“Lech lecha”: The Journey Outward & Inward (Genesis 12)

1 Now God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your ancestral house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as God had told him; and Lot went with him…. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then God appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to God, who had appeared to him.

Genesis 12

Note: This sermon is part of an ongoing series tracing “The Book of J” strand of Genesis. A link to previous entries in this series can be found at the bottom of each post. Also see the notes at the end for introductory information.

Joseph Campbell, who was steeped in the area of comparative religion, once said the following in an interview with journalist Bill Moyers, about the difference between a myth and a dream:

a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you.

One of the invitations here, as we prepare to step out from the purely mythological sections of Genesis, is to remember everything we learned about Jungian Spirituality during Lent: “The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” The challenge that we have been exploring is how to mine this ancient stories for their continuing archetypal resonance.

We explored last week about the difference between the genres of myths and legends. And there is a significant shift from the mythological, primeval tales of Genesis 1-11, and the legendary, ancestral history of Genesis 12-36. To oversimplify, both myths and legends have universal themes, but legends arguably have some historical kernel that myths lack. Then, in Genesis 37-50 we get what some scholars call a “novella” about Joseph (and his Amazing Technicolor Dream coat”) that include significantly more detail that we get for any of the preceding ancestral stories.

I remember that in my undergraduate freshman Humanities sequence we were assigned to read the Book of Genesis, but with a critical difference from the way that many of us had grow-up reading this book in Sunday School. We were assigned to read this first book of the Bible as if it were any other piece of literature. One of the questions on the next test was “What were the three promises God made to Abraham according to the Book of Genesis?” The correct answers were to make Abraham: a great nation, [to make his] name great, and that [in Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Indeed, in many interfaith dialogue circles, it is highly significant that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all “Abrahamic” Faiths, even though Christianity traces its origins through Abraham’s wife Sarah and their son Isaac and Islam traces its origins through Abraham’s maid-servant Hagar and their son Ishmael.

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Now if we were in a Jewish context, this scripture reading would be known as Lech-Lecha — which is Hebrew for “Go!” or “Leave!” or “Go for you”). Jews divide the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, into fifty-two segments: one for each week of the year, so that the entire Torah is read annually. Our current focus on Genesis 12 occurs during the third segment of the Jewish reading cycle.

In 2008, Magin wrote a poem based in part on Genesis 12 that was a runner-up in the Charlotte Newberger Prize for Poetry sponsored by Lilith Magazine. Alicia Ostriker, one of her favorite poets, served as the judge. The poem is titled “Exodus 20:8” goes as follows:

Remember the mornings

When the day stretches out

Like a cat catching sun

In the fringe of her coat, curling

Her belly into a shallow dish

Eager to receive the light.

In this moment, even the bed,

Its sheets skimming the floor, collecting dust

In the sunlight, appears to be gilded

And the kitchen sink that holds last night’s dishes,

May resemble a cradle; because there is life inside.

And it is the same way with children who, in play

Roll like worms in the dirt and say

They are really flowers.

See how they stand,

As we all do, on holy ground

That at first looks like mud.

When, after a dream of death, we rise up, alive

Ready to walk into the dark

Unknown of the day, each step a whisper

Of lech lecha.

Although Abram’s response to “Go” can seen impulsive, in our study of The Gospel According to Mark, we saw a similar response to Jesus’ initial call to his disciples:

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

So at least part of this story is an invitation to increase our sensitivity to discernment: how we are and how we are not open to being led.

At the same time, I can’t read this scripture and accuse you here at Broadview Church of failing to follow God’s call. You have without a doubt gone out from your country (or county) and your kindred your ancestral house into a new land in Calvert County.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes,

We have arrived at the watershed of the Book of Genesis. Prior of Abraham, all four dramas of Genesis dealt with the evasion and abdication of responsibility. Adam denies personal responsibility. Cain denies moral responsibility. Noah fails the test of collective responsibilities. Babel was a rejection of ontological responsibility [trying to deny human responsibility and assume the responsibility of being God]…. Abraham represents the turning point, offering a counterpoint to the previous failures.

Unlike Adam, Abraham accepts personal responsibility, heeding the word of God and setting out on a journey in obedience to the divine call. Adam is exiled from Eden against his will. Abraham undergoes a kind of voluntary exile, bidding farewell to the familiar in search of the unknown guided only by the voice of God.

Unlike Cain, he accepts moral responsibility, rescuing his nephew Lot from war. He is his brother’s — more precisely, his brother’s sons’s — keeper, the very principle Cain denied….

That is the deep meaning of the words Lekh Lekha. Normally they are translated as, “Go, leave, travel.” What they really mean is: Journey (lekh) to yourself, (lekah). Leave behind all external influences that turn you into a victim of circumstances beyond your control, and travel inward to the self. It is there — only there — that freedom is born, practiced and sustained.

As we enter into a time of meditative silence, I invite you to listen again to the word of Magin’s poem. What resonates with you most in this time of transition and living into new things and new lands? How is God calling this morning to both journey outward and to journey inward to you deepest self?

Remember the mornings

When the day stretches out

Like a cat catching sun

In the fringe of her coat, curling

Her belly into a shallow dish

Eager to receive the light.

In this moment, even the bed,

Its sheets skimming the floor, collecting dust

In the sunlight, appears to be gilded

And the kitchen sink that holds last night’s dishes,

May resemble a cradle; because there is life inside.

And it is the same way with children who, in play

Roll like worms in the dirt and say

They are really flowers.

See how they stand,

As we all do, on holy ground

That at first looks like mud.

When, after a dream of death, we rise up, alive

Ready to walk into the dark

Unknown of the day, each step a whisper

Of lech lecha.

Previous Sermons in this Series

“The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible? (Genesis 2). Description: Many scholars think that there are “hidden” books in the Bible: the books used as source material to compile the final version of the biblical books with which we are familiar. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/preaching-%E2%80%9Cthe-book-of-j%E2%80%9D-are-there-hidden-books-in-the-bible/.

“Paradise Lost or Outgrown? Genesis 3, Original Blessing, and Original Responsibility” (Genesis 3). Description: Genesis 3 is a deeply true universal story about the human condition, even though this precise series of events never happened historically. It’s a story about growing up, becoming aware of good and evil, and learning that our actions have consequences. It’s a tale about that instant when the veil of childhood innocence drops away for the first time and we realize our mortality; it’s about that moment in time when we realize that we too are someday going to die. This metaphorical, mythological, and archetypal way of reading the Bible’s earliest chapters is so much more exciting and compelling than more literal approaches. It also makes much more sense than asking question like, “Did Adam have a belly button? or “Where did Mrs. Cain come from?” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/paradise-lost-or-outgrown-genesis-3-original-blessing-and-original-responsibility

“Before and After: Cain, Abel, and Archetypes” (Genesis 4). Description: In our postmodern times, there is much to be regained in reclaiming some premodern reading strategies: allowing ourselves to say both “Yes, many of these story are more mythological than historical” and “Yes, many of these stories still have significant meaning on the level of myth and metaphor, allegory and archetype, symbol and sacrament. From this angle, the story of Cain and Abel becomes the universally true story of the farmer “killing” the lifestyle of the semi-nomadic herder and moving to the city. God’s rejection of the fruit of Cain’s farm and Cain being cast out from the plains east to Eden into the city reveals that the authors and promoters of this biblical myth had an anti-city bias and were far from convinced that the move toward urbanization was “progress.” They saw many dangers in city life, and we were see a similar anti-urban bias in future texts, especially regarding the Towel of Babel. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/05/before-and-after-cain-abel-and-archetypes/

“Noah’s Flood: Climate Change Then & Now” (Genesis 6-7). Description: Perhaps the most salient parallel for the early twenty-first century is that Climate Change seems to be causing a melting of Arctic sea ice, resulting in a rise of flood waters, potentially not unlike those ancient floods of Noah or Gilgamesh, which were “caused,” at least according to the mythological accounts, by human behavior. Talking about Climate Change is appropriate on Mother’s Day, which at its best honors and celebrates the blood, sweat, and tears put in to creating both new life and a better, more life-giving world for future generations. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/05/noah%E2%80%99s-flood-climate-change-then-now/

“Slavery, Same-Sex Marriage, and How to Read the Bible” (Genesis 9). Description: From slavery to same-sex marriage, it really matter what stories we tell, when we tell them, and how we interpret them. We must learn to interpret scripture freely, responsibly, creativity, and compassionately — not only for the benefit of ourselves and our tribe, but for the benefit all people and the whole of creation. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/05/slavery-same-sex-marriage-and-how-to-read-the-bible/

“What Troubles Your Thoughts?” (Genesis 11). Description: Humanity has a noble technological heritage to claim, but both the Prometheus and Tower of Babel myths remind us that technology is a two-edged sword that often has unintended consequences. The atomic bomb and nuclear energy are perhaps the most powerful examples we have today of the ways that the same technology can be used to enhance or destroy life. Wrestling with the unintended consequences of technology, Wendell Berry has written, “I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.” What parts of our culture so-called “technological progress” troubles your thoughts. Where do you see alternative paths to healthier, saner, and more sustainable ways of life? http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/06/what-troubles-your-thoughts

Notes

1 The four main original independent sources used to compile the early books of the Bible are called J, E, D, and P. Similar to the “Q Source” used to compose the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, J-E-D-P are each shorthand for the full title scholars have given to these sources. The Book of J, which stands for the “Jahwist.” Normally, we English-speakers would begin spelling YaHWeH with a “Y,” but the landmark scholars who developed this “Documentary Hypothesis” were Germans.

For more on “The Book of J” and related resources, see the first sermon in this series, “Preaching “The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible?” Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/preaching-%E2%80%9Cthe-book-of-j%E2%80%9D-are-there-hidden-books-in-the-bible/. I particularly recommend the work of Richard Elliott Friedman as an accessible entry point into the source behind the Hebrew Bible.

2 The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” — Quoted in Jeremy Taylor, The Living Labyrinth: Exploring Universal Themes in Myths, Dreams, and the Symbolism of Waking Life, 13.

3 “Jungian Spirituality during Lent” — see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/jungian-spirituality-a-sermon-series-retrospective/

4 For more on Magin’s poetry and other professional writing, visit: http://maginlasovgregg.com/?page_id=34.

5 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible: Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, 67-68, 71.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg
  • deborah arca

    Thanks for sharing Magin’s beautiful poem, Carl! What a gift this afternoon to savor those images of cathing sun, life in dirty dishes, and mud that is really holy ground. Blessings!


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