Altared Lives, Altered Landscapes

I love Genesis. I'm really glad to be back into it. I love reading about the beginnings of faith in the patriarchs' lives. They are these beautiful, nomadic people, thoroughly hospitable and relational, and frequently really messed up in how they deal with God, each other, and those around them.

Reading about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I've been thinking about their altared lives (no, I didn't misspell that). Each one looks a bit different. Each builds on the others differently. In Abraham's case, God calls him to travel hundreds of miles on foot (or camel or donkey) away from his family, promises to bless him, and, as far as we can tell from the Word, doesn't really say anything else to him until he gets there. When Abraham ends up in Bethel, though, the Lord shows up and expounds on His promise ("To your seed I will give this land."), and Abraham builds an altar there. He moves farther south, camps between Bethel and Ai, and builds another altar, calling on the name of the Lord. After he messes up in Egypt, he comes back up to the camp between Bethel and Ai, where he had built an altar, and he calls on the Lord again. At that camp, he makes a break with Lot, and the Lord revisits him, expounding yet again on His promise ("Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you"). Abraham moves from there to Hebron and builds... another altar. In Hebron, God reaffirms His promise ("Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them.... So shall your offspring be") and cuts a covenant with Abram. In Hebron Abram acts out of expediency and takes Hagar as a concubine. In Hebron God comes to Abram at 99 years old, gives him a new name, and promises him a son the next year. In Hebron circumcision becomes the sign of the covenant between God and man. In Hebron God eats a meal with Abraham and then shares with him His plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. In Moriah, Abraham builds a new altar--his first in years--to sacrifice his own son. God provides a sacrifice for Himself and reaffirms His promise.

Isaac lives for a long time in Beer Lahai Roi, where Hagar had seen and had been seen by God. He stays out there to meditate before he meets Rebekah, and he prays for his wife there. Interestingly, Rebekah hears from God at Beer Lahai Roi. The first record of Isaac's hearing from God comes later, In Gerar of the Philistines. Isaac has had multiple conflicts over land and water with the Philistines, and he ends up in Beersheba, Abraham's Well of the Oath. God appears to him there ("I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of My servant Abraham"), and Isaac builds an altar and calls on the name of the Lord. This is, as far as I can tell, Isaac's only altar.

In Jacob's case, he leaves home in sketchy circumstances (stealing from your brother and lying to your dad will do that), and he ends up utterly alone in a place called Luz. He is so alone that he has to use a rock for a pillow. There, in the lonely place, he sees the stairway to heaven (Jesus), and God reaffirms His promise to Abraham and Isaac through Jacob ("I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you"). Jacob has no animals to sacrifice, but he sets his pillow up as a pillar and pours oil on top of it, naming the place Bethel, "House of God." He spends the next twenty years in northwest Mesopotamia, scheming, working, scamming, and getting scammed, until God gives him the freedom to leave. Jacob hightails it out of Bethel, conveniently forgetting to tell anyone he's leaving with his wives, kids, flocks, and herds, and Laban chases him down in Gilead. There they confront each other and build a heap of stones for remembrance, and Jacob offers a sacrifice. Jacob moves on south, meets an angel of the Lord at Mahanaim, and wrestles with the Lord near Jabbok, by the Hordan. Here he meets Esau, sees the face of God in his brother, and recognizes God's deliverance. Then he moves to Shechem, sets up an altar, and calls it El Elohe Israel, "God, the God of Israel." In Shechem, Dinah is raped, and Jacob's sons kill a whole city in revenge. God tells him to go back to Bethel and build an altar there. Jacob makes his family put away all foreign gods, and he obeys God and builds the altar. There God meets him and promises him a community of nations as his descendants. Again, as far as I can tell, this is the last altar he builds until he travels to Egypt. On the way, God meets him in Beersheba, where Jacob has offered sacrifices to Him. I do not know if Jacob builds an altar in Goshen.

In Abraham's life, altars were places where Abraham heard and acted in faith. Altars were anchors in twenty-four years of waiting for a child, and they were reminders of God's promise. In Isaac's life, the altar was where he was personally given the promise of Abraham. In Jacob's life, altars were reminders of where God had met him in the lonely places and shown His faithfulness (I wonder, did these lonely meetings with God help provide Joseph with strength in his lonely places?).

Why did I track through all of this? The altars. An altar is a place of sacrifice, a place of meeting between the divine and the human, and a place of remembrance. In the case of the patriarchs, my suspicion is that the altar probably started out as a pile of artistically arranged stones and then underwent renovations as families lived in or revisited the site. In places like those, where they seemed to suffer frequent famines and depended on wells for water, an altar probably lasted for a while. For people who lived in tents and moved around, altars and wells were the most stable things in their lives. Everything else could be packed up and moved; altars stayed put. I suspect that these places of blood, fire, and stone lent a solidity to the memory of meeting with God, when no one had a Bible and all else was transient. Even generationally, if you check out the names, you can see Jacob coming back to places where Abraham had built altars. Altars outlasted people. And for people walking through endless miles of scrub, forest, and desert, the profile of stones in the distance in some way meant home and the presence of God with man.

Altars. I don't have any physical ones, but I have definite places and times in my life where I have met with God. Some of my altars:
  • When I was six or so, I realized my lostness and need of a relationship with God, and I gave my life to Christ.
  • When I was eight, I broke my arm falling off the back of a couch after my mother had told me not to sit there, and I lied to her. For a year the Holy Spirit convicted me of lying to my mother, until I broke down and confessed to her.
  • When I was twelve I was baptized.
  • In 2003, my family had a housefire. My church stepped up en masse to help my family, in such a powerful example of love that the insurance agent wrote the $1000 deductible off as "sweat equity." God used that experience to heal me of some long-held bitterness and anger at the American people and the American church.
  • When I was in college, God stripped me of all my friends and left me alone with Him. In my third year of college I met God as I walked at night to escape my thoughts.
  • When I was in my senior year, God provided an amazing adventure in experiencing His faithfulness by sending me $2000 to give to missions, when I had nearly no money. That year He shut the door on international missions for a time, gave me some incredible friends, and sent me to seminary. That year He also sent me to Burma and taught me to praise Him before the gods.
  • In 2007 I met God in Yemen, praying over a city.
  • In 2008, God sent me to Canada for five weeks and then provided me with a job in youth ministry (a miracle) for a year and a half.
  • In 2009, God worked in my youth group after I had messed up spectacularly and taught me some lessons about listening to people. That year, He also worked in amazing ways in opening up the door for me to come to Canada.
  • This last year, in 2010, God sent me to Canada. Here He has provided for me financially, He has given me families and friends, He has kept me safe, and He has taught me a lot about Himself.
Where are your altars?

  • I got to have eleven spiritual conversations this last month. This is kind of a big deal, because I had had a lot of discouragement over the last few months before I went home, and I hadn't been talking to people much at all. The Lord has opened some neat opportunities for witness.
  • I have had some good meetings with my leadership, and we have been able to set some goals.
  • The Lord has provided for me to be able to take a trip to Ottawa in early February. My Monday night church is sending a group of people to the National House of Prayer in Ottawa, to learn about Canada's government and about praying for Canada. God provided through someone who didn't know that I would have that opportunity, before I knew I could go.
Prayer Requests
  • Please continue to pray for my landlord. She has a meeting with a psychic next week to try to figure out her life.
  • Please pray for the team as we prepare for the Ottawa trip. We are expecting (and are probably experiencing) some spiritual warfare ahead of the time. Pray that we will really get to meet with God in Ottawa and that He will speak to and through us as a team. Pray for something for now and something for the future, for individual communication and communal vision.
  • Please pray for divine appointments.
  • I am planning on having my mom come teach on Chronological Bible Discipleship in April. Please pray for wisdom and interest from the people here.
Thank you so much for your prayers,


Anonymous said...

Hey Jennifer - am praying your time in Ottawa will be another altar location with God. Eph 1:17
Stay in touch, carol baker Psalm 70:4

Mrs. Pankhurst said...

Hey Mrs. Carol,
Thanks for that!