Vol. 8, No. 12
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The man called Abraham is truly one of the most fascinating characters found in the Book of Beginnings. Blessed of God and father of the Hebrew nation, within the story of Abraham we can see the plan of our own salvation begin to unfold, thus making the account of his life of utmost importance to us all. Abraham's faith and obedience continues to echo throughout New Testament teaching and is best summarized by the writer of the Hebrew letter when he penned, "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:8-10). Yet, as you explore the life of this great man, his apparent humanity is crystal clear. In two separate occasions we can see how Abraham used a lie to avoid trouble (Genesis 12:11-13; 20:2) and through the persuasion of his wife, Sarai, interfered with the plan that God had laid out for their lives (Genesis 16).
Originally named Abram (exalted father, Nelson's) by his father Terah, Abram was a descendent of Shem, the first of Noah's three sons (Genesis 10:1). In biblical times, names were of much importance. The name given at birth was believed to be a vital connection to the person it identified. Names were also given in relationship to events or circumstances that surrounded the parents or the child being named. For example, Moses was given his name because he was drawn up from the water (Exodus 2:10). The changing of a name was also of great importance to those of biblical times. For instance, God himself gives Abram a new name, Abraham, meaning "father of a multitude" (Nelson's) in direct relation to the promise that he would be the father of a great nation. Abraham's wife, Sarai, would also receive a new name and now be called Sarah (Genesis 17). Even into the New Testament period, name changing continued to show important events or changes within a person's life. Simon was renamed Peter (a stone, Cephas, a stone) (Smith's) by Jesus because of his great confession of the Christ (Matthew 16:18). Saul was later called Paul, a Greek name that reflected his destiny to be a great teacher to the Gentile people.
God's call to Abram is recorded in Genesis 12:1-3. Here Abram is told to leave his father's family, now located in Haran, which was in the northern parts of Mesopotamia ("Character Studies"). He is directed to go to "a land that I will show you." Also within this calling is a sevenfold blessing ("Genesis Course") for Abram's obedience. God promises to make him a great nation, a promise that surely brought Abram great joy because at this time he still had no children or heirs of his own because Sarai was barren (Genesis 16:1). God promises to make him a wealthy man, which during the time of the Patriarchs was measured mainly in livestock such as sheep, goats, camels and cattle. He receives a promise of a great name, a name that has not yet been given (Genesis 17), a name that would be synonymous with great men of faith. Abram will be a blessing to those around him, an example of righteousness. Those who would be Abram's friends would receive blessings for being such, and the Lord would protect Abram from those who would curse him and wish to do harm to him. Finally, through his lineage, "all the families of the earth" would be blessed. This thought can only be connected with the promise of the Messiah, the Savior of the world (Barnes'), a precious promise that has been fulfilled so that we now enjoy the benefits of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1-6). After receiving his instructions and without hesitation, the man of faith, at the age of 75, takes his leave from his father and goes to Shechem, which is located in the land of Canaan.
Very early in the text that contains the account of Abram's life, we begin to see character flaws that assure us that we are reading about a mere mortal man, a man not so much different from ourselves. An apparent famine had come to the land and in order to escape the drought, Abram moves south to the land of Egypt. The line between famine and plenty in this land largely depended on rains coming in the proper amounts and at the right time; therefore, famines were a constant threat (Smith's). Just before Abram's entry into Egypt, he devises a plan in order to assure his safety while there. Abram makes the statement that Sarai is "a woman of beautiful countenance" (Genesis 12:11). Therefore when they entered Egypt, she was to say that she was his sister, a literal truth, as can be seen when Abram uses the same half-truth to deceive King Abimelech in Chapter 20. Yes, it was true that their father was Terah, yet they had different mothers. Marriages of such close relations were allowed during this early time period of mankind (a little over 1,900 B.C.) But later, such close unions would be disallowed by the Mosaic Law. Men of that time counted women as a possession, but also honored the institution of marriage. So in order not to defile the sanctity of the union, the husband would have to be removed (murdered) before taking the woman. The question arises as to the beauty of Sarai at this time. She would have been about 65-years-old during this episode; therefore, how could she be considered beautiful enough to warrant such comments? Could a woman of this age be so desirable that foreigners would kill Abram in order to possess her? When considered with the longevity of that time period, (we note that Sarah lived to be 127, Genesis 23:1), Sarai would be considered middle-aged; when coupled with the fact that she had yet to bear children, she must have truly been a beautiful lady (Barnes'). The lie works well for Abram; he is treated with the utmost respect while in Egypt, but it soon is outlived once Pharaoh discovers his deception and Abram receives strong admonishment for it.
Again in Genesis 16, we see Abram showing his weaker side by heeding to Sarai in her attempt to assist God in fulfilling the "promise." She gives her handmaid, Hagar, to Abram for a wife so that she might bear Abram a son. Abram does as Sarai wishes but we soon see that when attempting to use human judgment rather than God's wisdom, trouble is not far away. Hagar becomes pregnant but jealousies soon arise and Sarai becomes displeased with Hagar; then, with Abram's blessing she severely admonishes Hagar to the point that Hagar flees. But the angel of Jehovah appears to Hagar, directs her to return to her service to Sarai and delivers a threefold promise ("Genesis Course"). The child's name will be Ishmael (God hears me) and he will multiply and become a nation; yet, he will be a "wild man," contentious in spirit. Even though Ishmael would be the firstborn of Abram, he would not be the heir of the promise. The Lord God does bless Ishmael, making him the father of 12 princes, the father of a great nation (Genesis 17:20); even today, modern Arabs claim to be direct descendants of Abram's firstborn, Ishmael.
When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord comes to him yet again (Genesis 17). A sign of the covenant between God, Abram and his descendants is directed, the sign of circumcision. Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the penile gland. It is thought that circumcision was practiced by the Egyptians, Canaanites, as well as Moslems, Polynesians and primitive tribes of America (Miller and Miller). The Hebrew custom, here instituted by God through Abram, was to be performed when the male child was eight days old. Circumcision was performed by the parent (Genesis 17:23), but later by a professional. Some have offered theories as to why the custom was practiced, one being that it served a hygienic purpose (for the prevention of cancer, infections or venereal diseases) (Miller and Miller). This thought in of itself does not take away from the divine instruction; in many cases God instituted laws and rites that took health matters into consideration. For instance, consider the food laws of Leviticus. One note of interest is that circumcision is the only type of surgery mentioned in the Bible. It must have been an extremely painful procedure, especially for teenage boys or adult men. This is very evident in the case of Hamor and Shechem (Genesis 34). After being deceived by the sons of Jacob, the men of the city were circumcised. The procedure apparently incapacitated all the men of the city ("when they were in pain" v. 25) to the point that Simeon and Levi were able to boldly kill all the males, thus avenging their sister Dinah's violation by Shechem. Even though a painful process, the obedience of Abraham (his name is also changed at this time; v.5) is seen in verses 22-27 by his own circumcision and that of his whole household.
Another character trait of Abraham becomes evident in his great concern and intercession for the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18:16-22 the fate of the cities is foretold, yet Abraham intercedes, pleading for the righteous who will surely be destroyed with the wicked (v.23). God's longsuffering with those who are righteous can be seen in the example of Abraham's plea. Not only once does he ask Jehovah to spare the cities for a righteous fifty that might be found there, but reduces the number to forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty and finally ten, for a total of five times and yet God is patient and hears the request of his righteous servant. But to no avail, the evil cities are destroyed by brimstone and fire from heaven (Genesis 19:24).
Abraham is again promised a son through his barren wife Sarah at the ripe old age of 99. Sarah herself is 90 years old, but yet the promise is made. This is the "son of promise" from which the great nation will spring. The conception and birth of Isaac is truly a miraculous event, as can be seen in Sarah's comments when learning that she would carry a child. Sarah, well advanced in age had ceased in the "manner of women" (she no longer cycled and ovulated, Genesis 18:11). But in the appointed time, Sarah indeed conceives and bears a son in her old age. Abraham calls him Isaac (God laughs, Nelson's) and again shows his obedience in circumcising the child at eight days of age. The child grows and is weaned, a cause for a great feast prepared by his father. But again problems arise between Sarah and Hagar, because of Ishmael's scoffing, thus forcing Abraham to expel the Egyptian bondwoman and her son. Isaac is now the promised seed of Abraham ("Genesis Course").
Undoubtedly, the greatest challenge to Abraham's faith and obedience is recorded in Genesis 22. The Lord calls to Abraham and commands him to offer up Isaac, his only son, the son of promise, as a burnt offering. As directed, Abraham makes preparations to go make sacrifice to the Lord. The wood was cut and split, loaded on the donkeys and the group made its way to the place of sacrifice. Isaac makes notice of the missing ingredient for the sacrifice (as most assuredly do those servants that are with them) and asks his father, "Where is the lamb?" In this the young man will be taught to trust God as provider of the things that are needed; thus Abraham's reply, "My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb" (v.7-8). The journey took three days; this is no doubt a picture-prophecy of the death of Christ (Mark 8:31), for Abraham surely thought his son was as good as dead for the three days prior to the arrival at Moriah. But Abraham must have thought that God would raise Isaac because of the promise to make him a great nation (Hebrews 11:17). Once there, the altar is built, the wood is put into place and Isaac is laid upon the altar. We must note that there is no mention of a struggle; Isaac most certainly knew what was about to happen, yet no attempt to escape is recorded (Isaiah 53:7). But as the knife is drawn to kill the young man, a ram is provided and Isaac's life is spared here at Mount Moriah, where some 2,000 years later God's only begotten son was sacrificed for the world's sin (DeHoff).
Abraham's wife Sarah dies at the age of 127 (Genesis 23:1), thus prompting Abraham to purchase a place for burial in a land that is not his home. As custom would warrant, a burial place was purchased within one day and the cave of Macpelah was purchased for 400 shekels (an approximate year's wage) from Ephron, the Hittite. After the death of Sarah, it is recorded that Abraham took a second wife, Keturah, and she bore him six more children (Genesis 25:1-2), thus assuring that Abraham would be the father of many nations (Romans 4:17-18) just as God had promised. The Scriptures tell us that Abraham "breathed his last" at the age of 175 years of age, a good old age, again just as God had promised (Genesis 15:15).
There are many lessons that can be learned from a study of the great patriarch known as father Abraham. The simple nomadic herdsman, blessed by Jehovah, shows us an example of faith and obedience not often paralleled (with the exception of Jesus) within the pages of the God-breathed Scriptures. Written for our example (1 Corinthians 10:11) and our learning (Romans 15:4), the study of the life of Abraham is certainly profitable for the Christian today. Following are four lessons that we can learn and apply to our lives from the "father of many nations."
The great sevenfold promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 shows God's plan for mankind's salvation. From these promises, the reader can see through the next 13 chapters that God indeed has fulfilled those promises to righteous Abraham. God has promised many great and wonderful blessings to us through Jesus Christ as well. The apostle Paul wrote concerning Abraham, "He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore 'it was accounted to him for righteousness.' Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead" (Romans 4:20-24). Just as Abraham was given credit for his righteousness, we can be counted righteous as well. With that, there are promises that God makes to us in the New Testament.
First, we are promised that our physical needs will be supplied. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed our need for clothes, food and shelter, and then said, "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). We also are promised many spiritual blessings through Christ (Ephesians 1:3). Christians can pray to the Father and receive forgiveness for their sins. We have the blessings and benefits associated with being a part of the church family for love, strength and support. We're promised the gift of his grace, through our obedient faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10), the forgiveness of sin and eternal life with God (John 3:16). Yes, we too can follow Abraham's example of righteousness and receive the wonderful blessings God has promised us to all that obey him (Hebrews 11:6)
God's patience with Abraham can be seen during the intercession for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). Not just once, but five times Abraham asked God to spare the wicked cites and each time requested that different, less stringent conditions be considered. Through this example we can see the longsuffering of God with those who he counts as righteous. We, too, can experience this longsuffering and patience if we live a life of "faith and obedience" ("Genesis Course"). Just as the Lord patiently waited for Noah to build the ark, he is patient toward us, not willing that any of us should perish, but that we all should turn from our sin and turn to him (2 Peter 3:9-10). An additional lesson concerning our prayer life can also be learned from this example. We may sometimes feel that we must not try to "push" God by making repeated requests of him. But as we see through Abraham's example, God will understand if we repeat our needs or even change our minds on occasion. We must always remember that prayer is a powerful tool that the Lord has blessed us with, thus: "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16).
When Sarah tried to assist God in his promise to make Abraham a great nation by giving Hagar to him as a wife, nothing but trouble was to follow. There's no doubt that her efforts were done with the best intentions, and she was indeed making sacrifices of herself, allowing Abraham to sleep with another woman. Needless to say that our own wives would not have been so gracious! God has set forth a plan for us to follow in the New Testament as well, but just as Sarah, we feel we have a need to help God along, constantly trying to improve upon what is already perfect. We attempt to update the worship service to make it better for ourselves, forgetting that God is the recipient of our worship. We modify the pattern by adding things like instrumental music simply because we "feel" that is enhances the worship; why wouldn't God want us to make worship better? Some of the largest congregations in the country have already adopted the practice of instrumental services (Adams) and by doing so, they have deviated from God's plan. Trouble is just around the corner; congregations will split; brotherhood papers will be filled with heated debates; such things should never be so (1 Corinthians 1:10). The alien sinner will observe the discord and walk away, not wanting to have anything to do with such a contentious group of people. Even the plan of New Testament salvation is up for discussion, modification and improvement. The necessity of baptism (Mark 16:16) is now under serious consideration by those who once stood firm. Again, the result will be trouble on the day of judgment for those who don't obey the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8). We must learn from Abraham's example that it has always been necessary to follow what God has laid out for us, and if we do so, we shall never fall (2 Peter 1:10).
In Hebrews Chapter 11, we find the listing of the "Heroes of Faith," and Abraham is listed there among the elite of the faithful. But even though he was a man of righteousness, a man of great faith, there were times when he, too, made mistakes and displeased God. One of these examples can be seen in the half-truth told to the Egyptians in Genesis 12. "Please say you are my sister," he told Sarai in order to avoid being killed by the men of the strange land. Abraham told a lie, a misnomer, a half-truth in order to deceive. From the New Testament, we know that "all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone" (Revelation 21:8); therefore, to lie is to sin. Abraham sinned. Yes, even this great man of faith was weak at times, just as you and I are sometimes weak. Not only did he lie to the Pharaoh, but he repeated the same lie to King Abimelech in Genesis 20! Many times people refuse to obey the Gospel because they know that they can't be perfect; they know that they will sin, so why bother? We obey because through Abraham's example we can see that even great men of faith stumble and make mistakes, yet they continue trying to please God. They are honest enough with themselves to realize that without God there is no hope. We, too, must realize that our salvation is not of ourselves; we can't earn it; it is given to us freely by the Father, and once we come to this realization, our faith in him will grow, leading us into perfection (1 Peter 5:10).
Adams, Lindy. "Instrumental Worship: Isolated or Key Trend?" Christian Chronicle September 19, 2003.
Barnes' Notes on the Old & New Testaments. Genesis 1. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942: 413, 424.
"Character Studies." Thompson Chain Reference Bible. Indianapolis: Kirkbride, p. 232.
DeHoff, George. DeHoff's Bible Handbook. Murfreesboro: DeHoff, 1954. (p. 26)
"Genesis Course Notes." World Video Bible School. p.23, 28, 33.
Miller Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller. New Harper's Bible Dictionary. New York: Harper, 1973.
Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Nelson, 1995.
Smith's Bible Dictionary. Uhrichsville: Barbour, 1987.