Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands...  1 Timothy 2:8

Prayer Challenges

Thoughts from Doug Knox.

April 2020

Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 1

CRISIS AND PREPARATIO
Genesis 11:27-12:4

 

A Man in Moral Freefall

From a moral standpoint, Samson is a man drunk on himself.  By the time we reach Judges 16, he has abandoned his own people in his desperate effort to gain his enemies’ respect.  Here are some comparisons between his early adulthood in Judges 14-15 and his final days in chapter 16.

·  Where the Spirit of the LORD drove Samson in chapters 14-15, he is absent from chapter 16. This point alone speaks volumes to Samson’s moral condition.

·  The primary geographic focus of chapters 14-15 lies in Israel, despite the coverage of Samson in Philistia.  In chapter 16, Philistia becomes the center of Samson’s life.  Israelite locations occur only in 16:3 and 17, and the latter concerns his burial.

·  Chapters 14-15 portray Samson is a hayseed with a driving desire to be accepted in Philistine high society.  In chapter 16, that need appears to consume him, and he becomes a tragic clown who drives himself to his own destruction.

Samson in Anger

As the text recorded three events in Samson’s earlier life, the second half does the same.  In the first, Samson goes to Gaza, where he visits a prostitute (Judges 16;1-3).  The Philistines get wind of what is happening and set up an ambush for daybreak. Samson gets up at midnight, goes to the city gate, and pulls the doors up by the pins.  From there, he carries the doors to the top of a hill opposite Hebron in Israel, a forty-mile trip.

Samson in Love

Following this, Samson falls in love with Delilah, who proves to be his undoing.  This is the longest of the three episodes in Judges 16, covering verses 4-22.  “After this, [Samson] loved a woman in the Valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah” (Judges 16:4). For Samson, “love” looks more like a teenage infatuation than an actual commitment. Before Delilah, the mighty man turns to a bowl of Jello.  The Philistines see this and hire Delilah to find the secret of his strength. Samson becomes so desperate to win approval from this woman that he gives up the truth.  Despite the fact that her actions have shown that she intends to betray him, Samson hopes that his most vulnerable secret will persuade her to love him. This does not happen.  The scene closes when the Philistines seize him, put out his eyes, and put him on a grinding mill in prison.

Samson’s Last Act

The last sentence of the episode anticipates a more meaningful ending.  “But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved” (Judges 16:22). During a later feast, when the Philistines bring him out to mock him, Samson prays to the LORD to grant him strength one more time, “that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16;28).  He collapses the building, killing about 3000 Philistine men and women.

Hints of a Bigger Picture

Samson’s behavior points to a man who practiced singular selfishness during his life.  His victories are as close to accidental as anyone’s could be. But does the account point to a bigger picture than what we see on the surface. I believe it does.  When the angel of the LORD summoned Manoah and his wife to prepare for their miraculous birth, he said the child would “begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). The narrative obviously looks forward to David’s tactical victories in 1 Samuel.  By comparison, Samson’s victories pale next to David.  However, his real service might have been to shake off the lethargy that had overtaken his fellow Israelites. In Judges 15:1-8, Samson’s father-in-law gives his daughter to another man.  The man’s excuse is, “I really thought you hated her, so I gave her to your companion” (Judges 15:2). Samson, being Samson, captures 300 foxes, ties torches to each pair, and sets the Philistine wheat fields on fire (Judges 15:3-5). In retaliation, the Philistines execute Samson’s wife and father-in-law by fire.  Then they head to Lehi in Judah to capture the man who humiliated them.

Comfortable Slaves

The attack takes Israel by surprise.  The leaders ask the reason for the unprovoked attack, and the Philistines tell them that they are after Samson.  This leads to what is perhaps the most telling admission in the entire Samson saga.

Why does God use Difficulty?

Recently I stumbled on a sermon that I preached in 2007.  In the introduction I related a radio conversation with Donald Cole, a retired missionary and long-time Moody Radio speaker.  Dr. Cole, then in his 80’s, hosted a program called Open Line, on which he answered callers’ questions about the Bible.
 

One caller related his personal story.  He had come to faith sometime in the past, but, in his words, had run from the church.  The year before, he had reaffirmed his faith.  Then he shared what had happened after that.

 

  • He began reading his Bible and had read the New Testament twice.  At the time of the call, he was in II Kings. 
  • He entered a difficult period when his son went to jail for two months. 
  • He lent his truck to his son-in-law, who blew up the engine.
  • Another son fell from a ladder while he was working on his roof and shattered both ankles.  The accident required multiple surgeries, and the young man lacked medical insurance.
  • After the first truck incident, the son-in-law who blew up his truck engine ran over the man’s dog and killed it.

 When the caller paused, Dr. Cole said, “Then you’re probably angry at God right now.” With complete sincerity the caller said, “Oh, no, I couldn’t be mad at him.  He’s done so much for me when I didn’t deserve it.  I’m just concerned about everyone else.  How are they going to believe with all this going on?”

 The Mystery of Faithfulness

Besides showing an incredibly deep faith, the caller touched on three important life mysteries.  One, why does God so often appear to reward faithfulness with difficulty? Two, how do we build a life of joy when difficulty grows to inhuman levels and three, to quote the caller, how are we supposed to persuade others to believe “with all this going on”? The questions have weight.  They are honest.  They take us where thinking men need to go. By the same token, quick answers can be weightless and dishonest.  For that reason, I am going to leave the unanswered for now.  Instead, I want to use them to guide the direction of this series on Abraham.

 The Seldom-told Story of Terah’s Family Crises

Most studies of Abraham begin in Genesis 12, which begins, “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Genesis 12:1). Unless we go back to Genesis 11, we miss a vital component in Abraham’s call.  There we see the account of Terah, Abraham’s father.  The section begins, “Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot” (Genesis 11:27). The introduction, “These are the generations,” is a chapter marker in the Genesis text.  The book contains ten of these notations.  We learn here that Terah had three sons, including Abram, along with a grandson by his youngest son Haran. Then we run into three crises.  First, “Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans” (Genesis 11:28).  The Bible is silent on the circumstances. Realize, though, that this is only the second recorded instance in 2000 years that a man’s son preceded him in death.  Terah is left to mourn his youngest son’s premature death, and Lot must face life without a father. The second crisis is not as severe, but it is still significant.  “And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah.  Now Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:29-30).  Sarai’s barrenness will become the pivot point for Abraham’s long walk with God.
 

The third crisis appears to grow out of the first.  “Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there.  The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran” (Genesis 11:31-32). Terah’s move splits the family.  The chart below shows the characters’ family connections.  The highlighted names begin the move to Canaan, while the unhighlighted ones remain behind in Ur.

 

Did Terah lose the will to live?  We do not know.  Ultimately, he completes about two thirds of the journey and settles in Haran, north of Canaan.  This is the last we hear about him.

 Leaving a Twice-fractured Family

Against this backdrop, sixty years before Terah dies, God calls Abram to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Abram is called to split the family again.  To his credit, he obeys.  He takes his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, leaving the rest of his family in Haran.

 A Growing Level of Trust

I speculate at this point, but I must wonder how the early crises in Terah’s family shaped Abram’s ability to trust God in his calling in Genesis 12:1. Crises leave us off balance.  After they pass, however, they can become confirmation points for our faith. It is as though God says, “You have seen how I brought you through this first difficulty.  Now trust me for what you cannot see.” Abraham trusted God, and for precisely that reason he lived a heroic life. The presence or absence of difficulties means the difference between a merely mediocre life or a meaningful one.  We cannot expect to live heroically without difficulty.

Judges 15:11-12 (ESV)11 Then 3,000 men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam, and said to Samson, “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us?  What then is this that you have done to us?”  And he said to them, “As they did to me, so have I done to them.”12 And they said to him, “We have come down to bind you, that we may give you into the hands of the Philistines.”

The scene would be laughable if it were not so tragic.  Three thousand men with defeatist attitudes confront the man whom the LORD has given to end their captivity. Their rhetorical question, “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us?” shows exactly how they feel about their lot in life.  They have become comfortable slaves. Samson submits to his countrymen so that they can deliver him to the Philistines.  This leads to the third time that the Spirit rushes upon Samson, bringing the slaughter of a thousand Philistines.

God’s Long View
We love to witness God’s great works, but we must remain alert to his small victories as well. When he works in small ways, he is no less God. The book of Judges records men and women whose human frailty is as garish as a fake diamond.  Nevertheless, God honors their work.  This summary statement from Hebrews 11 records four judges whose track records are anything but stellar.

Hebrews 11:32-34 (ESV)32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

I for one am all too capable of human error.  Passages like this one give me hope, because God has counted his fallible servants faithful.

 

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Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 2
SHAPED IN ISOLATION
Genesis 12-13

 

God’s Early Shaping of Abram

God does some of his best work in harsh environments.  Since the LORD’s purpose for Abraham is to mold him into the all-time gold standard of faith, he will take him to extremes. God’s specific task for Abraham is to teach him to trust him alone, without reliance on any human agency.  Over the course of Abraham’s life, several people will step in to “help” Abraham, wittingly or unwittingly.  Others will try to interfere.  In every case, God removes the person from Abraham’s presence. Three such instances occur in Abraham’s early walk with God. The first occurs before he makes his call known to Abraham.  The previous study looked at Genesis 11:31-32, where Abram’s brother Haran dies in his father Terah’s presence. This tragedy appears to drive Terah to leave part of his family in Ur of the Chaldees and begin a journey to Canaan. Terah’s actions carry two implications for Abram.  Terah’s move marks the beginning of God’s winnowing process.  Abram has no way of knowing what God is doing, but the process of isolation is clear. Further, Terah’s abandonment of his family in Ur is meant to act as a springboard for Abram.  The move will give Abram permission to obey God’s call when it occurs.  The Bible does not spell either of these two implications, but they stand out when we read the text closely.

 A Second Act of Isolation

The LORD reveals himself to Abram in Genesis 12.  There he gives him a tall order.

 Genesis 12:1-3 (ESV)
1  Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
2  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
3  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

 With this calling, we can begin to connect the dots.  The calling is God’s second act in isolating his man.  Like his father, Abram is called to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” Notice the progression.  He is to leave his country and dwell among a culture whose language and practices are foreign to him. He will leave his extended family.  This will remove the option of leaning on his relatives when the going gets lonely.
 And he must abandon his kindred.  Though he must begin his walk with God in faith, the faith is not blind.  He need only look back to his father’s actions to know that he can survive. God’s work of grace also involves a promise of reward.  His descendants will inherit a land.  Abram will become a great nation and be singular among the nations.  From our New Testament perspective, we understand how great God’s promise was.  His position as the champion of faith for Jew and Gentile includes the believers from his time to Christ’s return.

 Abram’s Obedience

Abraham’s obedience to God is one of the great testimonies in Scripture.  The fact that he follows God’s command without so much as a question shows his devotion to the LORD.  Still, he keeps one family tie.

 Genesis 12:4-5 (ESV)
4  So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
5  And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.

 Notice the last phrase in the first sentence, “…and Lot went with him.”  Lot, Haran’s son, is an orphan.  Some commentators suggest that Abraham took him with the intent to raise him as his son.

 A Third Act of Isolation

This is a reasonable suggestion, and it shows Abram and Sarai’s willingness to care for their nephew.  But it also reveals another layer of God’s intent.  Lot cannot share God’s plan with Abraham because he is not fundamentally a man of faith. As Lot enters adulthood, God brings prosperity to both men.  “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 (Genesis 13:5-6). When Abraham and Lot separate from each other, Lot reveals his true character.  Though he is a righteous man (see 2 Peter 2:7-9), his faith becomes clouded by circumstance.

 Genesis 13:10-12 (ESV)
10  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. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.)
11  So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other.
12  Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom.

 Consequently, God removes Lot from Abraham’s presence.  That the separation was intentional is clear from the verses that follow.

 Genesis 13:14-16 (ESV)
14  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,
15  for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.
16  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.” 
(Emphasis added.)

 Abraham’s Faith Walk

The promise occurs only after the separation because it stands on faith alone.  God will allow nothing to blemish Abraham’s long walk in faith. As we continue to study Abraham’s life, we will see God removing even more safety holds from his walk.  Though God promises Abraham, “You shall go to your fathers in peace” (Genesis 15:15), God has a singular vision of his work.  Before he is through, he will subject Abraham to unimaginable faith challenges.
 I have experienced more shattered expectations than I care to remember.  The one consolation that I take from this point is that my severe tests of faith serve a purpose, and even when I cannot see it, God remains faithful.

 

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Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 3
OBEDIENCE IN BLACK AND WHITE
Genesis 12:10-20

 

A Strange Occurrence

Genesis 12:10-20 contains one of the more difficult passages on Abraham’s life.  The event occurs immediately after God calls him in the first part of Genesis 12.  The narrative begins,   

Genesis 12:10-15 (ESV)
10  Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.
11  When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,
12  and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.
13  Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”
14  When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.
15  And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.
16  And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

 On the surface, the events are easy enough to understand.  A famine drives Abram and his family to Egypt, and while he is there, he fears for his safety because of Sarai’s beauty.  He asks her to pose as his sister, so that no one executes him in order to take her. Sarai agrees to the scheme, even the agreement makes her vulnerable to violation.  When Pharaoh regales Abram with gifts.  Sarai’s future looks bleak, and we sit with a load of questions. Before we can voice our questions, though, a resolution of sorts overshadows the entire situation:

 Genesis 12:17-20 (ESV)
17  But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.
18  So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?
19  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.”
20  And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

 A Deeper Issue in Place of a Deflected Question
Look closely at the second paragraph.  The situation is not actually resolved. That is, Abram never gets a chance to explain himself.  He does not answer for his actions.  He does not even speak.  The events in this paragraph lie between the LORD and Pharaoh, and they take place through Pharaoh’s eyes.

 

  • While Pharaoh rightly maintains his innocence, he and his household suffer from God’s plagues.
  • When Pharaoh confronts Abram, he quotes his words.  Abram has no speaking role here.
  • Pharaoh’s triple question to Abram, “What have you done…? Why did you not tell me…? Why did you say…?” remains unanswered.
  • In the end, Pharaoh sends Abram and Sarai away with the immediate questions unanswered.

 The situation does not resolve.  It vanishes.  This means that the question that occupies our minds, “What the (bleep!) are you doing, Abram?” is the secondary issue rather than the primary one. The bigger issue in this episode goes back to Abraham’s calling, the matter that has driven all the machinery to this point.

 Seeing the Bigger Issue
I believe we can see three reasons why God places this incident where he does. First, we need to understand the episode in context of Abram’s call in the first part of Genesis 12.  When Abram obeys, he performs an extraordinary feat of obedience.  Lest we start to believe he is superhuman, God gives us an immediate demonstration of his human frailty. In other words, God does not choose Abram because he sees great promise in him.  He gives Abram promises because he has called him to do great things. Second, God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants revolves around geography.  When God appears to him in Canaan, he tells him, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7 emphasis added). The famine becomes a test of Abram’s faith in God’s promise.  When he goes to Egypt, God brings his side trip to an abrupt end. The last statement in the episode tells us that Pharaoh’s officials “sent [Abram] away with his wife and all that he had.”  Abram has no choice but to live in the land of promise. The same burden will guide his descendants.  Three generations after Abraham, another famine will drive his grandson Jacob and his family to Egypt.  They understand that their residence there is temporary.  They tell another pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn in the land [the word in the original language implies a temporary stay], for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 47:4). Genesis concludes with Joseph’s anticipation of the Exodus from Egypt.  His last wish is for his descendants to transport his remains “to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24). The third point is the most important.  While Genesis 12:10-20 has something to say about human unfaithfulness, it has a lot more to say about divine protection and preservation.  No one can destroy God’s chosen man’s mission. In the previous episode, we saw God isolate Abram from people who would interfere with his walk.  Here her performs the same task same with a place.  He drives Abram back to the land where his faith will blossom.

 Conclusion

The take-home value of this episode goes to calling.  Any call is difficult, and the best among us are vulnerable to doubt and misdirection.  This passage encourages us in that regard.  Just as God protects our ultimate destinies, he watches over our long walk to get there as well.  Every hour of every day.  
 No one is perfect in his execution of God’s calling.  I have made profound mistakes in my ministry, some of which carry lasting consequences. I regret these deeply.  But he has kept me in the race.  His grace is greater than my mistakes.

 

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Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 4
A PRINCIPLED MAN IN ACTION
Genesis 14:10-24

 

Collateral Damage
Genesis 14 records one of the less visited events in Abram’s life.  A war involving nine regional kings, including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, breaks out in the valley now occupied by the Dead Sea.  Genesis 14:1-9 records the background for the war. Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, and the three kings allied with him have exploited the other five kings for thirteen years, and the other five seek to free themselves from the oppression.  The relevant portion for us begins in verse 10.

 Genesis 14:10-12 (ESV)
10  Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits, and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country.
11  So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way.
12  They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way.

 The situation is both simple and complex.  On a strategic level, the picture is straightforward.  The five kings who have rebelled fall prey to the bitumen pits, and their planned liberation fails. The complexity arises when the news leaks.  “Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram” (Genesis 14:13). For Abram, the situation is far from simple.  Lot, along with several of the people living in Sodom, have become collateral damage.  The enemy has taken them.

 Unbound but Still Loyal
Abram now is faced with a decision.  He and Lot have had a falling out already.  They separated when their flocks caused them to begin competing against each other for land (Genesis 13:1-13).  The LORD drove Abram from Lot so that he could add to Abram’s blessings. Only after Abram and lot separated did God promise to give Canaan to Abram’s descendants. To add to the difficulty, the other kings failed to overcome Chedorlaomer and his allies.  Abram could decide that Lot is an adult and has made his own not-altogether-wise choices. He does not.  The Bible gives us his next move.

 Genesis 14:14-16 (ESV)
14  When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.
15  And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus.
16  Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.

 A nighttime raid with trained forces.  Here is a man who is a principled moral character but a strategist as well.  I wish I could have seen that.

 A Principled Man
Abram does not stop with the battle.  One of the marks of maturity in a man is a sense of self-awareness.  When someone has determined what his principles will be, he knows in advance how he must act.  At the end of the battle, Abram proves his principles in two events.  First, when Abram returns from battle, Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, meets him.  Of course, we know Melchizedek as the king-priest who foreshadows Jesus.  The meeting is important for the Abraham narrative as well.  Melchizedek greets Abram with these words:

 “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

--Genesis 14:19-20

 Melchizedek’s words affirm that God not only has approved Abram’s military assault, but that he has given him the victory in it.  God moves in matters of justice when justice is necessary. Second, Abram gives a tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:29).  The tithe from his windfall shows that he recognizes who is responsible for his blessing.  He betrays no second thoughts about hoarding. His predetermined set of principles governs his relationship to his allies as well.  When the king of Sodom tells him to keep the spoils for himself, Abram replies,

 Genesis 14:21-24 (ESV)
21  And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.”
22  But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth,
23  that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’
24  I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.”

 This shows not just the depth of Abram’s faith, but its deliberateness as well.  When Abram refuses the king’s offer in favor of God’s promise, he demonstrates how serious he is about his walk with his God.

 While we Wait for God’s Promises
A final observation will close this challenge.  We all love affirmation, but we run the danger of discouragement if we depend on it.  Sometimes God causes us to make difficult decisions on our own.  Lot’s rescue is an example of such a time. The incident with Lot occurs sometime during the ten-year period mentioned in Genesis 12:4 and 16:3.  When the events take place, God remains silent.  Abram, therefore, decides his course of action on his own.  He does not hear an affirming word from God.  He says nothing about feeling a sense of “peace” about the matter.  He acts because he knows he must. Our man of God does not stumble in the dark.  His principles have become his moral GPS.  That is what our walk with God is all about.

 

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Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 5
THINKING MAN'S FAITH
FAITH WITH QUESTIONS

 

Nagging Questions Spoken out Loud

During my lifetime, three events struck with such overwhelming force that they reoriented my thinking. One of these occurred during my college years when I felt the need to change my major from music to philosophy.  For me, the decision was straightforward.  I wanted to be able to defend my faith to myself and others, and the shortest route to that end was to challenge my thinking. My venture involved risk, and I knew it.  I also knew that without risk, growth leading to maturity in the faith would be impossible. My pastor at the time shrank in horror at my arrogance.  How dare I put God to the test?  He repeatedly tried to make me reverse my decision, using every argument he could muster. At one point, he even called in one of the deacons to talk to me.  My deacon friend did most of the talking.  After a long monologue, he told me that we have to accept what we believe by blind faith. He kept on talking, but what little communication had taken place was now over. I understood that these two men were older and more experienced than I.  Their concern for my potential to fall into error was genuine, but they missed a crucial point regarding the nature of faith itself.  Yes, faith is trust.  But it is not blind.

 Faith Tempered by Maturity
Children exercise blind faith.  They trust adults as authority figures.  We have to teach them to be wary of strangers who offer them gifts or rides. How much more, then, should we be ready to challenge spiritual authorities who demand unquestioning allegiance. Without the freedom to ask questions, we run the danger of falling for any charlatan that might come around. The arguments with my pastor dragged on for months.  Just before I left to continue my schooling, I vowed a vow to God.  I told him that I would never ask anyone to believe without a reason, and I would never refuse to answer an honest question.  I have never forgotten that vow, and now it guides the way that I teach.

 Walking by Faith, but with Eyes Wide Open
One no less than Abraham, the all-time champion of faith, illustrates this practice.  Genesis 15 opens with the LORD’s words.  “After these things, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram.  I am your shield: your reward shall be very great’” (Genesis 15:1). This is the first time that the LORD has spoken to Abram since he called him in Genesis 12.  Given the events that Genesis has depicted so far—Abram’s move from Haran to Canaan, the time spent in settling there, the growth of his flocks and subsequent parting from Lot, and the battle in which he rescues his nephew—we can surmise that this second call comes fairly late in the ten-year period bracketed between Genesis 12:4 and 16:3. Abram has walked a long time under a single promise, and that walk has given him an equally long time to think about what the promise means.  Given that fact, God’s words, “Your reward will be very great,” do not offer him a lot of mileage.  Abram pounces with a specific question.

 Genesis 15:2-3 (ESV)
2  But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
3  And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”

 Faith, Yes; Blind, No
This is far more than a practical question.  It goes to the very meaning of Abram’s faith.  Is his God big enough to deliver on his promise? Abram’s question shows that he will not be content to be God’s yes man.  His relationship with his God is deep enough to allow him to expect deeper substance as time goes on.  As the narrative shows, God honors him.  In fact, God expects this exact question. First, he addresses Abram’s concern.  Abram will not have to settle for an honorary title as adoptive father to a proxy nation.  God’s plans are specific.

 Genesis 15:4-6 (ESV)
4  And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”
5  And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6  And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

 God does not rebuke his man or tell him just to believe.  He answers the question.  Abram himself will bear descendants that will become a multitude.

 Despots Versus the Real God
Despots, whether human or god, rule by terror.  They can neither stand questions nor stand up to them.  They tolerate only adoration.  Abram’s God, on the other hand, welcomes his questions.  Why is this? On the simplest level, he does not have to preserve a false narrative.  Since he is telling the truth, he has nothing to hide.  His straightforward answer provides Abram with a truth-affirming tool.  Abram can know what he believes.

 The Transformative Nature of Faith
At the same time, God still requires his servant to walk by faith.  Abram remains childless, and he must believe what he cannot see. Biblical faith is more than a leap in the dark.  We are free to test God’s promises, because when we understand that he is trustworthy, we can plant our roots in his truth.
 Biblical trust, then, is both childlike and mature.  It is childlike insofar as we trust God completely.  It is mature because God invites us to ask questions.
 Most of all, though, faith is transformative.  That is, it changes us on the deepest possible level.  Abram’s belief results in one of the most majestic testimonies in Scripture.  The conclusion of this section declares that Abram “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” This is a truth for all time, both Old Testament and New.  In Romans 4, the Apostle Paul develops this moment of transformation as one of the foundational components in the doctrine of salvation.

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Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 6
THE HISTORY-WRITING GOD
Genesis 15:7-20

 

As we saw in the previous challenge, Genesis 15:1-6 shines a floodlight on God’s concern for both our intellectual and spiritual maturity. Abram’s question regarding whether he could expect a biological heir does not challenge God’s promise.  It only asks what the quality of his promise would be.  God assures him that he grants only the highest quality in his promises.  The concluding verse, “And [Abram] believed God, and he counted it to hm as righteousness,” shows the best characteristics of Abram’s spiritual maturity.  He leaves the things he cannot understand in God’s hands while he believes with childlike trust.

 A Second Promise and a Second Question
The second section of the chapter follows the pattern set in the first.  Again, the LORD opens with a promise, Abram raises a question concerning the promise, and the LORD then gives him a much fuller answer.  The second cycle leads Abram to a glimpse into history that is yet to come.  Here is God’s second promise, followed by Abram’s second question.

 Genesis 15:7-8 (ESV)

7  And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”

8  But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

Okay, hit the brakes.  We can understand Abram’s first question because it focuses on details.  The question is bold, but it is still in bounds. Abram’s second question appears to take him outside the fence.  It looks like he—dare we say the word—doubts the promise.  If God tells him he is giving him the land, how dare Abram question his word?

The Matter of God’s Trustworthiness

We must resist hasty assumptions.  Remember that verse 6 has settled the matter of Abram’s belief.  He believes already.  Therefore, his question in verse 8 does ask whether his descendants will possess the land.  It goes to how he will know.  In other words, the question addresses the trustworthiness of God’s word. God’s reply to Abram takes up almost two thirds of the chapter, and it moves straight to the question of legitimacy.  The first thing that God does it to call Abram to bring a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a pigeon, and a turtledove (Genesis 15:9).  The act is a preparation of a covenant-making ceremony or cutting of the covenant. Abram cuts the butchered animals in half, forming a path between the severed halves (Genesis 15:10-11).

God’s Oath and Covenant

At sundown, the LORD begins his work.  These verses describe one of the most mysterious and profound affirmations in all of Scripture.

Genesis 15:12-16 (ESV)

12  As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.

13  Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.

14  But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.

15  As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.

16  And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

Genesis describes Abram falling into “a deep sleep” with “dreadful and great darkness.”  God alone controls this journey. I do not believe this is accidental.  Nightmares suck us into a reality that crushes us.  They are inescapable.  How appropriate this is for the God who is about to cut a covenant with Abram.  When God speaks with authority and glory, his presence is terrifying.  The occasion calls for more than unicorns and flowers. God’s revelation to Abram contains two sections.  The section quoted above reveals the first, a prophecy of what he intends to accomplish among Abram’s descendants.  God predicts the enslavement that will occur in Exodus, followed by his people’s deliverance and journey to their inheritance in Canaan.  

The events will not occur for hundreds of years after Abram’s death, but God’s revelation of them demonstrates his authority over history. The prophecy also addresses Abram’s question in verse 8, “How am I to know?” God’s reply in verse 13 is, “Know for certain….”  In the original language, the phrase is “Know-know.”  The command is emphatic.  The connection between Abram’s question and God’s answer is unbreakable.

The Importance of Faith based on Knowledge

The second half of this section reveals an event even more mysterious.

Genesis 15:17-18 (ESV)

17  When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

18  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,

 In a typical cutting of a covenant, both parties would walk between the carcasses.  Their act would solemnize their agreement with each other.  The covenant is deeper than a contract.  It establishes a relationship. Many have observed that the LORD’s solo walk points to the unconditional nature of his promise.  This is true, but a deeper truth drives the narrative.  God’s covenantal promise to Abram is an act that he alone can accomplish.  The promise, the oath, and the prewritten history are his to grant to Abram.

Knowledge and Mystery
God’s revelation is one of the most vivid in the Bible.  At the same time, Abram must trust God to be able to sort out the details.  Faith stands on this double foundation of knowledge and mystery.  God never calls us to surrender our thinking.  We will search in vain for the words, “Don’t ask questions.  Just believe.”  The LORD welcomes Abram to seek intellectual satisfaction.  When we feel that same desire, we honor him. At the same time, Abram must trust God for what he cannot see.  Questions asked in faith lead to deeper faith.  God calls him to worship in deeper wonder.

 

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Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 7
THE GOD OF THE MESSED-UP WORLD
Genesis 16

 

The “Oops” Factor

Lately, I have become fascinated with how God demonstrates his sovereignty over history.  My fascination does not lie so much in the fact that he gets things done.   What amazes me is the way he works in such a messed-up world. Genesis 16 tells the well-known account of Abram and Sarai’s attempt to produce the heir that God had promised Abram.  For those familiar with Abraham’s story, this decision becomes probably Abram and Sarai’s biggest blunder.  After ten years, the promised child has yet to materialize, and the couple decides to resort to human means. Genesis 16:2 marks their decision.  “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children.  Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’  And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.”  Yes, this is a bad decision, but I believe we should consider the human situation before we cast stones.  God has been silent about Sarai this point.  His promise that she will be the one to bear Abram a son will not come for another fourteen years (Genesis 17:1, 15-16).  The couple works with what they know, and that involves Sarai’s biological reality.  She has not been able to conceive, and probably cannot by now.

Taking Description Too Far

Another hasty judgment springs out of the words, “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.”  If we read the statement at face value, it is simply a point of agreement between Abram and his wife.  The verse does not imply that Abram would have been better off had he ignored his wife’s voice.  It describes their mutual attempt to rescue what they thought was an impossible situation.  Further, it does not imply that God intends for husbands to carry the sole voice in their marriage.  This becomes apparent in a later passage that will come after Isaac is born through Sarah.  On the boy’s weaning day when Sarah demands that her husband send Ishmael away, God will tell Abram, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (Genesis 21:12).   Our wives have voices for a reason.  Peter tells us that our wives are heirs with us in the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7).  Sometimes they catch things that we miss.  Headship in marriage means responsibility in serving our wives, not authoritarian control.  God never calls us to dismiss their input out of hand.

 Setting off the Cascade

That being said, the text is clear enough that Abram and Sarai jumped when they should have waited for God to fulfill his word.  Their decision sets off a cascade of unintended events.  Enter God’s sovereign rule over his messed-up world.   When Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child, she gains a foothold that Sarai does not anticipate.  Sarai plans only to produce a surrogate child by a menial slave.  Abram, on the other hand, now shares an intimate relationship with the mother of his only child.  Hagar becomes “the other woman.”   The Scripture shows Sarai’s pain in her own words.  “May the wrong done to me be on you!  I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt.  May the LORD judge between you and me!” (Genesis 16:5).

Backtracking

For better or worse, Abram gives his wife permission to do with her as she pleases, and Sarai resorts to abuse.  Ultimately, her abuse becomes so bad that Hagar flees.  While she is in the desert, the angel of the LORD appears to her and tells her,

 “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction.

He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

--Genesis 16:11-12

  I love the phrase, “because the LORD has listened to your affliction.”  In Sarai’s eyes, Hagar is only a slave, Sarai’s property.  In God’s eyes, she is precious.  He vindicates the voiceless.

Reassembling the Shattered Pieces
Abram and Sarai’s decision to rescue God results in confusing and even conflicting results. The chapter shows how God can rescue a broken situation, but it also anticipates a great deal of irony and pain.

  • God calls Hagar to go back to submit to her mistress, but he gives her the assurance that Ishmael will grow into a nation that will be a thorn in Israel’s side.  The injustice thrown at her will come back on Abraham’s descendants.
  • Hagar obeys God’s command to go back to Sarai.  She does not know that God will send her away again twenty years later (Genesis 21:10-13).
  • For now, Abram has created a fractured family, with Sarai on the outside.  Additionally, he will name his son (Genesis 16:15), but with the name that God gave Hagar before Abram had a say (Genesis 16:11).
  • Sarai intends to use Hagar as her property.  When Ishmael is born, however, Hagar’s standing eclipses Sarai’s for a time.
  • Abram will raise Ishmael as his father but will have to send him away when Isaac is weaned.  This will accomplish two ends.  One, it will reestablish Isaac as Abram’s sole child of faith.  And two, it will give Hagar a standing of her own.

Conclusion
The best of us mess things up at one time or another.  But the good news is that God’s ability to restore things is always greater than our ability to break them.   I find this passage encouraging for several reasons.  First, it shows that Abraham is human.  Like anyone involved in a calling that carries deep meaning, he can become overzealous to get the job done.   Second, despite his stumble, Abraham remains the champion of faith.  God does not disqualify him for a single mistake.   Third, the Bible is unafraid to show that Abram and Sarai’s actions have consequences.   Fourth, God cares for the innocent.  As a slave, Hagar was voiceless.  When she encounters God in the desert, she declares, “You are a God of seeing” (Genesis 16:13).  Her testimony gives the world one of the names by which God makes himself known.

 

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Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 8
A NEW NAME WRITTEN DOWN IN HISTORY
Genesis 17

 

A Long Faith Walk

Abram has been engaged in a twenty-four-year faith walk with his God.  He was seventy-five years old when he left Haran in answer to God’s call (Genesis 12:4), and now he is ninety-nine (Genesis 17:1). To this point in his life, he has little to show for his efforts.  Granted, he has become prosperous, but beyond his wealth, what does he have?  God’s promise to give him an heir remains unfulfilled.  He wanders in the land that God had promised he would give him.  And his son Ishmael stands more as a monument to strained family relationships than a testament to the hope that Abram and Sarai had expressed when Sarai gave Hagar to her husband. All that is about to change.

 A New Command, a New Word, and a New Name

In the LORD’s third recorded appearance to Abram, he reiterates the covenant conditions that he had laid out in Genesis 15.  He opens with the words, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly” (Genesis 17:1-2). God’s opening consists three distinct elements:

  • Pronouncement of his character: “I am God Almighty (El Shaddai)”
  • Command: “Walk before me and be blameless”
  • Purpose: “That I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly”

Notice the absence of fuzzy pronouncements like, “You are loved.”  Abram’s calling is not about becoming a better Abram.  It is about establishing a degree of character that reinforces God’s name above anything in his creation. Appropriately, Abram falls on his face when he hears God’s words.  When he does that, God declares about his intents:

 Genesis 17:4-8 (ESV)

4  “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.

5  No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.

6  I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.

7  And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

8  And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

 Greater Intent

God’s words in Genesis 17:4-8 expand on what God has told Abram in the past.  If his word sounded ludicrous before, it charges into the realm of impossibility now.  Here is a listing of God’s pronouncements:

 

  • A reiteration of the covenant from Genesis 15, (verse 4): God’s covenant means that Abram will be the father of nations
  • A renaming, (verse 5): The one who can name another exercises authority over that person.  Here God gives Abram (Exalted Father) the new name of Abraham (Father of a Multitude).  In accepting the name, Abraham acknowledges God’s absolute claim on his life.
  • A glorious future, (verse 6): Abraham will become nations.  Kings will arise from his offspring.
  • An everlasting covenant, (verse 7): The covenant that God had established with Abram in Genesis 15 will extend to his offspring as an unending covenant.
  • Settlement, (verse 8): The land where Abraham dwells as a stranger will belong to his offspring, and God will be their God.

 The Sign of the Covenant

These blessings constitute more than a list of prizes to a gameshow winner.  They are a summons.  God tells Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, your and your offspring after you throughout their generations” (Genesis 17:9). The sign of the covenant is circumcision.

 Genesis 17:11-13 (ESV)

11  You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.

12  He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring,

13  both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

 A Final Word: Blessing Mixed with Pain

Finally, the LORD offers one more clarification.  Sarai will bear Abraham a son.  God repeats the renaming ceremony that he had performed with Abram.  “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.  I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her’” (Genesis 17:15-16). Abraham registers two reactions to the news.  His first is disbelief.  “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?  Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17). His second, after the reality of God’s intent sets in, is grief.  Who will this new child be?  “Oh, that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:18).  Abraham loves his son.  We would expect no less.  But his son is not Sarah’s son, and that makes Ishmael an unacceptable candidate for a child who is to stand as the child of promise. To be sure, Ishmael is an innocent character in the saga.  He did not ask to be conceived, and he is not the bad guy.  In the end, God blesses him, and that is good. Finally, Abraham’s office as the champion of faith requires him to fulfill his calling without compromise, and that will involve breaking any ties with the lesser so that his hold on the greater will be complete.

 

 

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