The Hero of the Faith as a Migrant: Abraham on the Move
Nov 13, 2009 by M. Daniel Carroll R. | 1 Comments
From the very beginning of time humans have been on the move. Different reasons drive people to migrate to other lands. Sometimes it is desperation that causes them to go to a new place; war, disease, and hunger have been constant threats to life and have generated migrations throughout history. In other cases, people simply because they desire better circumstances and a different future for themselves and their families. Perhaps the situation in their place of origin is problematic or prospects are not good; the hope is for a new start elsewhere.
What is the case of the narratives in the Bible? Well, one finds all sorts of reasons for people moving in the biblical accounts. If we go to the opening chapters of Genesis, the first movements are not a good thing; in fact, the first “migrations” are related to rebellion against God. Adam and Eve are sent away from the Garden after the Fall at the end of chapter 3 (3:23-24). In chapter 4, Cain is sent wandering as a judgment after murdering his brother Abel (4:12-16). After the debacle of the Tower of Babel, humanity is scattered (11:8-9). They had refused to obey the command to fill the earth (1:28; note 11:4!), so God forces them to disperse, thus generating migration. The situation is quite different for Abram.
What many forget is that the life of Abram/Abraham, the father of the faith, is a tale of migration. First he moved with his father Terah, his wife Sarai, Lot, and others from their home in Ur (situated along the Euphrates River, southeast of the Babylon) to the city of Haran, hundreds of miles away to the northwest (Genesis 11:31). Why did Terah and the others leave Ur? Were things difficult in Ur socially, politically, economically, or religiously? We do not know; the text does not say. After Terah’s death, God called Abram to leave Haran and travel hundreds of miles to the southwest to Canaan. He continued all the way to the Negev (11:32-12:9).
Abram, later renamed Abraham (17:5), is constantly on the move. This may have been his chosen lifestyle, if he were something akin to a Bedouin. We do know that when Sarah dies, he has to purchase property from the Hittites in order to have a place to bury her (ch. 23). On the other hand, circumstances force migration: hunger pushes him and his family, servants, and flocks to seek sustenance in Egypt (12:10-20). Later they move to Gerar, south of the Philistine city of Gaza (ch. 20) and other places as well, such as Beersheba (21:32-34) and Hebron (23:2).
These experiences and others constitute tests of trusting in the God who had called him. At times the patriarch fails: he does not tell the full truth about Sarah his wife in Egypt or in Gerar (Is this a case of a migrant playing with the truth a bit to survive?), and he mishandles things with Hagar (chs. 16, 21). On other occasions, he is a pillar of strength: he allows Lot to choose the choicest land and believes in the provision of God (ch. 13), rescues his nephew (ch. 14), listens to God anew (chs. 15, 17), is hospitable to strangers and intercedes for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (ch. 18), and in obedience is willing to sacrifice the son of promise (ch. 22). In the good and the bad, his life has much to teach migrant and non-migrant alike.
All this to say that the life of the patriarch is shaped by his experience of migrating. Through disappointment and joy, letdowns and victories, he grows in faith, and it is reckoned to him for righteousness (15:6) and is commended by God (22:15-18). The book of Isaiah reminds Israel of Abraham’s example (Isa. 51:1-3), and the apostle Paul points to Abraham as the supreme model of faith (Romans 4). Migration marked Abraham’s physical life, but it also was the driving force of a pilgrimage of faith that made him into a friend of God (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8).
Can we truly understand Abraham if we do not recognize him as the perpetual immigrant?