham. I asked, what do you mean God spoke to Abram? How, exactly? Of course, I had other questions too. What do you mean God created the world? What about what science says about our universe? What do you mean God loves us? What about the suffering, pain, and evil in our world? What do you mean God speaks all around us? What about people who don’t believe in God?

Yet, this passage posed a different kind of question for me. The Bible just simply says, God spoke to Abram—no, not even that—it just says that at some unspecified point in his life, God had spoken to Abram. It’s surprisingly silent on what it exactly means by that: no further elaboration, no further detail.  

And I think this is because that’s how it works; that’s how it happens. All of humanity “hears” what God speaks, in the sense that every truth is God speaking. But, when you take a step beyond this, and hear God personally, the first step is often unnoticeable —at least, you won’t quite realize that it was God speaking, until sometime later. 

Now, what do I mean by that?

[ music / ]

Well, let’s delve into that in this episode of…

"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our third episode of the third season, “How to start following Abraham’s journey: why Genesis won’t say how God spoke to Abram.” 

[ / music ]

What can we actually say about the lives of Abraham, Sarah, and their children as real people? You may be asking this question after our previous episode, which described how contemporary historians have challenged the historical accuracy of the Genesis account of their lives. But, as I explained in that episode, none of that means that we have somehow learned that there were no individuals like Abraham and Sarah in some distant past, who really did encounter God, and passed down what they experienced to their descendants. Then, what does it mean? Well, let’s consider that now. 

First, here’s a caveat; as with all things, what scholars say about any topic, is not 100% certain. Our answers today may turn out to be wrong tomorrow. This is less likely with, say, the hard sciences, than with subjects, well, like history; but, it is always possible that we are wrong. I say this to head off two extremes. On the one hand, we shouldn’t view what experts say as some unchanging, perfect knowledge, because it isn’t. We can learn new things, and discover that our previous views were wrong or incomplete. But, on the other hand, any consensus that scientists, scholars, or historians, have reached today are the best answers that we have so far regarding that question, and it’s not something we should just dismiss, by saying, “well, you can’t be 100% certain.” After all, we still aren’t 100% certain about all the physics behind how your computers or smart phones work, but, you’re using it right now to listen to this podcast. 

Now, with that caveat, let’s review what the historians are saying. As we explored in the previous episode, they are saying that the account of the lives of Abraham, Sarah, and their family, which we read in Genesis, is—for lack of better words—an adaptation. It’s like how a movie or a book sometimes take existing stories and adapt them in ways that best connect them to people today; an example I gave were recent film adaptations of Robin Hood’s story. Abraham’s family is supposed to have lived between 3500 to 4000 years ago. But, scholars believe that the book of Genesis was written about 2600 years ago or so—more than a thousand years later. Now, most scholars think that there were older stories about the ancestors of Israel, which the Genesis account drew from, but, what Genesis is presenting is a retelling of these stories—it is an adaptation.

The problem is: we don’t have the older stories. And scholars can’t reconstruct what those stories may have been either, which means we don’t know what was added, or expanded upon, or given literary flourishes, and so on, to turn them into the adaptation we are reading now. And what a number of historians have been pointing out is that this adaptation is not historically accurate. Specifically, there are some parts in this Genesis account—like traveling on camels, or the presence of certain cities and nations—that do not fit the historical period when Abraham, Sarah, and their children lived; the other parts of the account do fit that period, but they also fit with other periods too, including 1000 years later, when the book of Genesis was being put together. This means, there is no part in this account, which historians can point to as an accurate description of the exact historical period in which Abraham’s family lived. 

And here’s where scholars have divided themselves so far. On the one end are those called the “biblical maximalists,” mostly made up of traditional, or conservative, religious scholars. They argue that other than the specific parts that do not fit the time period, the rest of the account should be considered as reports from the time of Abraham regarding what historically happened back then. What they are advocating is a view of “innocent until proven guilty.” On the other end are the “biblical minimalists.” They argue that the Genesis account cannot tell us anything about what historically happened. Yes, it is most likely drawing from older traditions that Hebrews living 2600 years ago had about their ancestors. But, we can’t know what those were, so, we can’t verify for ourselves whether even those stories had any historical basis. Most scholars are somewhere in between; basically, their general view is that perhaps Genesis is reporting the lives of  people who lived back then, perhaps not. We simply can’t tell, and because we can’t, historians can’t rely on the Genesis account to know what happened historically. 

You may have noticed though that what historians are concerned with regarding the account of Abraham in Genesis is not quite what the Christians are concerned with. Historians are concerned with reliability; they are asking whether they can rely on this account to accurately reconstruct the past. Christians, however, are concerned with continuity. What do I mean by that? Christians are asking whether they can continue the journey toward God that the account is describing; they are asking whether the report of how God has personally related to people in the past, is a report about real people, because they are trying to follow in their path. Now, this concern is closely related to the concerns of historians about reliability, but they are not the same.  

Ok. Let me give you a scenario, which will help us understand this better. 

Do you know that Austronesian and Polynesian peoples were able to traverse across the Pacific Ocean, since well over 4000 years ago? And they did so with small boats, which had a very ingenious structure and design. The Europeans would later call them, “Proas.” Never heard of proas? Well, that’s part of the point, as you’ll see. Anyway, with these boats, and their navigation skills, they were able to cross the vast stretches of the ocean hundreds or thousands of years earlier than any other people. Can you imagine the kind of adventures they would have had? Braving the towering waves and storms, discovering distant islands, and exploring places no human had ever seen before! 

Now, let’s say that we are trying to inspire people—note the wording here. We want to inspire some aspiring explorers to fearlessly journey into the unknown, by recounting a story about one such intrepid band of Austronesians, who traversed the Pacific, and found a new home in a distant island. But, we aren’t too concerned with teaching how to build their boats. What we want to impart is the kind of character that they possessed, such as ingenuity, bravery, a sense of wonder, and fellowship, which enabled them to overcome many challenges and discover new wonders. And it is important to affirm that they were real people; we want to say, people really did something like this, so that you can too. You can follow in their path; you can continue their adventure.

But, suppose we are trying to inspire a people, who are just beginning to explore the seas on large sailing ships; let’s say they never saw a proa, and they can’t imagine how people could cross the ocean on small sailing boats. They get too hung up on technical detail, and fail to take in the real lesson. [1] In this case, we may want to adapt our story into one that feature the kind of ships that these people are familiar with, rather than debating them about the designs of a boat they’ve never seen.   

Let’s take an even more extreme example. Suppose we are telling our story to a people who’s never even seen an ocean; they live in a vast desert, dotted by occasional oasis, and the largest body of water they know is a lake. Now, the story about the ocean may fascinate them—but only in the sense that it is exotic. And let’s say this prevents them from being able to truly relate to the people in the story—they don’t really understand what these ocean-going explorers would have experienced, so they aren’t inspired to follow in their path. In this case, we may need to make an adaptation of the story, which won’t even be about exploring the ocean—the explorers in this story will be traversing a sea of sand, rather than water, finding distant oases, rather than islands. 

Yet, historians would not regard either of these adaptations as “historical”; they cannot rely on these accounts to accurately reconstruct how Austronesians traversed across the Pacific. It was “game over,” the moment we stopped describing their unique boats and sailing methods. However, the need for these kinds of adaptation is precisely the same kind of needs that Christians have in regard to the narratives in the Bible. These adaptations need to be “historical” in the sense that they are about real people who experienced real things. But, the specifics of their stories can be adapted to the people who are being taught, if that is what is needed for them to truly connect with what these individuals went through, and be inspired to continue in their path. Simply put, the story needs to teach and train. So, in the New Testament, Paul’s letter to Timothy defines the purpose of the Bible this way, “All scripture is inspired by God, to teach, change, correct, and train us to relate to God rightly, and be equipped to do good things.” 

Still, all of this isn’t to say that the adaptation will be crazy different. For example, what the biblical maximalists are arguing for is that the Genesis account of Abraham’s family is an adaptation that’s very close to what exactly happened in history; it’s like how, in our example, the adventure of the Austronesians that we’d recount to sailors on ships will mostly be the same story, except for the boat they used. However, even in the most extreme case of adapting the story to desert-dwellers, we’d still be recounting the story of real people, and the heart of their story—its core—will remain the same. Of course, you can still be skeptical, and question if even the core of these stories is mistaken, or a lie. But, the answer to that is: follow their path, and see what happens

Because that’s how Abraham’s story begins. 

[ pendulum ]

This answer, however, immediately runs into a problem. Why? 

Ok, so, here’s what we’ve gotten so far. The Genesis account of Abraham and Sarah is an adaptation. Still, Christians believe that it is nevertheless about real people, whose story is presented in ways that calls us to continue their journey. God they encountered is real; their journey with God is real. Follow their path, and you’ll see.

But, how do we do that? Follow their path, I mean. The story begins when Abraham—or rather, Abram, as he is named at first—just ups and leaves his home because God had told him to do so. But, what actually happened? How did God speak to him? Did he see a vision, or have a dream? Was there a flash of insight, or some profound realization? Did some divine messenger visit him? Was there some signs and wonders that pointed him the way? We don’t know. Genesis presents no further detail. And that is odd.

For example, throughout the Old Testament Bible, God first speaks to prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, in a special vision. In the book of Exodus, Moses first hears God from a burning bush. Even if we just remain in Genesis, God first speaks to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, in a dream about a ladder stretching from earth to the sky. Even Abraham, later in his life, hears from God when he sees a burning pot of fire moving between the sacrifices, and later, meets three strangers who turn out to be angels from God. But, in this very, very important first time that God speaks to Abraham, there’s no detail; we aren’t even told when he heard from God. Genesis simply writes, the LORD had spoken to Abram. That is, sometime before the story began, Abram was told to leave his home and go to a land that God will show him.  

So, those of us who want to follow in the path of Abraham and Sarah, runs into a wall from the very start. We don’t know how to start. How did Abram hear God? How did he even know that God was speaking to him?

But, let’s not panic, and calmly take a wider look at where we are in Genesis. We’ve just completed the primeval history accounts—specifically, the account of the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Please check out Season Two, to review what those accounts are trying to teach us. Genesis then presents a genealogy that follows the descendants of Noah, until it reaches a man named Terah, who is the father of Abram, and two other sons—Nahor and Haran. We read that Abram married Sarai, but they remain childless even after many years. Then, Terah takes his family and embarks on a journey from the city of Ur, in today’s southern Iraq, toward the land of Canaan, in today’s Israel and Palestine. But, on the way, for some reason, he stops and settles down in Harran, around today’s Syria or Turkey. And it is then that Genesis almost casually mentions that God had, sometime ago, spoken to Abram to leave his home. 

And this genealogy reveals one very interesting coincidence. In one of the episodes in Season Two—I think it was a bonus episode—I mentioned that I don’t quite know what to make of Genesis reporting that the individuals in primeval history lived for hundreds of years; Noah himself lived for 950 years. Well, the simplest reading is that they really did live that long, but, for most modern readers, this goes against what science says about our biological lifespans. More to the point, what numbers and time really means for various books in the Bible, is often notoriously difficult to figure out—a case in point, being the number of “days” in the Creation account in Genesis. 

But, we do know that across the world, a number of different cultures and peoples have attributed long lifespan to their ancestors. Here’s one example: the mythical first king of Korea is supposed to have lived for more than a thousand years. So, what does this mean? One theory is that his lifespan represents how long a dynasty, or perhaps the particular social structure formed by his reign, lasted. So, I think we can think of it this way. Ancient, and foundational figures, tend to represent entire eras that follow them. More ancient they are, larger stretch of time they cover. We still kind of think this way though, even with our meticulous habit of chronicling history. So, take the Americans, for example. We tend to remember each president who took office during our life time, more as individuals: as Biden, Trump, Obama, Bush, and so on. But, as we move more into the past, presidents blur together with ones that represent an era: the Reagan era; the Kennedy era; Franklin Roosevelt and the Second World War; Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery; George Washington and the founding of the nation. Peer beyond that to, say, thousands of years ago, the individuals can blur into archetypal, or legendary figures who define entire historical periods.

To put it in a different way, lifespan can represent influence—whether because they literally lived that long, or because they influence an entire era. Why am I saying all this? If we add up the years listed in Genesis genealogy, Noah dies 350 years after the Flood, and Abram left his home just mere 17 years after that. And sometime before then—maybe even sometime in between—God spoke to Abram.

[ pendulum ]

So, what Genesis seems to suggest is that Abraham’s story marks a new era, after that of Noah. But, that implies that the end what Noah’s era represented is the starting point of Abraham’s. Or, to put it in a wider perspective, the story of Abraham and Sarah, which begins with God having spoken to Abram sometime ago, starts from what the primeval history accounts in Genesis so far established. So, to understand what it means for Abram to have heard God speak, we need to return to the narratives of the primeval history, because if you remember, those accounts also do not present us with any detail on how God spoke to human beings, like Adam, Cain, or Noah.

In short, the primeval history depicts all of reality—the cosmic order, and everything that happens—as God speaking. It also declares that humanity is created to represent God to each other, and to the rest of the world. So, this means, humanity can “hear” God speak in every truth, and by engaging everything that happens, and every person in their lives, truthfully, lovingly, and in good faith. That’s why humanity’s relation to God becomes distorted when their world becomes filled with corruption, deceit, and violence. The account of the Flood then describes how God speaks—how reality unfolds—in response; their world unravels into a flood. But, Noah still “hears” God—he sees the truth of what is happening around him, and still lives a righteous life; so, Noah and his family builds an Ark, a small version of the world that remains good, which saves them from the world that unravels. Genesis then describes how humanity can again fail to “hear” God; they begin to build a city and a tower that will hold everyone perpetually in one place. But, God thwarts that project and sends humanity across the world. 

In the midst of all this though, there’s a loose thread that remains. God promises Noah that humanity’s relation to God will not deteriorate to the point that their world will again unravel. But, how? The answer, I think, is a new era that begins with Abraham. 

But, a new era, begins from the old. God spoke to Abram. But, there’s no further detail of how God spoke. That’s because what the Genesis account already established that every truth is God speaking. Or, in the words I used in episode 9, of the first season, “Reality communicates. That is its most fundamental character.” That’s why science can describe Nature, and why we can speak about justice, and why poetry and music is beautiful. So, God spoke to Abram. How? Well, how does any truth make itself known?

That depends what kind of truth it is. Truth that is being presented to Abram isn’t something you can reason your way into. “Go from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household, to a land God will show you.” This isn’t a conclusion reached through rational argumentation, or even some wise insight into what is happening in the world around him. Now, those too would be God speaking; but, neither is what is being personally spoken to Abram. What Abram is presented with is a call; it’s what he feels he has to do. And what he is being called to do is something that is in clear contrast to what those at Babel in the previous narrative in Genesis, tried to do: keeping everyone in one place. Instead, Abram is told to go, to leave where he is now.

And those of us today usually miss the significance of what Abram was being called to do—after all, the story of Abraham, Sarah, and their children, is adapted not to us, but to the ancient Hebrews and their culture, 2600 years ago. We need to work a bit more, to reach back to their time, to understand what is being said. For us, it’s natural to leave our parents’ house, to “live a life of your own.” But, for the Hebrews living in ancient Israel, you are supposed to live among your family and relatives. They often lived in a structure, literally called “the house of the father,” where generations of their extended family would live together, with relatives and kin living near-by. For us today, leaving your father’s household, would be akin to leaving your country, which Abram and Sarai also does. You are leaving behind the social structure, the established inheritance and legacy on which you stand, to go and start again basically from scratch. 

What is worse is that Genesis says that Abram and Sarai have no children. Again, for us, it’s not that big a deal for a couple to not have any children. But, for the ancient Hebrews, to have no children is tantamount to having no legacy—you’d have nothing to show for your life. Even today, this view remains with us in the form of our family name. You inherited your family name; your life is the continuation of your ancestor. In many cultures, people don’t have even family names—rather, they are called by their father, and their grandfather’s name; so, I’d be, for example, Paul, the son of John, the son of Sam. Abram and Sarai have no children, and so, they have nothing that will remain of their lives after they are gone. For their lives to still be counted—to matter—they would need to remain among their kin, their family.

Yet, Abram feels he needs to leave. So, how does he hear this call? In episode ten, and ten-point-ten, of the first season, we explored what it can mean for God to personally speak to people. Every truth is God speaking, but, on the other side of that is, the way we are presented with truth sometimes. All of us experience times when there are inner “voices” that speak to us when we try to find our way, or decide how to act. And these voices have certain personalities, which match the kind of actions, or way of life they want you to follow. So, the voice that tells you to fearfully hide from doing something you know you should do, manifests one personality, while that voice bitterly denouncing you as worthless for your failures manifests another; and the voice that gently but firmly chides you, yet encourages you to stand up reveals yet another. 

Today, we tend to think that these voices are “just our own thoughts.” But, the people in the past had a much more nuanced understanding. For them, these thoughts are no more solely in our own, than, say, recalling a beautiful song you heard is solely our own. They come from somewhere, beyond us. And these voices present themselves to you; they come to you, rather than you coming up with them. And in that sense, the voices that are particularly compelling are “spirits” that are speaking to you, beckoning you to follow their ways. And when they do so, the most important question that faces you is: which of these voices will lead you to a more truthful, meaningful life, changing you for the good, and bringing forth a better world, in the best possible way, not only in some occasion, but in every occasion, every time we listen? Because that’s the voice of God. That’s the voice from the One that speaks forth all of reality.

And it is that question, which Abram was answering when he and Sarai decided to leave his father’s house. He chose the voice that was saying, “Go forth. Leave your home, your old ways, and find something new—when you recognize it, that is God showing it to you.” And what if they follow this voice? What will happen if they follow this call? There is a further promise—a possible future that may come to pass. “I will make you into a great nation, and bless you. I will make you significant, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and those who treat you as insignificant, I will make them insignificant, and all the families of the world will be blessed through you.” This is how reality will unfold for you in response—what God will bring forth. 

But, then how did Abram know that this voice speaking within him is speaking the truth? To put it differently, how did he know that this is God speaking, the voice that speaks every truth, every time? The simple answer is: he didn’t. Or at least, he wasn’t sure. 

[ pendulum ]

It took a while—we aren’t told how long—before Abram decided to follow that voice, and leave his father’s house. His wife, Sarai, and his nephew, named Lot, went with him, along with their possessions and their house-servants. Was it because it took that much time for Abram to work up his courage? According to some Christian traditions, as well as Jewish ones, Abram waited until Terah’s death, to care for his father. The years don’t quite add up though. And there are other reasons to think Abram was hesitant. 

First is that Abram does not know where he should go; the voice did not tell him which land to go—only that God will show him that land, sometime in the future. So, they embark on a journey that was, simply put, the easiest to follow. Abram’s father, Terah, had already been journeying toward the land of Canaan from the city of Ur before he apparently changed his mind, and decided to settle down half-way. Now, the journey from Ur, in the land of Mesopotamia, to the land of Canaan, was quite common; for thousands of years, a major trade route went from the regions of Mesopotamia, to Anatolia—today’s Turkey—then to, Syria, Canaan, and eventually to Egypt, and back. Traders, herdsmen, and migrants have followed this route for ages, and Terah was just one of them. Unable to come up with any new ideas, Abram and Sarai decides simply to continue what their father began. 

It was a common, everyday journey, taken by common, unnoticed couple and their retinue. There was nothing remarkable about their journey, other than that Abram was listening to a voice that called to him. 

And it seems he wasn’t even confident about that. When they reach Canaan, God again speaks to Abram that his offspring will be given this land. Abram builds an altar in response, but decides to move on to Egypt because there’s famine raging in that land. Then, he becomes fearful, thinking that as a helpless foreigner, he can easily be killed by the Egyptians if they want to take his wife, Sarai, who happened to be quite beautiful. So, he asks Sarai to lie to people that she is Abram’s unmarried sister. Soon, a ruler of Egypt takes an interest in Sarai, and Abram lets her go. He lets her go, even though God had spoken to him in Canaan that their offspring will be given this land. 

The beginning of the journey of Abraham and Sarah was nothing special. Abraham followed the voice in his heart—a voice that he believed led him with truth. It’s the kind of thing any one of us could do, and perhaps has done. Even then, Abram only sort of believed; he likely hesitated before following the voice, and he didn’t quite believe what the voice spoke, so he moved away into Egypt during the famine, and then let his own wife go, when a powerful ruler showed an interest in her. As journeys go, it was a rather dismal start.

[ Music Genesis / ]

But, it was a start. 

Because you have to start somewhere

A voice spoke within him; it was compelling enough that he listened, as did his wife, Sarai. But, is what the voice speaking, true? Will following that voice bring forth a life and a world, more meaningful and worthwhile? They don’t know. But, they won’t know until they follow it and see. 

And that’s another reason why Genesis does not say how God spoke to Abram. When they started, they did not know how to recognize God speaking. Whatever it is that moves Abram to begin his journey, perhaps a feeling, perhaps some passing words in a conversation, has yet to carve a memorable mark in his life. 

But, for us, how we start, is not nearly as important as how we finish. After all, that’s why we learn, and grow, and change. Abram and Sarai will need to learn what it means to hear this voice that spoke to them. And it would take them a while.

And a bad start is still a start. And that is what their story invites us to do.

[ Music ending / ]

So, please join me next time, as we continue the life story of Abraham and Sarah, as they learn Who it is, that was speaking to them.

And please support this series, by following, subscribing, and sharing this series with others, and by rating it on your apple podcast platform. You can also support this series at buymeacoffee.com. The link for that is in the episode description.

[1] If this example is making you imagine some European sailors looking down at the indigenous Austronesian boats, you’d be—sigh—missing the point. Imagine instead that our Austronesian adventurers have now established a hyper-advanced ocean-going civilization sort of like Atlantis, or a seagoing version of Wakanda, from Marvel’s Black Panther series. Our world could have very well turned out this way, after all. And let’s say they’ve tasked us to mentor the explorers of younger civilizations, without interfering with their technological development. 

What can we say about Abraham as a real person?
What Christians are concerned about regarding the Bible
The silence on Genesis about how God spoke to Abram
How God speaks to all people according to Genesis
The voice that spoke to Abram
Did Abram know it was God speaking?