Character Study Abraham, part 1

Character Study Abraham, part 1

The 11th Chapter of Hebrews is like the Faith Hall of Fame. It lists people from the Old Testament who accomplished great things “by faith.” I’d like to start this character study of Abraham by looking at his entry in this august chapter.

Abraham receiving the promises of God.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren– because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

(Heb 11:8-12 NRS)

His list of accomplishments continues, but let’s stop here for a while. In verse 12 (above), the one person referred to is Abraham. He is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible, and the reasons are mostly related to his faith. By faith, or because of his faith, he left his home in Ur of the Chaldees with his father to go to Canaan. His father only made it as far as Haran (Gen 11:31-32).

After his father’s death, he heard God call him to the land of Canaan and obeyed. He and Sarah and all their household went with him, wandering and living in tents, because they had no land to call their own. Abraham did this because he believed God’s promise that his descendants would inherit all the land of Canaan, despite three great reasons not to believe it:

  1. He had no descendants. His wife Sarah was infertile, so they had no children.
  2. Sarah was past childbearing age. She was doubly infertile now.
  3. Abraham was past childbearing age, “as good as dead” in terms of his procreating ability.

In the face of all this, God promised Abraham to make his descendants “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Gen 15:5; 22:17).

Paul says of Abraham, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (Rom 4:19 NRS).

Wow, what a model of faith. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, so he had no doubt whatsoever, even though he was a hundred and Sarah, who was ninety, had been barren her whole life. He believed what God said immediately and never doubted for a second. Actually, it appears Paul was engaging in revisionist history, because here is what the original account in Genesis says.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

(Gen 17:17 NRS)

What does the Bible really say about Abraham? That would take a whole book to go through. For now, I’ll just focus on the two instances where God promised descendants to Abraham.

Genesis 15

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

(Gen 15:1-3 NRS)

At this point, he is not called Abraham but Abram. He and his wife are Abram and Sarai. It’s not until chapter 17 that God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. Abram has already thought about who will be his heir. He has no offspring, so he made a trusted slave his heir. He thinks that is the best he can do. God has just promised him, “Your reward shall be very great,” yet he cannot believe it because he continues childless.

It sounds like he expected God to give him children, and God hasn’t delivered. Let’s go back to chapter 12 when God first appeared to Abram.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

(Gen 12:1-4 NRS)

God called Abram when he was seventy-five years old, which should give hope to some of us late-bloomers. God commanded him:

  1. to leave his country, his father’s house, and his kindred
  2. to go to a land God would show him (turned out to be Canaan).

God made promises to Abram:

  1. God will make him a great nation
  2. God will bless him and make his name great, so that he will be a blessing
  3. God bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him
  4. In him, all families of the world will be blessed.

Those are some pretty big promises. But many of them appear to be contingent on his bearing children. Perhaps he could build a great nation, but without descendants, how could it continue? How can his name be great if he has no sons to carry on his name after he dies? All families of the world will be blessed through him, but what about his own family? How can a man with no family of his own bless other families?

These are some of the questions that must have crossed Abram’s mind between the time he left his father’s house in the land of Haran and this scene in chapter 15. God made some great promises, but Abraham still can’t comprehend how God will bring them to pass. Now God has decided it’s time to take on Abram’s questions head on.

But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”

 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 (Gen 15:4-6 NRS)
The vision of the Lord directing Abraham to count the stars (woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from the 1860 Bible in Pictures)
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15:5 NRS)

Abraham’s Righteousness

This is probably the incident Paul was thinking of in Romans 4:19 (above). Abram is not a hundred, and Sarai is not ninety in this scene. We’re not told how old Abram is at this point. We just know it’s between seventy-five and eighty-six, because Ishmael has not been born yet.

In response, we are told Abram “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This is a very important verse to Paul. It is one of the cornerstone verses for his doctrine of salvation through faith, not by works of the Law (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6. For a different application, see Jam 2:23).

The LORD reckoned his belief/faith (translations vary) as righteousness. This happened long before the Law of Moses even existed. Therefore, Paul contended, righteousness comes by faith, not by works of the Law. This is the scene we are told Abram indeed did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body. He was not good as dead yet, but he and Sarah had never had children, and her clock was ticking.

So it appears if you want to be righteous before God, you should be like Abram. When God says something, just believe it. Do not weaken in faith; do not doubt; do not consider your circumstances. Abram believed the word of God. The Bible is the word of God. So if the Bible says it, just believe it. Don’t question, don’t doubt. Believe like Abram, and you will be righteous like Abram.

Really?

But I’ve already shown you a couple of chapters later, when God makes the same promise, Abram laughs. Not only that, here’s what happens just in the next verses.

Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”

But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

(Gen 15:7-8 NRS)

How am I to know that I shall possess it? Does that sound like someone who did not weaken in faith? To review, God promises Abram:

  1. He will have an heir of his own issue. In other words, his heir will be his son biologically, not by adoption. Abraham believed that.
  2. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven. Abram believed that.
  3. He would possess the land of Canaan. Abram asked God for proof.

Is two out of three good enough? No, with God, it’s all or nothing. You believe everything, or you’re not righteous in God’s eyes. Except God already counted Abram righteous after believing the first two promises. But God can’t do anything unless we believe. I guess Abram will receive the promise of an heir of his issue and many, many descendants. But as for possessing the land of Canaan, he just lost that promise, because he did not believe. You know I’m kidding, right?

No, God’s plans are not derailed because Abram showed a moment of doubt. If you’re trying to make Abram a paragon of belief that never wavers, never weakens, never questions, and never doubts, you are not reading the Bible. That is probably what annoys me most about a lot of Biblical fiction. They think they have to portray characters like Abraham as always believing, always honest, always faithful, and in doing so, they rob them of their humanity. How are we supposed to connect with them if they were too perfect to be human? Thankfully, the Bible does not do that.

Let’s Cut a Covenant, Abram

In order to understand what happens next, you have to know something about blood covenants. In Abram’s world, people would often use covenant ceremonies to seal an agreement. They almost always involved shedding blood in some fashion. In some cultures, they might cut themselves to use their own blood to seal the agreement. More often, the blood would come from an animal. One type of ceremony involved lining up several animals and splitting them in half. Each party in turn would walk between the halves of the animals, their feet bathing in the blood, while speaking their promises in the agreement. This sounds brutal to us today, but the fact is it was a brutal world.

The point is when you hear what God tells Abram to do, don’t think in modern terms. Abram was already very familiar with this type of ceremony.

He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”

 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

(Gen 15:9-11 NRS)

I wonder how he went about doing this. What kind of blade did they have in the Middle Bronze Age capable of splitting all those animals in two? I’d think you would need steel the quality of a Samurai sword, which obviously was not available then. But since it was a common practice, they must have figured out a way to do it. Of course when you have three dead animals and two dead birds all lined up, that’s going to attract some buzzards, so Abram had to drive them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

(Gen 15:12 NRS)

I love that phrase a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. It really creates a mood. Perhaps it foreshadows the night of Passover, when darkness covered the land of Egypt. Abram’s mind must have been conjuring all kinds of creepy thoughts of what might happen next.

God Appears to Digress

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.

(Gen 15:13-14 NRS)

This is definitely foreshadowing his descendants’ bondage in Egypt and the deliverance called Passover. Of course, ancient Israelites listening to this story would know what this was referring to. After telling Abram he would die in peace and in old age (v. 15; he lived to be 175 years old), God tells him,

“And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

(Gen 15:16 NRS)

So Abram’s descendants will be slaves of another nation. God will bring judgment on that nation, they will escape with great possessions, and they shall come back here (the land God is promising to his descendants). Why doesn’t God just give him the land now, and then they will won’t have to go through slavery and oppression? God says the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

What happens when their iniquity is complete?

The reason God says he will give this land to Abram’s descendants is because of the iniquity of the current inhabitants, here the Amorites. When Moses writes down the Law for the Israelites, he warns them not to engage in the same iniquities as the Amorites (and a bunch of other nations), or God will drive them out of the land as well (Lev 18:24; 1 Ki 21:26; 2 Ki 21:11).

What iniquity is God talking about? After reading the prophets, I have to say it is mainly injustice and unrighteousness, corruption in religion and government. The natives of the land are all living according to what is right in their own eyes rather than loving their neighbors as themselves. That is what the prophets complained about the most. Verse 16 means if trends keep going as they are, the Amorites will reach a point where they are totally irredeemable. God will give the land to Abraham’s descendants in order to establish a people who live by righteousness and justice (Gen 18:19).

I’m not sure what God meant by the fourth generation. God just said they will be there for 400 years. A generation is normally considered 40 years, so it would take 10 generations for them to come back here. That requires further study.

Abraham’s First Theophany

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

(Gen 15:17 NRS).

This is an example of a theophany. A theophany is defined in Merriam-Webster as “a visible manifestation of a deity.” It means God is appearing in person in a visible form. For example, during the wandering in the Wilderness, God appeared to the Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As you can imagine, a theophany is rare. So far, Abram has only heard God speaking but hasn’t seen God take on any visible form. That changes in this verse. The theophany here is a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. The text doesn’t specify how Abram heard God’s voice up until now, but this time the voice will come out of the theophany.

On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

(Gen 15:18-21 NRS)

This ceremony was familiar to Abram, as I said before. Of course, you did not promise something in this manner unless you were serious. I think the symbolism said, “If I break the terms of this covenant, may I be split in half like these animals.” I’m not sure, but I think both parties of the covenant usually passed between the halves while declaring their part of the agreement. In this case, God passes through, but Abram does not. God makes promises, but Abram does not. You would expect if God gave so much to Abram, God would expect something in return. I think God did want something from Abram, but God does not say anything about it here. We should revisit that later. For now, though, Abram’s mind must have been blown.

Conclusion

So Abram, you asked how you would know your descendants would possess the land? God just appeared in a theophany of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch that passed between the pieces of the animals you slaughtered. You heard from the theophany God would give the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the…all the rest of them, to your descendants, thereby sealing the promise in a blood covenant. Is that enough to convince you?

The next scene I want to look at is when God appears to Abram again and makes a promise so impossible that Abram laughs (Genesis 17). How will God respond?

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