Sunday, February 23, 2020

Genesis 12.1-4a: Here There Be...

Go, Abram is told. Pack up everything and everyone and set out. I'll let you know where to turn along the way. (Genesis 12:1-4, Lent 2A) Millions of people do this every day. People gather up suitcases or briefcases or totes or plastic bags and fill them with clothes or toys or papers or supplies. They go, not knowing exactly how they will get wherever "there" is but trusting that GPS will guide them, saying things like, "In 500 yards prepare to turn right."

How different GPS is from antique maps. In earlier times, someone had to visit a place for the first time and return with a report before anyone else would be able to travel with even a tiny fraction of certainty. It follows, then, that the country with the strongest explorers and merchants also had the strongest mapmaking business. Those maps with the most information were the most valued.

The truth, though, was that not all the world had been explored, and the empty spaces on maps had to be filled with something. Mapmakers often imagined the creatures that had been described to them by sailors. This might be how manatees became mermaids: Well, it had a tail like a fish and was curvy. No, it didn't have a fin like a shark, but it did have appendages that were like arms. No, it didn't have a long snout like a dolphin; its face was more rounded.

Popular thought says that when mapmakers got to parts unknown, they wrote, "Here be dragons." Actually, though, the words are found only on one map, a globe. The Hunt-Lenox Globe, c. 1510, is engraved with the phrase h(i)c sunt dracones near the continent of Asia.
 Hunt-Lenox Globe. c. 1510. New York Public Library.
Abram's whole journey was unknown to him. But he left his father's house, setting out on the journey knowing that anywhere he went, he could say, "Here be...God." Abram had no voice programmed to speak. Abram trusted that God would indeed speak at the right time. God trusted that Abram would be listening and would obey. For the most part the system worked just fine. Probably still would.

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