Abraham – A Life of Struggles (Part 1)

In this series we want to take a closer look upon the life of the first patriarch of Israel, Abraham. Through thorough study of the single passages given in the Bible (Genesis 11:26-25:10) we will discover the strengths and weaknesses of a single man who lived at his own time and had to struggle with the cultural setting he lived in.
The goal of this series is not to discredit this great patriarch but to show the struggles, trials, and temptations this man had to live with and how he lived in a relationship with the God who called him out of Ur of the Chaldees to live in a land unknown to him. 
As an introduction let us look at the Jewish writer of the first century. Josephus writes in his The Antiquities of the Jewsthat:
He was a person of great sagacity, both for understanding all things and persuading his hearers, and not mistaken in his opinions; for which reason he began to have higher notions of virtue than others had, and he determined to renew and to change the opinion all men happened then to have concerning God; for he was the first that ventured to publish this notion, that there was but one God, the Creator of the universe.[1] 
This for sure was Abraham’s act of greatness, but we also want to look into his “conflict of faith and on Abraham’s failures,”[2] or as Waltke put it, “[…] Abraham is not without flaws. As with each of the heroes of faith, his flaws will be as instructive as his virtues.”[3] So even (or especially) trough the weaknesses of this man, we will learn about God’s sovereignty and grace. The writer of Genesis leads us into this amazing journey of life. Hill and Walton write that “[w]hile genealogical continuity is established from Noah to Abraham, there is no attempt to establish a faith continuity” and they continue to pen that Abraham “is not introduced as a righteous man, nor is he identified in any way as contrasting to the world around him.”[4] This shows God’s grace already in the beginning of the story of Abraham.
Before we dig deeper into the biblical account, let us take a closer look unto the culture in which Abraham grew up, i.e. in Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen 11:28). Hoerth states (in reliance on Josh 24:1) that “Abraham’s father was a polytheist. It should follow, therefore, that Abraham was reared in a family that believed it imperative to serve the many gods of Mesopotamiaand that any sensible person would fear the gods.”[5] Hoerth goes on and explains the meaning of such a fear of the gods. It would have meant the belief of a world “full of demons” and gods, the capability of neighbors to use witchcraft, the veneration and worship of house gods, and the necessity of ensuring fertility by the means of visiting temple prostitutes.[6]Edersheim adds,
                       
And Abraham must have been the more attracted to their [heavenly bodies] contemplation, as the city in which he dwelt was “wholly given” to that idolatry; for the real site of Ur has been ascertained from the circumstance that the bricks still found there bear the very name of Hur on them. Now this word points to Hurki, the ancient moon-god, and Ur of the Chaldees was the great “Moon-city,” the very centre of the Chaldean moon-worship![7] 
                       
This is a little picture of how Abraham’s childhood and later phases of life might have looked and gives the cultural circumstance in which he grew up.
            In the biblical account the narrator gives us the cause of so many troubles yet to come right in the beginning in the toledot of Terah when he states in Gen 11:30: “now Sarai[the wife of Abrham, later to be known as Sarah] was barren; she had no child.” In the story of the patriarch this circumstance later becomes a major conflict in his family and personal life.
Terah took his family and left Ur and settled down in Haran. Here in the text the vision is not yet given to Abraham to leave his father and country, yet we might think that the call of Abraham was given in the context of Ur and not Haran. That is why Waltke comes to following conclusion about Abraham’s character: “Genesis 12:1 suggests that Abraham is told to leave by himself for Canaan, but he does not separate himself until his father dies. This introduction represents Abraham as slow to believe.”[8]  If this conclusion is right, we see that Abraham started his journey of faith in a poor manner. Abraham the man of faith began slowly to believe.
The next thing the author of Genesis describes is the promises (covenant) of God with Abraham (12:1-3; ratified in chapter 15). Here God spoke to Abraham about His unconditional promises towards him. “The themes of the covenant are familiar to the context of Genesis 1-11. Of first significance is the blessing theme.”[9] And Walton goes on to show that the “land theme” is used as a contrast to the previous chapters where people were driven out from a land. A third theme is seen in the promise of a “seed” (12:7), which is a theme throughout the book of Genesis (as well as throughout the Pentateuch and beyond!).
Abraham’s response is surprising and it is seen that he already grew in his faith towards the God he probably had not heard of before. With total obedience to God’s command “go” (12:1) Abraham “went, as the Lord had told him” (12:4). Sarna explains: “In silent, unwavering obedience to the divine will […] the patriarch picks himself up and goes forth, accepting his new destiny in perfect faith.”[10] In the next passage, however, we see that the faith of Abraham was far from being perfect; yet we also see that he builds altars unto the Lord and calls upon him which is to be seen as maturity of his faith (12:8). In 12:10-20, the author of Genesis tells us the story of Abraham’s journey down to Egypt where he finds trouble by telling the Pharaoh that Sarai is his sister. So Pharaoh took Sarai and the Lord afflicted the him and his house. This episode shows that “though a man of faith, Abram is far from perfect. He moves to Egypt without divine direction, and there fear leads him to lie about his relationship with his half sister/wife Sarai.”[11] And Sailhamer makes following observation: “[The] theme is the threat to God’s promise in 12:1-3. In nearly every episode that follows, the promise of a ‘numerous seed,’ ‘blessing to all peoples of the earth,’ or the ‘gift of the land’ is placed in jeopardy by the actions of the characters of the narrative.”[12]
This post is just an introduction to the life of Abraham. Here we see that though a man of faith – and the great patriarch of Israel! – he is short of being perfect. On his journey with God, he will learn to rely on Him who called him, but this will be the material for the posts to come.    



[1] Josephus: The Complete Works, translated by William Whiston (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 43.
[2] J. Alec Motyer. “Abraham (Abram).” New International Encyclopedia of Bible Characters. (edited by Paul D. Gardner. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 16.
[3]Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 193.
[4]Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 96.
[5] Alfred J. Hoerth. Archeology and the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 71.
[6] Ibid.
[7]Alfred Edersheim, Bible History: Old Testament, Seven Volumes Between Bound Two Covers. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 56.
[8] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 201.
[9] John H. Walton. Genesis.New International Version Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 392.
[10] Nahum M. Sarna. Genesis/Be-reshit: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation. JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 90.
[11] Richards, LawrenceO. The Bible Readers Companion. (electronic ed. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996), 26.
[12] John H. Sailhamer. “Genesis.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol 1. (edited by  Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 116.

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