The faith of Abraham (1)

GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS

Number 592 • December 14, 2020

THE FAITH OF ABRAHAM – Part One of Two

QUESTION: Did Abraham believe everything God said to him and do everything God told him to do?

ANSWER: After a conversation with the questioner I understood the reasoning behind the question and I have expanded the question accordingly. If you read Romans 4:3 and 9, Hebrews 11:8,17-19, and James 21-23 you probably get the idea that from beginning to the Abraham understood and believed all that God said, and did without hesitation all that God commanded, so that he received everything God promised and was faithful in everything God asked him to do. But if you read the history of Abraham in Genesis, 11:24 through chapter 25 you will get a narrative that seems contradicting and confusing. Abraham seemed to fail God’s testing on several occasions. Does the scripture contradict itself in the story of Abraham?

  1. He took his father and his nephew Lot and their property and people with him.
  2. He lied about his wife Sarah.
  3. He divided the land of Canaan between himself and Lot, which was contrary to God’s instructions because God had told him it all belonged to him.
  4. He took his wife’s servant girl as a secondary wife and had a child with her.
  5. Both he and his wife Sarah laughed at the thought that she could conceive and bear a child at her advanced age and condition.
  6. He even tried to kill his son Isaac after God promised that Isaac was the chosen one to continue producing the bloodline of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

So how can Abraham be called the example and father of the faithful people of God? Did God forgive him for his errors and sins, or did He just overlook them as if to say Abraham was close enough to what He wanted so He could say even though he wasn’t perfect he was faithful enough? How can we resolve the apparent contradictions about the example of Abraham?

First: notice that God did not give Abraham precise and complete knowledge and instructions and details of the covenant He was making with him at any one time. Instead, the revelation and instruction to Abraham were incremental, progressive and not cumulative, not completed at the moment it was received. Some parts were added or clarified after some inappropriate action or change in the circumstances made it necessary.

Second: Abraham’s response to the call was not immediate, completed at the moment it was received. Some parts of it were only given and clarified after having been misunderstood and misapplied and in some ways not fulfilled properly by Abraham or ultimately by God.

Third: the account of these things was written a long time after they occurred – it was not a day by day or even year by year linear diary account or journal of events in real time.

Fourth: God, who knew the end from the beginning, knew what the eventual outcome would be, could discount the fumbles and failures of Abraham who was struggling to comprehend and then to act appropriately. Sometimes the missteps could be steps in the right direction and could be corrected and allowed to implement progress toward the true goal.

Fifth: like Paul (Phil. 3:13-17), and just as we ourselves are, Abraham was a work in process. Sometimes the progress went quickly; other times it was slow and convoluted. Keeping his eye on the goal to be reached and sometimes missing the mark, but always trusting that the outcome which was in God’s hand and not his own was still achievable, he adjusted his course and his actions so that he was always doing the will of God as he understood it and not trying to get to the appointed and promised goal by his own efforts.

Now let us examine the six particular charges made against Abraham mentioned in the first paragraph of our answer. We will not try to exonerate him in every case but we can show he was trying to carry out God’s commands and let the will and purpose as well as the promises of God be fulfilled.

(1) Abraham did not comply with God’s command to leave his country and his place in his father’s house and family. He took his father Terah, his nephew Lot, the property and possessions of the family with him when he left Ur of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia (Genesis 12:1-9). Genesis 12:1 is not the first call Abraham received from God. Notice verse 1, The Lord had said to Abram … Now read the words of Stephen in Acts 7:2-3. God called him while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he traveled to Haran. But Abraham did not take his father and family, etc and move from Ur to Haran. His father Terah did it and Abraham went along with it. He could have seen this as a step toward fulfillment of God’s command – getting out of his native country. But the mistake was in staying in Haran until his father had died, then departing but now (as the head of the family?) and taking the remaining family and property with him into Canaan. God appeared to him and said, Unto your seed (descendants) I will give this land (12:7). It did not become Abraham’s land and property – he did not possess one foot of it – but was promised to his descendants, when as yet he had none, not even one child (Acts 7:4-5). No promise had been made of protection and progeny except that one implied in your descendants, your extended seed, the great nation that was to come from or to him.

(2) Driven to Egypt by a severe famine he lied about his wife to protect his own life, even though it made her susceptible to being appropriated by other men – his fear was realized when the pharaoh took her into his harem and enriched Abraham to compensate him for the loss (Genesis 12:10-20). Being promised descendants had not yet included Sarah, so this self-serving act on his part would not be seen (by Abraham) as a deflection from God’s instruction. Though it seems dishonorable and despicable from our point of view it was not a violation of the culture of that time and those people. Abraham did not see the error of his way in this since he repeated it with another king, Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-18).

(3) He divided the land of Canaan between himself and Lot, which was contrary to God’s instructions because God had told him it all belonged to him (Genesis 13:1-18). This is a clear misunderstanding. Neither Abraham nor Lot possessed the land; neither could have given it to the other. Their decision, actually Abraham proposed that Lot choose where he wanted to settle, to the left or the right and then he would go the other way, since the land could not support them if they stayed together. The choice was made and they separated. Then God renewed His promise to Abraham that everything he could see in every direction from there would be given to him and his descendants. He also reaffirmed that Abraham would have descendants too numerous to count (13:14-17). Lot moved toward and then into Sodom – an unwise but selfish choice. But God did not abandon either of them – Abraham would rescue Lot when he was taken hostage by an invading force and God would rescue Lot when He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and other cities sympathetic to their evil ways (Genesis 14, 19).

(4) He took his wife’s servant girl as a concubine and had a child with her. After the rescue and reinstatement of Lot to Sodom God promised Abraham protection and reward (Genesis 15:1-21). Now Abraham asked how God would expand him, seeing that he was childless. Could he adopt the servant Eliezer as his heir? God assured Abraham that a child from his own body would be his heir, and from that child would come numberless progeny. This was confirmed further in a ritual sacrifice and a dream. No mention of how or when Abraham’s child would be born or who would produce it. It is important to notice that Sarah herself had not yet been named as the mother-to-be of any child Abraham would produce. It was assumed that Sarah was the barren infertile one, so she suggested that Abraham produce a child by a surrogate mother – either a concubine or a new secondary wife – and the child would then belong to Sarah as well (Genesis 16:1-2). Sarah’s servant girl Hagar was appointed to the task and Abraham agreed and accepted her to accomplish Sarah’s (and his) desire. This was culturally acceptable, allowed even by God at that time and would have been considered an expedient, not a sin. To Abraham and Sarah it was a way to fulfill God’s promise which they could not accomplish by themselves by natural means. Had Abraham turned out to be the infertile one, rather than Sarah, we don’t know what they would have done. But he was proved to be capable – he and Hagar produced a son, though he was eighty six years old when the child was conceived and born (Genesis 16:16). After Sarah’s death many years later Abraham took another wife and had several children with her (Genesis 25:1-6). God restored fertility to Sarah – actually gave her what she had been missing all her life.

We will continue this in the next segment, which will be published as Number 593, at the same time as this present issue.

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