Abraham – A Life of Struggles (Part 2)

Last week we have started to take a closer look into the life and faith of Abraham. Today we will continue this series and look into his journey with God, and how he will learn to rely on Him who called him.
After Abraham left his home, we saw the promises God made (12:1-3) and how Abraham is struggling to follow through with all of his heart – seen in the instance of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. Though this instance is not a glorious one, we see the patriarch evolving with greater possessions as part of God’s fulfillment of His promises.
Shortly after this we see Abraham’s kindness and generosity in the separation narrative of Abraham and Lot. Both characters became rich with possessions and could not stay together any longer. Though he is the older (and for sure the wiser) person, Abraham leaves the decision of land division to his nephew Lot to keep peace in the family. He states, “let there be no strife between you and me” (13:8), and so leaves this important decision to Lot. Waltke observes,
On a deeper level, the plot’s tension involves a test of character for both men. Will Lot defer to his esteemed uncle and benefactor or assert his own self-interest? Will Abraham give up his right to choose in order to retain peace with his kinsman and trust God to give him the Promised Land? Abraham, not lot, proves the worthy covenant partner.[1]
Though some commentators criticize this offering of land to Lot, the narrator gives evidence that God was proving Abraham’s way of handling this situation by the means of criticism of Lot by the narrator and the affirmation of the promise to Abraham by God.[2] The latter can also be seen stylistically. Whereas in 13:10 we read that “Lot lifted up his eyes” and chooses to live “among the cities…as far as Sodom” (verse 12; and verse 13 is surely a criticism of that decision), in 13:14 it is God Himself who confirms His promises to Abraham and tells the patriarch to “lift up your eyes” and to see what the Lord is giving him.
Lot settled down near Sodomwhich brings the next setting to the scene. Four eastern kings were fighting five kings in the Dead Sea area and Lot who is associated with Sodom is taking captive. As Abraham gets word about it he is ready to fight and save his kinsman. Sarna writes,
The one who displayed fear and evasiveness in Egypt now shows himself to be decisive and courageous on the promised land. [..] He who experienced his nephew’s estrangement unhesitatingly demonstrates self-sacrificing loyalty to him in his hour of need.[3]
Here Abraham is shown as a military hero who rescues his family and a loyal partner to trust in. After his return, he encounters Melchizedek, king of Salem, and the king of Sodom. Again Abraham’s character is presented as strong and loyal (this time to his God). In this meeting at the King’s Valley, Abraham gives a tithe to Melchizedek and so acknowledges his status as a chief king. The other king (the king of Sodom) does not treat Abraham with the respect Melchizedek did and “tries to assert his nonexistent authority and tempt Abraham with the plunder. But the faithful Abraham cannot be dissuaded from glorifying God.”[4]Through Abraham’s own words (in 14:22-24) the author communicates the faithfulness of Abraham:
I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.
In chapter fifteen of Genesis the author gives us the account of the ratification of the “Abrahamic Covenant.” Here God appears to Abraham in a vision. Though Abraham seems to struggle with disbelief by asking questions, his faith is credited as righteousness (15:6). Again in full obedience Abraham does as the Lord commanded him and “on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham” (15:18). In this chapter we see the struggle of Abraham resulting in faith and trust in the promises of God. “Abraham too [like God’s people in general] must wait in faith for the fulfillment of the promise, being counted righteous in his faith (v.6), but realizing that the promise was afar off to another generation (vv.15-16).”[5]
            Exactly this need of patience for the fulfillment of the promise of a “seed” is the crucial point in Abraham’s next phase of life. Sarai (later to be named Sarah) still has no children and so offers her maidservant Hagar to her husband in order to obtain children by her. Hagar soon is found to be pregnant and looks down on Sarai. Interestingly the author is using the phrase “and Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (16:2) which gets the attention of the reader. As we remember, this phrase was used at the sentence on the man after the fall (cf. 3:17; see also the verbs “took” and “gave” 16:3 in relation to 3:6).[6] Here Abraham is depicted as one who is not in control of the family affairs and is still lacking full belief in the promise of God. He should have shown Hagar her social role and position and be on his wife’s side. After Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar, the latter fled and had an encounter with the Lord. Hagar returns. “Significantly, it is that Abram who named the child, not Hagar, and thus implying that he legitimated him.”[7]Abraham is presented as one who still has times of disbelief and frustration.
            Nevertheless he is a worthy covenant partner. This time he has an active role (ch.17). Abraham’s worship of the Lord is significant in this passage. God changes Abraham’s name (Abram is now Abraham) and commands Abraham to change the name of Sarai to Sarah. Stuart notes,
Personal names in the OT are of special interest for what they tell of the religious and philosophical views of the ancient Israelites. The naming of persons in the OT times obviously went beyond a concern for a convenient means of providing individual designation. Naming intended to capture in some way the essence of an individual, expressing actual identity rather than merely identification.[8]
In verse 17, Abraham again is falling face down – an act of worship – and laughs. Here Abraham “again stumbles in incredulity”[9] which can be understood at the age of 99 years and thirteen years after Ishmael was born.  His answer “Oh that Ishmael might live before you” (17:18) is described as a reaction “not with joy and celebration, but with consternation: it is a complication in his life.”[10] He probably believed until this theophany that Ishmael is the promised heir.[11] But still Abraham is an obedient servant of the Lord and does the circumcision (the sign of the covenant) as the Lord commands him to.
            Later we find Abraham hosting three men (ch.18). In this scene the author shows us how diligent and hospitable Abraham is. This is seen in the expressions, “when he saw them, he ran…” (18:2), “Abraham went quickly” (v.6), and “Abraham ran…” (v.7). “Abraham is portrayed as a model of hospitality.”[12] And these scenes (the hosting of the guests and the intercession for Sodom) “reveal the nobility of Abraham’s character.”[13] He approaches the three guests in a most humble way: “He bowed himself to the earth and said, ‘O Lord if I have found favor…your servant’” (v.3). 
            The Lord (who is one of the guests) reveals his plan of Sodom’s destruction to Abraham. He finds Abraham worthy to know his plans since he is going to be “a great and mighty nation, and all the nations shall be blessed in him” (v.18). Abraham is seen as bold and yet humble in his intercession for Sodom. He approaches the Lord with words like “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (vv.27, 31) and “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak” (vv.30, 32). Sarna observes Abraham “is the repository of those eternal values of righteousness and justice that constitute “the way of the Lord.” God relies upon him to transmit this heritage to his posterity, which is the indispensable precondition for the fulfillment of the divine promises.[14]
Abraham again intercedes for the inhabitants of Sodom and especially his nephew Lot. “This scene presents Abraham as a noble prophet. […] Abraham’s compassion and sense of righteousness and justice prove him a worthy prophet.”[15]Though God still destroys Sodom and Gomorrah he “remembered Abraham and sent Lotout of the midst of the overthrow” (19:29). So it is for the person and character of Abraham that Lot was saved.

            In this post we have seen Abraham maturing in his faith and trust in God. He is a generous man! He is a peace-maker (13:8ff) but can also be a mighty warrior (ch. 14) if the circumstances require it. He is a worthy covenant partner and gives glory and honor to whom it is due. Yet, the story is not over and the promised son has not been born yet!

[1] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 219.
[2]Ibid., 221.
[3] Nahum M. Sarna. Genesis/Be-reshit: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation. JPS Torah Commentary. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 103.
[4]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 225.
[5] John H. Sailhamer. “Genesis.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol 1. (edited by  Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 128.
[6] See also Waltke 251.
[7]Sarna. Genesis, 122.
[8]Douglas Stuart, “Name, Proper.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 vols. (edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 485.
[9]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 262.
[10] Roop cited in ibid.
[11] See John H. Walton. Genesis. New International Version Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 451.
[12] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 266.
[13] Sarna. Genesis, 128.
[14]Ibid., 131.
[15] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 271.

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