The Choices We Make Gen 13:1-18


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Genesis 13:1-18

We considered last time Abram’s failure of faith and of nerve, alas all too common failures in every believer’s life. The following chapter in a way continues that theme and shows us two believing men responding to temptation in radically different ways. In chapter 12 the failure of faith was overcome by a divine rescue. In the case we are about to read, there will eventually be another such rescue, though not without a terrible price having been paid. I hope you see how perfectly and powerfully these biblical narratives reveal the facts of life, life in the world and life in the kingdom of God.

Text Comment

v.1       We had not been told in chapter 12 that Lot had accompanied his Uncle to Egypt. Presumably he had, but now we are told that he had. Lot was an adult man of some years by this time, but he was following Abram’s lead.

v.2       His great wealth, as you remember from the last episode, was in part the result of Pharaoh’s largesse, prompted by the lie that Abram had told. The Lord does not treat us as we deserve!

v.3       “Journeyed on” suggests that he moved his large caravan in stages, from one watering hole to the next. He eventually returned to Bethel where he had started, signaling that he had returned to the life of faith in which he had begun his sojourn in Canaan.

v.4       We are being told in this way that Abram’s faith in the Lord is still intact despite his fall in Egypt. Faith can co-exist with real sin, even great sin.

v.5       Lot had also prospered; he had become a rich man in his own right, not least because he was sharing in the blessing that the Lord had bestowed on Abram.

v.7       The great wealth of these two men posed a problem. Their flocks were too large to occupy the same space in that part of the central plateau of Canaan.

The reference to the Canaanites and the Perizzites explains an added difficulty faced by Lot and Abram. These two populations apparently represent the people of the land – perhaps the city folk and the country folk or the tradesmen, on the one hand, and the farmers and shepherds on the other – who are likewise occupying the space that Abram and Lot need for their flocks and herds. [Sarna, 98]

v.9       Abram is nothing if not magnanimous. He treats his orphaned nephew as an equal and gives him the first choice of territory. “Kinsmen” is literally “brothers.” What did Jesus say: “Blessed are the peacemakers!”

Assuming, as would be normal, an eastward orientation, going either right or left, south or north, would have kept Lot on the central ridge of Canaan, the land the Lord had given to Abram. So Abram is proposing that they find places to dwell in the country the Lord had given to them.

v.10     Standing near Bethel, which sits 2,886 feet above sea level and commands a magnificent view of the Jordan Valley to the east and southeast, Lot would have had no difficulty seeing the green from a distance. Apparently, as v. 13 will confirm, the Jordan Valley was not considered part of Canaan. Zoar would have been near the southern end of the Dead Sea.

The narrative foreshadowing of the eventual destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah tells us what the narrator thinks of Lot’s decision. It was also necessary to say this to explain to Moses’ readership why the Dead Sea Valley no longer appeared lush and well-watered. [Sarna, 99]

v.13     In our studies of OT narrative through the years we have noted that only rarely does the narrator himself speak. That is, only rarely does he intrude his own opinion of the events he is recounting. When he does it virtually invariably serves to interpret the history, to pass judgment on what an individual has done or said. Such interventions by the narrator we have learned to describe as “the evaluative viewpoint.” We are told here, for example, what the narrator thinks about Lot’s choice. We will not hear him say, “Lot made a bad choice.” It is more subtle, but no less powerful. We have already learned that God was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now we learn why those cities were to be destroyed: they were exceedingly wicked. But Lot seems not to have cared. We also are reminded that prosperity does not make people good. Sodom was a prosperous city – that is why Lot was attracted to it – but it was very wicked.

v.15     In the legalese of the ancient near east Yahweh formally bequeathed the land of Canaan to Abram. But notice the difference: Lot chose his portion; Abram waited to be given his.

This is an extraordinarily important moment in Biblical revelation and in the book of Genesis. Chapters 12-15 of Genesis are concerned with the land. Chapters 15-22 will be concerned with the seed. The Hebrew word “land” (eretz) is the fourth most commonly used noun in the Hebrew Bible. Israel’s connection with the land, with the real estate of Canaan, is one of the great facts of her history, then as now. If you remember, in the beatitudes with which he began his Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus re-signified the idea of the Promised Land. In Psalm 37:11 we read that “the meek shall inherit the land,” but what Jesus said to his disciples was “the meek shall inherit the earth.” So does Paul in Romans 4:13 where he says that the Lord promised Abram the whole world not simply the land of Canaan. Throughout the Bible the Promised Land is understood to have been the sign and seal of a greater, eternal gift: first the whole world for the kingdom of God, then heaven itself. It is striking that after so many references to the land in the OT there are just these two in the New and both re-signified. The Promised Land is one of the most important types, or physical prophecies of eternal life in the Bible. As we move through the Bible we hear less and less of the land of Canaan and more and more of heaven itself.

v.17     Abram’s walking through the land was a symbolic appropriation of it. In the ancient world kings would demonstrate their right to their land by walking around it.

v.18     “Oaks of Mamre,” some 20 miles south of Bethlehem, became the center of Abraham’s movements; it was near here that he would later buy his only property in the promised land, the burial cave of Machpelah. Hebron is the highest town in Palestine, located on the ridge between Jerusalem and Beersheba to the south. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah were all buried there.

In his great work Bible Characters Alexander Whyte, in commenting on Lot here in chapter 13, writes this:

“What a man chooses, and how a man chooses, when opportunities and alternatives and choices are put before him – nothing more surely discovers a man than that.” [vol. 1, 134]

Chapter 13 is about choices, about the very different choices made by two men, which we read about here precisely because they are the sort of choices that men have continued to make ever since, and the sort of choices you must make in one way or another virtually every day of your life. Both Abraham and Lot had been in Egypt, as verse 1 of chapter 13 reminds us. Lot had known of Abram’s clever plan to save his own skin at the risk of his wife’s virtue. And Lot had seen how that plan had gone wrong. Lot had also seen God intervene to save his covenant with Abraham and had heard the rebuke or at least heard of the rebuke God addressed to Abram and witnessed the shame that were Abram’s penalty for his faithlessness and his cowardice and his setting too much store by this world.

But what Abraham did and what happened to him as a consequence, what God had done and how Abram responded, did not make much of an impression on Lot. Lot was a believing man. Hard as that is to accept here in chapter 13, and all the more given what we are yet to learn about this man, the Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that Lot was a believing man. Dangerous as it seems even to admit that a man like Lot could be a true child of God, Peter says that Lot was a righteous man even when he was living among and making his peace with the viciously wicked men of Sodom.

So what are we to conclude from this but that it is possible, at least for some men, or at least it is not impossible for a man to be righteous in Jesus Christ and at the same time not be high-minded, not to be genuinely spiritually minded, but to be to a considerable degree a worldly man. Now there must have been some sort of spiritual mind in this man, because one cannot be a Christian who is not a new creation in Christ and, after all, Peter says that the sins of Sodom did disturb and vex Lot, though not enough to compel him to leave.

But, try as we might, we find little to say to Lot’s credit as a believing man. We are never told of one large-hearted or spiritually minded thing he ever did. And even later when he fled Sodom before its destruction, he remained a pathetic figure, the right choice, the holy choice being more forced on him than willingly chosen by him. Such is the grace of God. In that sense, of course, we are all Lot and he is all of us! But if Abram is the father of the faithful, Alexander Whyte suggests that Lot is “the father of all such as are scarcely saved.” [Bible Characters, vol. 1, 129]

What is clear, in any case, is that Egypt did not have the same effect on Lot that it had had on his Uncle Abram. Soon after Abram and Lot returned to the Promised Land, wealthier than they had been before, they had difficulty finding adequate pasture for their large flocks. This in itself is not hard to explain. They were semi-nomads having to fit into a land that already contained a settled population — the Canaanites and Perizzites — who had cultivated farms and had herds of their own to graze.  The upshot was that Lot’s herdsmen and Abraham’s herdsmen began to quarrel, each seeking the best pasture for their master’s flocks, each group offended by what they saw to be competition from the other. And this situation revealed a great difference between Abraham and Lot.

Abraham would have none of it.  For Abraham this situation could not continue. He had learned that trust in the Lord and obedience to the Lord and doing that which was right in the eyes of the Lord were more important than any other consideration. He could not bear to have discord in the family, he knew it was dishonoring to the Lord, so he gave Lot his choice of land and Lot chose the fertile plain of Sodom while Abraham remained in the less fertile hill country of Canaan.

Now, in the choices that were made by these two men, we are given to see the difference between them; the difference between a faithful man and a worldly man, a wise man and a foolish man, between two believers: one who acted like a believing man should and one who acted lie a believing man never should.

  • What we see first in the choice each man made is the difference in his priorities, the importance he attaches to the summons and the will of God.

It was not Lot’s idea to separate the flocks. Our impression, from all that we know of this weak and foolish man, is that Lot would not have made any great sacrifice to end the quarreling between the two groups of herdsmen. He might have wrung his hands over it from time to time, got angry that it was still continuing, but he would have said, at last, “What’s a man to do? What can you expect of herdsmen, after all?” Or, perhaps, in frustration, “Herdsmen will be herdsmen!”

But for Abram much more was involved. He had ignored considerations of right and wrong in Egypt and had learned his lesson. He had made his selfish and cowardly calculation of cost and benefit for himself, just as Lot was to do now. And he wasn’t going to do it again.  God had corrected him in Egypt and enforced that lesson upon his heart. Yahweh had left him in no doubt about the gravity of his error! Now, for Abram, flocks and herds are no longer the issue. The quarreling: that is all that matters. As he puts it in v. 8, “We are brothers and cannot be quarreling, which we are if the men under our charge are quarreling with one another.”

Abram here is the Bible’s very best example of someone who does what Paul in 1 Cor. 6 says every Christian should do. There Paul rebuked those believers who were insisting on their rights and caring more for their injured psyche than for the honor of God’s Name. Christian brothers were taking one another to court. “No!” says Paul. “Never! Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be cheated than to bring disrespect upon the Lord, which believers do when they act as if believing in God and belonging to his family makes no real difference when push comes to shove; when one’s money or property is involved!”

Not so Abram.  He would do God’s will, come wind, come weather, and whatever sacrifice might be required of him, he will cheerfully make for the sake of the Name of his God.

  • Then notice how the choice each man made revealed the difference in the value each placed on this world and the measure of his willingness to renounce the world in making choices.

We said last week in considering Gen. 12:10-20 that what was so jarring about Abraham’s behavior in Egypt was that it was so out of keeping with his behavior up to that point. In answering Yahweh’s summons he had become a pilgrim and as a pilgrim had undertaken substantial risk; he had left a great deal behind to move to Canaan. But then his nerve failed him.

Well in chapter 13 Abraham had recovered his faith. He was once again his true self, the Lord’s pilgrim. This good man had learned his lesson. And so he let Lot make the first choice. Don’t you think that he knew full well what choice his nephew would make? Lot was a man of settled character by this time. Abraham was a wise man; much wiser now that he was a believing man. No doubt he understood his nephew’s character only too well. No doubt he knew what Lot would choose and what that would leave for him. Under no circumstances would Abraham have settled in Sodom, but, then, he didn’t have to. He could find a spot somewhere Canaan.

But, you see, turning his back on the comfort and the prosperity of Sodom was something Abraham had already done. He had already done to a far greater degree what he did here in chapter 13. Staying in the hill country was peanuts compared to leaving Ur and then Haran to live in a tent in Canaan. He had begun his new life as a pilgrim and he didn’t want to be anything other than a pilgrim. To let Lot choose first was simply to play the pilgrim again, to renounce the world as he had already done as a believer in God.

Seen that way, Abraham’s choice was natural, inevitable.  But, then, it should have been for Lot as well, since he too was a believing man! But Lot, though he had begun the life of a pilgrim, had gone as far as he wanted to go. For Lot it was the time to return to the settled life of someone for whom this world was home. Lot was laying down his pilgrim’s staff. Abraham still held it firmly in his hand.

  • Third, and finally, see how the choices the two men made reveal the difference between a man of faith and a man of sight.

There can be no doubt why Lot chose as he did. He saw that fertile plain, all of that water irrigating all of that grass, and all he could think of was how fat his sheep and cattle would grow on that ground and how rich he would become as a result. This point is made quite explicitly in v. 12, where we read that Abram settled in the land of Canaan. Canaan is the Promised Land. In other words, Lot moved out of the Promised Land. Now the Promised Land in the Bible stands for heaven itself. At this point Abram didn’t own the Promised Land. It was his only in the sense that God had promised it to him. But for Abram that promise made it home. For Lot, a share in some future possession didn’t mean much to him. All that was still in the future, even the distant future, and he couldn’t see it.

Abram saw what Lot could not. He saw the divine promise being fulfilled for himself and his descendants; he saw the heavenly country of which the Promised Land was but a type or symbol. He saw the favor of God, the forgiveness of his sins, the salvation of his family and his children’s children. So he stayed where he was, green grass notwithstanding.

Abram here was a man of faith: acting on what he knew to be true but what he could not yet see. Lot, who had faith, had forgotten it and was all for what he could see with his eyes. Lot was so blinded by what this world had to offer him that he couldn’t see other things as obvious as the green valley, especially the great sin of those cities of the plain and their corrupt life with which he would tempt his family, eventually to their ruin. For his choice Lot got wicked neighbors. That was all he really got. He got the lush pasturage, of course, but he got it for only a short time.  Verses 10 and 13 are ominous reminders of things to come.

Abram on the other hand, while Lot was meeting his new neighbors and struggling to convince himself that he had done right to choose to live in a moral sewer, received another visit from Yahweh and a still more specific promise of what would someday be his. He got to walk the Promised Land with Yahweh himself and lay claim to a land and to a salvation that would forever be linked to his name. Lot’s lush valley would soon be barren desert, tar pits, smelling of sulfur, the water thick with killing salt.  Abram’s land grows greener — like the Garden of the Lord — and will continue to do so until the last of his descendants, the dust of the earth in number, has joined him there.

I mentioned a few sermons back James Haldane, who was a friend of Charles Simeon and later gave his name to a great revival of Christian faith in Europe in the mid-19th century. It is called Le Réveil in Europe, but it is often in English referred to as The Haldane Revival. The Haldanes – brothers James and Robert – would be instrumental in the spiritual awakening of men such as Cesar Malan (who was instrumental in the spiritual awakening of Rabbi Duncan of nineteenth century Scottish Presbyterianism. He was also the one who made the remark to Charlotte Elliot that led eventually to her hymn Just as I Am. Haldane was also instrumental in the conversion of the Monod brothers, Frederic and Adolphe (the great French Reformed preachers of the nineteenth century) and the church historian, Merle D’Aubigne. If you want to know more of these remarkable men get the biography of James and Robert Haldane written by Alexander Haldane, James’s son and Robert’s nephew. That book tells a story not unlike the one we just read in Gen. 13.

Robert, the older brother, and James, the younger, were born to devout Christian parents in the 1760s, but their father died when Robert was only a few years old and before James was born. Their mother raised them to love and serve the Lord, building into her boys a knowledge of the Word of God and a Christian conscience. This is very remarkable because she died when her youngest son was only six and Robert, the older, was just eleven. As it happened, after their mother’s death, both boys grew up to be moral but spiritually uninterested young men, as if their mother’s work had born no fruit.

But, and this is one of the most remarkable and wonderful aspects of their story, both of them came under powerful spiritual impressions at almost exactly the same time, when Robert was 30 and James 25. They were not even together; indeed, James was at sea. And it was not through the instrumentality of any particular person. The Holy Spirit simply caused the seed, years before planted by a faithful mother, to sprout and bear fruit in both of her sons at the same time.

Now, the part of the story that is akin to what we have read this morning from Genesis 13 is this. Both men, and particularly Robert, the eldest son, were heirs to a very large estate in central Scotland. It was called Gleneagles. Some of you golfers will recognize the name as one of Scotland’s famous golf courses and a sometime location of the British Open. It once belonged to the Haldanes. They were wealthy men, to the manor born, and came from a long and distinguished family line.

Robert, in fact, before he began to live for Christ, was quite interested in the development of his estate, its gardens, farms, and manor house. At one point he brought water down from the hills to create a large lake, because a lake was the one thing the main grounds did not have. But then came the call of God and Christian pilgrimage. Robert’s plans changed. He was hoping to begin a mission in India. To fund the project he made plans to sell his estate, the manor and the grounds that had been in his family for generations. The lost souls of India were more important than real estate!

He put it this way, in words Abram would have perfectly well understood. “Christianity is everything or nothing. If it be true, it warrants and commands every sacrifice to promote its influence. If it be not, then let us lay aside the hypocrisy of professing to believe it.” [p. 99] How proud his long-dead mother must have been!

As it happened, the plans for a mission in India fell through, but that was in God’s providence, for their interests were thus directed elsewhere, to Europe, where they were to have such a phenomenal and wonderful influence. The estate was eventually sold and the money realized from the sale was put to the use of the Gospel. We can imagine what Lot would have thought of that plan and what reasons he would have found for doing nothing of the kind himself! How sensible this believing man would have been in doing just what any unbeliever would do.

But neither the Haldanes nor Abram long before them would have thought what they did some great sacrifice.  It is what pilgrims do.  It is what lovers do.  It is what faith should make all who have it do.  So they thought and so they said.  Such extravagance in the cause of Christ and salvation is no extravagance at all.

I’m sure Lot wanted Christ and Canaan, but he wanted them along with the well-watered plain. His lack of modesty, actually taking the first choice when his Uncle offered it to him, was the sign of a much deeper problem.  “Demas has deserted me, having loved this present world,” said Paul in 2 Timothy of one of his former colleagues.  But, remember, as with Lot, Paul didn’t say that Demas got this present world, only that he loved it!

Now, listen to me, brothers and sisters, and especially you young people.  It is a time of the greatest conceivable importance when a Christian young man or young woman is deciding where he or she will make a home. And far too many of them make their decision, far too many young men and women of the Christian church, make their decision as if the history of Lot had never been written. Do not be as foolish as this man was, who chose the dazzling world he could see only to see it destroyed while he himself was saved but as through fire. Read Genesis 13 and then read chapter 19 where Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed and Lot is saved in his own pathetic and humiliating way; only then make your choice, young people. You are facing choices like these every day.

Read of the Haldanes and, before them, of Abram, the father of the faithful. And you will see that it is very wise, wonderfully wise, to put God in your debt, if I may speak so boldly; to put God in your debt by making sacrifices for him, by choosing him above the world, by renouncing the world for his sake. For God always pays his debts and with exceeding generosity. So, consider carefully before you choose: trace each alternative out to its end, consider your motives, look at Abram walking with God through the land of Canaan and then at Lot entering Sodom, look at the company you will keep one way or the other, then and only then make your choice.