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Abraham’s Faith Journey
The Macrostructure of the Abraham Story

Dennis Bratcher

Most of us have trouble seeing or understanding Scripture in terms of large blocks of material, especially if we have spent much time around the church. Instead, we tend to focus on single verses or short passages. There are various reasons for that. Sermons we hear preached tend to be built from four or five verses or from fairly short passages. Public reading of Scripture tends to be in very short sections, not usually more than ten or fifteen verses, simply because we tend to tune them out and stop listening if they are much longer. Personal devotional reading whether from devotional books or the daily Lectionary tends to be limited to a few verses at a time. And time pressures and priorities direct us to other things than spending time with many chapters of the biblical text at one sitting.

As a result, most people simply have not trained their attention spans to focus on Scripture for extended lengths of time that it would take to read or hear more lengthy sections. All of this has conditioned us to see Scripture in terms of just a few verses and often prevents us from looking at large sweeps of material. And so we tend not to think of Scripture in terms of large blocks of material that function together.

There is a growing awareness among students of Scripture of the need to understand the Bible in terms of larger blocks of material than single verses or even chapters. When considering the Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy, there is increasing agreement that all five books are a coherent unity comprising a single ongoing story that needs to read all together in order to be understood adequately. Many have tried in the past to maintain some sense of unity of this material, but most often did so by appealing to a single author, Moses. Therefore since a single person wrote it, it must be unified around the coherent ideas of the author. Yet there is a tremendous diversity of material in these five books that makes it unlikely that a single person wrote all of the material. For this and other reasons (e.g., the fact that Moses' death is recorded in the material), most scholars have concluded that Moses probably did not write all of this material. That led some to claim that there is really very little unity in the Torah, that it is only loosely organized collections of stories about Israel’s early history.

However, there is a great deal of renewed interest in examining these five books to see if they exhibit another kind of unity besides that of authorship. There is a general agreement among biblical scholars that the material of the Pentateuch grew out of the life of the Israelite community of Faith over 800 years of history. It is composed of very divergent material from different periods of that history with significantly different emphases within the different strands of the tradition that went into the composition of the books (see JEDP: "Sources" in the Pentateuch). Yet as Scripture, as confession about Israel’s own journey of faith in interaction with God, there is clearly a sense that as the biblical material grew it was shaped in and by a community that had a consistent story to tell about God’s work in their history.

This suggests that the Torah, the Pentateuch, is a literary and a theological unity, that these five books tell the story of God and people’s encounter with God, and the story of the community that emerged from those encounters. There is a coherent story that runs from the beginning of Genesis through the end of Deuteronomy. It is not just a story line that shares some common aspects, but a coherent confession of the identity, values, and purpose of this community as it responded to God’s self-revelation in history. 

And even further, there is a growing awareness of a very consistent and carefully worked out theological and literary unity between these five books and the next major section of the Old Testament, the Former Prophets. The whole sweep of material from Joshua to the end of 2 Kings is also recognized to be a coherent story that continues and expands the Pentateuchal material, even amid the diversity of material and the span of time contained in those books. (Note: this material from Joshua to 2 Kings is often called the Deuteronomistic or Deuteronomic History, indicating that the perspective in the whole narrative is similar to the book of Deuteronomy; see History and Theology in Joshua and Judges, especially the chart in the section History as Theology).

To say that, however, means that the coherence of this biblical material does not lie just in single coherent stories. Individual stories cannot simply be extracted from the larger narrative and be expected to communicate that story on their own apart from the larger context. When treated as totally independent units, there is great risk that they will lose a frame of reference in which to hear them and so be misunderstood. If there is, indeed, a larger coherence to the Pentateuch that lies on the level of literary organization and theological communication, then in order to be understood adequately the individual stories must be seen as part of that larger narrative. Seen in that larger context, the individual narratives sometimes take on a different shape and texture.

It is this perspective of the Pentateuch as being a larger coherent whole that allows us to move to larger sweeps of narrative rather than focusing on the details of only a few verses or a single story. It is the realization that in Scripture there is communication and confession at work on the level of the larger narrative, perhaps even more so than on the level of single stories.

As an example, we can examine the macrostructure of the Abraham stories. Here macrostructure refers to the coherence of that larger narrative, the rhetorical features of the narrative that serve to guide the salient points of the story and the theological reading that flows from it. Often in literary studies certain physical features of the text or certain formal characteristics identify the macrostructure of a text. While that can certainly be done on a technical level in the Abraham stories, for our purposes here we will only track the macrostructure in terms of the story line and some basic governing theological implications that arise from that story line.

From this perspective, we can understand that the narrative of Abraham in Genesis 12-22 is composed of a series of stories that certainly can be heard and told as individual units of narrative. But yet they can also be seen as mutually interdependent, with the individual stories functioning within the entire sequence of narratives to communicate something that the single narratives cannot communicate on their own. We might say, to use an old adage, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, the individual narratives of this sequence of stories need to be seen in the context of the entire story of Abraham in order to hear what the community tells us through the stories.

As Christians, we are often used to hearing and thinking about Abraham from the perspective of Hebrews (11:8-12), the "hall of fame" of faithful people. God called Abraham, he obeyed, and so received the promised blessings of God. From that perspective Abraham is easily seen as a model of faith (see Bible Study on Hebrews 11:1-22). Then we tend to import that perspective back into Genesis and read the individual passages of the Abraham story as if Abraham were a model of faith from the very beginning of the narratives. So, for example, as we read of Abraham’s actions at the end of chapter 12, where he gives away his wife to a king’s harem in order to save his own life, it is easy to read it in light of Abraham as the model of faith. So, we can conclude, the story really can’t be what it seems to be because Abraham the man of faith would not act in this way.

Yet, the story is there and the text does present Abraham as something less than a model of faith, part of a larger narrative in which Abraham seems to act in very unfaithful ways on many occasions. There are elements on that broader vista that tell us that perhaps a different story is at work than what we have assumed, that maybe the actual biblical text of Genesis wants to tell us the story in a different way than we want to hear it. 

That simply suggests that we step back from the individual stories and take a more careful look at that broader context as a setting in which to hear the single stories. That means that we need to look not so much at the details of the individual stories first, but at the sweep of the entire Abraham narrative in order to trace the general outline of the story and the high points that are emphasized by the text itself. Hopefully, that will give us a context in which to hear the details of the individual stories, as well as a sense of the points of coherence of the larger narrative.

So, let’s examine the Abraham narratives in Genesis 12 through 22 to see if we can discern the shape and texture of that larger narrative as a context for the individual stories. Chapter 12 opens with the call of God coming to Abraham against the dead end of chapter 11 (see commentary on Genesis 12:1-9). Abraham received a commission of God to leave his homeland and strike out into a future that God would show him. God promised remarkable things for that future: a great name, protection, and blessing for both Abraham and the whole earth.

And Abraham did respond in faith and went just as the Lord had told him (12:4). Certainly here is presented a man of faith who was willing to risk an unknown future on God’s leadership. Here is the picture we are used to seeing of Father Abraham, a great man of faith who was willing to obey God. At this point in the story, Abraham (or Abram as he is called early in the story) is doing everything right.

The story continues to track through the first part of chapter 12 by noting that Abraham was 75 years old . He left Haran, the place to which his father Terah had already migrated from Ur, and began his journey south to the place that God had called him. He took his wife and his brother’s son Lot and a portion of the clan and their possessions and journeyed south to the land of Canaan.

As he arrived in Canaan, God reaffirmed his promise and gave more detail (12:7): "To your offspring I will give this land." First, Abraham had just been given general promises about a future and blessing. From here throughout the rest of the story the promises will continue to unfold in more specific dimensions as Abraham journeys through the land and through the next 25 years.

We need to notice that Abraham responded to a very unspecified and undifferentiated promise. Basically, he simply responded to the command to go, with very general promises of a future. The problem that unfolded for Abraham across the next decades was how to live in the real world in light of such an open-ended and ambiguous promise. How could he translate that promise into daily living? How should he come to terms with how the promise works out in real life? These chapters unfold the depth of that problem for Abraham.

As Abraham moved into Canaan, and as God reaffirmed the promise, Abraham responded by building an altar thereby acknowledging God as the one leading him in his journey. Abraham continued his journey through the land and eventually traversed its full length from north to south. Yet in the middle of all this positive dimension of the text, the call of God and Abraham’s faithful response, a note of discord in introduced into the narrative in 12:10 with the observation that there is a famine in the land. This is the first hint that this story may not track as idyllically as it seemed to have begun.

In the arid ancient Middle East famine was a very serious matter. It was not simply an inconvenience, but was a matter of life and death. Famine meant that no one had food, so it was not just a matter of trading or buying food from someone else. The only option was to go somewhere where there was no famine in order to survive. There is tremendous irony in the story here. Abraham had left everything to risk following God for a new future that God would show to him. And yet even though Abraham had faithfully responded to God, God had led him to a land that was in the middle of a famine!

No sooner had Abraham entered the land that God had promised him, than he had to leave that very land because it is not livable. We do not yet know the story, but this is the first of many times that faithfulness to God will place Abraham and his clan at risk. From God’s side, one of the governing themes that emerges in this story is the question of whether Abraham will hold fast to the promise and continue to follow God even in the midst of seeming dead ends like this one. Or will Abraham abandon the promise and seek to make his own way in the world?

And yet from Abraham’s side, the questions are just as pointed. Will God be faithful to Abraham in support of the promise? Or will Abraham have to take matters into his own hands and try to shape his own future amid the realities of life?

So Abraham left his "promised land" and journeyed on to Egypt because there was food there. Because of the fertility of the Egyptian land watered by the annual flooding of the Nile, food was usually plentiful in Egypt even when the rains failed in Canaan. And yet this circumstance sets the stage for an immediate crisis.

As Abraham was about to enter Egypt, he began to fear for his life. His fear revolved around Sarah, his wife. He was afraid that she would catch the eye of the powerful in Egypt, and they would eliminate him in order to take Sarah. So he said to Sarah (12:11-13):

I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, "This is his wife"; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.

Here we must resist all attempts at rationalizing Abraham’s actions as if the text does not really intend to say what it says. The simple fact here is that Abraham is scared and devises a scheme that includes lying to escape with his life, but at the expense of his wife Sarah. He has Sarah protect him by lying for him.

What does that say about Abraham? What is going to happen to Sarah if Abraham says that she is his sister? Well, Abraham would probably get out of this situation with his life. But then what would happen to Sarah? In that culture, she would become part of pharaoh’s harem, one of his many wives. Abraham had just chosen to sacrifice Sarah for his own neck!

Now, maybe we ought to give Abraham some benefit of the doubt because God had not really made the promise very specific yet. There had been no mention of Sarah in the promise, even though there was clearly the implication that Abraham would have children. Perhaps Abraham thought the promise was only his promise. Or perhaps he thought that Sarah was expendable since, after all, she was barren and had no children. Whatever the motivation, Abraham had eliminated Sarah from the promise by this cowardly action. Even if the plan worked, if Sarah had been taken into Pharaoh’s harem any children that Sarah bore would not be Abraham’s children. Abraham had simply taken upon himself, from a position of fear, to decide how the promise should unfold. He has sacrificed Sarah and totally cut her out of this work of God in the world in order to save his own life.

On some level, would that not have been a legitimate and prudent move? How can the promise work out if Abraham had been killed? So on some level perhaps Abraham still exhibits a certain amount of faith. But it is not much, because God had also promised him that he would bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. God had promised the outworking of the promise, and yet Abraham thought that he had to manipulate things to make the promise work. He had not yet understood that the dead end from which God had called him could only be transformed by God.

Part of the problem that would continue to unfold with Abraham in this story is that he was willing to believe the promise but he was not always willing to believe God. Abraham thought that he had to make the promise work out, so he was willing to do whatever he thought necessary to make the promise happen for him. And so he was willing to sacrifice his wife Sarah to get there. The fact is, Abraham was simply a coward here, unwilling to trust God when his life was on the line.

That will become important as the story unfolds. Was Abraham really that kind of coward here? What happened to his faith in verse four? He did have faith, but it appears that he wanted faith on his own terms. He believed God but not to the point of total trust. Abraham was much more comfortable when he could get things under control on his own.

There is another subtle element at work in this story. Since Sarah was barren, in that culture it was simply assumed that it was impossible for her to have children. And yet the promise was for children. In that context, it would become easy for Abraham to give away something that he didn’t think had any value to him in working out the promise. He trusted the promise but he didn’t trust God to work through the impossible, because in his way of understanding and his way of seeing there was no future in Sarah. In would be many years before Abraham could come to that kind of genuine trust in a God of impossibilities.

By Abraham’s actions he brought a curse in verse 17. "The Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarah Abram’s wife." The first thing that Abraham did as he went into the world as the bearer of promise was to bring on other people a curse instead of the blessing that he was commissioned to bring to the whole earth. Pharaoh came back to Abraham and asked, "What have you done to me?" (12:18). Pharaoh did not know that Abraham was supposed to be a blessing, but he knew that he was being afflicted and that it was Abraham’s fault.

Pharaoh returned Sarah and Abraham continued his journey. But this initial failure would become all too common for Abraham. And yet the story emphasizes God’s commitment to Abraham in spite of his failure. That will also become a significant aspect of the larger narrative.

In chapter 13 Abraham and his extended family left Egypt and journeyed into the Negeb, the desert area in the southern part of Canaan. The story continued unfolding there with the interaction between Abraham and Lot as they settled together. God again reaffirmed the promise to Abraham (13:4) as he blessed him. The promise was again land and children, even though Sarah was still barren. The promise was still there for a great number of children and vast amounts of land, the future possibility of which Abraham still had no evidence.

After a short interlude in the narrative in chapter 14, the story returns its focus to Abraham and the promise in chapter 15. God returned to Abraham again in a vision and again gave him a promise. "Do not be afraid Abram I am your shield, your reward shall be very great" (v. 1). Abraham’s response in verse 2 is interesting: "Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless." Obviously, Abraham was beginning to get a little impatient with God’s timetable for the promise. God was willing to reaffirm the promise, but Abraham still saw no sign that anything was happening to make it a reality. Abraham’s very human frustration was clearly evident. How could he be the father of a great nation when he still had no children and Sarah was still barren?

Abraham still believed but was starting to get a little impatient with God. His only male heir was a servant, Eliezer of Damascus: "Look, you have given me no offspring so a slave born in my house is my heir!" He was not so gently pointing out to God that if he didn’t do something about the promise the only descendants Abraham would have would be through legal customs and not his own offspring. And yet God steadfastly affirmed the promise, this time giving Abraham more specifics on the outworking of the promise. The word of the Lord came to him, in verse 4: "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." For the first time God specified that it will be Abraham’s own physical descendant that will be the inheritor of the promise. And again God reaffirmed the larger promise to Abraham (v. 5): "Then he brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, your descendants will be like the stars of the sky.’"

Abraham’s response here is one of the high points of the entire narrative, as he believed God and trusted him for the promise. At least here. There would be more failures. But at this point, Abraham, for the second time in the narrative, was willing to trust God with the promise. He still did not know how the promise would unfold. But he believed. What follows in the rest of chapter 15 is a covenant ceremony that served to express in cultural metaphors God’s commitment to Abraham, and Abraham’s commit to God.

The story continues in chapter 16. After the beautiful passage where God entered into covenant with Abraham and again affirmed his call upon his life, the narrator intrudes with a stark reminder of the reality of life: "Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children." Nothing really had changed in Abraham’s life. There was still no future here, even after all the great things that God had said. Now at this point Abraham was convinced that the promise was real, and he now knew that he would have a child who would be heir of the promise. But he was still not convinced that Sarah would be a part of the promise. What unfolds in the chapter is the well known incident of Hagar that again marks Abraham’s failure to trust God.

Eleven years had gone by since chapter 12. Abraham had been waiting for this promise to unfold for eleven years; eleven years of living under a promise but with no obvious future and no tangible hope for a future. And when we recall that Abraham was 75 years old when he received the promise we can understand his anxiety over the delay. The possibilities were not getting any better but were actually worse. So Abraham decided to try to force the promise to unfold. Sarah actually suggested to Abraham that he take her handmaid Hagar and father a child with her. That seemed reasonable to Abraham. While from our cultural perspective this sounds shocking, in the context of ancient culture this was an acceptable practice to provide heirs for a family when an elder family leader had no children. "So Abram listened to the voice of Sarai" and had a child by Hagar.

Finally, Abraham had a child and the promise could begin unfolding! But as we have already come to expect now in the narrative, Abraham had created a problem by attempting to make the promise happen on his own terms. Tension emerged as Sarah became jealous of Hagar, and Hagar was forced to flee with the child Ishmael. God took care of Hagar and the child. But as soon as Hagar left the future was again at risk. Even though Abraham had a child, it seemed obvious that this was not the way to the promise. And so once again the failure of Abraham to trust God with the promise introduced something less than blessing into the world, and unfolded in pain and conflict.

By chapter 17 Abraham was 99 years old. It had now been 24 years since the giving of the promise. Another 12 years had now elapsed. After 24 years of living under this promise God came again to Abraham, promised his presence with him, and reaffirmed the promise (17:4-8):

You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. . . . I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.

And for the first time in the story, God extended the promise to include Sarah (17:15): "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah, I will bless her and I will give you a son by her." There is some sense in the narrative that Abraham probably should have figured that out back in chapter 12. In this chapter, it is likely a matter of God responding to Abraham’s failure and impatience in spelling out for him the exact nature of the newness that he will bring into the world through Sarah. But that apparently had not yet dawned on Abraham.

It is a function of God’s grace that he tends to respond to our failure and slowness on a level that brings us to faith. If Abraham needed to hear that Sarah was going to be the mother of a child, then God was willing to meet Abraham on that level of need. Even after 24 years of a mixture of faithfulness and failure, God came back to Abraham to encourage him in patience and faithfulness as he waited for the promise.

And yet Abraham’s response to this renewed promise of God is interesting. Abraham simply fell on his face and laughed at God and at the absurdity at what God had just told him. This simply tells us that Abraham hasn’t really believed very deeply in the promise during these 24 years or this new affirmation would not have come as such an absurdity to him. And now faced with overwhelming circumstances that provided evidence to him that it could not happen, Abraham had simply abandoned the promise as a cruel joke! Could a child be born to a man who is 100 years old? Could Sarah really have a child at 90? He really thought that God had missed his chance 20 years earlier, and there really was no future now.

I suspect if most of us were honest, we’ve told that to God before in one way or another. Abraham’s faith was always in what he could do. It was always faith on his terms, which really wasn't much of a faith at all. He had faith in God, but in terms of what he could conceive as possible or what he could control and make happen. And when he realized that there was no future in those terms, he just laughed at the promise.

And yet, Abraham still believed just enough of the promise to be willing to take one more stab at making it work. So Abraham reminded God that he already had a son, and that perhaps God could work through Ishmael (17:18). But God reminded Abraham that he had already promised that Sarah was to be the mother of the child of promise. Abraham still wanted to take the easy way that he could see and was unwilling to believe in what was clearly impossible.

A final irony here reveals a delightfully playful aspect of the narrative. And it also reveals a tender conception of God with a touch of humor and irony that serves to drive home an important lesson. Picking up on Abraham’s laughter at the absurdity of the promise, God told Abraham to name the child Isaac, "laughter." And yet once again, the promise is reaffirmed but with an important added dimension. While the first promise was very unspecified, across the past 25 years God had gradually unfolded more narrowly focused dimensions of the promise. It was narrowed from "great name" to children to Abraham’s own children and then to Abraham and Sarah’s children. And now for the first time in the narrative, there was a time frame placed on the promise (v. 21): "My covenant I will establish with Isaac whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year." For the first time in 25 years God left Abraham with a specific promise with a specific time frame of one year.

Chapter 18 recounts the visit of the three messengers from God who visited Abraham. This leads to the interlude of the destruction of Sodom that interrupts the flow of the narrative of promise here, although it has tremendous importance in the whole Abraham story. But that very interruption serves to underscore the period of waiting even for this single year. As the men visited Abraham, they asked, "Where is your wife Sarah?" and Abraham responded, "In the tent." Then one of the men told Abraham that he would return at the same time next year and that Sarah would have a son.

Sarah had been listening in the other half of the tent listening. To underscore the impossibility of this unfolding, again in case we have forgotten, the narrator interjects that Abraham and Sarah were old and could no longer have children (18:11). This serves again to emphasize the absurdity of the situation and the promise. And so Sarah responded just like Abraham had done and laughed at the joke of her having a son.

And yet the men calmly reassured them both that this is indeed what God intended to do (18:14): "Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son."

What I find fascinating here is that both Abraham and Sarah laugh at God and yet God took their laughter and made it part of the promise. Maybe that says something about our own lack of faith, that maybe we shouldn’t be as afraid of God as we sometimes are, even when we are laughing at him. It says something profound about God’s grace that he can take our worst moments of skepticism and make them part of the future.

What unfolds next is the interlude of the Sodom and Gomorrah stories. While they interrupt the story of the birth of the child, they provide us with a further glimpse into Abraham’s story and journey. In these 25 years since the beginning of the promise this is the first time that Abraham had shown any understanding of that third part of the promise of being a blessing to the world. In fact, he had tended in the past to bring curse to others instead of blessing. And yet here he interceded for the city of Sodom. Abraham modeled here what Israel would later understand as its role in the world as God’s people. Again, in the midst of his failure and laughter, Abraham managed to respond in ways that showed he was still willing to try to live out the promise, imperfectly though his efforts may have been.

After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and after Abraham’s rescue of Lot from Sodom, Abraham again settled again in the southern part of Canaan. Twenty-five years have gone by and God had gradually focused the promise from just a general promise down to Sarah and now to a single year. Surely now Abraham could believe the promise and trust God. He was residing in Gerar in the southern part of the Philistine territory. He was living in an alien country, and apparently a situation arose in which Abraham felt threatened by the Philistines. And incredibly, almost unbelievably in the context of this unfolding story, Abraham again made a cowardly mistake. For the second time, he gave Sarah away to the king of Gerar to secure his own safety! He told the same lie to cover the same cowardice and lack of faith.

What was Abraham thinking? After all this time, he almost had the promise in his grasp. And he simply let it go. By giving Sarah to the King of Gerar he had again abandoned the promise, because again, even if Sarah would have had a child within the year, it would not have been Abraham’s child, and so would not have been the child of promise.

This time it is not that Abraham had misunderstood the promise nor that he did not know or believe that Sarah was part of the promise. He did it simply because he was afraid. He gave away the whole future to secure his temporary personal safety. I think if I were God that I would have found somebody else by this time. Abraham gave a lengthy explanation of his actions in verse 11. But some scholars think that verse 11 is actually the narrator’s comments put into the mouth of Abraham to try to salvage Abraham at this point and show that he was not really lying.

But the lying was the least of his worries here and is really incidental at this point of the story. The problem is that Abraham had given the promise away. To use the modern adage, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. On the very eve of the unfolding of the promise, he abandoned it. And yet God did not abandon Abraham. He had entered into a covenant with him, and remained faithful to that commitment. Again, God reunited Sarah and Abraham in order to carry out the promise.

In chapter 21, the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore a son, and they named him laughter. Sarah said (21:6), "God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me." The laughter that had earlier been a sign of their unbelief God had now transformed into a symbol of promise and the future.

We would think that the story would end here with the promise of a new future resting securely in the arms of Sarah as she "laughs" with "laughter" (Isaac). But as we might expect, it was never that easy for Abraham. After all this time Abraham was finally to the point where he could believe the promise. He could believe the promise because he could hold it in his hands. It is easy to believe when you can bounce the promise on your knee.

Abraham believed because, like he was used to doing earlier in the story, he could now control the promise. Except now God came to him and said, "I want it all back. I want you to take this child that I gave you and I want you to give him back." God called Abraham to go to a mountain he would show him, and offer up the child as a sacrifice. Abraham had once before been called to go to a place where God would show him. But that time it was for the purpose of embracing the promise. This time, the unknown journey to which God had called him was for the purpose of letting go of the promise. Abraham had been willing to do that so many times in the past on his own terms because he could not see God’s possibilities. And now that he could hold the possibilities in his hands, God called him to let it go. God simply would not let Abraham live the promise on his own terms!

The story here in Genesis 22 is not about child sacrifice. It is about whether Abraham would be willing to trust God for the future. That had always been Abraham’s problem, that he had wanted the promise but in his own way in terms of what he could see and manipulate and make happen. He could trust God as long as it was under his control, but he had a much harder time trusting God when it was not under control. When the promise involved circumstances that he could not control or make happen he had little faith.

This was Abraham’s final test. Could he really trust God? Had he learned anything about God from his 25 year journey of faith? Could he give up what he can see and hold for nothing more than God’s promise? The climax of this whole story is in verses 15 and 16 where Abraham was willing to give Isaac back to God. God’s response was the final judgment of Abraham’s faith: "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your only son from me." For the first time in 25 years in ten chapters, Abraham was willing to trust God for the future. It was a future that he could not manipulate or control, but a future that God had promised him and for which he was willing to trust God.

Finally, Abraham became the kind of person of faith that we read about in Hebrews 11. But it took him a long and failure strewn journey and a 25-year struggle to get there. It is easy to want everything that we think God has promised all at once and all up front. And there is certainly some dimension in which our faithfulness and willingness to respond is part of the outworking of God’s call on our lives. But finally this story says that the future that God calls us to is not dependent on our efforts to make it happen. It’s dependent upon our willingness to have faith in God to make happen what we can’t make happen on our own. And it also tells us that God is faithful to those whom he has called in spite of their failure and laughter.

That leaves God’s grace at the center of the story, God’s willingness to work in the world with less than perfect people to help them grow and journey toward the promise that only he can bring to pass. That is why Abraham’s 25-year journey can be called a journey of faith, or perhaps a journey to faith. And while Abraham’s failure and inadequacy consistently mark that journey, it is just as surely marked by God’s faithfulness to Abraham.

There is a final understated irony at the conclusion of the Abraham story. Abraham owned no land at all when Sarah died. He had to go to the Hittites and pay an extravagant amount of money for a single cave in which to bury Sarah. When Abraham died shortly after he had no great number of descendants, let alone having descendants like the stars of the heaven or the sand of the seashore. When he died he had one son at home, and owned one burial cave. So where were the great promises? What had become of all the great things that God had promised Abraham?

Part of the dynamic of this whole story is that the faith journey of Abraham doesn’t end in chapter 22 or even in chapter 25 with Abraham’s death. Abraham’s faith was not for himself because the promise was not for Abraham. The promise was for the children of Abraham. Part of Abraham’s faith journey was that he came to a willingness to trust God for the future, not just his own future but for God’s future. 

It would be a long time after Abraham, nearly 800 years, before his descendants would ever own the land that he was promised. And it would be some time after that before they would be a great nation. But it would come. And it began with a cowardly man who had a great deal of trouble ever believing God, but who finally came to trust the future to God when he had no idea how that future would unfold.

It is really only in looking at this entire sweep of narrative between Genesis 12 and 22, and even extending into chapter 25, that we have an adequate frame of reference for understanding any of the individual Abraham stories. But set in that larger context, they become a powerful affirmation of God’s grace and patience in dealing with a weak and vacillating people. The larger narrative clearly points, not to Abraham as a hero of faith, but to God as graciously dealing with an imperfect yet seeking Abraham. In that sense, this larger narrative becomes the story of Israel’s own faith journey, and ours as well.

-Dennis R. Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis R. Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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