"By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." (Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV)
We are at that time of the year in our town, a university community, that folks begin moving away. Perhaps everyone in transition can identify with these words about Abraham: "and he went out, not knowing where he was going" (11:8). There are new living arrangements to make, new situations to learn, new friends to make, and new challenges to master.
The vital thing that sustained Abraham, as he packed up to move out in faith and obedience, was that he was "looking forward to the city that has foundations..." (11:10). However, there's no mention in the Genesis account of Abraham (then "Abram", Genesis 12ff) looking for a city. What the writer of Hebrews probably has in mind is the chapter before Abraham's call, Genesis 11. There it says,
And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:3-4 ESV).
"Come let us build ourselves a city..." Verse 3 tells us that the ancient people of Babel utilized a great technological advancement, namely, the making of fired bricks, that, with the use of bitumen as mortar, enabled the construction of much taller, more stable buildings. This in turn fed their desire for permanence (by gathering, not scattering as God commanded) and the "making of a name", or achievement of greatness. God ended this venture and scattered them abroad into ethnic groups. The painting at the top by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563) envisions the building of the tower of Babel. [Image: wikimedia commons]
The tower was likely a ziggurat. Abraham would have known of such ziggurats, one having been constructed in his own ancestral home of Ur, like the one being reconstructed below in Iraq.
As magnificent as they are, over time these foundations crumble and disappear into the dusty landscape. Conversely, Abram was called to follow the Lord to a new land ("Go..."), where he and his family would live in tents, which would not be very permanent or impressive. But God promised to make Abram's name great and to bring blessing through him to all the families on earth. He went forth "by faith" in the command and promise of God (Heb. 11:8, 9).
It should be noted that we know none of the names of the architects and builders of the mighty tower of Babel, yet a majority of the world even today (4000 years later) know about Abraham, the patriarch who dwelt with his family in tents. His trust was in God, who is the Designer and Builder of an eternally permanent and glorious community. Abraham becomes our example as to how we are to view our lives on this earth as we await the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
The Christian is called to live life on the move. We are called "sojourners and exiles" (1 Peter 2:11). We know that even the greatest technological achievements of humanity today, even those that unite and make us great (mainly in our own eyes), will crumble and return to dust. Only God makes a City that will last forever.
So as some of our fellowship leave to go elsewhere, and as we may feel that we go out "not knowing where we are going", none of us need to be in doubt about our final destiny: the City with permanent foundations, designed and built by God himself. Though we may scatter, or feel vulnerable, we are all pilgrims here for a season. Our permanent home is not in this present age. We may be in between lodgings for a while, but we are actually on our way to the City of the great King:
"Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King." (Psalm 48:1-2 ESV)