And Abram went up out of Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south.
And he went on his journeys from the south even to Bethel, unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Hai;
I suppose the famine was still raging when he first left Egypt, thus his circuitous return. Here he seems to get back on speaking terms with God:
Unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first: and there Abram called on the name of the LORD.
Perhaps this is the primary purpose of an altar (mizbeach ), to remind us of what it was like when we first (ri’shown) experienced God, and inspire us to call (qara’) on Him again. Abram’s been wandering a while, and he clearly lost sight of God’s faithfulness along the way. The altar is like a beacon, guiding his wandering heart back to the LORD (Y@hovah).
And Lot also, which went with Abram, had flocks, and herds, and tents.
Alas, Lot did not appear to have any altars, merely possessions:
And the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together: for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together.
Of course over-crowding is an inevitable consequence of nomadic wealth; one can only graze so many sheep in one place. Still, it does make one wonder whether Pharaoh’s favor really just made the situation worse — is wealth always a blessing, or does it sometimes destroy more important things?
And there was a strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle: and the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land.
One can imagine small-scale shepherd fights over water, perhaps pre-figuring the range wars of the American “Wild West.” An economic problem becomes a social problem, even though the principals desire harmony:
And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we [be] brethren.
In traditional cultures, there is no stronger bond than that between blood relatives (‘ach). Which isn’t exaclty proof against blood being shed, but it did at least motivate people to attempt peaceful resolution — especially in the face of threats from non-relatives (i.e., Canaanite & Perizzite).
[Is] not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if [thou wilt take] the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if [thou depart] to the right hand, then I will go to the left.
This is possibly the first example of what is now a surprisingly well-studied math technique know as Fair Division, or the cake-cutting algorithm, also known as “I cut, you choose.” Though, Abram seems more concerned with peace than equity (one can’t always have both). Lot clearly sees one side as being far more fair:
And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it [was] well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, [even] as the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar.
And, being Lot, he chooses that for himself:
Then Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan; and Lot journeyed east: and they separated themselves the one from the other.
Lot appears to have been thinking about land, i.e., wealth, rather than considering people; either his elder Abram (to whom he arguably owed first choice), or his new neighbors:
But the men of Sodom [were] wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly.
It is worth noting that both biblical and secular history has the Canaanites sharing the same heritage as Abram, though the terminology differs. What interests me is not that the Sodomites were sinners, even exceedingly (m@`od), but that they were “sinners before the Lord” (chatta’ Y@hovah). Clearly God knew them, and the implication is that they should have known Him. Which may prove significant later.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, God appears to console Abraham for losing the better part of the land by giving him an inheritance of prosperity:
For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.
This is an extraordinary thing for God to do — not least because there are already people living there. But, setting aside the Canaanite viewpoint for a few books, let’s explore what this means to Abraham:
And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, [then] shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.
I count two major promises: a) I’ll give you the land, and b) thy seed will be uncountably numerous. I actually think of of the second as more important than the first — of what value is wealth other than to provide for your family (unless you have an immature ego :-)?
This time, perhaps in contrast to the debacle in Egypt, Abram appears willing to submit tp and trust in God:
Then Abram removed [his] tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which [is] in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the LORD.
We began with Abram visiting an old altar, and end with him building (banah) a new one. Perhaps that is another purpose of an altar: to externalize an emotion, and say “Yes, this is who I am, and where I want to be.” He accepts his new home not as the whim of Lot, but the sovereign choice of God.
Lord, teach me to build and visit altars where I may call on you. In fact, make this blog an altar, where I am reminded of how you’ve spoken to me, and motivated to view history and life from your perspective. Help me to trust in your wisdom and providence, and not in my own wealth or scheming. Grant me the grace to free people to make their own choices, and promote peace over strife. And the faith to believe that you will take care of me, no matter how they decide. Amen.