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WAY TO LIVE_DOT I (GOD) // CHAPTER 4
In Genesis 12, a man named Abram is from a wealthy and successful family. This man Abram will one day become Abraham, the father of what we now call the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In this story, God starts by telling Abram to leave everything he knows and go to a new place he’s never been. Imagine this is you, and if you don’t believe in God, pretend you do for this exercise. The omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God is talking directly to you about your life. God, who exists outside of time and space itself—in fact the creator of time and space itself—steps into your speck of a life at this point in history and tells you where you fit into the cosmic plan and what you need to do next.
This is something many of us wish God would do right now. “God just tell me exactly what to do about everything and I’ll go do it.” At least, that’s what I wish.
God goes further. He makes Abram a promise, and he even changes his name from Abram to Abraham. He promises Abraham he’s going to be the father of many nations. Something that we see as true today but seemed impossible at the time. Abraham is believed to be in his late seventies when God makes this promise, and he had no children.
When God changes his name, he also makes Abraham a promise. A covenant. Remember covenant? This promise is the promise. The Old Testament, the old covenant, is this covenant that God makes to Abraham. Part one in the story that God is telling, this kicks off the whole thing.
What is so important about this covenant? I introduced the idea of covenants in Chapter 3, but think about this time in history. You were only as good as your word. A covenant was a binding contract between two parties. There were privileges, stipulations, and responsibilities for each party. Often a covenant that was made in one generation endured for generations after. If your father made a covenant with someone else’s father, you were bound to honor that covenant, same with your children.
Covenants also were usually made between parties that saw each other as equals. It created an interdependency. People on both sides of the covenant were required to do their part to “uphold their end of the bargain.”
Considering the covenant that God made with Abraham, it is important that we understand this. Why? Because we are not, and never will be, on equal footing with the divine. God chose to make a covenant with Abraham and his people despite this disparity.
Abraham, just like you and I, had absolutely nothing to offer God.
I know a wealthy person who was once given a Christmas present by a friend. On the outside of the box, it said, “for the man who has everything.” What was inside the box? You guessed it, nothing.
That kind of gift is what Abraham brought to the covenant with God. It was not equal. Far from it. God got nothing and Abraham got everything.
This is the first key that we must understand to live the way we’re supposed to.
As the Old Testament progresses, we see that this plan—Abraham’s covenant—was only for one group of people. One family. Abraham’s blood relatives. God chose them and set them apart especially for him. Throughout the Old Testament, he leads them, guides them, creates laws for them and gives them a country to live in. All this promising and planning only applied to them.
Abraham had a son named Isaac; Isaac had a son named Jacob. Just as God changed the name of Abram to Abraham, he changed Jacob’s name to Israel. All of Jacob’s children and their descendants came to be known as the children of Israel, or Israelites. The thread of Abraham’s promise continued to weave its way through his family as well.
The stories of the Old Testament are the stories of this family. Most of us today lie outside of this family. We are called Gentiles. We are outsiders to the promise God made to Abraham in the Old Testament because the promise of Abraham was only for his family. This was also true for the people who Abraham and his family lived around. The laws and regulations of the covenant they made with God weren’t applicable to the Gentiles. That also meant the promises weren’t either.
The journey of Abraham and his family over the span of human history represents something significant: God keeps his promises. To this day, there are descendants of Abraham walking the earth, living in the land God gave to them. The contributions of Jews to the world are countless. Despite terrible hardships, this one family—the Jewish people—has seen God fulfill his promise for generations.
Why does the Old Testament matter to Gentiles then? We understand why it matters to the family of Abraham. We also see laws in the book of Leviticus that are hard to understand in the modern world. “Don’t wear makeup. Don’t get tattoos or earrings or mark your body.” The reason why these laws mattered to the family of Israel is because they were supposed to be special. They were asked to follow special laws that set them apart. There are Jews today that still follow many of these laws to set themselves apart. There are also people in fundamentalist Christian circles who have come to believe that we should still strive to follow these laws so that we can be “holy” and set apart.
But these laws were only meant to set the family of Abraham apart. We could follow them, but we still wouldn’t be set apart. Because if you’re not in the family, you’re not in the family. Technically, you can still follow the rules, but it won’t mean anything if you’re not in the family. The rules might be good rules, but they don’t get you into the family. Following the laws didn’t set the Israelites apart from the Gentiles because they were already chosen by God to be set apart. Following the laws God set reminded them and everyone else in a tangible way every day that they were chosen by God.
The Old Testament for many of us is a confusing picture of God. One day he is extending mercy to a murderer. The next day he’s telling people to kill women and children. How is that God loving or kind or benevolent? He seems angry and capricious.
Think about it this way. I’m a parent. I love and enjoy my children (most of the time). The problem is that I don’t really enjoy other people’s kids. I never have. I still don’t. The things other people’s kids do irritate me. I’m annoyed at watching the way other people’s children behave. I don’t mind when my child cries and screams on an airplane, but when I see a person get on a plane with a baby, my first thought is “Now I’m going to have to deal with this.” Is that fair? Probably not. I would say I’m working on it, but that would be a lie. I’m working on coping with it.
That analogy is imperfect, as are most regarding God. It is a struggle to try to comprehend a being that exists outside of existence. The fact remains that God chose one family as his family. The rest of these families are probably like annoying children on airplanes to him. I’m sure somewhere a professional theologian is shaking their fists at me for even drawing this comparison because God doesn’t think, feel, or act like the humans you and I are. The Old Testament, the old covenant, the old promise, represents a promise God made to just one group of people, not all people. You and I may not like that it happened, but that’s what happened. Most of the stories of the Old Testament are about God making sure his covenant that he made with this one family is fulfilled. The good news is that there’s a reason why the Old Testament is old.