Scripture: Genesis 24:1-9
Title: Abraham’s Identity
- Two worlds
Someone once said,
– “We don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t a fish.”
– The point being that a fish is born into water and lives in water all its life, so it doesn’t realise the context it is in, unless it is taken out of the water.
– We, like the fish, are often unaware of the cultural & historical context we are born into as well.
– It is like we are blind to our own society unless we leave it to experience another context or spend time with people from another culture
Today we continue our series on the life & faith of Abraham
– Last week we heard how Abraham responded when Sarah died
– Abraham was in touch with his soul – he wept over Sarah and purchased land as an act of hope in the face of death
– This morning we pick up the story from the beginning of Genesis 24 – page 25 near the front of your pew Bibles
– In this scene Abraham asks his most trusted servant to find a wife for Isaac. In listening to this story we become aware that Abraham’s cultural water was very different from our own
– From Genesis chapter 24, verses 1-9, we read…
Abraham was now very old, and the Lord had blessed him in everything he did. 2 He said to his oldest servant, who was in charge of all that he had, “Place your hand between my thighs and make a vow. 3 I want you to make a vow in the name of the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not choose a wife for my son from the people here in Canaan. 4 You must go back to the country where I was born and get a wife for my son Isaac from among my relatives.”
5 But the servant asked, “What if the young woman will not leave home to come with me to this land? Shall I send your son back to the land you came from?”
6 Abraham answered, “Make sure that you don’t send my son back there! 7 The Lord, the God of heaven, brought me from the home of my father and from the land of my relatives, and he solemnly promised me that he would give this land to my descendants. He will send his angel before you, so that you can get a wife there for my son. 8 If the young woman is not willing to come with you, you will be free from this promise. But you must not under any circumstances take my son back there.” 9 So the servant put his hand between the thighs of Abraham, his master, and made a vow to do what Abraham had asked.
May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us
I have here a piece of wood and an axe. Wood has a grain to it
– If I try to cut this wood against the grain like this – it’s really hard work
– [Try cutting across the grain]
– But if I cut the wood with the grain – it’s a lot easier [Cut with the grain]
This morning’s Scripture reading is one of those passages that goes against the grain for most of us – it just seems so at odds with the values of our society and so we may struggle with it
For example, we are a relatively egalitarian society – we value equality and personal freedom (we don’t like people telling us what to do)
– So the idea of Abraham telling his servant to choose a wife for Isaac (arranged marriage basically), is repugnant to us
Likewise, our culture is a bit lite on commitment, so the idea of Abraham binding his servant with an oath by placing his hand under his thigh (whatever that means) is really strange to us
What’s more we like to think we are inclusive and not racist or sexist or prejudice or anything else-ist – so the idea of Abraham saying, under no circumstances is my son to marry one of those Canaanite girls, is shocking to us
What we need to remember is that the Ancient Near East, the world in which Abraham lived, had a very different set of values to the world we live in
On the wall here I have a table contrasting some of the differences between the modern western world and the ancient near eastern world 
|Modern West||Ancient Near East|
|Equality is valued||Hierarchy is valued|
|Assert one’s own rights||Submit personal rights to the group|
|Strong on personal identity||Strong on group identity|
to develop self
to develop group
|Think of self as separate||Think of self as connected|
|Status is achieved||Status is ascribed|
So, for example, while we might value equality, Abraham’s world valued hierarchy
– Kiwi culture is quite hard on its leaders, whereas people in the ancient near east were more respectful of their elders and leaders
– We might think that asserting our own personal rights is a good thing
– But to people in the Ancient Near East submitting your personal rights to the group was a far better thing
– For them submission to hierarchy provided a framework for order
– Whereas equality and insisting on your own rights was a recipe for chaos
We (in the modern west) have a strong sense of personal identity, whereas people in the ancient near east had a strong sense of family and tribal identity
– In the modern west we tend to think our primary responsibility is to ourselves and developing our own individual potential
– But in the ancient near east the primary obligation was to others and to the development of the group
– Isaac & Rebekah would have been more inclined to accept the marriage that was arranged for them because they knew it wasn’t about them
– It was about what was best for the group
People with a modern western world view tend to think of themselves as separate from the world around them and from other people
– Whereas people with a more ancient world view tend to think of themselves as organically connected to the physical world and to others
– In this respect at least, Maori culture is a lot closer to the culture of the ancient near east than Pakeha culture is
– When Maori formally introduce themselves they often say the tribe they come from, what their river & mountain is and who their ancestors are
– That’s because they think of themselves as connected to the world around them – they see themselves as part of a group not just as an individual
In our modern western world, status is achieved or earned by what you do
– But in the ancient world status was ascribed or given
– Abraham didn’t do anything to earn or achieve God’s promise & blessing – it was simply given to him by the Lord
– Likewise we are made in the image of God – that’s not a status we achieve by trying really hard to be good
– That’s a status ascribed to us by God and ultimately fulfilled by Christ
A lot of us struggle with issues of identity & self-worth don’t we
– We might not feel good enough somehow
– Or we might feel like we must achieve something in order to prove who we are. No – you don’t.
– You are valuable because God says so, not because of what you achieve
– You are beautiful because God made you – not because you have rock hard abs or an hour glass body shape or whatever
Now in comparing & contrasting these two worlds I’m not saying that one is better than the other – both worlds have their pros & cons
– The point is, Abraham lived in a completely different world from the one we live in – the cultural water (context) he swam in was different to ours
– We need to be careful to avoid the arrogance of imposing our modern western values on Abraham
– Ultimately, Jesus is Lord of both worlds and he comes to transform our world into God’s kingdom on earth
Okay, so we’ve seen how Abraham’s culture was different to ours
– I’d like to focus now on one of the key themes in this passage: Identity
Identity is about who we are – it’s about our being
– Those who are in tune with their soul have a strong sense of identity
– They know who they are and have accepted who they are
– And consequently, they make decisions in line with their identity
Let’s take some time to understand the modern western concept of identity and consider how this might (or might not) fit with Abraham…
– Actively exploring options but not yet committed
– Have explored the options and are now committed
– Not exploring the options and not committed
– Have committed without exploring the options
A developmental psychologist by the name of James Marcia, came up with a theory about identity in the 1980’s
– Marcia identified what he called four ‘statuses’ of identity
Identity Diffusion, in the red box, describes the status of an individual who doesn’t have a strong sense of identity and isn’t really exploring their options – they sort of float without being committed to anything much
– For example, they might be unsure what they want to do for a job and not at all motivated to explore career options
– Or they might be undecided on what they believe about God and in fact quite uninterested in seeking him – neither hot nor cold
Identity Foreclosure, in the grey box, describes those who have committed to a certain identity without having explored the options
– For example, their father was a baker so when they left school they became a baker too without trying anything else
– Or perhaps they came to church from a young age and just accepted their parents’ beliefs without question
– There’s nothing wrong with this if you enjoy being a baker and the beliefs you’ve inherited are sound
– But it can become a problem if the identity you commit yourself to is in conflict with your soul
– If you are wired up to be a pastor but you spend your life selling shoes, because that’s all you know, then life will be pretty miserable for you
Moratorium is just another word for ‘postponement’, so Identity Moratorium, in the green box, describes those who haven’t committed to a particular identity or occupation or set of beliefs yet, but they are actively exploring their options
– For example, they may not have settled on a career but are trying different jobs to see what fits best for them – the gap year concept
– Or maybe they grew up going to church but have gone off the rails a bit
– This rebellious stage doesn’t necessarily represent their settled commitment, it is just a stage
Identity Achievement, in the orange box, describes the status of those who have made a firm identity commitment after exploring their options
– For example, they may have settled on a career in medicine after having worked in the hospitality & construction industries
– Or perhaps they grew up not going to church but have decided to follow Jesus, like C.S. Lewis who became a Christian after being an atheist
We’re not stuck in one status (or in one box) our whole life
– We are able to move around the boxes
– For example, someone may start from a place of identity foreclosure, move to identity moratorium and end up in identity achievement
– Maybe they become a motor mechanic because their dad was a mechanic. They do that for 10 years, then realise it isn’t for them, so they explore other career options before eventually finding their fit as an accountant
One thing we observe about NZ society today is that we are relatively strong on exploration but not so strong on commitment
– And what we get with that is a more fluid society
– People are more inclined to change their identity, almost on a whim
– It’s like we have a wardrobe of identities we choose from
– Again there are plusses and minuses with this
– Fluid is adaptable, water can find a way where other firmer substances can’t, but it’s difficult to build a foundation on water
So can we apply Marcia’s identity theory to Abraham?
– Well, there is some truth in Marcia’s theory – to a certain extent it does reflect the way we think & behave in the modern west
– But it’s not the gospel and I don’t think it’s a model we can impose on Abraham’s culture
– Marcia’s theory is humanistic – it doesn’t take God into account
– It assumes that human beings achieve their own identity by the choices they make – that we define ourselves in other words
– But the Jewish / Christian belief is that we don’t define ourselves
– God is our creator and he defines us – he gives us our identity
– Our identity is not forced on us by God – we still get to make choices
– We can accept God’s definition of who we are or we can reject it
– After God’s call
– Defined by God’s promise
– Before God’s call
– Unpromising future
– Deceiving others
– Defined by a lie
On the wall here we have another set of identity statuses which fit better for Abraham
– Finite Identity, in the red box, describes Abraham’s unpromising future before God called him.
– Without God, Abraham’s identity would have been limited & unfulfilled
– He would have lived & died and been forgotten – we wouldn’t know who he was
But as a result of God’s call, Abraham moved from the red to the green, from a Finite Identity to a Faith Identity
– God gave Abraham a new identity by calling him out of his home in Mesopotamia and literally giving him a new name
– After God’s call Abraham’s life was defined by God’s promises
– Sarah may have been barren but her barrenness did not define them
– God’s promise to make Sarah & Abraham the parents of a great nation is what defined them
– God didn’t fulfil those promises straight away – for much of Abraham’s life God’s promises remained just that, promises
– Abraham’s task was to live his life in anticipation of God’s promise
Throughout this series we have heard how God tested Abraham’s faith in a whole variety of ways
– Sometimes Abraham passed the test and other times he switched into the grey box of Fake Identity
– For example, Abraham deceived Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and then sometime later he misled Abimelech the king of the Philistines
– In those situations Abraham pretended to be something he wasn’t
– He allowed himself to be defined by a lie, rather than God’s promise
In the end God fulfilled Abraham’s identity
– Abraham didn’t achieve his identity through some journey of self-discovery – no.
– God fulfilled Abraham’s identity initially through the miraculous birth of Isaac and then later through the nation of Israel
– Ultimately though God fulfilled Abraham’s identity through Jesus Christ who was descended from Abraham
Returning to Genesis 24 – Abraham is very clear about Isaac remaining in the land of Canaan and not marrying any of the Canaanite girls because he wants to stay true to God’s promise
– God’s promise requires Abraham to make an ethnic distinction
– “At this early stage, intermarriage with the people of the land would risk assimilation into those people & thus jeopardise the covenant promises” 
– Or said another way, if Isaac were to marry one of the locals the special identity of God’s chosen people would be lost
– Isaac marrying a Canaanite girl would be like choosing a fake identity
– Abraham’s decision, therefore, is in line with his identity as the father of God’s chosen people
It is very important for us to make decisions in line with who we are
– If we don’t, if we do things that go against the grain of our soul and against God’s purpose, then this creates tremendous stress within us
The movie Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Private Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the medal of honour
– During World War 2 Doss volunteered as a medic in the US Army
– As a devout Seventh Day Adventist, Desmond Doss refused to carry a firearm – he was a strict pacifist
– Desmond didn’t believe in killing – to him that would have been like assuming a fake identity, it would have gone against the grain of his soul
– Despite getting a terrible time in boot camp Desmond stayed true to who he was and eventually saved 75 soldiers during the battle of Okinawa
Like Desmond Doss, Abraham had a strong sense of identity – not just personal identity but group identity
– The decision to find a wife for Isaac from among his extended family, and not among the Canaanites, was in line with God’s purpose
– Abraham wanted his descendants to stay true to the identity God had promised them.
Identity is a hot topic in our world today
– Our modern western society and our media culture seem to create a pressure around identity issues, and that pressure is felt most strongly by many of our young people
Are you male or female?
– Are you liberal or conservative?
– Are you in a relationship or are you single?
– Are you gay or straight?
– Are you Maori or European, Asian or African?
– Are you environmentally ethical or a petrol head?
– Are you a vegetarian or a meat eater?
– Are you Gen X or a Millennial?
– As if any of those man-made categories matter in the light of eternity
We are not God – it is not in our power to define ourselves
– We are not defined by what we look like or how clever we are
– We are not defined by our parents or our past
– We are not defined by our achievements or our mistakes
– We are not defined by our reputation or what others think of us
– We are not defined by our job or what we own
– We are not defined by our fears or our feelings
– We are defined by God, our creator, we are made in his image
God calls us out of a finite identity into a faith identity
– He calls us to put our trust in Jesus
– Jesus embodies the promises of God
– Jesus shows us what God’s image looks like
– It is through Jesus that God fulfils his purpose and our identity
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes…
– You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. 
We need to live in tune with our soul – we need to discover who we are in Christ and live in a way that is consistent with that identity, as Abraham did
Questions for discussion or reflection:
1.) What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?
2.) What aspects of Genesis 24:1-9 go against the grain of our modern western culture?
3.) Compare & contrast some of the main differences between the modern western world and the ancient near east
– In what ways might some non-western cultures today be quite close to Abraham’s ancient near eastern culture?
4.) Discuss / reflect on James Marcia’s four identity statuses
– Does Marcia’s theory fit with your experience? In what way?
– How does Marcia’s theory fall short of Christian belief?
5.) Discuss / reflect on Abraham’s four identity statuses
– How did God give Abraham & Sarah a new identity?
6.) Why did Abraham insist that Isaac not marry a Canaanite girl?
7.) What is our God given identity?
– How does God fulfil our identity?
8.) Take some time this week to meditate on Galatians 3:26-29
 Refer John Walton’s NIVAC on Genesis, pages 25-26
 John Walton, NIVAC Genesis, page 529
 Galatians 3:26-29