The story of Abraham marks a turning point in Genesis. Chapters 1-11 have introduced us to a scattered world, badly in need of help. God’s dealings with Abraham are the beginning of the answer to that need. We may also notice the shift from the broad brushstrokes of pre-history to a more detailed story of the unfolding of the history of Israel.
Abraham’s journey starts in 11:27 with his father Terah taking the family from Ur, aiming to reach Canaan, but settling for Harran. You can’t help wondering if he should have continued, but it is left to Abraham (or Abram as he was know then) to complete the trip, motivated by a word from God.
I don’t know how that word came to him, but it seems clear that the writer intends that we understand it as more than simply a feeling of being called by God. Here we have an extremely important specific set of promises which we recognise as a Covenant. Perhaps the closest we get to this these days is in a marriage service where (supposedly) binding promises are made, with consequences when they are broken. Unlike the marriage covenant, God’s covenant with Abram was more along the lines of a Friendship Covenant, especially as it develops in chapter 15 (which is similar to the one enacted between David and Jonathan) but has elements of a Suzerainty Treaty, where the powerful ruler sets out the promises and the conditions.
So what were those conditions?..
1 I will make you a great nation
2 I will bless you
3 I will make your name great
4 You will be a blessing
5 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you
6 All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you
The condition or command was to leave Harran and go to Canaan, living a nomadic life.
In the following chapters God adds the Land of Canaan to the list of promises, which is why, unsurprisingly, it becomes known as The Promised Land, or simply, The Land. So the seventh promise is…
7 The Promised Land
These promises would be reinforced over and over for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, notably in the ancient Covenant Cutting ceremony of Genesis 15.
Promises 1, 2, 4 and 6 particularly find fulfilment in the people of God of every age, where the ‘great nation’ is the people of God’s Kingdom, who are blessed by God in order to transmit the blessing of Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ, to the world. They stand as an assurance and a challenge!
THE STRENGTHS OF ABRAM and THE PROBLEM OF SACRIFICE
Abram’s first great strong-point is that he is obedient!
He goes to the Land and carries out God’s instructions, even to the extent of being willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac (born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age). To the present-day reader this may seem unspeakably barbaric (as many do when they think of God sacrificing his Son, Jesus, on the cross, for which this story has a number of parallels) but a few things have to be taken into account…
One: In the first instance God did not intend that Abraham should carry out the task. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament says that when Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, he reasoned that God could even raise the dead (Heb 11:19). In the second instance God intended that Jesus should indeed rise from the dead.
Two: Both were willing victims.
Three: The Hebrew Scriptures make it clear that child sacrifice was abhorrent to God, emphasising that this was an extreme test of utmost obedience. In the case of Christ’s sacrifice the New Testament letter of Hebrews (7:27) tells us that Christ offered himself as sacrifice. The idea of God sacrificing his Son can only be really understood in the rather complicated context of the nature of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together as one – so much different from our human notion of one person sacrificing another!
Abram’s second great strong-point is his faith.
It gives me some hope to notice that this towering man of faith, alongside Sarah (also commended by the writer of Hebrews for her faith) were both quite fallible human beings and that the writer doesn’t try to whitewash the fact!
- These heroes have their doubts about the promises and need reassuring on several occasions.
- Abram practices polygamy which, while not explicitly condemned in that setting at that time, is too often fraught with problems throughout the Hebrew writings.
- Abram doesn’t seem to be trusting God when he tries to pass Sarah off as his sister, to save his own skin.
Overall they still believed that God would fulfil the seven promises. It’s just that they seemed to think that he needed a hand at times!
So flawed characters can still be used in the purposes of God to achieve great things. A fact reinforced in the tales of Isaac and Jacob which are next.