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Along the Way
A Journey Begins
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The Stranger who created the world and saved Noah from the flood gets personal in this tale of a businessman who turns to wandering in a land he doesn't know. 

The family business was making and selling idols. They were images of the spirits and gods who were believed to be the spiritual rulers of Chaldean society. The more pious members of the community admired the public service Abrams family provided in making images of their gods and household spirits available. After all, one could never be in tight enough with the gods. The more cynical members considered Abram and his family parasites, living off the superstition of ignorant peasants. The truth was probably somewhere in between.

Abram had a gift for business. He could bargain an outrageous deal from anyone and leave the person thinking that they had gotten the best of Abram. Under his management the family business had expanded and profits had more than doubled. He had been able to work several contracts with the Chaldean army for battle idols at inflated prices. Then he started a fad among Chaldean children to have their own idols. Sales to the children alone brought in twice the profit his father had seen in many years of managing the business. He served on the board of the Ur chamber of commerce and was elected businessman of the year at least twice. However, if you sat Abram down and plyed him with tankards of ale his secrets would soon come tumbling out.

His most terrible secret was that he didnt believe in the gods he made. He figured that any god that could be made by human hands wasnt much of a god. He realized that the idols were merely representations of the gods but even the gods they represented seemed a bit too human in their lusts, violence, anger and self-indulgence to be worth anyones worship. There was a yearning in his heart for something more; a god who embodied not vice but virtue, a god whose power brought blessing not suffering.

One day a stranger came into shop and looked around at the idols. The man caught Abrams attention for he was tall, powerfully built, and hairy. That is, he had long dark hair and a thick beard dressed in a manner different from most of the Caldean men with whom Abram had acquaintance. There was nobility about the man, perhaps in his bearing, but also a sense that danger lurked not far from this stranger. Abram went up to him to offer any assistance the man might need. As he did so, the man turned to Abram and observed. "The skill that went into these figures is considerable. You have talented sculptors in your employ. Too bad all of this work is for no purpose."

Abram wasnt sure how to respond. As a seller of idols he had a responsibility to promote the product. Yet, in his heart, he had to agree with the stranger. As he stood there trying to think of a fitting response, the room seemed to grow unusually quiet. Then the stranger spoke again. This time his voice had an authority and power that Abram had not noticed earlier.

"Abram Ben Terah, I am a messenger of the one you seek. Leave the comfort of Ur and head west. If you do, you will find blessings. You will become the friend of the one God."

Before he could say anything the stranger was gone. He was very confused. At one level, Abram was overjoyed at this miraculous intervention. The prayers of his heart had been answered and he knew what he must do. Yet, at another level he was half convinced that the stranger was nothing more than a poorly digested fig and an over active imagination. If he were to leave, the stranger would have to do more than say a few mysterious words and disappear. The main obstacle to any pilgrimage west would most certainly be father. Terah would not be happy.

That evening Abram and his new wife, Sari, were to eat with Terah. The older man had been despondent in recent months after the death of Abrams brother, Nahor. The plan was that they would cheer him up a bit.

Terah arrived late, causing Sari and Abram some worry. Then without as much as eating one of the fancy appetizers Sari had worked on much of the afternoon, Terah began speaking to the couple.

"You must go. I have just awoken from the strangest dream I have ever experienced. It was as if one of the spirits came down and spoke to me. I was told that your destiny is elsewhere. You have been given a special mission and you must begin your work. Take Sari and I will accompany you to Haran. We will prepare for the greater journey there and when the time is right you will be directed to your destiny. Take Lot, your brothers young son, and bring him with you. Raise the lad as if he was your own flesh and blood."

So Abram, Sari, and Lot set out for Haran to await Terah, who was gathering the needed supplies and workers for the trip. This was no easy project, as Terah was relatively wealthy, as wealth was measured back in those days. He would leave enough wealth to provide for Nahors wife but his son and grandson were setting off on a journey from which they would never return to Ur. He wanted them to have their inheritance in advance, as it would do the most good now. It was almost a month before Terah could join Abram and the others. They had begun to worry about Terah but when they saw a long caravan approaching with camels loaded with goods, accompanied by over a hundred servants, with Terah at its head, they were in shock.

They waited in Haran for some sign that Abram was to move on and exactly where he was to go. In the meantime they conducted business among the merchants and grew even richer. Indeed, they were forced to hire on more servants to handle the additional herds of sheep and goats they acquired. After several months of waiting Abram sat tending a fire one evening, wondering to himself whether he was a fool or not for heading out from the comfortable life of Ur to a life of uncertainty on the basis of the few words of a stranger or his fathers dream. As he thought someone walked up behind him.

"Excuse me for interrupting your thoughts. May I join you?"

Abram looked up to welcome the person, when he froze in shock. It was the mysterious stranger! In a manner most unlike the genial Abram, he immediately sat down and stared into the fire, not greeting the stranger or offering him a seat by the fire.

"Who are you? What do you want? Are you some demon who haunts my fathers dreams and stirs up false hope in my heart?"

"I would be your friend." Responded the stranger.

Abram sat quietly for several minutes, reflecting on the strangers offer. Then, in a calm voice he asked, "What is it that you wish to tell me?"

"Terah has divided his property and given a just inheritance to his heirs. He does this not only to provision you for your journey. He is preparing for his own great journey. Where he is going material possessions are unnecessary. Wait here until he leaves. Once he is gone, it will be time for you, Sari, Lot and all your servants to set out on your journey. Head west. I will show you where to stop when you reach the place. Do this and you will be a great nation. You will be blessed. Your name will be known to the most distant generation and will be taken as a blessing. Indeed, those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you will receive themselves whatever they wish upon you.

Almost in defiance of the strangers words several years passed with Abram and his family remaining in Haran and Terah enjoying good health. Abram was thankful that his father remained with him but wondered at the instructions of the stranger. Was this stranger nothing more than a figment of his imagination? Then one morning Terah spoke to Abram of the dream he had the previous evening.

"Nahor came to me in the dream and informed me that he would return in one week. When he comes I shall join him and together we shall journey to Eden."

Abram knew that his fathers time had come. The visit from his brothers spirit could mean only that his father was about to undertake the journey of death to this world and birth to the kingdom of the spirit. This was also a time of decision for himself. He had set out on his quest but was by no means certain that what he was doing made any sense. The mysterious stranger came and left those two times and was never seen again. Indeed, no one had seen the stranger other than himself. The visits were so brief that he wasnt sure that the stranger was anything more than a figment of his imagination. He didnt believe in the gods that his fathers idols were supposed to represent. Why should he believe in the mysterious stranger? On the other hand, he dreamed often of a great nation that would call him father for generations upon generations to come. There was a yearning in his heart to set out on the quest, following his dream no matter what may come of it. The time for discernment was almost past. Once his father was buried he must either head west as the stranger instructed or return to Ur. Either way, he would have to commit himself to a path and follow it. Whatever the choice, there would be no turning back.

Needless to say, a week later Terah was dead. Not long after the funeral, Abram, as the new patriarch of the clan, set out westward with his family, servants, and all their possessions.

Abram traveled for many days. Eventually they reached a area called Canaan, not far from the westward sea. One day as they camped near a great oak tree, Abram was lost deep in thought when he heard a twig snap behind him. He turned quickly to see the mysterious stranger standing and smiling at him.

"Welcome to Canaan my friend!"

"It is you!" responded Abram.

"This is the land that I will give to your descendents. For now others occupy it and I will not put them out just yet. However, remember that I shall keep my promise. This land will is for your descendents."

"If this land is to belong to my descendents, what is it that you wish of me? Why have you brought me here?"

"I brought you here that you may set your roots in this land. I have brought you here that you might be my friend. Travel about the land of Canaan and learn of its hills and valleys, the deserts and forests, the rivers and lakes. Get to know the people of Canaan for they are your neighbors. Learn of their virtues and faults. What is good keep for your benefit. What is evil, turn away from and in no way copy. Remember, do not copy what evil the Cananites practice."

Abram blinked and the stranger was gone.

Sari hoped that Abram would settle before long but even after their arrival in Canaan he continued to be restless. He claimed that this land would belong to his descendents and he wanted to explore it. So, over the next few years the entourage continued its peregrinations about Canaan. Since there were many sheep and goats there was a practical excuse for the movement, as the herds needed grazing land. Yet, the obvious reason was that Abram wanted to learn all he could about Canaan.

 

It happened that after they had been in Canaan for a few years there was a drought that dried up all of the grazing land and destroyed the few crops that had been planted. The resulting famine caused tremendous hardship for the people of Canaan. Abram saw his herds begin to shrink as a result and realized that if something were not done soon all would be dead, including him. The Egyptian government considered Canaan to be something of a loosely affiliated territory of Egypt. The Cananites paid tribute and Egyptian military patrols guarded the area from bandits. As a result, many of the Cananites headed for Egypt during the drought. Abram thought that it would be wise to join them. He would leave his herds and servants in Canaan under the care of his nephew Lot who had grown to be a strong and wise young man. Then he, Sari and a few servants would go to Thebes to negotiate what assistance was possible under the circumstances.

Now, among the Chaldian and even the Cananites, it was considered poor form to mess with women who were not officially available to be courted. One might end up with missing body parts if he were not sufficiently prudent. Among the Egyptians however, the tie that binds absolutely did not exist. If a man desired a woman, he pursued her even if she were married. If the husband got to be too insistent about marital fidelity, it was not uncommon for him to make a one way trip to visit his ancestors in the next world.

I mention this because Sari was an uncommonly beautiful woman. She had been her high school "Homecoming Queen" back in Ur. Everyone considered Abram a usually lucky man to have gotten her to marry him. She was a real catch and the only thing Abram had going for him was his fathers business. Of course, Sari found Abrams honest but charming personality intriguing. She also saw his inner struggles as a sign of a spiritual depth that attracted her. For years every morning Abram would pinch himself just after waking. He thought that he must be dreaming that this vision of loveliness laying beside him was actually his wife! As they approached Egypt however, he was unusually distracted and quiet. Sari was concerned and after they camped for the evening she inquired what was bothering him.

"You are a beautiful woman, Sari. The years only add charm and mystery to a beauty beyond compare. I look at you and my heart skips a beat. I fear that when the Egyptians see you they will desire you. They are not like other men. They do not respect the bonds of marriage or human life. If they see a woman they desire, a husband is of little consequence. I fear that you may soon be a widow if anyone discovers that you are my wife."

Sari thought for a moment and then spoke just as Abram seemed about ready to continue his explanation.

"So, you want me to pretend to be your sister while we remain in Egypt! That way people will be less likely to see the need to eliminate you."

"I could not have said it better myself."

As anyone who has seen or read a Shakespearean comedy would know, "oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!" This little agreement would lead to many problems for Abram and Sari. Certainly we should be able to expect more from a "friend" of God and a father of a great nation. Indeed, he was the root of the nation from which the Messiah would branch. Could we not expect better? Probably not! Abram was human and as concerned for his neck as the next guy. Sari loved him for some strange reason and did not want to become a widow before her time. If Abram was to be the father of a great nation, she wanted to be the mother. That goal required that they both survive at least for a while longer.

So, whether it was good or bad, they did what was necessary to survive. As they expected, the pharaohs officers took one look at Sari and ran to their boss with the scouting reports. Before the pharaoh could tell his harem master to make room for one more, the officers were sharpening their swords. Very quickly the Egyptian welcome wagon pulled up to the campsite of Abram and Sari, inquiring about the visitors. The swords were put away when it was explained that Abram and Sari were sister and brother. Both were invited to the palace. To make a long story short, Sari ended up in the harem and Abram ended up with a good deal of additional wealth and supplies to hold them over during the famine.

While not particularly pleased with the situation, both Abram and Sari were alive and would be able to feed their servants and relatives, renew the herds, as well as see that next years crops get planted. They were trying to figure a graceful way to get out of their dilemma when the strangest thing happened. People in the Pharaohs household started getting sick. So many people were sick that the Pharaoh thought something was not quite right and asked for his soothsayer and staff epidemiologist to examine the situation. After an exhaustive investigation they reported to the Pharaoh that one of the gods was angry. It appears that Abram and Sari were not siblings but lovers, even more, they were husband and wife! You have to be careful when gods and disease are involved in any situation, no matter how much you may want heads to roll. So, the Pharaoh sent Abram and Sari packing back to Canaan. He even let them keep the goodies they had accumulated.

Abram lived in Canaan for many years with his wife and household. During those years he had numerous adventures and earned himself quite a reputation. His wealth grew beyond his wildest expectations. Among the kings of the region, he was considered a friend and powerful ally. There was really only one thing that bothered him. He was in his middle years and Sari had experienced menopause, yet they had no children. If he was supposed to be the father of a great nation, how was that to come about? He frequently brought this question to God in prayer. God kept telling Abram to trust. It will come about in Gods time and in Gods way. God even gave Abram a vision symbolizing his promise as a legal covenant between the two of them. His promise would be fulfilled.

While many men nowadays may sneak around with a girlfriend and have children outside of marriage, in those days people were a little more honest. Rather than sneak around, it was not uncommon for men of position to take on a concubine who was part of the household and an assistant to the woman of the house. While it was not consistent with the ideal of monogamy, it at least provided economic and emotional support to the concubine and her children.

In any case, Sari felt sorry for Abraham. She realized that if she could no longer bear a child the only way for Abraham to be a father was for him to take on a concubine. Hagar was Saris servant and a good woman. So, Sari let Abraham know that she had no objections to him taking on Hagar as his concubine. Abram understood the custom. He also loved Sari and did not want to hurt her. However, he didnt see any other way if he was to be the father of many. Perhaps this was the way God meant for him to have children. Since Sari brought up the idea, he agreed.

Hagar became Abrams concubine and before long she was pregnant. Nine months later she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy they named Ishmael. While Sari was the one to bring up the idea in the first place, when she saw Abrams affection for his son and the kindly look he would give to Hagar, she was jealous. Sari grew bitter in the years that followed, making life miserable for Hagar, who after all was still her servant. Where once they had been friends and confidants, now envy had made them enemies. There was a constant tension in the camp. At least Abram had his hearts desire, a son through whom he would be father to nations--or so he thought.

When Abram felt depressed God would come by and visit with him. Since moving to Canaan, such visits were usually in the form of dreams. However, the dreams were clear and very different from other dreams. He knew a "visit from God" dream apart from the average dream. A couple of years after Ishmaels birth Abram had a strange dream. God appeared to him in the dream and told him to circumcise himself and all males who would share in his covenant. Circumcision would be the sign that one was a member of the covenant. Abraham thought this strange to say the least but who was he to argue?

He was really surprised however, when he asked a special blessing for Ishmael and God replied that the boy was not the one who had been promised. He would have another son and it would be by Sari. Of course, God still granted Ishmael a special blessing and promised that he would sire a great nation as well. Abraham would be blessed through both sons. To emphasize the importance of the covenant he made with them, God changed Abrams name to Abraham and Sari to Sarah.

Not too long after this dream, Abraham was sitting under the shade of his favorite oak tree enjoying the breeze and watching birds soar and dive in the afternoon sun. He was not a little surprised then when the mysterious stranger appeared walking up the road. Abraham ran to greet him and invited him to dinner. The mysterious stranger was off to visit an urban renewal project site in two nearby cities but had time for a short visit and a good home cooked meal. It was during this visit that Abraham learned that within a year he would have a son by Sarah. Both Sarah and Abraham were incredulous but the stranger told them to just wait and see. A promise had been made and it would be kept!

Sure enough, within the year, Abraham had his second son and Sarah had her own baby of which to be proud.

There comes a time in many a mans life when he looks back over his adventures and accomplishments and asks himself if life has nothing more to offer? He questions all of the choices he made and wonders if he could not have done better. Doubts set in and he grasps at straws. Some men change careers when this happens. Others have an affair or get divorced. Abraham had such a crisis when Isaac, his son by Sarah, was a young man with the first wisps of hair upon his face.

His vision of the covenant with God had him astride a white Arabian charger, a powerful sheik with many princes standing by his side. Now, while Abraham had done well and counted many kings among his friends, he fell far short of his desires. His son was a squeaky voiced teenager who seemed uncomfortable around girls. Ishmael, was more of a strapping boy but he was living with Hagar and her relatives, as Sarah had demanded that Abraham send them away not long after Isaac was born. It was the most difficult thing Abraham had ever done, as he loved Ishmael and Hagar. However, the covenant was through Sarah and Abraham did not want to do anything to hurt that relationship, so eventually and with reluctance he gave in to Sarahs hurtful demand.

He also questioned the direction his marriage was going. Sarah had been such a wonderful young woman. They had been the happiest of lovers and friends for so many years. Then as Sarah grew older she became obsessed with the children she could not have. Slowly she became a bitter and even cruel person. He so much wanted back his young bride, unspoiled by the years of pain, struggle, doubt and envy that had eroded so much of the young Sarahs charm and beauty.

Was there nothing more? Was God just going to meet the minimal legal requirements of his covenant with Abraham and do nothing more? Was Abraham to the father of many nations only in the centuries to come?

What bothered Abraham the most however was the silence. It was as if Gods voice had become silent since the day under the oak tree. Or, was it since he sent Hagar and Ishmael away? Abraham prayed but God no longer seemed to answer. There were no grand visions any more. The mysterious stranger never walked up the road. There was nothing, only silence.

Abraham was considered a theologian in his day. Not only did he know everything that was humanly available to know about Yahweh, but also he was an expert on every type of pagan deity, given his pre-patriarch profession. Perhaps Abraham would be able to find an antidote to his restless pain by carefully considering everything he knew about the divine. Who knows, something might fall into place? So out came his theological library, with scrolls from all over the known world. He read and searched and searched and read.

One night he had a dream. In the dream he was told to go to Mt. Moriah with Isaac where he would present him as a burnt offering. Abraham was astounded and scandalized. That was the first time God apparently had asked for a victims blood! The pagan deities were known for human sacrifice and blood offering. Perhaps God was not that different from Moloch or Baal? It made sense, in a strange pagan sort of way. Pagans had to propitiate their gods with human blood to ensure good crops, victory in warfare, or to maintain the good graces of their gods in the face of divine mood swings.

Yet, what would happen to the covenant? Isaac was a miracle baby. Would Yahweh work another miracle? It would have to be a triple miracle. Not only was Sarah now sterile from old age but she was too old to survive another childbirth. He was sufficiently on in years to find the thought of raising another baby beyond his capacity.

Mt. Moriah was several days travel on foot from Abrahams camp, so the next day he gathered a few servants, provisions, and he set out with Isaac for the mountain. Isaac was a talkative young man and filled with energy and ideas. He spent the first day of their walk bending his fathers ear about his plans for increasing their herds. He hinted at a visit to Egypt for studies. He spoke of his hopes regarding a wife in the not too distant future. He asked for his fathers advice or comments frequently. Abraham listened; growing more quiet and withdrawn with each mile that passed. Isaac grew concerned for his father, as the darkness of the elders mood became more apparent. He told his best jokes. He recounted some of the good times they shared. Nothing would lift the dark cloud that seemed to have descended on his father. Indeed, the man became even more disheartened as he listened to Isaac.

They reached Mt. Moriah and Abraham told the servants to set up camp at its base while he and Isaac climbed to its top in order to do their religious duty. He had Isaac carry the firewood on his back and they began to hike, the young man going ahead of his father. Abraham noticed the strength of his sons back and shoulders, reminding him of how much the boy was like his half-brother. He so much loved his elder son! His memory was flooded with memories of the boys childhood; of the times they went hunting or how he taught the boy to ride. The boy was an imp and was always in trouble. But it was trouble caused by too quick and curious a mind, a trouble that promised an adult son of which to be proud. He should have told Sarah to be quiet, to bring her jealousy and suspicions under control. He should have done anything other than abandon his son! Yet, he wanted to see the covenant fulfilled and so gave in to Sarah and abandoned his beloved son.

Now, again, he was bringing the last remaining son--the joy of his life--up to the mount of sacrifice. What kind of father was he? What kind of monster was he that he would sacrifice his sons; one to jealousy, the other to a vaguely formed dream? Such a dream could owe its existence as much to his confusion or some spoiled meat, as divine inspiration. How could God ask the life of Isaac in sacrifice? Was God no different than the pagan idols he had rejected as a young man?

As Abraham reached the top, he saw that Isaac had prepared the place of sacrifice and then in exhaustion from carrying the wood and supplies up the mountain, had fallen asleep upon it. It was better this way. The boy would never know what happened. Abraham went to Isaac and raised the knife of sacrifice high above the boy. Instead of bringing it down on the boy however, Abraham yelled to the sky, tears streaming down his face.

"If this covenant requires blood, then take my blood.!" At that moment he began to bring the knife of sacrifice down toward his own heart, when a powerful hand stopped him. He opened his eyes to see the Mysterious Stranger standing next to him, holding Abrahams wrist in an iron grip.

"Isaac is not your property to offer to anyone. He is a child of God. The sacrificed blood of innocent children does not serve the covenant. God is not some pagan idol! He has no need of your blood either. What is necessary is your living heart; your faith, patience, compassion, and passion for justice. Love the Lord God, with your whole heart, mind soul and strength. Love your neighbor as your self. Are not your sons also your neighbors? Do you not need to be alive to do this?"

Abraham stood, frozen, listening to the Stranger overjoyed that Isaac would live and that the Stranger had returned--his prayers answered. Yet, he also was ashen and terrified that he came so close to disaster, misunderstanding the nature of the sacrifice that God desired of him. Slowly he relaxed and sat on a nearby rock. He listened to the Stranger and tried to calm the emotions that surged through him. An understanding calm returned to Abraham, due largely to the Strangers words and presence. Almost on cue, Isaac rose from his slumber.

Abraham introduced his son to the Stranger who had been so important in his life. The Stranger then suggested that they not waste the firewood. Near the altar a ram was tangled in the brush and held firm. It would make an excellent meal for the three of them. So, the rest of the day was spent talking as they shared the work of preparing and cooking the animal. Among other things, the Stranger reminded Abraham that the covenant was a promise directed to future generations. Yahweh had made his covenant with Abraham and it would be fulfilled in due course. Abraham would not live to see its fulfillment nor would Isaac. It was the generations that followed who would see the flowering of the promises.

Then as the evening sky was growing dark, the Stranger, Abraham and Isaac sat down to eat. The three of them offered prayers that evening. The Stranger spoke of blessing and adoration. Abraham spoke of thanksgiving. Isaac offered prayers of supplication. Then they shared their meal.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.