In tracing the life of Abraham, we have arrived in our study of Genesis at chapter 15 and the fourth time God made contact with him. Previously God had stated that he would become a great nation and receive Canaan as the Land of Promise (12:1–7; 13:14–17).
Now the encounter was to reconfirm the promise of an heir and descendants. In the aftermath of the battle with the four invading kings, God reminded Abram that he should not be afraid, because He was his shield or protector. For the first time Abram addressed God as Adonai Yahweh (“Lord GOD,” 15:2), and he reminded Him that several years after the initial promise he still had no child. He brought this to God, noting that at this point his heir could only be Eliezer of Damascus, a servant born in his house. God replied that Abram would indeed have his own natural heir and that his descendants would be as innumerable as the stars (verse 5). This is one of God’s three ways of describing the expansion of the patriarch’s progeny. Others are as “dust” (13:16) and “sand” (22:17).
“Then He brought [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”
Abram’s response is what set him apart as “the friend of God” (James 2:23). We are told, “He believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Because he expressed faith in what God said from the time of his calling and was willing to obey Him, he was counted as a righteous man. He did not receive God’s gracious gift of being considered righteous by first doing good things but by believing and having faith in the Lord God. Abram then went on to live a righteous (law-abiding) life. Later in Genesis we read, “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (26:5). These various characteristics make him a key figure in Old Testament studies, often being referred to as “the father of the faithful.”
What follows is God and Abram sealing in blood their covenant concerning descendants and land. This takes the form of a sacrificial ritual experienced by Abram in vision while in a deep sleep (15:7–21). A blood covenant was an ancient way of signifying the solemnity of an agreement, in that each party in effect promised his life (the spilling of his own blood) if there was any breach. But here it was God alone (typified by fire and smoke) who walked between the divided pieces of the sacrificed animals, demonstrating the unconditional nature of His commitment to Abram.
In the course of the lengthy encounter, Abram learned that his offspring would become a people that would suffer slavery in a strange land and then journey to the Land of Promise. This is, of course, the foretelling of the circa-400-year Egyptian captivity of the children of Israel and their ultimate release under Moses. When they eventually did arrive at the borders of Canaan, they were great in number; in fact, Moses used the same term as God did in His promise to Abram: “Your fathers went down to Egypt with seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven in multitude” (Deuteronomy 10:22).
Heir Not Apparent
Abram’s wife Sarai seems to have been equally frustrated by the lack of an heir. At least 10 years had gone by since the promise. Her solution was to offer her Egyptian servant Hagar to her husband as a means of having children (Genesis 16:2). This was a recognized practice of the day, attested in various ancient extra-biblical documents. While the proposal demonstrated a lack of faith on Sarai’s and Abram’s part, it was not an immoral act.
It did bring problems, however. When Hagar conceived by Abram she began to despise her mistress; she could do what her mistress could not. At Sarai’s complaint, Abram allowed his wife to do as she pleased with her servant. Under Sarai’s harsh treatment, the pregnant Hagar fled into the desert, possibly in the direction of Egypt, only to be met there by the protective “Angel of the Lord.” Told by this being (who was in fact God in a visible form) to return and submit to Sarai, Hagar was assured that her child would become the father of a multitude, a promise not dissimilar to that made to Abram (verse 10). The son’s name would be Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” Though he was to become a nomadic, hostile and very aggressive man (verse 12), Ishmael would receive considerable material blessings from God through his father (17:20). He is the progenitor of some of the Arab peoples.
God met with Abram a fifth time, but now as El Shaddai (17:1). Though usually translated “God Almighty,” there is dispute over this term. The underlying language, whether we consider it to be Akkadian (shaddu, meaning “breast”) or Hebrew (shadad, meaning “to be strong” or “powerful”), indicates the God who sustains and supplies strength, or who is strong. Abram was to “walk before [Him] and be[come] blameless” (verse 1). This time God confirmed the promise that Abram would have many descendants and much land, and added that he would become “a father of many [or “a multitude of”] nations … [and] kings” (verses 4, 6). His name would be changed to reflect this expansion; he would become “Abraham,” meaning “father of a multitude” (verse 5). As we have seen, Abraham already had a son, Ishmael, from whom would also spring nations and kings. In confirmation of this “everlasting covenant” (verse 7), Abraham, his servants, and any males born into his household were to be circumcised (verses 10–14). This included Ishmael (verse 23). The change in fleshly appearance would serve to remind them of the covenant on a daily basis.
“Faith is not easy. It calls for a persistence which is against common sense. It calls for believing in a gift from God which none of the present data can substantiate.”
The apostle Paul later referred to the specifics of the promise of this chapter (verses 4–6) in terms of Abraham becoming “heir of the world” (Romans 4:13)—that is to say, in the spiritual sense of being the father of all who believe, both Jews and gentiles (verses 16–18), who will themselves inherit the world of the future under Christ (1 Corinthians 3:21b–23).
Abraham’s wife Sarai (Hebrew for “my princess”) also had a name change. God told her husband that she would now be known as “Sarah” (Hebrew for “the princess”) and that nations and kings would also come from her (Genesis 17:15–16). At this point Abraham was thinking only in terms of his 14-year-old natural son Ishmael as heir (verse 18). When God explained that Sarah would bear a son within a year and that the child would become the heir through whom God would continue His covenant, Abraham laughed in disbelief at the thought of a 100-year-old man fathering a son with a 90-year-old woman (verse 17). Sarah also laughed (18:12–15) and their son would later be named Isaac (in Hebrew Yitzhak, “laughter” or “he laughs”).
God said that a year later Sarah would have her son. Three months would go by until conception. This allowed time for Abraham to heal of his circumcision and for the events that followed at Sodom and Gomorrah and with Abimelech, the king of Gerar (chapters 18–20).
The Tale of Two Cities
God’s sixth appearance to Abraham happened in the heat of the day sometime during that three-month period, as he was sitting in his tent doorway. Three men approached, and he offered them food and drink. Abraham used the title “Adonai” to address one of them, showing that he recognized that one to be God Himself. The purpose of the visit was to tell Abraham of two impending events: his wife Sarah’s pregnancy and the investigation of two cities in the Jordan Valley, in one of which his nephew Lot had settled. Once again in the book of Genesis we are face-to-face with the problem of evil, this time specifically in respect of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham and Lot were about to witness their destruction.
These two cities had become synonymous with sin and sexual degradation, though two additional cities, Admah and Zeboiim, were also destroyed (see Deuteronomy 29:23). Genesis 19 reveals that part of the problem in Sodom was that the inhabitants were intent on violent homosexual abuse (verses 4–9).
God had decided to tell Abraham what was to happen, and Abraham had the opportunity to plead with God for the potential innocents who were in the cities; he was doubtless concerned about his nephew. The way the story unfolds, we are left with little doubt that there were fewer than 10 righteous inhabitants of the cities (Genesis 18:22–33). Some sources suggest that Lot’s family numbered 10 (his wife, two sons, two daughters and their husbands, and two single daughters [Genesis 19:12, 14, 8]), yet it may be that among his relatives only Lot was righteous (2 Peter 2:7).
“Most complacent religion will want a God who provides, not a God who tests.”
Lot’s two sons-in-law, having paid no attention to his pleas that they leave the city (Genesis 19:14), must have died there with their wives. And in the process of God having to force Lot to flee from the destruction of Sodom, his wife also died. Instructed by God not to look back (symbolizing desire for life in the material city; see Luke 17:32–33), she disobeyed and died encrusted in salt. Thus only Lot and his two unmarried daughters escaped (verses 16–17, 26).
Abraham saw the smoke of the destruction going up like “the smoke of a furnace” (verse 28) from his vantage point on the hills above the Dead Sea. He knew then that the cities did not have even 10 righteous people in them. But because of Abraham, God had kept Lot alive (verse 29).
Lot begged God for shelter that night in the small village of Zoar. Destitute, he went from there to the mountains above the Dead Sea on the east and stayed in a cave out of fear of more destruction. There his two daughters, now reduced to poverty and without promise of future family, conspired to get their father drunk and each have a child by him (verses 30–38). Living in Sodom had influenced them to the extent that they decided that incest was the answer to their concerns.
The children were named Moab (Hebrew meaning “from father”) and Ben-Ammi (Hebrew meaning “son of my kinsman”). The Bible shows this unfortunate incident to be the origin of the peoples of Moab and Ammon (central and northern Jordan), who would later harass Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, called “the children of Israel.” Lot had gone from wealth, as part of Abraham’s household on the highlands, to destitution, having chosen rather to live adjacent to and later in Sodom, on the plains of Jordan.
Lot now fades from the story and is not mentioned again.
More Lessons in Trust
After the destruction of the cities of the plain, Abraham moved south to Gerar. There the local king, with the title Abimelech, took Sarah for a wife. Confused by Abraham’s statement that Sarah was his sister (which had caused trouble before with the pharaoh of Egypt—see chapter 12), the king was informed by God in a dream that he was as good as dead for taking another man’s wife. The king protested that he was not to blame; had not both Abraham and Sarah confirmed their relationship? The king was to call for Abraham and restore his wife to him. This points up the unconditional nature of God’s relationship with Abraham, though he was wrong in his behavior. God would make sure that his son would be born through Sarah, a birth that was now just a few months away.
Abimelech called for Abraham and heard that Sarah was indeed his sister by a different mother, but that he had acted out of fear that he would be killed and his wife taken. The king restored Sarah to him and gave him livestock and servants and access to the land (20:9–15). As a result, the entire household of Abimelech was released from childlessness, which had come on it because of his action in taking Sarah. The same God was about to resolve the same problem in Sarah herself.
God kept His promise and visited Abraham’s wife within the year; she gave birth to Isaac and this time laughed with happiness (21:6). The line of Abraham, who by this time was 100 years old, was now secured. His son was circumcised on the eighth day according to the terms of sealing the covenant. As the child grew, however, so did the mockery and ridicule directed at him by Abraham’s first son (by Hagar), Ishmael. In the New Testament, Paul refers to this as persecution (Galatians 4:29).
Because of Sarah’s complaint, and against Abraham’s preference, God instructed him to send Ishmael and his mother away. Ishmael would also become a great nation “because he is your seed,” but “in Isaac shall your seed be called” (Genesis 21:12–13, 18). God intervened for Ishmael and Hagar after they lost their way in the desert, providing them with drink. Her now 17- to 20-year-old son grew up to live as a hunter in the wilderness of Paran (between the Negev and the Sinai) and married an Egyptian woman like his mother (verses 20–21).
Soon after this, Abimelech and Abraham agreed to respect each other’s right to land and water resources (21:22–34). The king had recognized that God was with Abraham, yet he still did not entirely trust him. They found out that they both had grounds for distrust and settled their disagreements in a covenant of peace at Beersheba, which means “well of the seven,” referring to Abraham’s gift of seven lambs at the local well, and “well of swearing,” in reference to the oaths exchanged. As a result, Abraham lived for a long time at Beersheba.
The Ultimate Test
One of the more puzzling aspects of God’s relationship with Abraham is His request that the man offer his heir as a sacrifice. Having waited years for the fulfillment of the promise of a son by his wife, Abraham was now asked to give up that son in homage to God.
By the time God made this request, Isaac was a young man. God’s command was worded in the same language that He used when sending Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees (12:1), and Abraham’s willingness to simply obey is remarkably similar. Together father and son set out on a three-day journey to “the land of Moriah” (22:2), accompanied by two young men. Mount Moriah would later become Mount Zion (in Jerusalem), where Solomon would build the temple.
Some distance from the mountain, Abraham and Isaac went on alone, leaving the two men behind to wait for their return. That Abraham had in mind that God would somehow work out the preservation of Isaac as his heir is clear from the statement, “the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you”(verse 5). How Abraham thought this would happen is a testimony to his belief that God would yet spare Isaac or could resolve his sacrificial death by resurrecting him so that he could indeed become the heir through whom God’s promise of progeny would be achieved. In the account of the father who must sacrifice his willing son to receive him back, many have seen a parallel with God the Father giving up His own Son, Jesus, as a willing sacrifice for humanity’s collective sins, to then restore Him by resurrection.
“God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
The New Testament book of Hebrews describes the seminal event this way: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense” (Hebrews 11:17–19; see also Isaiah 53). It was a mark of Abraham’s faith in the rightness of God’s purpose that he was willing to make the journey and attempt the sacrifice without question.
As things transpired, God intervened at the last moment to prevent Isaac’s death, with the words, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (Genesis 22:12). This was the evidence God sought and the purpose of the test. At this point a substitute sacrificial ram was seen trapped in a thicket, and Abraham knew that God had provided it as he had earlier told Isaac He would (verse 8).
Abraham’s obedient action resulted in the reconfirmation of the terms of the covenant in these words: “Blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (verses 17–18).
Abraham and Isaac then returned to the two young men who were waiting, and together they went back to Beersheba (verse 19).
Sometime after their return, news came to Abraham about his brother Nahor’s family. They were still living in the area Abraham, Sarah and Lot had left many years earlier. Now the family had grown large, and several children had been born to Nahor and his wife Milcah. This information sets the stage for the marriage of Isaac to Nahor’s granddaughter, Rebekah (Genesis 24).
What intervenes is the death and burial of Sarah. She died in Hebron, and Abraham went there to mourn for her. He then bought a burial place from the local Hittite people, making it clear that his ancestral home was no longer in Haran but in the Land of Promise (23:1–20).
Abraham, now “well advanced in age” (24:1), decided that it was time that a wife be sought for Isaac among his relatives in Haran. Sending his chief servant (possibly Eliezer, named in Genesis 15:2 as overseer of Abraham’s household many years earlier) to visit the region, he insisted that he promise not to take Isaac on the journey and that the wife-to-be should come to Beersheba (verse 4–7). If the woman refused, the servant would be free of obligation. Equally emphatic was Abraham’s instruction that Isaac not be allowed to take a wife from among the Canaanites (verse 3).
The account of the servant’s journey, God’s intervention, Nahor’s family’s agreement, and the return of Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife is told in great detail (verses 10–66). The culmination of the successful mission is summed up in verse 67: “Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
Abraham went on after Sarah’s death to have six more sons by Keturah (25:1–2). The Genesis account names her here as his wife, whereas she is described as a concubine elsewhere (1 Chronicles 1:32). The sons are shown to be the originators of various peoples and tribes of Arabia, Sinai and Jordan. While still alive, Abraham provided for all of these sons separate inheritances than he gave to Isaac (Genesis 25:5–6). Like Ishmael, they were to live separate from Isaac to the east of the Promised Land.
The patriarch “died in a good old age, an old man and full of years” (verse 8). Abraham was 175. The love and concern of his two eldest sons for him is recorded: “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him” in the same place as Sarah. It is a poignant footnote to a life of faith, family rivalries, failures and blessings. The stage is now set for the continuation of the line through Isaac: “And it came to pass, after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac dwelt at Beer Lahai Roi” (verse 11).
Next time: Isaac and his sons Jacob and Esau.