The Best Medicine for Sadness: Calvin on Gen. 13.5-18

Calvin assumes that Abraham's divorce from his nephew Lot (Gen. 13.8-9) caused the eminent patriarch considerable pain. "There is no doubt," the Reformer writes, "that the wound inflicted by that separation was very severe, since he was obliged to send away one who was not less dear to him than his own life."

Such assumptions about Abraham's regard for Lot might surprise present-day students of Scripture. The biblical text, after all, seems to say precious little about the patriarch's sentiments towards his nephew. One could, perhaps, deduce some degree of affection towards Lot from Abraham's later efforts at intercession on behalf of Sodom after Lot had taken up residence there (Gen. 18.22-33). But Calvin's assumptions about Abraham's feelings for his brother's son (Gen. 11.27) seem to stem from other considerations.

There is, firstly for Calvin, the simple fact that Lot is family to Abraham. Calvin, in other words, seems to take it for granted that extended family relationships necessarily entail fondness. That assumption might prove foreign to present day (especially American) persons, simply because, whatever expectations we harbor for affection within the nuclear family, we tend to accept cooler relations with extended family members as fairly common. There may be multiple reasons for that reality; the fact that modern folk are far more mobile than their predecessors, and thus less likely to live in the vicinity of extended family members, surely plays some part. Whatever the case, it's likely that Calvin's expectation of closer extended family relations reflects, more so than modern (American) social norms, ancient near eastern reality.

Calvin's assumptions about Abraham's feelings for Lot seem to stem, secondly, from consideration that Abraham had, thus far in his life, no immediate children of his own. God's promise of progeny for Abraham was yet to be fulfilled. This, coupled with the fact that Lot's father Haran had died when the entire family still lived in Ur, leads Calvin to suppose that Lot was something like an adopted child to Abraham. The patriarch, Calvin asserts, "held [Lot] in the place of an only son."

Thirdly - and, I think, most compellingly - there is the fact, well spotted by Calvin, that Scripture goes out of its way to highlight the fact that God spoke to Abraham in the immediate aftermath of the split between uncle and nephew. "The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, 'Lift up your eyes and look..., for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever'" (Gen. 13.14-15; emphasis mine). Calvin reasons that God addressed Abraham at this precise juncture, and repeated his promise of offspring to him, precisely in order to lift Abraham's spirits from his state of sadness. "When it is said, therefore, that the Lord spoke," Calvin writes, "the circumstance of time requires to be noted; [it is] as if [Moses] ... said that the medicine of God's word was now brought to alleviate [Abraham's] pain."

Calvin is not, of course, claiming that God repeated his promise to Abraham at this precise juncture solely for the sake of providing the patriarch with a pick-me-up. The repetition of the promise also (or rather, ultimately) served to "cherish and confirm Abraham's faith." Calvin is ever keen to make the point that faith rests wholly upon God's promises, and cannot be sustained without regular recourse to them. God's promise of a seed as numerous as the sand (Gen. 13.16), and his promise of the Seed (Gen. 3.15; cf. Gal. 3.16) among Abraham's seed who would ultimately reverse the effects of the fall, was necessary to keep Abraham's expectation and reliance upon God's (saving) provision alive and well.

Nevertheless, Calvin emphasizes more than once his conviction that God's word of promise to Abraham at this particular juncture was both a prop to Abraham's faith and medicine for him in his season of sorrow. "Thus we see how greatly the [divine word] had profited him: not that he had heard anything from the mouth of God to which he had been unaccustomed, but because he had obtained a medicine so seasonable and suitable to his present grief, that he rose with collected energy towards heaven."

Abraham's orientation towards heaven in response to God's promissory medicine requires careful note.  Calvin makes it abundantly clear, with this and more extended statements, that Abraham discovered solace in God's word because he grasped the true nature of God's promise. Abraham realized, in other words, that God was offering him and his (spiritual) descendants, based on the person and work of one particular Descendant, much more than a piece of prime ancient near eastern real estate. And, to be sure, Abraham would appear somewhat ignoble if his sorrow over the loss of one whom he "held... in the place of an only son" could be remedied by reminders of his own pending biological children and increased land holdings. The source, rather, of Abraham's succor was his conviction, based on God's word, that he was ultimately heir to the true Canaan, a land where pain and sorrow have no place (Rev. 21.4) and perfect, permanent relationships -- with God, and with one another -- prevail.

This point is particularly important, since it permits us to recognize that God offers us -- with equal generosity and equal sensitivity to our own seasons of grief -- the very same "medicine" he proffered to Abraham in the patriarch's time of sadness. Indeed, Scripture's record of "the medicine of God's word" of promise which answered Abraham's "pain" ultimately "teaches us that the best remedy for the mitigation and the cure of [our own] sadness is placed in the word of God."

Sadness, of course, can stem from any number of factors. The loss of loved ones, whether through death or the breakdown of relationship, poses particular pain to God's people. Calvin's reflections upon Abraham's grief over the loss of Lot, and God's tender "remedy" to him in the form of his promise, point us towards the best source of solace when we find ourselves suffering similar sorrow. Worldly pleasures might provide temporary distraction from heartache, but God's people have recourse to "medicine" which is particularly "seasonable and suitable to... grief," and they would do well to swallow it whole, as often as they can.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.