Most of the time when you hear about a life change for a seventy year old man, we’re talking about retirement, downsizing, and the twilight of life. I have great hopes that when I’m into my seventies, I get the chance to step back, have time to study and to pray, and to take joy in the adventures others are undertaking.
This is not the story of Abram (Abraham) – his adventure was just beginning. At the time God reached out to him, Abram was settled in Ur – a city of the ancient world known for its great prosperity (think: Las Vegas) – and though he and his wife Sarai are childless, he is the head of a tribe (picture it like your extended family reunion, living together all the time). He was about 75 years old, when God spoke to Him:
“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. 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. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
These are three extraordinary promises. Basically, God is saying to Abram: “leave this rich powerful city; your people, and all your real estate holdings… and go to a place you’ve never seen” (Scott Hahn). And, with incredible faith, Abram obeys! Put simply, what God has promised to do for Abram is the following:
- To give him land: God promises land and to make of him a great nation
- To bless Abram, and to make his name a blessing – like royalty
- Through Abram, all people at all time (including us) will somehow be blessed.
Abram obeys because his part is simply to trust God. So long as Abram trusts God, his reward will be the land & descendants, a royal legacy, and a universal blessing. All of this is necessary because, you’ll see a few chapters earlier that Canaan is the center of the world – and the land of Canaan has been highlighted in Genesis 10:15-19 in less than favorable terms. Although the blessing of God has followed Shem (Noah’s son), the world has embraced Canaan, the cursed grandson of Noah… history has repeated itself. However, instead of another ark-like rescue mission, God is establishing a divine counter attack: His promises become covenant oaths. He’s using the incredible faith of Abram to “father the growing family of God” (Scott Hahn).
If you read on to Genesis 15, you’ll see how the first promise (the land) has moved from a promise to an oath. God promises to give Abram the land he sees before him – Canaan – to possess (Genesis 15:7) – and the swearing of the oath consists both of a verbal declaration (is spoken) and a ritual enactment (the sacrifice of the animals.) God speaks the promise, then God sends a divine manifestation (theophany) passing between the pieces of the animal which have been cut apart – and all of this land was promised to the seed of Abram.
And here’s where Abram goes off the rails. By Genesis 16, Sarai had been unable to bear him any children, so she offers him her servant girl, Hagar, as a proxy. Legally, any child born would be an heir; so at age 86, Abram sires Ishmael… but this causes two major problems in Abram’s life.
First, you may have heard the cliche “God helps those who help themselves” – but you should know that this is found NOWHERE in scripture. It’s not something that God has revealed to us because it is in those moments that we tend to wander away from God… and in Abram’s case, this is true: by taking Hagar into his hands, he has left behind his part of the covenant (to trust God).
Second, there is more than a little drama between Sarai and Hagar… Hagar “looks with contempt” on Sarai (Genesis 16:5), so Sarai starts to abuse Hagar to the point that she runs away (Genesis 16:6-9). Abram is left in the middle… and I can’t imagine it’s a terribly fun place to be.
The second promise is moved to an oath in Genesis 17, where God offers Abram the covenant of circumcision. Circumcision is the action of the covenant – every man in the tribe (and every subsequent male child who is born) is to be circumcised within 8 days. Both Abram and Sarai are renamed Abraham (father of a multitude) and Sarah (princess) – as their mission continues. The covenant shall pass through Sarah, and Kings will descend from her… she is to bear Abraham a son. This covenant is given in a way that purposely excludes Ishmael, because this was not the means by which God intended to perpetuate the covenant – and the sign of the covenant (circumcision) is punitive and fitting response to what Abram had done with Hagar. In this case, the penance fits the crime, but it is also accommodating to Abraham’s faith. When Sarah laughs (Genesis 18:12-15), God also has Abraham name his son Isaac, which means laughter… meaning the very name of their son, and the irreversible change done by circumcision will leave them a lasting reminder of the ways in which they doubted God’s power over their lives.
This brings us to Genesis 22, the climax of Abraham’s whole narrative. Genesis 22 tells us the story of God’s testing of Abraham. By this point, Abraham has disowned Ishmael, and has sent both he and his mother (Hagar) away. God asks Abraham to offer Isaac as a holocaust offering – a type of sacrifice in which nothing is left behind. Abraham is to take Isaac up the mountain, kill him, and burn him on a pile of wood.
It’s a terrifying moment to consider for all involved. Whenever a child dies, we (rightly) consider it to be disordered: parents are not supposed to bury their children. In those tragic circumstances where a parent has in some way killed their child, this is even worse. So for God to ask Abraham to be the instrument which kills his only (remaining) son, it seems like God is being incredibly cruel… but Abraham has learned his lesson. Abraham will trust God (this time), and will lead his son up the mountain to sacrifice. In a scene which blatantly prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, Isaac – completely innocent of his parents’ weakness – carries the wood for his sacrifice up the mountain. Abraham binds him, lays him down, and is ready to kill his child when an angel stops him… pointing out a ram caught in a nearby thicket.
I imagine the trip home was a little awkward for Abraham and Isaac (along with any future father/son trip they went on!) – but in truth, Isaac was never in any real danger. Either Abraham would have refused God’s direction – in which case Isaac would have experienced none of this – or Abraham would have said yes to God, in which case (as it happened), God would ensure Abraham didn’t harm his son.
Following this, God promises a universal blessing through Abraham (Genesis 22:16-18) – that somehow all people in all nations will be blessed.
These three promises – the great nation, the royal name, and the universal blessing – each one prefigures a later, larger covenant age. The covenant that God makes in Genesis 15 is fulfilled when the Exodus happens (Mosaic covenant). The covenant in Genesis 17 is fulfilled when David becomes king, making Sarah the mother of a King. And the promise of universal blessing from Genesis 22 is fulfilled by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – Jesus’ conquering of death has brought to all of us the blessing of the faith of Abraham.
May we have faith like Abraham as we sit as heirs of the faith of Abraham.
This write-up represents the discussion for the fourth part of a Bible Study I’m hosting with students examining God’s covenants with humanity, found throughout scripture.