Thoughts from Doug Knox.
April - November 2020
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 1
CRISIS AND PREPARATIO
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.
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.
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.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 2
SHAPED IN ISOLATION
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.
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.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 3
OBEDIENCE IN BLACK AND WHITE
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.
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.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 4
A PRINCIPLED MAN IN ACTION
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.”
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.
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.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 6
THE HISTORY-WRITING GOD
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.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 7
THE GOD OF THE MESSED-UP WORLD
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).
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.”
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.
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.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 8
A NEW NAME WRITTEN DOWN IN HISTORY
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.”
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.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 9
INTO THE SECRECY OF GOD'S PRESENCE
Encountering God in Mystery
Genesis 18-19 features a series of events that take place around a visitation from God. The two primary episodes involve God’s pronouncement to Abraham concerning Sarah's anticipated bearing of Isaac and his examination of Sodom and Gomorrah just prior to their destruction. God appears in physical form in this visit. Theologically, God’s physical visitations in the Old Testament are called theophanies. The theophany that extends over these two chapters is one that is truly mysterious. This challenge will engage in a flyover of the two chapters to examine the theophany. Rather than trying to drive toward a practical application, I want to help us approach the incomprehensible so that we can leave with a sense of awe. I want us to worship.
Contrary to the contemporary Christian culture that has become obsessed with worship “experience”—as if worship were all about us—the God of the Bible drives us from ourselves. When we become so dumbstruck in his presence that we shrink before him (see Exodus 3:1-6, for example), our spiritual compass has begun to point in the right direction.
Three Messengers…Or One God?
The opening of the passage drives us straight into God’s presence. The passage opens with the LORD’s appearance to Abraham.
Genesis 18:1-5 (ESV)
1 And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.
2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth
3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.
4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree,
5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”
In Genesis 18 and 19, the LORD appears as “three men.” When we try to discern the significance of the three in this appearance, we enter the realm of the mysterious. Here is why. The text reveals from the beginning that it is the LORD who appears to Abraham (verse 1), but without a break goes on to mention “three men” (verse 2). Who is whom? Does the LORD constitute the three or only one of the three? The Bible is silent on this point. When Abraham addresses them at the beginning of the chapter, he uses the title, Adonai, meaning “My Master,” as a singular noun. The remainder of the section only adds to the mystery. Verse 9 reverts to the plural, “They said to him…,” while verse 10 continues the thought with the words, “The LORD said….”
We are still unsure whether they are all “the LORD” or the LORD is a singular being with two escorts.
Two Angels who Accompany God?
The mystery deepens as we follow the text. In verse 22, two of the men “turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD.” There it is. The LORD is one, while the other two are separate. Further, the next chapter appears to reinforce this understanding when it uses a new term to describe the two. “The two angels came to Sodom” to observe the situation and speak to Lot (Genesis 19:1). In the original language, the word angel means messenger and can refer to someone either human or divine. This context appears to describe angelic beings who are subordinate to the LORD. Mystery solved. Or is it? When we drop down a few verses, the water becomes murky again. When the residents of the town try to barge past Lot and attack his guests, “the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house” (Genesis 19:10). Genesis 19:12 repeats the term men. Then in Genesis 19:15, the wording reverts to the original designation. The angels urge Lot to flee Sodom. Perhaps we have found a resolution. It seems that God has appeared with two of his angelic beings, each of whom presents himself in perfect human form. To the residents, they are ordinary men. As readers, we know they are angels.
And the Two Become One?
Then we come to Genesis 19:18-20. When the two messengers warn Lot about the coming judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot asks them to spare a small nearby town so that he may flee there. Here is the response to Lot: “He said to him, ‘Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Escape there quickly, for I can do nothing till you arrive there’” (Genesis 19:21). We encounter the same singular/plural question that plagued us at the beginning, when the three men spoke to Abraham. Suddenly, we face more questions. Does the singular pronoun mean only one man spoke, or do both speak as one? If they speak together, which one does the talking? And if only one speaks, who is the now displaced third character? The weight of the message poses an even deeper mystery. This is no middle management person who says, “I’m authorized to make this counter-offer.” He speaks on his own authority. In fact, his words sound God-like. How high does this authority reach?
Letting the Mystery be Mystery
Some have suggested that we have witnessed an appearance of the Trinity, but this conjecture raises problems. The exact theological understanding of theophany is a physical appearance of God. That is, God shows himself in person, in physical form. If we maintain the Trinity, we do so from a New Testament point of view. The line of reasoning falters when we examine Moses’ body of theology. He would write in Deuteronomy, for example, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This becomes a hallmark stance in the Old Testament. Additionally, Moses is adamant about God’s refusal to reveal himself in ways that could be replicated by human beings. We see this when he speaks to the second generation of Israelites in Deuteronomy. Recalling his appearance on Mount Sinai, Moses tells the Israelites, “The LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12). In that appearance on the mountain, the LORD insisted, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). If we were to make the three men an image of the Trinity, we are only a step away from saying that there are three Gods. Three quarters of the Bible was written for God’s people who lived prior to Jesus’ incarnation. Their Bible guided them sufficiently. When we study The Old Testament, we need to honor their perspective. Genesis 18-19 speaks on its own, and the message carries a meaning on its own merit. The events that take place in these chapters take place under a shroud of mystery. Let us give God the wonder that is due him, and worship in the presence of the mysterious.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 10
Drawing Sarah into the Narrative
The last segment, a broad overview of Genesis 18-19, looked at the mystery of God’s presence when he spoke to Abraham. The text also contains important narrative points. One occurs in Genesis 18:1-15. There, the LORD issues Sarah a summons that elevates her part in in the drama to the same level as her husband’s. The summons unfolds in two sections. The first takes place in Genesis 18:1-8. There the three men appear before Abraham. He recognizes them as a visitation from God and requests their indulgence while he prepares a ceremonial meal for them. Then he hurries into the tent and tells Sarah, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it and make cakes” (Genesis 18:6). The remainder of the scene describes how Abraham prepared the meal and presented it to the men. Sarah is absent from the scene, except for her appearance in verse 6. In a Middle Eastern cultural context, this scene is perfectly normal. Women do not stand before dignitaries. Sarah serves in anonymity. The second section blasts the reader out of the normal world like a rocket off a launching pad.
After Abraham serves the three men their ceremonial meal, (Genesis 18:1-8), the LORD asks him, “Where is Sarah you wife?” (Genesis 18:9). Abraham answers, “She is in the tent” (Genesis 18:10). The reason for the question is not to make sure that Sarah remains out of earshot. No Middle Eastern woman would dare eavesdrop on such a delegation, so such a precaution is unnecessary. The dialogue that follows shows that God wishes to bring her into the heart of Abraham’s story.
Genesis 18:10-15 (ESV)
10 The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.
11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.
12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”
13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?”
14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”
15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
Notice how the dialogue progresses. We begin in Abraham’s point of view when the LORD tells him that he and Sarah will bear a child of their own within a year (Genesis 18:10). Following that, the author informs us again that both Abraham and Sarah are beyond childbearing age (verse 11). In verse 12, we jump into Sarah’s mind when she laughs to herself inside the apparent safety of the tent. The change in character focus is deliberate. The text is about to move Sarah from her apparent anonymity in the tent to center stage.
Sarah’s reaction to the LORD’s words is spontaneous. “After I am worn out…shall I have pleasure?” This thought is unfiltered. It is the gut-level reaction that enters one’s mind before the person can turn on her internal controls. Because of the raw quality of her reaction, I believe that this thought was in her head. Psalm 102 gives us an expanded description of the term worn out. The heavens and earth “will all wear out like a garment. / You will change them like a robe, / and they will pass away” (Psalm 102:26). The word for pleasure is eden, the same as the Garden in Genesis 2-3. When we read these two thoughts together, we see into Sarah’s heart. She has passed her time for physical pleasure in marriage. The only significant milestone remaining for her is her passing.
The information that emerges, however, is more important. At the beginning of the dialogue, the LORD tells Abraham, “I will surely return to you about this time next year.” In verses 13-15, God draws Sarah into the dialogue through the back door. “The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?”’” (verse 13). (The paraphrase “now that I am old” takes the edge from Sarah’s words and lets her save face before her husband.) The LORD continues to speak to Abraham. “At the appointed time I will return to you [Abraham], about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Then the narrative moves directly to Sarah, who cannot deny that she is listening. “But Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was afraid. He [God] said, ‘No, but you did laugh’” (verse 15).
A Date Set in Eternity
The segment closes abruptly with these words, leaving us to wonder what was supposed to happen with the he-said-she-said argument. Have we missed something? We have not. The closing accomplishes three tasks. One goes to the large drama. For all the apparent delays, God has never lost control of his plan and Sarah. His appointed time answers the rhetorical question, “Is anything too hard for God?” in verse 14. Obviously not. Two, through his speaking directly with Sarah, God gives her a voice in the covenant. Not only will the couple experience renewed life and pleasure, but Sarah ultimately will have a say in her relationship with her family that is unheard of in her culture. Three, the account ultimately gives Sarah the freedom to laugh out loud with her husband, who also laughed (Genesis 17:17). One Bible scholar observes, “[Sarah’s] laughter becomes the occasion to draw an important theological point from the narrative, namely, that what the Lord was about to do to fulfill his promise to Abraham was a matter ‘too wonderful’ (v. 14) even for his own people to imagine.” (John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 165.) In the end, Sarah’s laughter will turn to joyful wonder. When Isaac is born, she will say, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me” (Genesis 21:6).
With this scene, Sarah acquires an active role beside her husband in God’s redemptive drama. From this point on, her faith walk beside her husband will be just as critical as his in every way.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 11
A New Task for Abraham
Genesis 18 declares Abraham’s purpose in one of the profoundest statements in the Bible. After the LORD declares Sarah’s inclusion in his covenant with Abraham (verses 1-15), he directs his attention to Abraham alone. The three men who had come to visit him move toward their second task, which is to see if Sodom’s sin is worthy of the judgment he plans for the city.
Genesis 18:16-18 (ESV)
16 Then the men set out from there [Abraham and Sarah’s tent], and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way.
17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,
18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?”
This is only the introduction to the full statement of Abraham’s purpose, but even here, we have a lot of material. First, Abraham shows himself to be a man who is concerned about a larger purpose than his own success. Instead of simply dismissing the three men when they leave, he accompanies them as they leave (verse 16). He engages in an active relationship with his God. Second, we see that the LORD is equally concerned over his involvement with Abraham. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…?” (verse 17). Finally, God works with him uniquely, “seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (verse 18).
Still speaking to himself, the LORD proclaims his purpose for Abraham.
Genesis 18:19 (ESV)
19 “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
Notice that God’s design shapes Abraham’s purpose. “I have chosen him…” This truth is universal We will never achieve satisfaction in trying to find ourselves. If our life is to have meaning, it must begin in recognition of God’s direction for us. God’s purpose is also specific. It is “that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” And we see how Abraham will guide his children and household. He will accomplish his task by “doing righteousness and justice.” When we read this statement, we are tempted to connect God’s declaration for Abraham to his household life. Genesis takes it in a different direction, however. The righteousness and justice that Abraham is to practice is directed toward Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Meaning of Righteous and Justice
Two factors that are not immediately apparent determine this meaning. The first is the combination of righteousness and justice in this context. As modern Westerners, we understand righteousness and justice as distinct, separately definable attributes. Righteousness implies inward character qualities. Justice looks outwardly to legal or societal affairs. The Old Testament treats the two as characteristics of God by which he blesses mankind. The word pair occurs several times in the Psalms, and the meanings are always synonymous. Here is one example:
Psalm 89:14 (ESV)
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
In the psalm, righteousness-justice is a single entity characterizes foundation for God’s throne. Further, the quality pairs with steadfast love-faithfulness that goes before the LORD. God is not dispassionate in his judgment. He is as zealous to exercise his preserving love as he is to condemn. This is exactly what we see in Genesis when God comes to evaluate Sodom and Gomorrah. God chooses Abraham to stand between himself and his administration of judgment on the cities.
Abraham as Mediator
Verses 20-21 begin with the words, “Then the LORD said…” If we read the account straight through, the verses appear to be a continuation of his monologue in verses 17-19. They make more sense if we understand them as a new section in which the LORD engages in dialogue with Abraham. Here is the opening of the dialogue with explanatory notes added:
Genesis 18:20-26 emphasis and editorial notes added (ESV)
20 Then the LORD said [to Abraham], “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD [who had spoken to him]. 23 Then [in response,] Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?
25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
26 And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham speaks as one spoken to, not as one who initiates a new dialogue. He can speak so boldly to his God because God has invited him. For both Abraham and for God, “what is just” includes judgment tempered with mercy. If the LORD were to destroy the city dispassionately, he would be acting out of character. Abraham calls on his God to remember compassion. His extended act of mediation in Genesis 18:27-33 draws God from a promise to spare the cities if he can find fifty righteous down to a mere ten. When he intercedes for the cities, he is “doing righteousness and justice” as God describes the task in verse 19.
Abraham’s Role as Prophet-mediator
Abraham becomes a defense attorney who challenges the Judge. In modern jurisprudence, he would be out of line. Why does God not rebuke him? In a later in passage in Genesis, God will tell Abimelech, king of Gerar, “Now then, return [Abraham’s] wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live” (Genesis 20:7 emphasis added). The Old Testament prophets carried on active roles as dual advocates. Sometimes they defended God’s ways before his people, but they equally defended the people’s cause before their God. This is exactly what Abraham does in this narrative. Abraham’s actions are not presumptuous. He may not know fully what God has done, but he steps into his calling as a prophet and pleads for the people.
A Modern Prophetic Call?
The New Testament is clear that the Old Testament “Thus says the LORD” prophetic declaration ended with Jesus. Since the incarnate Word has spoken once for all, we no longer need prophets to speak for him. Intercession, however, remains to fill the role of God’s righteousness-justice. In a small way, our prayers become prophetic acts. When we intercede for others, we remind God of his divine mandate the same way that the prophets did.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 12
WALKING TOGETHER IN COVENANT
He Said/She Said
I have become a fan of some of the content on YouTube. Not all—some. Beneath the surface lies a trove of well-thought-out discussions on history, philosophy, psychology, politics, science, theology, and other subjects that interest me. A couple days ago, I made what is to me an interesting discovery. After months of encountering report after report in the media telling about feminism is in our faces, I began to see male responses come up on the queue. I noticed two things. One, the men are much quieter when they speak. This is partly due to circumstances. The women featured on YouTube generally are college students or graduates from liberal arts colleges who have been taught nothing but leftist propaganda regarding gender and privilege. Having been whipped into frenzy, they join protests in the streets. Their only recourse is to scream. The men that I have seen, on the other hand, are at least a generation older and speak from their homes or studios. They have time to script their material. They compose their words and build an often-powerful rhetorical case. The other factor that I noticed is that, with few exceptions, both men and women hunker in their respective positions. They garner followers from their respective sides but do little to encourage empathy or dialogue between the sides. The gender wars continue.
A Covenant Traveled Together
In an earlier segment (Abraham’s Faith Walk, No. 10), I mentioned that God’s direct dialogue with Sarah, without Abraham acting as a mediator, brought Sarah into the covenant on equal footing with Abraham. In this segment, we will see that God’s inclusion not only gives her equal footing, but an equal voice as well.
Genesis 21 introduces the promised son:
Genesis 21:1-4 (ESV)
1 The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised.
2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him.
3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.
4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.
5 And Abraham was a hundred years old when
Notice the first verse. “And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said….” Twenty-five years have elapsed since God called Abram from Ur of the Chaldees. During most of that time, he has stood at the epicenter of the covenant. Here, however, the text recalls God’s words to Sarah from Genesis 18. The four verses depicted above reemphasize the equal status of Abraham and Sarah in their depiction of covenant fulfillment. Notice also that the fulfillment of promise takes place, God gives Sarah the opportunity to speak for herself and her husband.
Genesis 21:6-7 (ESV)
6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.”
7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Authority Behind the Voice
Sarah’s voice in the covenant is more than just a bit part. Her portrayal lays the groundwork for a decision that will define her husband’s trajectory.
Genesis 21:8-12 (ESV)
8 And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.
9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.
10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.
12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.
Ishmael would have been around seventeen years old at Isaac’s weaning, and Genesis has shown already that Abraham has become deeply attached to the young man. Apparently, Hagar’s derision toward Isaac in verse 9 belies a confidence on her part. Ishmael has been his father’s only son for long enough that she expects him to be a shoo-in for first-born status. She is right about Abraham’s emotional attachment to Ishmael, but she misses the significance of Sarah’s standing in the covenant. When s Sarah tells her husband, “Cast out this slave woman with her son,” she reminds her husband about her inviolable status. Sarah, not Hagar, stands in the line of promise. God himself reiterates Sarah’s words and calls Abraham to do what she says. I doubt that he would have been able to carry out the act without his wife’s pronouncement.
God’s command to Abraham to listen to his wife’s voice is more than a bare command. It also carries a promise. “And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:13). With that reassurance, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away the next morning.
Several applications rise from the text.
- We see God’s faithfulness to fulfill his purposes.
- We witness God’s grace to continue working among his people even when they mess up. (And how we need that realization!)
- We see God’s zeal to perform the work that he has ordained.
- Not least, we hear a reminder of how vital our wives are to the work that God has ordained for us. We must not cause their voice to be silent.
One more observation on this passage will become clear when we look at the next major episode in Abraham’s life. It will be breathtaking.
Abraham's Faith Walk, Part 13
Cherishing the Present; Preparing for the Future
A Completed Task and the Continuation of Life
Sometimes the Lord gives us the chance to enjoy our victories, and when he does, it is a beautiful thing. But the celebrations are not final. Other tasks lie before us. After Abraham’s successful test of faith at Jehovah-yierah (“The LORD will Provide,” Gen. 22:14), Abraham doubtless basked in God’s words, “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). At the same time, he knew that more work lay ahead. Genesis records three more events in Abraham’s life after his testing—Sarah’s death at 127 years old, Abraham’s instructions to his servant to find a bride for Isaac, and Abraham’s second marriage to Keturah. This final segment on Abraham will touch on all three, because in each instance, he keeps his eyes on his lifetime goal.
Burying Sarah in a Land Not his Own
Genesis 23:1-20 records Sarah’s death and Abraham’s efforts to secure a burial place for her. If we compare Abraham’s negotiations for a burial site for his wife with his test of faith in the previous chapter, the negotiations for Sarah’s burial place occupy more space than Isaac’s attempted sacrifice. Why does the text go into such detail? I believe the answer reflects Abraham’s understanding of God’s promise to hold the land as a future promise rather than give it to him a present reality. For example, when God separated Lot from Abram in Genesis 13, the LORD said,
“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…. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”
--Genesis 13:14-15, 17
The LORD never implies that Abram himself will own the land, and Abram remains fully aware of the fact throughout his life. Not long after Abram and Lot separate, Abram joins in a regional battle to rescue his nephew who has been kidnapped. When the king of Sodom offers booty to Abram, he makes his faith commitment clear. “I have lifted my hand to the LORD God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, 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’” (Genesis 14:22-23). Abram forsakes immediate gratification from the king of Sodom so that he can stay secure in God’s future promise. The process surrounding Sarah’s burial appears to follow this pattern. Abraham purchases the only land he will own legally in Canaan so that he can bury his wife in the land that God promised his descendants. The grave, a perpetual reminder of the finality of life, becomes a symbol of God’s abiding promise.
Preparing for the Future
The second event involves the well-known story of Abraham’s instructions to his servant to procure a bride for Isaac. Here again, Abraham continues to look to the future. His instructions show how strongly he holds to his commitment when he tells his servant,
Genesis 24:2-7 (ESV)
3 “You will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell,
4 but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”
5 The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?”
6 Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there.
7 The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.”
This is the only example among the patriarchs of a prearranged marriage. While the story of Isaac sending Jacob back to his family for a wife parallels Abraham’s account, it shows that Isaac lacks his father’s zeal. None of the three generations following Abraham match his diligence in pursuing God’s revealed plan.
Continuing to Live
The final event involves a less frequented stop in Abraham’s life. Before his passing, Abraham marries another woman named Keturah (Genesis 25:1). Three observations rise from this brief episode. First, Abraham remains virile. The miraculous restoration of his manhood stands as a testament to God’s creative power. The second observation regards marriage relationships in general. A man’s deepest satisfaction in marriage arises from the love that he can give to his wife. Men are not created to be passive. We are commanded to love our wives actively. Permit me to insert an autobiographical note here. After my first wife Marie died and I began to court Patty, I realized—quite suddenly—that my driving need was not to be loved as much as it was to love. The realization helped me understand why widowers are so much more likely than widows to seek to remarry. Loneliness when a wife has died is an emotional hole that few men can tolerate. No matter where we are, our most profound act of service as husbands is to learn to love our wives. We become most fulfilled when we recognize that we are unfulfilled without a deep relationship with our wives. The final observation on this passage deals with Abraham’s recognition of his covenant with God. He sired six children by Keturah. He gave an inheritance, before he died, but he kept them separate from Isaac.
Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the son sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.
When he dies, he leaves his son of promise in the most secure position possible. No wonder the Apostle Paul could testify, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in the faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:20-21).