Sunday School Lesson: Courage Through Faith in God
Courage through Faith in God: Sunday School Lesson Intro
The story of Abraham (who was first called Abram) is one of slow and steady progression. It begins as he carries on his normal life of paganism. In act one, Abram receives the call from God and struggles to obey and come to terms with all that this calling means for his life and his future. In act two, he travels through the ups and downs of life with Yahweh until the promise starts to take shape. Hence, the story of Abraham is the story of the nature of faith itself. Faith is not an easy, linear process where God takes us directly from one level to another. Instead, it is filled with twists, obstacles and challenges that are all as much a part of faith as righteous living and prayer. And how exciting would life be without these challenges? They must come our way in order to keep faith alive and passionate.
A particular character trait emerges in Abraham as he steadily flexes his faith muscles—courage. As he learned to trust God through the problems of famine and his ungrateful nephew, it welled up deep within his heart. This courage was produced as a response to God's leading him through these problems and as a necessity to face the challenges ahead. In order to take him to greater places in his relationship with Yahweh, Abraham would need the courage to surmount even more intimidating obstacles than before.
Paul explains this progression of faith under fire in Romans 5: "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (vv. 3, 4, NIV).
In order for the graces of hope and perseverance, or courage, to develop within the recesses of the soul, suffering must occur, and for this Paul instructs us to rejoice. In Genesis 12, Abraham failed the test of suffering through his unfaithfulness to God and to Sarah during a time of famine. In chapter 14, however, he passes with flying colors, marking another vital page in his amazing spiritual journey. It will take all the courage he can muster to continue following this dangerous God, but one imagines that it was God all along granting him the courage in the first place.
I. Facing overwhelming odds (Genesis 14:1-12)
Shortly after God rewards Abram for the grace he previously showed toward his nephew Lot, life gets complicated again for Abram. Obeying Yahweh, he packs up his clan and begins to travel as a nomad throughout the land promised to him—a difficult task on its own. However, this land quickly becomes unsafe and politically unstable. Abram had always been able to rely on his interpersonal skills to deliver him from sticky situations, such as with Pharaoh in Egypt during the famine. But the problems in Genesis 14 are much bigger than anything Abram can talk his way out of. Instead, he must be strong and courageous, and trust fully in God.
A. God-sized challenge
"And there went out the king of Sodom, and the king of Gomorrah, and the king of Admah, and the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (the same is Zoar;) and they joined battle with them in the vale of Siddim; With Chedorlaomer the king of Elam, and with Tidal king of nations, and Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar; four kings with five (Genesis 14:8-9).
Genesis 14 begins on a dark, ominous note, with a long list of kings engaged in a large-scale war against one another. King Chedorlaomer ruled from Elam, a region east of Babylonia in the most strategic location of the Persian Gulf. His power was so great, however, that he ruled much of the land in Palestine also. At this point, his "rule" in Palestine did not necessarily indicate he had much, if anything, to do with the lives of its people. Instead, it denoted that he simply retained the authority to tax, and he probably enforced this authority with military might. By the time of Genesis 14, the kings under his domain decided to rebel. Note that these "kings" are associated with various cities in the land, probably indicating that they functioned more like our modern mayors, in the sense that they did not rule over an expansive territory, but a single city. Nonetheless, with cities holding the vast majority of the population, and thus the majority of the wealth, their power was real, and this renegade alliance of freedom-fighting kings felt confident that together they could throw off the heavy yoke of Chedorlaomer.
Even the writer of Genesis observes that the odds didn't look good for Chedorlaomer and his allies. Ancient readers would also have noticed that his name pays homage to a foreign god. This kind of political instability was the last thing Abram needed while trying to make a home in the land God promised him. With Chedorlaomer in power, he had been able to travel freely without worrying about bandits, looting, and other problems associated with weak central government. News of such a massive battle would likely reach the distant parts of the country quickly, and Abram had to wonder what would come of the freedom he had known in the land. Also, hadn't Yahweh promised the land to him? He was certainly in a strange predicament, since these pagan allies were determined to win and control it. Once again, this experience of frustration and confusion undoubtedly drew Abram to prayer, and to complete dependence on God.
B. Retribution for Lot
"And the vale of Siddim was full of slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and fell there; and they that remained fled to the mountain. And they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their victuals, and went their way. And they took Lot, Abram's brother's son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed" (Genesis 14:10-12).
As the story unfolds, Lot truly develops into a tragic character in the Old Testament. One thinks of the tragedies of Shakespeare, wherein figures such as King Lear poignantly illustrate the predicament of humanity overall. Lot functions similarly, enslaved by his poor decisions at almost every turn. There are times where he shows courage and goodwill (19:3), but his ulterior motives constantly appear to be lurking just beneath the surface. It is hardly surprising, then, that Lot finds himself in a terrible situation in the sudden aftermath of the battle between the two groups of kings. Incredibly, Chedorlaomer and his allies thoroughly rout the larger force against them, to the extent that the losers foolishly flee into the Valley of Siddim and so find themselves slowed by dangerous tar pits. This gave Chedorlaomer's forces ample time to plunder Sodom and Gomorrah, stealing untold wealth and leaving the populace in tumult and destitution. But they didn't stop there. "They also carried off Abram's nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom" (14:12, NIV).
What use marauding forces would have for a town citizen goes unstated. We know, however, that Lot was a man of means, particularly due to his shrewd decision in chapter 13 to grow his livestock holdings on the best part of the land, thus insulting Abram. Perhaps his estate was so opulent that the soldiers thought it potentially profitable to have such a wealthy man in their actual possession. Someone so important might have other wealthy friends that could offer a bribe for his safe return.
Moreover, it is curious that Lot was living in Sodom in the first place. It seems that his decision to disconnect from Abram had gained him material wealth, but at the cost of his safety and even his spirit. For with the entire plain of the Jordan available to him, Lot chose the horrifically sinful city of Sodom instead. Verse 12, therefore, may represent a time of divine retribution for Lot's selfish act. When allied with Abram, Lot could live on his righteous uncle's "residual" blessing. Without Abram's guidance, however, he faced the consequences of foolish living on his own. He was helpless, aimless and hopeless, unless Abram would extend grace to him one more time.
II. Courage to act (Genesis 14:13-16)
Lot's tragic fall from wealth and prestige afforded Abram another opportunity to extend Christlike grace. This time, however, he had much more than buying power to lose. Ancient soldiers were no more pushovers than modern ones, and Abram knew the stakes of the situation. His response affords us another glimpse into the development of his innermost faith in God, particularly as it expressed itself through bold courage.
A. Abram's new place of comfort
"And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew; for he dwelt in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner: and these were confederate with Abram. And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan" (Genesis 14:13-14).
It is clear that God had remarkably blessed Abram since their last encounter. In response to his obedience to God's command in 13:17, he had gained considerable ancient currency. These details are probably meant to be read against Lot's complete loss of everything, so as to illustrate the divine reward of Abram and the corollary punishment of his nephew. Abram's currency consisted of two acquisitions. To this point no coinage or money has been mentioned, because a formal monetary system had yet to be established in the world. Banks, stocks and other modern inventions didn't exist. This is why Abram's acquisition of allies was worth so much in the ancient economy. Since buying and selling were based on the barter system, defined as the ability to trade goods and services for other goods and services, strategic alliances with the right people were invaluable. Abram had skillfully cultivated these alliances, even as a newcomer in Hebron (referenced by the title "the Hebrew" in 14:13), building a coalition with fellow clan leaders Eshcol and Aner. This alliance not only demonstrates Abram's ability to practice hospitality, a chief objective in God's plan for his nomadic existence, but was probably instrumental in giving Abram the freedom to leave his possessions and family behind in order to rescue Lot.
Abram's second allotment of currency consisted of the actual persons born in his household. In the ancient world, households included the entire extended family, along with acquired servants, employees and others choosing to join themselves to the household. Abram's magnificent leadership skills earned him a massive household with its own militia force of 318 trained fighters. They had been trained to protect their leader, his household, and his possessions from invading bandits or small armies. Abram now commissioned them as a reconnaissance force, and they immediately left for Dan. The risk was extreme. Should Abram be unsuccessful, he would lose a major part of his wealth and the force that protected his entire household. But just like his initial calling in chapter 12 had been from a place of comfort, he put everything on the line to follow the ways of God.
B. Abram again shows mercy
"And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people" (Genesis 14:15-16).
All of this risk for his erring, ungrateful nephew! Like the father of the Prodigal Son, Abram cast all logic and pretense aside out of concern for his lost relative. This undoubtedly involved stealth and brains more than military might, for how else would they find one man in such a large land? Abram's interpersonal skills served him well as they searched from village to village, city to city. Then their opportunity came.
Abram took two major military risks to launch a surprise attack on his nephew's captors. First, he invaded at night. This happened millennia before the light bulb, much less night-vision goggles and other technologies that make nighttime warfare so efficient and stealthy today. In Abram's world, one wrong move meant the surprise attack was foiled, and his fledgling force would be annihilated. If anyone saw or heard the slightest movement of just one of his 318 trained men, they would be thwarted and all would be lost. The risk was intensified by his decision to divide his small force. If the enemy was tipped off and Abram's men were all together, at least they could mount some stand against them. But divided into smaller platoons, no such option would have been feasible.
Their fate rested entirely on Abram's military prowess and on faith in the living God. Thankfully, the plan worked and Lot was retrieved. Not only this, Abram did not suffer any loss. Abram's forces heroically recovered Lot's possessions, and every family and servant in his care. It is easy to focus on the bravery of Abram, since he risked his own neck, the lives of his militia, and the lives of every person in his household by launching such a mission. But more than raw courage is in view here. The miracle is that Abram risked all this for the nephew that had paid him great disrespect and turned against him.
Faith in Yahweh was rooting itself deep in Abram's heart, and his character was being shaped to look more like God. He was experiencing the attributes of God which were later revealed clearly to Moses in the giving of the Law, as Yahweh proclaimed Himself "the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (Exodus 34:6, 7, NIV). Abram's journey with Yahweh continued to transform his attitudes and outlook.
III. Deliverance and blessing (Genesis 14:17-24)
After the good and merciful deed of risking literally everything to save his nephew Lot, Abram returned home. This, however, would be no ordinary journey. For on the way he encountered several unexpected visitors.
A. A potential political alliance
"And the king of Sodom went out to meet him after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer, and of the kings that were with him, at the valley of Shaveh, which is the king's dale" (Genesis 14:17).
What a meeting is pictured in verse 17—the mighty king of Sodom deferring to the desert nomad Abram in the desert. This time it was not the king receiving homage, but instead giving it to the victor of battle. This represents a higher level of alliance Abram had yet known, as he had an opportunity to count this powerful king as his friend. This might mean protection and provision beyond what Abram had ever known. However, the king was not alone. He was overshadowed by a more important figure—one that would enhance Abram's spiritual growth.
B. A spiritual alliance
"And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all" (Genesis 14:18-20).
The mysterious figure of Melchizedek is well known from the New Testament Book of Hebrews, where in chapters 5-7 the author connects Jesus to his priestly lineage. Apart from this reference, however, his name appears only one other time in the Old Testament (Psalm 110:4), which is the primary text the writer of Hebrews used (5:6; 7:17). Here, however, there is no comment on the later Biblical role of Melchizedek, just a short narrative of his brief interaction with Abram.
Melchizedek's reason for being present is as mysterious as the man himself. The troops of Salem, if there were any to begin with, were apparently not involved in the previous war. It is unclear what his primary job description was—king or priest. The fact that he possessed both titles hearkens back to a time when there was no modern notion of church and state. Kings were expected to be both political and religious leaders, and Melchizedek successfully fulfilled both functions.
First, he offered hospitality to Abram by providing a meal. Meals were not simply means of nourishment in the ancient consciousness. They were social ceremonies through which strategic alliances were formed. Melchizedek immediately recognized a spiritual affinity with Abram, and pronounced a short blessing over him in the name of "the most high God." In this culture, words were considered to have creative power—that is, the ability to create new realities. Blessings were never taken lightly, as is evidenced by Jacob conning his brother Esau out of their father's blessing (Genesis 27). Interestingly, Melchizedek did not use the name Yahweh (which is translated into English by the capitalized LORD) in his blessing, but the more generic, shortened form of Elohim—El, meaning simply, "God." It was a designation used for a variety of gods, not just Yahweh. But although the divine name had probably not been revealed to Melchizedek yet, he still recognized the same, single God, Creator of all that is, the One who empowered Abram toward such an unlikely victory.
Abram responded according to the character of generous giving that God had been forming in him. He gave the king of Salem 10 percent of all his goods. The text is not completely specific as to what this tenth entailed, but it seems likely to refer to Lot's recovered possessions in verse 16, which is the scope of the rest of the chapter. Perhaps Abram had also taken other plunder during the battle. Whatever the case, he set a precedent that is still followed today, dedicating a tithe of one's proceeds to God.
C. Alliance avoided
"And the king of Sodom said unto Abram, Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself. And Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich: Save only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men which went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their portion" (Genesis 14:21-24).
At this point in the narrative, we might think that Abram was little more than a shrewd opportunist. After all, he had allied himself with virtually anyone and everyone that has crossed his path—Pharaoh, Lot, Eshcol, Aner and Mamre. The last section of chapter 14, however, proved he was committed to godly, discriminating judgment.
The crafty king of Sodom swiftly tested the mettle of Abram, offering the terms for an alliance between them. After all, he had just watched Abram graciously offer the king of Salem a large donation, and he likely wanted a piece of the wealth. The king of Sodom proposed an efficient split of the plunder. He needed people to help rebuild his fallen city, so Abram could keep the goods. Abram, however, was not fooled. He picked up on his scheme right away.
Invoking the name of Yahweh, along with the two titles just given Him by Melchizedek (v. 22), Abram both acknowledged the validity of the alliance with Melchizedek and outright refused such a new deal. If he accepted the alliance, the king of Sodom might suppose that Abram was indebted to him, and thus ask for something more later on. Also, Abram refused to strike hands in pledge with a king who tolerated such sin in his city. Instead, Abram explained that the king of Sodom could have all the plunder left, save what his 318 trained fighting men had eaten and what belonged to his original allies—Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Abram not only proved himself a faithful friend to his true allies, but also his exceptional character in that he decisively chose to lose riches rather than strike an alliance with the city of Sodom. He knew its evil already, and he was soon to experience it firsthand.
Courage Through Faith in God: Sunday School Lesson Conclusion
In Genesis 14, Abram's fledgling faith has developed into valiant courage. He proves himself unafraid of battle and of the consequences of spurning the powerful king of Sodom. After the struggles of chapters 12 and 13, the nomad is finally finding his way. Because of this, Abram receives not just another blessing from God in his heart, but an audible blessing from one of God's first priests, Melchizedek. How encouraging this must have been to the battle-scarred old man, who had endured so much to follow Yahweh. It must have reminded him once again that he was not alone.
Golden Text Challenge
"God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).
The spirit of power, or of courage and resolution to encounter difficulties and dangers; the spirit of love to God, which will carry us through the opposition we may meet with, the spirit of love to God will set us above the fear of man, and all the hurt that a man can do us; and the spirit of a sound mind, or quietness of mind, a peaceable enjoyment of ourselves, for we are oftentimes discouraged in our way and work by the creatures of our own fancy and imagination, which a sober, solid, thinking mind would easily answer.
The spirit God gives to his ministers is not a fearful, but a courageous spirit; it is a spirit of power, for they speak in his name who has all power, both in heaven and earth; and it is a spirit of love, for love to God and the souls of men must inflame ministers in all their service; and it is a spirit of a sound mind, for they speak the words of truth and soberness.—Matthew Henry
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