STUDY TWENTY: ABRAHAM: SAINT AND SINNER

© Rosemary Bardsley 2013

As we read through Genesis 12 to 25 we realize that Abraham is just an ordinary man: yes, he believes in God, and believes God, but his faith is mixed with doubts and fears. Yes, he obeys God, but his obedience is tarnished by ungodly actions. We will track through some of his adventures and misadventures and spotlight some of the more significant incidents in his life.

 

A. ABRAM: BELIEVER IN THE ONE TRUE GOD – Genesis 12

When God first called Abram, he commanded him to leave his country and his people and his father’s household, and to go [12:1]. [We learn later that his father’s people, although in the line of Shem, worshipped and valued other gods (see 31:19-37)]. Abram’s immediate response was obedience to this radical command [12:4-6]. The New Testament comment on this obedience is: ‘By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going’ [Hebrews 11:8]. Faith in the true God was the root out of which this obedience issued.

We further see Abram’s faith in the one true God by his actions when he arrived in the land of the Canaanites, 400 miles south-west of Haran [12:5-7]. There the LORD ‘appeared to Abram’ and in response to this appearing Abram built an altar to the LORD. Abram is here ‘nailing his colours’ and announcing his allegiance to the one true God in a context of rampant idolatry. Surrounded by the Canaanites and their pagan altars and their pagan worship, Abram has the faith and audacity to build an altar to the true God, the LORD, who had appeared to him.

When he moved on to another location within Canaanite lands he repeated this declaration of faith and allegiance [12:8], calling on the name of the LORD. Similarly, at Beersheba, he planted a grove of tamarisk trees and in that open-air chapel ‘called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God’ [21:32,33]. [Note that the tamarisk tree is particularly long-lived.]

This one fact of faith in the one true God over-rules all other facts – his fear, his doubts, his manipulative actions, his failures. This fact remains: that Abram was a man of faith in God, that he did not follow the idolatrous worship of those by whom he was surrounded.

 


B. ABRAM: WHEN FEAR DICTATED HIS ACTIONS – Genesis 12, 20

There are two occasions on which Abram allowed his fear of human violence to dictate his actions, a move that almost resulted in tragedy and that generated suffering for others.

In Genesis 12:10-20 we read the story of Abram’s temporary sojourn in Egypt. Verses 11-13 report Abram’s instructions to his wife Sarai to say she was his sister, in order to gain respect and safety for himself because of her beauty. Although Sarai was indeed his half-sister this was a selfish and deliberately deceptive plan.

Task #1: What were the undesirable outcomes of Abram’s deception in Genesis 12?

Verse 14,15

Verse 17

Verse 18-20


Rather than learn from this outcome of his fears and deception Abram did the same thing again in 20:1-18, with similarly terrible results.

 

Task #2: What were the undesirable outcomes of Abram’s deception in Genesis 20?

Verse 2

Verse 3

Verse 8

Verse 9,10

Verse 18


While we are here in Genesis 20, note the sovereign hand of God revealed in verses 3 to 6.


C. ABRAHAM: STRENGTH IN MEEKNESS – Genesis 13, 14
 
Genesis 13 and 14 relate two incidents involving his nephew Lot. [It is a puzzle why Abram took Lot with him, when God had commanded him to leave his people (12:1). No comment is made about this in Genesis, but certainly the presence of Lot caused a number of difficulties.]

In the first incident Lot and Abram’s herdsmen quarrel. In the second Lot is carried off by an enemy king. Note that both Abram and Lot have become very wealthy by this time.

Task ##: Describe the strength and meekness of Abram reported in these verses:

13:8-9

 


14:14-16

14:18-20

 


14:21-24

 

 

Also of note in these chapters:

[1] The land chosen by Lot was at the time more fertile than the land left for Abram 13:10].
[2] The land chosen by Lot was inhabited by a particularly wicked population [13:13].
[3] The mini-reaffirmation of the covenant promises to Abram [13:14-17].
[4] Abram built another altar to the LORD [13:18].
[5] The appearance of Melchizedek, king of Salem, and priest of God Most High [14:18-20].


D: ABRAM: JUSTIFIED BY FAITH - Genesis 15

When God reaffirmed the covenant in Genesis 15 he promised Abraham that a son coming from his own body would be his heir, and that his descendants would be a countless as the stars [15:1-5]. The next verse states: ‘Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.’

It is not that this faith was perfect or large in quantity, but it was the right kind of faith in the right God.

This faith, and this imputed righteousness, points us to the New Testament, where this truth of ‘justification by faith’ and the ‘gift of righteousness’ are referred to many times.

 

E. ABRAM: OVERCOME WITH DOUBT – Genesis 16, 17, 21

There were some of the Covenant promises that were dependent on Abram having a son. As time passed and Sarai grew old the prospect of that happening, apart from a divine miracle, diminished.

Sarai initiated a plan, to which Abram agreed, to build a family by giving her servant, Hagar, to Abram as a wife [16:1-3]. This plan was successful, in respect to its human purpose; Hagar conceived and in due course bore a son, Ishmael. There were, however, undesirable consequences, resulting in suffering for all the parties involved.

 

Task #4: What were the undesirable outcomes of Abram’s doubts?

16:4


16:5

16:6-7


16:12


17:18


21:9-11

21:14-21


Note: God promised Abraham that he would bless Ishmael with many descendants, including twelve great rulers [17:20]. Ishmael is traditionally considered the ancestor of most Arabs, and in the ancestral line of Muhammad. He is recognized as a significant prophet and patriarch of Islam.

 


F. ABRAHAM: THE BOLDNESS OF FAITH – Genesis 18, 19

Genesis 18 records the Lord’s visit with Abraham as one of ‘three men’ [the other two were angels (18:2, 22; 19:1)]. There are two purposes to this appearance: [1] to reiterate the promise that Sarah will have a son, at which Sarah laughed [18:1-15], and [2] to tell Abraham about the judgement about to fall on Sodom (where his nephew, Lot, lived) and Gomorrah [18:16-21]. It is on the latter that the remainder of Chapter 18 focuses.

Out of Abraham’s personal knowledge of God’s justice and mercy comes a bold expression of his confidence that God would never destroy the ‘righteous’ with the ungodly. Listen to what he says:

‘Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of fifty righteous people in it?’
‘Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.’
‘Far be it from you!’
‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’

Abraham is bombarding God with his knowledge of God’s character. Does he remember, perhaps, the story of the great flood and the Lord’s preservation of Noah? Does he remember, perhaps, the grace of God demonstrated in the midst of judgement to Adam and Eve, to Cain, and at the tower of Babel? Is he perhaps also thinking of God’s graciousness to him, and preservation of him, even when he himself failed miserably?

Whatever the background, Abraham’s faith in God and knowledge of God, give him the boldness here to confront the Almighty God with his own divine justice: to tell him that he would be profaning his own character if he was to destroy the righteous with the wicked. [That is the implication of the word translated ‘far be it’.] God is the Judge of all the earth: he does, indeed he can only do, what is right.

Abraham knows that he himself is ‘nothing but dust and ashes’ [18:27], yet with ever-increasing boldness, mixed with fear [18:30,32], Abraham moves the bar lower and lower, until he asks for a stay of judgement if there are only ten righteous men to be found [18:32]. To this God agrees, but then it is God who terminates the conversation. As we have seen in earlier studies, there is a point where ‘Enough is enough!’

There are several things in these chapters that we should not overlook:

[1] The reason God informed Abraham of the impending judgement on Sodom [read 18:16-19]. John Calvin comments:

‘When God inflicts punishment upon the wicked, he openly proves that he is indeed the Judge of the world; but because all things seem to happen by chance, the Lord illuminates his own children by his word, lest they should become blind, with the unbelievers. … The Lord declares to his servant Abraham, that Sodom was about to perish, while it was yet entire, and in the full enjoyment of its pleasures. Hence no doubt remains, that it did not perish by chance, but was subjected to divine punishment. Hence also, when the cause of the punishment is thus declared before-hand, it will necessarily far more effectually pierce and stimulate the minds of men …

‘The second reason why God chooses to make Abraham a partaker of his counsel is, because he foresees that this would not be done in vain, and without profit. … Abraham is admitted to the counsel of God, because he would faithfully fulfil the office of a good householder, in instructing his own family. Hence we infer, that Abraham was informed of the destruction of Sodom, not for his own sake alone, but for the benefit of his race.’ [p179].

Keil/Delitzsch comment similarly:

‘The destruction of Sodom and the surrounding cities was to be a permanent memorial of the punitive righteousness of God, and to keep the fate of the ungodly constantly before the mind of Israel. To this end Jehovah explained to Abraham the cause of their destruction in the clearest manner possible, that he might not only be convinced of the justice of the divine government, but might learn that when the measure of iniquity was full, no intercession could avert the judgment-a lesson and a warning to his descendants also.’

[2] The great ‘outcry’ that had reached the LORD because of the grievous sin of Sodom and Gomorrah [18:20,21; 19:13]. We are not given details here about this ‘outcry’ – whether it came from ‘innocent’ people who suffered because of the sin, or from the natural world [as in the case of Cain’s murder of his brother [Genesis 4:10], or the ‘noise’ of the sin itself. Whatever it was, God knew of it. God heard the cry. And so he does today.

[3] God’s deliverance of Lot and his family [19:1-29]. What we read of Lot does not evoke respect. Not only did he, the younger man, show disrespect for his uncle, Abraham, in choosing the best land for himself [Genesis 13], but here he shows callous disrespect for his daughters in offering their bodies to the men of Sodom [19:4-8] and by that same action disrespect for their fiancés. He views his reputation for hospitality more important than the well-being of his daughters [19:8b]. In addition, in the situation of high danger, rather than obediently trust himself to his angelic deliverers, he peevishly complains about his inability to run the necessary distance and dictates the terms of his rescue [19:18-21]. This change of plans because of Lot’s whinging had an undesirable outcome, as related in 19:30-38. Had they fled, as instructed, to the mountains [19:17] there would have been any number of men for the daughters to marry. After all, Abraham and his vast household were there. But, by Lot’s selfish choice, they are stuck in the vicinity of Zoar, the small and only surviving town in the whole area, and, afraid of the town-dwellers [19:30], there is no one for them to marry. They successfully implement an incestuous plan, and from that union the Moabites and the Ammonites were descended – both of these tribes were later enemies of Israel, both in war, and by seducing them into idolatry. [Note, however, that Ruth, who is in the ancestral line of Jesus Christ, was a Moabitess – evidence of the grace of God that reaches out to the whole world.]

 

G. ABRAHAM: THE ULTIMATE TEST OF FAITH – Genesis 22

Task #5: Read Genesis 22:1-19. Discuss and answer the questions below:

What facts have we learned about Covenant from Genesis 12, 15 and 17 that make it important for Isaac to live?

 


How did God indicate that he knew how difficult his command would be? [verse 2]

 


How did Abraham express his faith? Verse 3,8-10

 


Is there anything in this report to indicate that Isaac also had faith?

 

This incident is prophetic of the substitutionary sacrificial death of Jesus Christ – the Lamb provided by God so that we, the sinners, can live.