“So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold….
And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock….
Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar….
So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom….
The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to 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, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.”
(Genesis 13:1–18, ESV)
Strife is endemic to life. Even when we mean well, we are still sinners living together. And sometimes the occasion for strife arises not out of want, but out of plenty. So it was for Abram and Lot – the occasion for their strife was their tremendous economic success. Genesis 12 recounts that God had blessed and protected Abram and Lot in Egypt (in spite of Abram’s faithless risk of his wife Sarai, we might add), giving them tremendous riches in money, livestock, and servants – v.2: “Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.” Now sin starts to twist that prosperity itself into the opportunity for conflict – v.6: “[T]he land could not support both of them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock.”
How do we deal with strife in the face of material blessing? After all, our world and lives generate material blessings, for some more than others, but it’s a well-documented fact that those material blessings do not, in and of themselves, make us happier. Often, in fact, they create worry and strife.
So often in Genesis, Abram shows us how not to trust God – in how he treats Sarah (Gen. 12 and 20), in bailing out on God and trying to make the promises come his own way (Gen. 16). But so often Abram also shows us how to trust God – in how he walks in agonizing faith, but trusting God will raise Isaac from the dead (Gen. 22 and Heb. 11:17-18), in how he believes God’s covenant promise (Gen. 15:6).
And Abram leads us well here. He offers the best of the material world to Lot, not insisting on it for himself. The key to understanding this passage is that Abraham didn’t have to offer Lot the choice. In Gen. 12:7 God had already promised the land to Abram. It was his, and he had every right to pick the best part for himself. But instead he offered the choice to Lot – v.9: “If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” Did Abram want the best part for himself? Well, at some level, yes, of course. It was the best, the easiest to live in, the most suited to grazing livestock and living easily and well. Abram was human – he could see the best land, just as could Lot, and of course he would have preferred it.
But he prized peace and relationship more dearly, leaving the choice to Lot. And Lot took the best part, leaving Abram with less. Abram did not have to do so, but he willingly gave up his right. And in God’s economy, Abram was no less rich because of it. God reemphasizes the promise – v.14-15: “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.”
What would motivate us to do likewise? In this Abram gives us a tiny picture of a much greater glory, a much greater example. Thousands of years later God would come, incarnate, to enter our tragically fouled world and decisively set things right. By right Christ could insist on heavenly glory and honor, yet:
[He] emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:7–11, ESV)
The Rev. Dr. William Fullilove is the Assistant Pastor of Community at McLean Presbyterian Church and Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary New York. He serves as the Editor of Missio.