Bible as Literature: Abram and Lot Go Their Separate Ways (Genesis 13)

“Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” 13:14 – 13:17

Abram and Lot leave Egypt together with their entire caravan, returning back to the altar Abram had built to God between Bethel and Ai during Genesis 12.  The two relatives soon realize that between them they have too much cattle, people, and possessions for the land to adequately support. Instead of fighting over the land, Abram invokes their shared kinship and they agree to separate to different parts of the land to start their new lives. Lot heads east to the plains of Jordan where Sodom and Gomorrah are located. God speaks to Abram again, reaffirming his promise that he will make his descendants as numerous as the dust and that he plans to give this new land to his offspring forever as an inheritance. He tells Abram to go out and explore this new land. Abram moves his encampment and builds another altar to God somewhere in Hebron.

This part of the narrative repeats a lot of earlier information. The only real narrative progression is that Abram and Lot return to Canaan from Egypt and Lot departs from Abram to settle in Sodom and Gommorah. The issue over the land between the two relatives draws directly from the lived experience of the Israelite readers. In a desert climate, land to graze your animals and watering rights leads easily and frequently to disputes. In fact, the earlier conflict between Cain (representing agrarian farmers) and Abel (representing animal herders) portends these conflicts, revealing the sophisticated literary scaffolding of Genesis. Instead of the conflict being a symbolic battle between the superiority of farmers and herders over resources and food sources like in the earlier story, the conflict has now shifted to herders battling with each other over limited land supplies. This is a conflict that would’ve been very real and fairly common in the world of the Israelites. It isn’t hard to imagine this situation erupting with one family member killing the other (like in the Cain and Abel story). In this sense, the story is mimetic in that it is reflecting a real-world conflict in which the original audience could relate.  However, the conflict is quickly diffused between Abram and Lot by both agreeing to go their separate ways, with an additional appeal to their kinship. One wonders if this might been seen as a secondary message to the Ancient Israelites to avoid tribal disputes and to remember that even though they might belong to different tribes that are all part of the same big family and nation.

The second half of the narrative repeats in different words God’s promise to Abram from Genesis 12, but elaborates that not only is God going to “assign this land to [Abram’s] offspring,” but that he is going to give them the land forever and offers this wonderful simile of Abram’s offspring being as numerous as the dust of the earth.  The figurative language here is beautiful. The message here is not mere redundancy, nor is this repeated just for the sake of adding a few new details. The repetition of God’s promise highlights the importance of this covenant with Abraham and his descendants; it is the central theme of the Abraham cycle of Genesis, so we are going to return to it again and again. Likewise, the conflict of the Abraham cycle centers around the fulfillment of this promise of offspring, so by employing this hyperbole to describe his offspring as numerous as the dust of the earth itself it sets up strong expectations in the reader that heightens the drama. Who will be Abraham’s heir? When and how will he get this child? Will God keep his promise?


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