To hear God speak to you, is to be presented with truth; they are the same thing. And God speaking to you often begins with uncertainty, because we don't know whether what is being presented to us really is true.
Abram and Sarai hears God speak to them in how they are moved, or inspired, to follow an inner call. "Something" guides them, and that "something" unfolds events in their lives that enable them to follow the call. Because of this, they learn that what this Voice speaks, is really true.
But, something more happens, and they gradually learn Who is speaking to them. Let's follow their journey (or for this episode, Abram's portion) to explore what happened.
2:02 Why there is uncertainty in hearing God speak
8:25 What Abram learned in Egypt
14:28 Abram's developing inner strength shown in Canaan
23:25 Abram's fateful meeting with Melchizedek
29:14 Abram learns that "God Most High" was speaking to him
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[ pendulum ]
The core narrative of the Genesis account of Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants is fundamentally about how individuals encounter and form a personal relationship with God. That is what the authors of Genesis is describing, through weaving together the different stories and traditions that were passed down to them.
Now, scholars may still debate over who put this account together and how, and about how much historical basis there may or may not be in the specifics of its narrative. But, its core is simply that: people in the past have come to relate to God personally—real people, like us, whose faith and experience we inherit and learn from… and there is a general pattern to what they go through.
That last part is important, because that is how we, today, can continue in their path, by following that pattern. In that narrative, Abraham, Sarah, and their children, gradually learn to relate to God; they learn over the years Who it is that is speaking to them.
Now, there are some Christian and Jewish rabbinic traditions, which seem to hold that from the very beginning, Abram more or less had the same monotheistic beliefs about God that we do. But, I don’t think that’s how Genesis presents it. There is a specific point—a turning point—when everything Abram experienced seem to come together, so that he comes to realize just Who has been speaking to him.
[ music / ]
So, let’s explore what led to that point in his life 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 fourth episode of the third season, “How Abram learned Who is speaking to him.”
[ / music ]
There is a kind of uncertainty whenever we hear God speak to us—and by that, I mean much more than just simply that we don’t know if we really are hearing from God, rather than imagining the whole thing, like some crazy religious person. Again, remember that in Christianity, all of reality is God speaking, and so, everything that happens around us is what God is speaking forth. And that in turn means, whenever you are presented with truth—anything that’s really true—you are hearing God speak; they are the same thing.
But, how do we know if something we are presented with really is true—and not just true, but wholly true, with no distortion or deception? ( Notice that I don’t say perfectly true, because as we found in the second season, we can only learn the truths that we are ready to learn. So, the truths we learn now will likely be incomplete; but, is the truth we are presented with, the best truth that we can learn now? ) And that’s hard to know. And that’s the basis of our uncertainty. To ask, am I really hearing from God, is the same thing as asking, is the truth I’m being presented with, really true?
And this question becomes especially urgent for us when it’s truths about where we are in life, where we need to go, and what’ll happen if we do so. After all, such truths guide and shape our lives. This returns us to the Genesis story of Abram and Sarai. The truth that they were presented with—what God was speaking to them—was that they must leave their homeland and their relatives, and go forth toward a new land, and that this journey will bring blessing not only to them, but to all the peoples of the world.
But, is that true? And if true, how strong of a truth is it?
That last bit probably was an odd question. Let me explain. So, say you are particularly moved by something, so that it changes your life goals and trajectory. So, for example, you were inspired by figures like Martin Luther King Jr. to join a nonviolent resistance movement against some injustice or tyranny in your country. Or, maybe you’ve decided to quit your multi-million dollar job, to help start a business that you think will change the world, like building efficient, electric cars. In each case, you were, in an important sense, presented with a kind of truth—truth about what will make your life meaningful, or make a difference in the world you live in. But, is it really true? How confident are you about this truth? Or, to put it in a different way, just how much can your truth withstand?
So, again, say your nonviolent resistance movement organizes a protest, but, it is put down violently, and the protest devolves into a riot, resulting in deaths and wide-scale destruction. How convinced are you of your truth now? Can your society really change? And is nonviolent resistance the way to do it? Or, have you just been deluding yourself? Or, say, the business you started is floundering, because this is back in the early 2000s, and people just aren’t interested in electric cars. Now, obviously you should’ve done your market research, but, there is an even more critical question before you. Maybe you shouldn’t even have started. Maybe your ideas were just delusions.
There is an uncertainty in chasing after a truth that is meaningful to you. That is what it means to say that there is an uncertainty in hearing God speak into our lives—at least, that’s one important aspect of it. And we are confronted with this uncertainty when our cherished truth is tested—when what moved us hits significant adversity.
However, remember again that for the ancients, when you feel particularly moved by something, these aren’t just some thought or an idea that you come up on your own. Rather, “that something” spoke to you. For many ancient cultures, these “somethings” were considered to be “tutelary spirits” that guide your life and actions. For example, in ancient Greece, Socrates, considered to be the father of Western philosophy, spoke of such a guiding spirit, which he called, literally, a “divine something.” He said that this “something” stops him from acting unethically, or speaking untruths. And these guiding voices were believed to be deities. That’s because whether it’s following certain virtues or principles, or conducting your life in a particular way in areas like war, or trade, or the crafts, when you follow their voice, your world unfolds in a certain way. And that is how, in the ancient world, you don’t merely believe that the gods exist; you perceive your gods this way ( Again, you can review this idea in the first episode of this season. )
Now, those of us in our modern world, with perhaps a more rigid way of thinking, may simply use the word, “personification” to understand this idea. Deities, or these voices, are simply “personifications” of the kind of principles, or actions, or aspects of our world; but, if you think about that from a different angle, there are these “personifications,” because each of these voices manifests a very particular personality whenever we experience them. They have personalities that fit their particular call, with relevant traits, like courage, or compassion, or truthfulness—or maybe violence, or vindictiveness, or deception, depending on what they call you to do. Of course, it’s not as simplistic as this, but, I’m sketching out the general gist of things here.
But, then the question is, just how powerful is the voice that’s guiding you? Or, another, modern way of saying it is, how real is the truth—or the ideals—that has moved you? Can your truth fail? Can your guiding voice be rendered powerless?
And in Abram’s case, he didn’t know. Egypt is where he begins to get an answer.
The voice that led Abram to the land of Canaan, spoke to him that this land will be the future home of his descendants. But, Abram and Sarai had no children between them. So, that was the first, and the most obvious obstacle to what this voice promised. Still, Abram built an altar to this voice—to this guiding Spirit—that spoke to him. But, there was a severe drought in the land, so, Abram and Sarai leave for Egypt instead.
Now, even in the time of Abraham, Egypt was old; for centuries upon centuries before he was born, it had been the center of power and wealth in the ancient world. The Nile River and the fertile lands that it produced enabled Egypt to become a superpower from the earliest times in recorded history. And a ruler of that perpetually powerful and ancient nation took a liking to Sarai, Abram’s wife.
Abram, if we were to describe him in our terms—if we were to adapt his character to our time—would be an owner of a small trading company, notable enough perhaps to feature in a local newspaper. But, in the end, he is still only a powerless foreigner, even if a fairly wealthy one. And Abram felt vulnerable before those that reigned over this unfamiliar land. So, fearing for his life, he asked Sarai to lie that she was not his wife, but his sister, and this ruler took Sarai into his courts as one of his wives. And trying perhaps to impress his new wife, the ruler then granted all sort of favorable business opportunities and privileges to the person he thought was his new brother-in-law.
So, Abram and Sarai now confront that very uncertainty that we described earlier. Sarai is the inseparable partner to the promise that Abram received, but she now belongs to the ruler of Egypt. But, then, what happens to the promise—that Abram and Sarai will be blessed, and they will have descendants together who will inherit a new land? Is the truth that had moved them, still true? Or, was the voice that spoke to Abram lying? Or is it simply what this voice spoke is rendered void before the might of a nation—and not just any nation, but one whose power is as enduring as civilization itself?
And again, this is more than just about facing a powerful ruler of a powerful nation. In the ancient world, rulers and nations embody their gods. The ruler of all of Egypt, the Pharaoh, was believed to be the sun-god in life, and the god of the underworld in death. Which is to say, the Pharaoh embodied the most significant truths about life and death held by the Egyptian society; he ruled, at least in principle, in accordance to the voices that guide and shape the Egyptians as a society. And in that way, Egypt—as with any ancient civilization, really—embodied their gods; their lives and their society are shaped and ordered by the powers, principles, and truths that they believe shape and order their world. And in the midst of that powerful nation, embodying their great and ancient gods, the Genesis narrative had placed a small, foreign family, guided by an unknown voice that had presented them with a seemingly modest truth about the legacy they will leave in the world—their descendants and the land they will live.
And the truth of what it spoke, is now threatened. What can such a voice, guiding that single family, do before Egypt and its ruler, and the powerful voices that guide them?
Then, something happens. A serious illness begins to spread among the ruler’s entire household. He investigates what is causing it—why his gods are unfolding his world in this way, bringing about this calamity. Then, he discovers that he has taken someone else’s wife. He calls Abram and reprimands him. “Why didn’t you tell me the truth?” He asks. “Why did you say she was your sister, and not your wife, so that I took her?” Then, he sends Sarai back to Abram, and tells the entire family to leave.
And Abram and Sarai learn that the seemingly small voice that had spoken to them in the land of Canaan could unfold events, even in Egypt, to ensure that what it spoke remains true. The voice that spoke to them could guide and shape the actions of the Egyptians just as their most powerful and venerated gods do, to the extent that even the rulers of Egypt had to follow. And so, Abram and Sarai began to have a glimpse of just who it is that has been speaking to them.
Another way of thinking about it is that they learned the power of their modest truth. It was a rather small-scale truth about what will happen—a promise that they will have children, who will make a home in a new land. But, it wasn’t wishful thinking. It was real, and this truth could supersede even the seemingly most unassailable truths about their world, such as that of the power of Egypt and its rulers. This is because though they do not know this, the One who spoke this truth is That which speaks forth all of reality and history. And their modest journey and dreams turns out to be a part of an unimaginably larger journey that relates humanity to this God that speaks forth all truths. And with this, Genesis is repeating a key theme; every human can hear God speak—“God” with a capital “G,”—and everyone, no matter how humble their status or origin, can be moved and guided by something that is infinitely and limitlessly true; for now, they may only see a small part of that truth and its significance, but hearing and following that call can be of greater worth than the greatest of empires.
[ pendulum ]
So, Abram left Egypt a changed man. It was not a radical change, but we can see subtle but notable signs in the stories that immediately follow.
It’s harder though to say how this changed Sarai; the Genesis account largely follows Abram’s perspective, after all. How did she feel about what happened in Egypt, or what Abram asked her to do? Was she disappointed? Or did she agree that there was no alternative? What did she come to believe about the voice that promised her children, after seeing how events unfolded in Egypt to free her from its ruler? We don’t quite know. But, I think we can catch a closer glimpse into her perspective and her conscious role in this journey in the later narratives that involve another woman who will enter into their lives: Hagar. But, we will have to wait until the next episode for that.
For this episode, we will be following Abram. After leaving Egypt, Abram immediately returns to where he first built an altar to the voice that spoke to him. There, Genesis reports that Abram again called upon the name of the LORD, which is the Biblical phrase for praying; Abram again seeks the voice that spoke to him in this land, and had unfolded the series of events in Egypt that brought him and his wife back here.
Now, during his stay in Egypt, partly because of his deception regarding his wife, and partly because of seeming happenstance, things worked out favorably for Abram—at least economically speaking. His flocks of livestock multiplied, and his wealth increased. And not just his—you may remember that when Abram left his home and relatives, his nephew, Lot, had followed him. Now, his nephew had his own possessions—his own business, if you will—and they were getting in each other’s way. Both had a large flock of livestock, and the land they stayed couldn’t support both.
And here’s where Abram shows the signs of change from what happened in his time in Egypt. He is less pressured, and more confident and generous. First, he lets Lot strike out on his own. This is alone is significant because, again, Abram and Sarai have no children, and if you don’t have children in the ancient world, you have no heirs, and that means you have no legacy. Lot was the closest thing to a son that Abram has. And in that sense, Lot is his insurance, in case Abram and Sarai remain childless. Yet, Abram lets Lot go his own way. Then, Abram has Lot choose where he wants to settle; Lot gets the first pick, and Abram will take what remains.
The voice that spoke to Abram promised him descendants, and a homeland. Abram and Sarai saw firsthand the truth of this promise—that things will unfold in the way that this voice spoke, bringing forth events that befall and move even the rulers of Egypt. They’ve learned that there is something real to this promise. So, Abram can afford to be generous; he can afford to let Lot go, and let him take the land of his choice. The voice that guides Abram is able to bless him regardless; the One that speaks to him is not just some stray thought, or a powerless spirit. So, Lot leaves Abram. Then, God speaks to Abram again, promising that he will have descendants—so many that it would be like counting the dust of the earth.
As for Lot, he chose a land that seemed to offer him the greatest opportunity—the rich plains of the Jordan river, near the city of Sodom. There has been many speculations on the identity of Sodom, and its sister city, Gomorrah. Traditionally, the salty wastes around the Dead Sea were associated with Sodom, but whether the city really was there, we can’t say. It is quite possible that there was a city in that region, which was destroyed by a natural disaster, and so, became the basis for the story of Sodom. The problem is, there were many, many towns and cities in the ancient Levant, and there could have been any number of natural disasters. The Jordan River plains sit near a major fault line, and an earthquake there could have unleashed a rain of burning tar upon near-by towns. There’s even a recent scientific article that hypothesized a meteor exploded above the sky near the Dead Sea region some 3600 years ago or so, which would have rained down fireballs below. All these are speculations though.
What isn’t a speculation is what the city of Sodom represents in the Bible. It is a rich and prosperous city. But, it also has a dark side. It is as greedy as it is wealthy; it is as cruel as it is powerful. It is a society that resembles the world that unraveled in the Flood. But, its enticing wealth and power draws Lot, who decides to settle there. This would turn out to be grave a mistake, however.
Soon after, the five cities in the Jordan plains, including Sodom and Gomorrah, revolt against an alliance of kings in Mesopotamia. Commonly called the battle of Siddim, the rulers of Sodom, Gomorrah, and other three cities clashed with the kings of Elam, Shinar, Ellasar, and Goyim. Again, there are different theories as to who these kings were, and what this battle was. For example, Shinar is one name for Babylon, and the king of Shinar, according to Genesis, is named “Am’raphel.” This sounds quite close to Ammurapi, known to us as “Hammurabi,” the king of Babylon who reigned 3700 years ago. But, is Hammurabi this king of Shinar in Genesis? Again, we are faced with the problem we explored in the previous episodes about the historical accuracy of Genesis. The short answer is, we don’t know. There’s nothing in the historical records from that time that we can reasonably identify with this battle, even if we can’t completely rule it out either. It may even be that Genesis is presenting the account of this battle as a metaphor to describe the enduring historical relation between the Levant, including the Jordan plains, and Mesopotamia; for many centuries, the great nations in Mesopotamia exerted power over the smaller city-states and kingdoms in the Levant, who periodically rebelled. That was how it was when Abram and Sarai lived, and that was how it was for their descendants too. That was the world in which they had to build their lives.
The significance of the story is not the battle itself, however. The Mesopotamian kings easily crush the armies of the Jordan plains, and their armies plunder the cities, taking many of the inhabitants of these cities as captives. Including Lot and his family. Abram hears the news, and he calls upon some tribal leaders in the region that he had since befriended, and takes 318 trained warriors—I mention this, because it’s a curiously specific number. Anyway, his band of warriors and allies ambush the returning army from multiple directions, and routs them. And so, Abram rescues his nephew, Lot, along with the other captives, and recovers the wealth that was plundered from Sodom and the other cities.
Again, whether this specific rescue happened in history is unknown; again, it could be that Genesis is presenting this account of Abram’s battle as an extended metaphor to describe what happens in the lives of those who come to form a relationship with God, like he does. They become more and more able to stand up to the powers of the world, and make a difference. Either way, whether the battle is literal or metaphorical, Genesis is describing a man who has been changing because of his experience of what God has brought about in his life. He now faces the world and its powers in a different way. The man who feared the rulers of Egypt, and gave up his wife, now has the courage to strike at the rulers of Mesopotamia. The voice that spoke and guided his life brought forth the events that rescued his wife from the ruling powers of Egypt; and Abram who has been hearing that voice, is now able to bring together something that could rescue his nephew from the ruling powers of Mesopotamia.
It is then, that something I believe is pivotal happens to Abram. On his way back, he has a fateful encounter with a priest-king named Melchizedek.
And there, he learns the name of the One who has been speaking to him.
[ pendulum ]
Melchizedek is a mysterious character. He suddenly appears in the story, and he never appears again afterward. His name means either, “king of righteousness,” or “my king is righteousness,” and Genesis reports that he was the king of the city of Salem, and the priest of God, Most High, which in Hebrew is, El-Elyon. I’ll explain why I am mentioning the Hebrew wording soon.
When Abram brings the captives and the plunder back to Sodom, Melchizedek meets Abram with bread and wine. Then, he says to Abram, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High—El-Elyon—the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and blessed be El-Elyon, who has delivered your enemies into your hands.”
Then Genesis simply says that Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth of all his possessions; there is no further explanation. Abram hears the words of this priest-king he likely met for the first time, and then simply decides to give him a tenth of everything he has. But, there is a meaning behind this short sentence; for the Jewish readers of Genesis, you give the priests of your faith a tenth of your wealth for the role they serve in your society. So, for Abram to give a tenth of his wealth to Melchizedek means that Abram considers him to be his priest. That is to say, Abram recognized that Melchizedek is the priest of his God—the priest of the voice that has been speaking to him.
And I think this is a pivotal moment. Abram learns Who was speaking to him. He learns that the One who spoke to him, is El, the Creator. And here’s why I think this.
Before this point in the story, and for a while after, Genesis simply says that “Yahweh” spoke to Abram. Again, if you’re wondering, in the English Bible, “Yahweh,” is usually translated as the LORD, all capitalized, and sometimes GOD all capitalized. And Abram in turn calls upon the name of the LORD, which is a phrase that appears throughout Genesis, literally meaning, “call upon the name of Yahweh.” In their conversations, Abram and Sarai also refer to God as the LORD, as “Yahweh.”
But, there’s something very odd here. The book of Exodus, which presents an account set centuries after the time Abraham lived, a man named Moses encounters the God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who speaks to him and calls him to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt. Then, later, God says to Moses that his ancestors, including Abraham, did not know God by the name of “Yahweh.” God appeared to them by the name of “God Almighty,” which in Hebrew, is El-Shaddai.
So, what’s going on? Again, scholars believe that the different names of God, such as “Yahweh,” or “Elohim,” or “El,” point to different religious threads or traditions that were being woven together into the books like Genesis and Exodus. There were those who called God, “Yahweh,” and those who called God, “Elohim,” and so on, and different groups all had their say. However this does not, in any way, address the question of just what teaching or idea that these books were trying to convey by introducing these different names. I mean, even if you don’t believe that people wrote these books with the divine inspiration from God, you’d think that they still would have noticed the glaring oddity of Abram and Sarai referring to God as “Yahweh,” and then having God telling Moses later that they did not know God by that name. And it’d be odd that they sort of shrugged and left that part in, unless they thought there was meaning to it.
Well, one answer could be that God was saying to Moses that they did not know the real meaning of that name. So, way back in the 7th episode of the first season, we went over how the personal name of God in the Bible—“God,” with the capital “G,”—means “I am that I am,” or “I will be that I will be,” or “I cause to be what I cause to be.” And this isn’t really a name, as much as an idea of the unbounded and infinite reality that brings forth everything that happens. But, that is the name of God that is spoken to Moses in the book of Exodus, and the Hebrew wording points to the name, “Yahweh.” So, it may be that Exodus is saying Abram and Sarai, and their descendants, until Moses, did not know the meaning of the name.
It could also very well be that since the Genesis account is adapted to the Hebrew readers who already called their God, “Yahweh,” and “Elohim,” Abram and Sarai refers to God by the name that their descendants are familiar with. They call God, “Yahweh,” and call upon the name of Yahweh, sort of like how in our English Bible, Abraham and Sarah says, “the LORD,” and “God Almighty,” rather than Yahweh and El-Shaddai.
Either way—and I think it’s both—this would mean that neither Abram nor Sarai fully knew Who has been speaking to them. They did not know the name of this Voice, or if they did, they didn’t know the meaning of that name. And that in turn means they do not really know Who has been speaking to them, other than that this Voice speaks truth, and that not even the powers of Egypt and of Mesopotamia can prevail over it.
It is then that Melchizedek speaks to Abram. “Blessed is Abram by El-Elyon, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.” And things are put into place for Abram.
The name, “El-Elyon,” is related to the name of a Canaanite deity, “El.” The inhabitants of the land Abram lived were Canaanites, and in their mythology, “El,” was the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and was the father to all the gods. This was why all the gods in the Canaanite pantheon, together, was called “Elohim,” which if you remember was another name for God, with the capital “G,” in the Bible. But, importantly, for the Hebrews, all the powers of all the gods were One, and so, God was Elohim, singular. For the Canaanites, the gods were Elohim, plural, because they were from El.
There is a Latin term, Deus Otiosus, which describes a Deity, usually the Creator of the cosmos, who then lets the younger deities—usually their children—to rule the world. The idea occurs in different cultures throughout the world. One example, close to the ancient Hebrews, is the Mesopotamian deity, “Anu,” who created the Cosmos, and the gods in that mythology were called “Anunnaki,” the children of Anu. In the Canaanite mythology, this creator deity was “El,” who was believed to dwell upon a mountain, which was the center and pillar of the cosmos. That latter description about the mountain is interesting because God would later appear to Abraham, and declare that He is “El-Shaddai,” which is translated as “God Almighty,” but, the term may have derived from the words which meant, “God of the Mountain.”
Am I reading into it too much? After all, the Hebrew understanding of God in the Bible would be drastically opposed to the Canaanite understanding of the deity named, “El.” But, I think the opposition is based on a common root belief in the creator, which both the Bible and the Canaanites called, “El.” The Bible is then rejecting the aspects of that belief that seem to lead to idolatry. I think at the very least, Melchizedek’s reference to “El,” who the people around Abram worshipped as the creator of the cosmos, and as the “Most High,” of the gods, gave Abram a framework with which to understand his experience of this Voice that spoke to him, and brought things to pass.
Abram was able to structure his personal experience through an existing religious idea. He would need to journey further, but this was a milestone—a conscious turning point.
And I think Genesis implies this because of two things that happened immediately after Abram meets Melchizedek. The king of Sodom tries to reward Abram by offering him all the plunder from Sodom that was retrieved from the armies of Mesopotamia. Abram replies by saying, “I have sworn by God, Most High, El-Elyon, that I will not take even a smallest thing from you, so that you can’t say I’ve made Abram rich.” Abram does not want to be indebted to a ruler of a corrupt and evil society, even if his nephew happens to live there. But, note the wording: Abram suddenly uses the exact same wording that Melchizedek used, to refer to God. He says the Voice that had guided him, the Voice Abram followed and sworn by, is “El-Elyon.”
But, there’s something more that happens after this point—something else that makes me think this event was pivotal for him.
[ Music Genesis / ]
After this battle, the LORD appears to Abram in a vision, and speaks to him. “Don’t be afraid, I am your shield, and great will be your reward.”
Then, for the first time in the story, Abram replies. “O Lord GOD,” he says, “What can you give me since I remain childless, and my heir is not my son?”
Abram speaks to God in response. He no longer merely hears God speak; he is no longer merely being presented with truth; the Voice no longer simply speaks to him. Abram talks back. With everything that he has learned, he feels comfortable enough to now address God, and openly voice his fears and questions.
Abram can now converse with God.
And with this, Abram enters a personal relationship with God—a relationship God initiated when He first spoke to him. Now, they can speak to each other like friends.
And the story of Abram and God can now truly start.
[ Music ending / ]
So, please join me next time, as we continue what happened as Abram and Sarai opens a new chapter in their relationship with God, pulling in other characters like Hagar, and her son, Ishmael.
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