Wednesday, May 14, 2003

The Dynamics of Faith in the Life of Abraham

This is the fourth post of a series that looks at faith in the life of Abraham. To start at the beginning, click here.

Abraham’s Faith Transcended Obedience

In the last two posts, I described how Abraham's faith was the foundation for a persistent obedience to walk the length and breadth of the land. I will now show how Abraham's faith transcended obedience. By this, I mean that his character constantly placed at risk, the Lord's plan for him. The Lord, however, consistently intervened to protect the plans that He had made for the man who believed. But before going there, let's look at the end of the story.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there. (Hebrews 11:17-19, The Net Bible)

Notice the passage refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.”  This is curious, because, in fact, Abraham had another son named Ishmael, but he was not of the covenant line and by Sarah’s request had been sent away. We must understand, then, that when Abraham was committed to inflict the fatal wound on his remaining boy tied to the altar, he was about to destroy the only means by which the covenant could humanly be fulfilled. But it was the same Lord who promised the covenant and commanded the offering. Abraham's faith was confident of a good outcome. Abraham’s obedience to God, who had asked him to come to this mountain and sacrifice Isaac, had been prompt and unflinching. Unchecked, he would have quickly and painlessly dispatched the boy and burned the remains. We know, however, that the Lord stopped Abraham and provided a ram instead. Such was the faith old Abraham had in the promises of the Trustworthy One.  

The younger Abram may not have obeyed so readily!

The covenant, of which Isaac was a crucial part, was progressively revealed to Abraham throughout his life. I have somewhat arbitrarily divided the revelation into four periods that lead to Abraham’s offering of Isaac to the Lord. The grand test of Abraham’s faith is best understood by relating it to these periods. Most of these periods exhibited good news and bad news. The good news was always an advance in Abraham’s understanding of the covenant and his faith in God. The bad news was that he always put the covenant in jeopardy.

The First Period

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a prime example of divine blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

The first period, recorded in Genesis 12 - 14, started when God called him and his family from Haran. It lasted for about 10 years. The main covenant revelations were:

  1. God will make Abram into a great nation.
  2. Abram will be blessed and be a blessing.
  3. All peoples will be blessed through him.
  4. Abram’s offspring will be given the land.

Although Sarai was sterile, Abram was still easily young enough, because of a residual pre-flood vitality, at 75 to be a father. The good news during this period was that he trusted God enough to leave Haran and wander about the land of Canaan for 100 years. However,

There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay for a while because the famine was severe. As he approached Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “Look, I know that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will keep you alive. So tell them you are my sister, so that it may go well for me because of you and my life will be spared on account of you.” (Genesis 12:10-13)

The bad news was that he lied about Sarai’s proper relationship to him. Although God had told him that his offspring would inherit the land, he showed his disregard for this piece of the promise by trusting God neither for his life nor for a child from Sarai and, thereby, jeopardized the covenant. In other words, Abram trusted best when he had some control of the outcome.

The Second Period

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield and the one who will reward you in great abundance.” But Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, what will you give me since I continue to be childless, and my heir is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram added, “Since you have not given me a descendant, then look, one born in my house will be my heir!” But look, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but instead a son who comes from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Gaze into the sky and count the stars—if you are able to count them!” Then he said to him, “So will your descendants be.” Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord considered his response of faith worthy of a reward. (Genesis 15:1-6)

The second period, recorded in Genesis 15 - 16, began at a point of great frustration for Abram and lasted until Abraham was circumcised. Abram was about 85 years old, and still had no children. The main new covenant revelations were:

  1. Abraham would have a son from his own body.
  2. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars.
  3. Abraham trusted God, and righteousness was credited to him.

The good news during this period was that Abram trusted God to do the things He promised. On the other hand,

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not given birth to any children, but she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from having children, have sexual relations with my servant. Perhaps I can have a family by her.” Abram did what Sarai told him. (Genesis 16:1-2)

The bad news was that he, again, failed to count Sarai in the promise. Instead, he saw its fulfillment in Ishmael: the child Hagar bore him and in whom he developed a strong relationship. Indeed Abram greatly desired Ishmael to be the covenant bearer:

Then Abraham bowed down with his face to the ground and laughed as he said to himself, “Can a son be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, Sarah your wife is going to bear you a son and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm my covenant with him as a perpetual covenant for his descendants after him. (Genesis 17:17-19)

The Third Period

The third period, recorded in Genesis 17-20, began the year preceding the birth of Isaac and lasted until Sarah conceived. The main new covenant revelations were:

  1. Abram’s name became Abraham.
  2. Sarai’s name became Sarah.
  3. Circumcision was instituted.
  4. A child was specifically promised to Sarah within a year.

Abraham, himself, at this time was considered too old to have children. The good news during this period was that Abraham circumcised all males in his household. But an uncorrected problem in Abraham's life surfaced:

Abraham journeyed from there to the Negev region and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he lived as a temporary resident in Gerar, Abraham said about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her. (Genesis 20:1-2)

The bad news had multiple facets. First, the revelation concerning Isaac troubled him and he asked if the Lord might not still consider Ishmael as fulfillment. The second and more serious was how completely he again disregarded the promise to Sarah. During this period, the Lord directly promised to Sarah that she would have a son within a year. Thus began a very critical year. Although she could have conceived at any time, Abraham gave her to Abimilech as wife. The foolishness of this act is astonishing. By this careless act, Abraham created a situation by which the very paternity of Isaac could be left open to doubt and, thereby, jeopardized all the promises the Lord had made to himself and Sarah. Were it not for the Lord’s intervening through Abimelech’s dream, which redeemed both the situation and Sarah’s honor, the covenant would have become void. 

Later, Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac.

The Fourth Period

Sarah said, “God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” She went on to say, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have given birth to a son for him in his old age!” The child grew and was weaned. Abraham prepared a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah noticed the son of Hagar the Egyptian—the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham—mocking. So she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave woman will not be an heir along with my son Isaac!” Sarah’s demand displeased Abraham greatly because Ishmael was his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be upset about the boy or your slave wife. Do all that Sarah is telling you, because through Isaac your descendants will be counted. (Genesis 21:6-12)

The fourth period extended from Sarah’s pregnancy until Abraham was commanded to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering. During this period, Ishmael and his mother were sent away and Isaac became as it were Abraham’s only son. There was no bad news during this period. It was, instead, the time for Abraham to look back at the promises of God and their literal fulfillment. If at the beginning of the third period, Abraham didn’t have the sense to stop marrying off his own wife; during this period his faith grew to the point of immediate obedience when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac. It was during this period that Abraham, according to Hebrews, acquired the ability to reason that God would even raise Isaac from the dead in order to honor the covenant promises. After all, the Lord had created life in a dead womb.

Thursday: The Binding of Isaac and The Strange Loop of Fulfilled Faith

<><Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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