Abraham – A Life of Struggles (Part 3)

Last week we have started to take a closer look into the life and faith of Abraham. We have seen Abraham maturing in his faith and trust in God. That he can be a peace-e-maker (13:8ff) as well as a mighty warrior (ch. 14), is depending on the circumstances he finds himself in. He is a worthy covenant partner and gives glory and honor to whom it is due. 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.
            Picking up the storyline in Genesis 20 we see that Abraham now has an intimate relationship with the Lord. But again he relapses into an old pattern of behavior in telling the people of Gerar that Sarah is his sister. Hereunto Walton,
This is the second time that the text records Abraham’s identifying Sarah as his sister, but it is not unlikely that this is their regular custom when they are in unfamiliar places (notice 20:13, “everywhere we go”). There is no point in asking why Abraham tries this again when it resulted in such disaster the first time. After all, we cannot rule out the possibility that he also uses it successfully on many occasions.[1]
We also see that Abraham is neither rebuked by God nor by the author in anyway. So it cannot be said if this “old pattern of behavior” is actually considered as “wrong.” The only thing which can be said is that God calls Abraham a prophet (20:7) implying that Abraham, as the covenant partner, is the mediator and communicator of God’s word of promise. Again this scene shows God’s sovereignty[2] over the events taking place as it is a major theme of the entire story of Genesis. Similar to the scene with Pharaoh, Abraham comes out of this with more prosperous and carrying more wealth.
            The next episode shows both, the greatest joy in the life of Abraham and probably also one of his most difficult moments. The great joy is the birth of Isaac by his wife Sarah. This is followed by the sorrow of sending away his son Ishmael, born by Hagar. Interestingly the long awaited birth of the promised son is only given a short passage (21:1-7). Whereas instead, the struggle with Hagar and Ishmael is given almost double the amount (vv.8-21). Abraham is still depicted as faithful and he circumcises his son Isaac on the eighth day. So Isaac is the first boy reported to be circumcised at this time (eighth day) and therefore indicates to be the true heir of the Abrahamic covenant.[3]
            But out of this supernatural birth comes struggle too. Ishmael mocks the child of Sarah and she tells Abraham to send the maidservant and her son away. About this situation, Abraham finds himself displeased and distressed. “Paternal love alone […] explains Abraham’s distress.”[4]Because of his distress God tells Abraham to listen to his wife and promises to care for both of his sons. Again Abraham is quick to obey as the author of Genesis writes, “So Abraham rose early in the morning […] and sent her away” (21:14). In this scene God fulfills his promise which he gave nearly a quarter of a century ago. The theme of the “seed” is now put on Isaac and plays a major role in the future of his family.
            The “Treaty with Abimelech” occurs right after the account of the birth of Isaac and the sending away of Ishmael. Sarna explains the passage of the treaty,
It projects a fresh image of the patriarch. Now that his life’s dream is fulfilled and his posterity assured, he possess a new sense of confidence. No longer does he exhibit timidity and evasiveness in dealing with royalty; he negotiates as an equal. Moreover, Abraham reaches a new relationship to the promised land. He makes his first acquisition – a well at Beer-sheba – and his rights are acknowledged and guaranteed by the king.[5]  
Abraham assures some property with a confident manner, but yet is still a sojourner as the author writes, “And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines” (21:34). He again is depicted as a man of worship (cf.v.33). His darkest hour is but yet to come.
            God tests Abraham. In this narrative we see the complex character of the patriarch and his full trust in the Lord, his God. The Lord tells Abraham to sacrifice his promised son as a burnt offering. Once more Abraham quickly obeys the Lord. The author writes, “So Abraham rose early in the morning […] and took […] his son Isaac” (22:3). Further the author seems to indicate Abraham’s trust in the Lord as he says to Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (22:8), though it is not clear and it seems ambiguous whether or not Abraham knew that he would not have to sacrifice Isaac, since the Lord saw that Abraham would not withhold his one and only son (22:12, 16, 18). The author is not offering details about the emotional state of Abraham, but the reader can see the sadness (and frustration!) of the patriarch. Sarna writes on this difficult passage, “Abraham’s spiritual odyssey reached its climax with the Akedah [the binding of Isaac]. For all intents and purposes, his biography is complete”[6] Sarna also explains that, “on both occasions [the leaving of his country and the binding of Isaac] Abraham responds with unquestioning obedience and steadfast loyalty.”[7]Because of Abraham’s faithful obedience the Lord assures his covenant once more to his truthful servant.   
            Well advanced in years Abraham has to mourn the death of Sarah his life partner and the one who struggled with him together in faith and obedience to Yahweh. The author of Genesis again does not give a lot of details about the mourning and suffering of Abraham, but focuses more on the “purchase of the land.”[8] In this purchase Abraham again is portrayed as a gentle and humble person (he bows down and calls himself “a sojourner and foreigner” among them). And once more he is not willing to accept the gift of man (as already seen before with the king of Sodom). Sailhamer writes on the theme of Genesis: “If viewed from the perspective of God’s covenant promises to Abraham, both these narratives fit well within the overall themes of the book. God, not man, was the source of Abraham’s hope of blessing. He would not seek to become wealthy or to own land apart from the promises of God.”[9]
Abraham’s fidelity and confidence in the Lord are obvious to the reader. The same is seen in the next chapter where Abraham makes sure that Isaac will get a wife not of the Canaanites, but of his own kindred. He makes his faithful servant take a mission to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for his son. Waltke describes: “Abraham continues in faithfulness: single-mindedly committing to the Promised Land, rejecting the corrupt Canaanites, and relying confidently in the Lord to lead his servant. He is unwilling to allow his son to return to the security of the old country even if the servant fails in his mission (24:5).”[10]
In the last account of Abraham’s life it is described that he had another wife and sons through her. In order to ensure that Isaac is the single heir of his possession and the promises of God, he gave gifts to his other sons and sent them away while he was still alive (cf.25:1-7). The death of Abraham (25:7-8) is depicted by the author the following way,
These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.
He died “full of years” and “in a good old age.” Watlke writes, “By the time of death he has enjoyed both abundant quantity and quality of life.”[11]
            In conclusion, we learned through the story of Abraham that the author of Genesis gave further insight into the motives of the “blessing,” “seed,” and “land.” We further saw the first patriarch of Israel had many victories and struggles in his walk with the Lord. He oftentimes was found to obey quickly and endured long times of uncertainty and patience. He also took actions which were contrary to God’s way and differed from the plan of Yahweh. Nevertheless, he is described as “the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9), “the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16), and “the friend of God” (James 2:23).
            May we be blessed in meditating on this great patriarch and learn from his faith as well as his failures!
                       



[1] John H. Walton. Genesis. New International Version Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 494.
[2] See Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 284.
[3] See Nahum M. Sarna. Genesis/Be-reshit: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation. JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989) and his treatment of this passage on pp.145-146
[4]Waltke, 294.
[5]Sarna, 148.
[6]Ibid., 156.
[7]Ibid., 150.
[8] See Waltke,  317.
[9] John H. Sailhamer. “Genesis.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol 1. (edited by  Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 172.
[10] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 325.
[11]Ibid., 340.

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