Lot’s Choice

  • Posted: September 27, 2022
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As the weight of decades grow heavy on our increasingly problematic backs, we want to believe our life’s journey might have meaning beyond the ephemeral delight of an occasional lunch at In-N-Out (w/chocolate shake). While I have no real proof, I think that proverbial elephant on our back lies heaviest on those of us in the ranks of “Grandpa”.  For us the future is a weighty matter rather than consequence free bubble of utopian wish fulfillment. Our grandchildren give the future meaning, real meaning, and we seek our own meaning in making their way easier, giving them the benefit of learning from our mistakes.

We would like to imagine ourselves in an easy chair before a cheerful fireplace, perhaps with pipe and adult beverage, telling our life stories filled with wise counsel to grandchildren sitting at our feet, firelit face rapt with respectful attention, our adult children silently listening in as well, a smile on their faces as they delight in rehearing such well told tales.

Ha ha! If only!! Never gonna happen, but even if it did, I wouldn’t know what to say. Instead I write a blog.

I think God Himself understands that neediness in our hearts. After all, He put it there. However knowing us as He does, He understands the long odds against the fantasy of intergenerational transfers of life’s lessons. He knows in advance what each of us will learn in due time – by the time the need for an elder’s wisdom is understood, the source is gone. Instead for his own part, God speaks to us from passages of the timeless and multi-faceted Bible. Our Bible is the road map for our lives, a sure path to reach our heavenly home secure in his loving arms, but a practical guide as well for avoiding the pitfalls, traps, and snares along the way.

Recently, I returned once more to the story of Lot and Abraham in the Book of Genesis. Abram and Lot meet on a mountain top to settle a nettlesome problem. I picture a scene from True Grit – Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) laying out the game plan for dealing with Ned Pepper to La Bouef (Glen Campbell).

As the fortuitous result of Abraham’s questionable dealings in Egypt, they both now oversee prosperous households, owning great herds of sheep with many retainers depending on them for their livelihoods. In fact, they have so many sheep that the relatively sparse grass and water of the Judean hills can no longer support them both. This lack of adequate pasture is causing dissension and quarreling among their herdsmen, competing for scarce resources.

Abraham proposes they separate, graciously allowing his nephew Lot first choice as to future destination. Lot accepts the need to separate and, seeing the lush plains of the Jordon Valley in the distance down below, chooses the towns and irrigated plains of the South Jordon Valley for himself. Abraham accepts Lot’s choice without comment, resigning himself to continue his nomadic lifestyle among the sparse resources of the Judean hill country.

What is the point of this story? It is the received wisdom of our present time that there must be a point. If someone is going to take time away from Facebook or YouTube videos to read a Bible story, a news article, an op-ed, a blog, then there must be a point to make it worthwhile. We want sequential paragraphs, edited of superfluous words leading to a concise conclusion presenting a well encapsulated easily understood idea – in short, a point. Everyone knows that the needlessly verbose presentation of information in a written essay is a decidedly inferior substitute to the efficiency and clarity of a Power Point presentation. If nothing else, college taught us at least that much.

But life is not a true/false test, nor a multiple choice exam. Distilling the complexities of real life into the 3 point “take away” maximum recommended by communication consultants does little to help us find wisdom. I believe stories, such as the relationship of Abraham and Lot, must be returned to again and again, ambiguities wrestled with, the grey shifting mists of penumbras explored, troubling contradictions examined.

Putting Lot’s choice within the context of his time and culture played out against the themes of the Book of Genesis provides a rich buffet for the meditations of a grandpa. Before there was either Abraham or Lot, there was Terah, Abraham’s father and Lot’s grandfather, who lived in Ur of the Chaldees. The exact location of the city of Ur is debated, but the Chaldees recur again and again in Scripture as the name for the people of Babylon. Some 1,400 years later, the prophet Habakkuk will describe the Chaldeans– “that ruthless and impetuous people”.

The time is around 2,000 B.C. and for unspoken reasons Terah left the Bronze Age metropolis of Ur to make the journey into Canaan, his family including Abraham in tow. Their path, whether wandering or direct, is unknown but they ended up in Harran (Carrhae) in modern day SE Turkey. Some two thousand years later, the heavy cavalry of Parthia, cataphracts, allied with horse archers from the steppes of the Ukraine, would destroy the army of Marcus Crassus at Harran (Carrhae); one of the greatest defeats in Rome’s long history.

Terah will remain in Harran, living out the remaining decades of his life, but Abraham and Lot leave him and continue the journey. They have spent the years since, traveling together south to Canaan, then continuing into Egypt and now once more in Canaan. This long arc of land through which Terah’s family journeyed over two generations was once known to historians as the “Fertile Crescent”, the birthplace of civilization.

As with virtually all other historical conventions, modern Academia, fastidiously counting the trees in the forest, consigns such sweeping generalizations into the dustbin – the odious detritus of “white privilege”. But the journey of Western Civilization from Ur of the Chaldees to Adorable America is so direct that even a Power Point presentation is possible.

Over a period of thousands of years, the Fertile Crescent was consistently fertile enough to allow the development of cities and civilizations. Strangely enough, this fertile environment maintained over tens of centuries took place in a desert, a land of limited rainfall. The Fertile Crescent was fertile because the people in the region developed the science of agricultural engineering known as irrigation to a very high degree.

Sophisticated systems of irrigation allowed the peoples of the Fertile Crescent to control their own future, no longer dependent on the vagaries of rainfall. Freed from dependence on nature, they were able to assure their food supplies over long periods of time. But building and maintaining complex irrigation systems requires a high degree of social organization, a hierarchy of farmers, bureaucrats, technicians, artisans, priests, intelligentsia and aristocracy.

The social organization necessary to build and operate complex irrigation systems provided the infrastructure for building cities, founding kingdoms and empires. Civilization began. One might even speculate as to the probable existence of an Adorable/Deplorable divide in the cultures of the Fertile Crescent.

One lens through which to view the Book of Genesis is a series of encounters between the city dwellers made “civilized” by their irrigation systems and those who remain outside. Genesis is a multi-generational epic of recurring encounters between nomadic shepherds and urban bureaucracies. Beginning with Cain and Abel, these fraught meetings continue through Genesis to the time of Joseph. The paradigm for these encounters is contained in the Tower of Babel episode.

As made clear in the Tower of Babel, God has real concerns about consequences to the human heart inherent in urban life. He worries about our priorities. He worries about the eternal, our souls, while we tend to focus on our stomachs and once free from that, we are vigorous in our pursuit of the ephemeral lusts in our heart. God is concerned about our relationship with him because He loves us. He knows what happens to us when that relationship frays.

This concern of God has real meaning for me. I live in a city, having spent my adult life in large cities, living a career and lifestyle only possible in cities. I have become dependent on the lifestyle fostered by an urban environment, enmeshed in its conveniences and appurtenances. But as I grow older, I like city life less and less, even as time continues to expose my utter dependence on it. I would like to live once more in open country, but in my heart know it a far country, never to be visited again.

But I did spend the first twenty plus years of my life on a farm, an irrigated farm. The water to irrigate our farm in Western Nebraska came from reservoirs on the North Platte River in the mountains of Central Wyoming, hundreds of miles away. A complex system of dams, holding reservoirs, canals and ancillary systems brings the water to farms in the river valleys of Western Nebraska. The dry and arid landscape of Western Nebraska/Wyoming is not so different from the Judean hill country of Abraham, while their irrigated farmlands are much like the South Jordon Valley where Lot chose to live.

This complex irrigation system required a massive construction project over a century past. For the century since, it has been operated and maintained by a large knotty labyrinthine maze of governmental bureaucracies, political constituencies, farmers, contractors and suppliers growing ever more dependent on its existence even as its economical vitality grows ever more enervated.

But most the land in Western Nebraska cannot be irrigated because, unlike the rest of the state as well as the Judean hill country of Abraham, it is not flat. Also Wyoming, the source of Western Nebraska’s irrigation water is a dry desert as well. There is only so much water to go around as the Great Plains of Western Nebraska and Wyoming isn’t the Midwest of the “I” states; Iowa, Illinois, Indiana. The early explorers and pioneers dubbed this land The Great American Desert. Men and women like myself, engineers, contractors, constructors, built the infrastructure that turned this high desert into farmland.

But the high desert is not barren sand as is the Sahara. Like the hill country of Canaan where Abraham raised sheep, it grows grass for cattle and food crops like winter wheat. But this high desert fosters a different lifestyle and a different relationship with the land – and with God. My life’s experience leads me to believe our relationship with the land has a lot to do with our relationship with God.

Dryland farmers, as they were quaintly called, are totally dependent on the weather. If “the rain” comes, they prosper, if not they starve. As one drifts through Scripture, mention is repeatedly made of a connection between God and “the rain”. Obedience to the ways of God brings his resulting favor and “the rains”. Orgiastic worship under the Ashtoreth poles and sacrificing children to Moloch dries up the skies.

It was different for us “irrigators”. The rains we depended on were wintertime snow in the mountains of Wyoming hundreds of miles away. We still were totally dependent on God, as are all people in all places and times, but that dependency was less visible.

The dryland farmers and ranchers lived in sync with the variegated rhythms of weather and season; whereas I, and my fellows on irrigated land, did shift work in the agricultural factory of an irrigated farm. We rose at 5 AM to set the water, tending the water through the day. At 5 PM, we would move the water. Our lives were bounded and controlled by the mechanics inherent to an irrigation system.

In winter, we would feed the corn raised that summer to cattle in a feedlot. As in summer, we rose early in the morning to feed the animals and then ended the day in similar manner. Perhaps this regimentation necessary to the irrigated farmer eased my own transition into the relentless metronome of corporate America’s cubical farms.

Even to the dimly aware consciousness of a hormonal teenager back in the day, there was an obvious difference in our psyche’s. Those on the dry land seemed to ride the waves, accepting the vagaries of circumstance in their lives, their prosperity or their hardship caused by the weather, with some equanimity. While we on the irrigated farms strongly believed in the value of effort. Diligent hard work was our mantra with sloth the mark of evil.

In a rare moment of introspection, one of my father’s cousins gave me a nugget of wisdom, an explanation of life on an irrigated farm. In the prideful arrogance of youth, I silently dismissed his words at the time, the bitter excuses of an old farmer, but having lived the life I was taught, I ruefully acknowledge its truth in my later years. As we walked out after church one Sunday, this wise older man looked at me and said, “They taught us how to work, but they didn’t teach us how to have fun”.

In my younger days, I followed that nugget of Scriptural wisdom well known to farmers of my background; “God helps those who help themselves.” As I grew older, much to my surprise, I was unable to find that verse in the Bible. But once lodged, the idea, like a woodland tick, was difficult to get out. My formative years spent doing shift work on an irrigated farm entrenched its obstinate presence in my mind.

The visibility of God’s hand is dimmed for the irrigated farmer, less dependent on the rain. But God’s visibility suffers most from the overbearing presence of man and his works in one’s life. That large knotty labyrinthine maze of governmental bureaucracies, political constituencies, farmers, contractors and suppliers required by the irrigation system must be navigated, negotiated and made obeisance to. In the midst of a dry summer, praying for rain somehow doesn’t seem quite as helpful as taking the Water Master out to lunch. The favor of Man appears so much more powerful than the favor of God, hidden as it is by the omnipresent works of men.

Compared to my remembered past on the farm, the hand of God seems an impossibly distant and nebulous thing living within the city. Man and his works, built on foundations of loose sand, loom large in my eyes, so large that the workings of God are hidden from me.

And so it was with Lot. After that fateful decision on the mountain top, Genesis tells us –

“And they separated from each other. Abraham dwelt in the land of Canaan and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain”. But in its oblique way, Genesis hints that Lot had not chosen wisely, for “(the men in the cities) were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord”.

Events will prove that true. Over time, Lot becomes a leading citizen in the city of Sodom, sitting in the gate as an elder passing judgment on disputes among its citizens. The name of Sodom once a criminal act, synonymous with the habits of its citizens, the city’s fate a well known object lesson.

Two thousand years later, the Apostle Peter will acknowledge in the Book of 2 Peter that even in the ungodly cesspool that was Sodom, Lot remained a righteous man. But living among the “exceedingly wicked and sinful men in the cities” he suffers terribly. We learn later in Genesis that his family is torn apart.

In the final days of the city, Lot offers his virgin daughters up to the mob rather than allow his guests to be abused. His wife is remembered for turning back, choosing death, rather than leaving the city. Even Lot himself, a righteous man, must be forcibly pulled to safety as he cannot bring himself to leave, even as the city is destroyed. Afterwards, alone in the wilderness, his daughters, desolate at the loss of their way of life in the city and bereft of moral upbringing, commit incest with their drunken father.

Perhaps the Apostle Paul has Lot in mind as he writes in the 1st Letter to the Corinthians of our testing at the Time of Judgment. All those who believe in Jesus Christ shall be saved. Those who have built wisely shall be given a reward, but those who, though believing in Christ, have built foolishly:

“their work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, but only as being snatched from the fire.”

For those of us living now in the cities of Adorable America, there is much in the story of Abraham and Lot to think about. Meditating on the fate of Lot’s family living in the city of Sodom is a sobering experience for a Grandpa, particularly if I read through the Book of Leviticus’s 18th Chapter to its final verses.

But the story of Lot and Abraham is not a Power Point presentation. There is no point. There is simply the Word of God, a story of other people’s lives provided by a loving Father. He seeks to make our way easier, to benefit from other men and women’s mistakes. He gives us much to ponder but leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

As the Book of Proverbs puts it:

“The beginning of wisdom is this – Get wisdom! Though it cost all you have, Get understanding!”

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