Leave Your Father’s House
I left home when I was still in high school. I set out with hopes for the future and a deep sense of relief. By then leaving was mostly a formality; the anxiety that roiled my stomach and invaded my dreams had kept me away from my home as much as possible. Thinking of those dark years even now ties my stomach in knots. My story is not all that unique. Even if you didn’t leave home under similar circumstances, it’s likely that you left home with a sense of hope for the future and excitement about striking out on your home to make a life for yourself. That’s the mythos of American culture—we raise children up in mostly nuclear families and then send them out to do great things. There is sadness and loss involved in the process, no doubt, but our culture is designed for children to leave their father’s house.
For a long time when I read Genesis 12—which starts answering the question of humanity’s view-of-God problem raised in Genesis 11—about Abraham leaving his father’s house, the American experience is the primary context I brought to the passage. Here was seventy-five-year-old Abraham just now making his way out from under his dad’s roof. It was his chance to shine, to make something of himself, to set out to conquer the world. He had to have been giddy finally to get going with the rest of his life, I thought. The only problem with reading the Abraham story this way is that it’s wrong.
In a culture lacking a government safety net, the bet ab was everything.
Ancient Near Eastern culture viewed family and the relationships within families quite bit differently than we do in the United States. Think about depictions of organized crime in movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas and TV shows like The Sopranos and The Black Donnelys. At the very top of the organization is the head of the “family”—the top gangster who controls and is responsible for the rest of the organization. Below this boss in the organizational chart are underbosses who earn money through various illicit and perhaps licit means, and below the underbosses are the street-level “soldiers.” Starting from the bottom, everyone has to give some portion of their earnings to the boss above them, who then gives a portion of their earnings to the boss above them. The person at the top receives kickbacks from everyone else, and in turn he is responsible for the security and well-being of his crime family.
All analogies of course fall apart, and this one is cruder than others, but it gets at the basic structure of what the biblical culture calls the bet ab (pronounced bait ahv) or “father’s house.” In the “father’s house” (cue Rich Mullins), the oldest male relative in a family was responsible for the operation and well-being of the entire household, which could include scores of people (we’ll soon learn about Abram’s 318 fighting men, indicating he rules over a quite large family in Canaan). Once that person dies, the next-oldest living male relative will take over as the head of the bet ab, and so on.
Within this family structure, everyone chips in to ensure the family’s survival and prosperity, and everyone’s needs are taken care of, most importantly women, children, and those who could not earn a living on their own. The entire family lived together in what we would now call a compound—not the Waco type, though. It meant that they could share resources and responsibilities with each other. In a culture lacking a government safety net, the bet ab was everything.
God asked, and Abraham went.
God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12, then, was nothing like I imagined. God wasn’t asking Abraham to finally set out on his own personal adventure. No, God was asking Abraham to die, or rather to trust that God would do for him all the things his “father’s house” did—give him food, work, community, purpose, and structure, in sum, life. Abraham’s response to Yahweh’s call required—and demonstrated—enormous faith in a God he’d just met.
I haven’t been exactly where Abraham is in Genesis 12, with a call from God to leave everything I’ve ever known, all of my community, financial security, and my place in the world. But whenever I think on this story I’m both stunned and steeled by Abraham’s faithful obedience. God asked, and Abraham went. He just did it—packed up and headed out to do what God told him to do, which, by the way, wasn’t all that specific: “Go . . . to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
At the risk of sounding cheesy or flippant, I think this part of Abraham’s story offers Christians a model to emulate in our relationship with God (it was, after all, “written for our instruction”—Romans 15:4). As the psalmist and the author of Hebrews encourage us, “Today, if you hear his voice: Do not harden your hearts” (Ps 95:7-8; Heb 3:15). Instead, may we set out with the faith of Abraham, leaving everything behind to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, trusting him to meet our every need.