The Story of Abraham
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 24 April 2015; Revised 18 September 2021
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version, © 2014 by Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. "SH" with a number corresponds to a Hebrew word with an assigned reference number from Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.
Syntax: The meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB." Parsing information for Hebrew words is taken from John Joseph Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament (Baker Book House, 1991). The meaning of Greek words used in the Septuagint (LXX) and Besekh is from Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. W.F. Arndt & F.W. Gingrich (The University of Chicago Press, 1957).
Special Terms: In order to emphasize the Hebraic nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ). The tetragrammaton, or sacred name of God, is given as ADONAI in this article.
The Genesis Context
The book of Genesis (and indeed the entire Bible) has a single theme that builds on the promise God made to Eve of a Seed who would bring redemption from the Serpent's evil (Gen 3:15). Walter Kaiser calls it the Promise-Plan of God (19). God's promise of the Messiah is the reason for His working His plan through the heroes of the Bible who would eventually bring forth Yeshua into the world as the Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Seed of David, none other than the Son of God and Son of Man. The promise given to the "fathers" and God's plan for fulfillment is mentioned many times in the Besekh (Luke 1:54-55, 68-73; Acts 7:2-3, 17; 13:22-23, 26, 32-33; 26:6-7; Rom 1:1-3; 4:1-13; 9:4, 8-9; 15:8-9; Gal 3:14-29; Eph 2:12; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:13-17; 11:39-40; 2Pet 3:3-9; Rev 12:1-2).
With the story of Abraham beginning in Genesis 12 we see some new developments in God carrying out His plan. The divine word of revelation in the primeval era did not diminish but increased in a more dramatic fashion in the patriarchal era (Kaiser 52). Abraham is qualified as a "prophet" (cf. Gen 20:7) because he actually saw and heard ADONAI (Gen 12:4, 7; 15:1; 17:1, 15; 18:1-3, 17-33; 21:2; 22:11, 15, 18; 24:7). Not only did Abraham receive God's word of revelation but also God's word of blessing and promise. Abraham was promised an heir to continue the Messianic line, an inheritance of real estate that would inure to his descendants through Isaac and Jacob and a heritage that would benefit the entire world.
A fascinating fact of Abraham's story is that the record of his life was preserved and passed on by his firstborn son Ishmael. When Moses wrote Genesis the bulk of his composition was derived from collecting actual written records of the past and bringing them together in final form as guided by the Holy Spirit. The written records are mentioned with the Hebrew word toledoth (SH-8435), which means "generations" and is used to indicate accounts of men and their descendants, or "records of the origins." Genesis contains eleven mentions of these records and who provided them (Gen 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; and 37:2). Beginning with 2:4 each record mention acts as a subscript, meaning that the record contains all the narrative from the previous record mention. Ishmael's record is Genesis 11:27b—25:12.
The story of Abraham contains the first mentions of important biblical words, many of which directly relate to the promise-plan: angel (16:7), believe (15:6), faith (15:6), fear not (15:1), fire (19:24), I AM (15:1), count (15:6); law (26:5), love (22:2), mercy (19:16), obey (22:18), peace (14:18), praise (12:15), pray (20:7), prophet (20:7), reward (15:1), righteousness (15:6), shield (15:1), tempt (22:1), tithe (14:20), truth (24:27), vision (15:1), will (24:5), word (15:1), and worship (18:2).
Abraham in the Tanakh
Abraham was the son of Terah, a descendant of Noah's son, Shem (Gen 11:27). At the beginning of his story he was known as Abram ("father is exalted," Gen 11:26). Abram is identified initially as a Hebrew (Gen 14:13), a name derived from Eber, a son of Shem (Gen 10:21:11:14, 16) and Abram's ancestor (Gen 11:26). "Hebrew" became the name by which the covenant people would be distinguished from the Egyptians and Philistines (Gen 39–Ex 10; 1Sam 4-29) (TWOT 2:643). Thus, Abram is designated as the one who would perpetuate the worship of the one true God and bring spiritual blessing to all mankind (cf. Gen 9:26-27).
Abram grew up in Ur of the Chaldeans, a prominent Sumerian city, and there was married to his wife Sarai. Then Terah, his father, moved the entire family to Haran (Gen 11:29-31) and after some years died there. God then called Abram to migrate to Canaan, assuring him that he would father a vast nation. Abram's life was essentially nomadic and at different times he lived in Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, and Beersheba. His travels also took him to Egypt (Gen 12:10) and later to Gerar in the Negev (Gen 20:1) where conflicts developed with the rulers involving his wife Sarah.
Four times God declared a covenant with Abraham. The first time was when God called Abram to leave Haran. God made three promises (Gen 12:2-3): (1) God would make Abram into a great nation; (2) God would bless those who blessed Abram and curse those who cursed him; and (3) in Abram all the families of the earth would be blessed. The second time God added two promises (Gen 13:14-17): (1) all the land that Abram could see in all four directions and that he could walk through would belong to him and his seed forever, i.e., the land of Canaan; and (2) Abram's "seed" (descendants) would be as numerous as the dust of the earth.
The third time God mentioned his covenant He addressed Abram's concern for an heir and made three promises plus added a prophecy of the future (Gen 15:1-21). God promised Abram (1) an heir from his body; (2) descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and (3) all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates, including the land of Canaan, for his descendants. See a graphic of the promised territory here. The prophecy was that Abram's descendants would be strangers in a foreign land [Egypt], where they would be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But God would judge that nation and bring Abram's people out with many possessions.
On this occasion God illustrated his promise of an heir by challenging Abram to count the stars and assured him that his "seed" would be just as numerous. Astronomers have estimated there are 1025 (10 million billion billion) stars in the universe. Other passages correlate the number of the children of Israel to the number of stars (Gen 26:4; Ex 32:13; Deut 1:10; 10:22; 28:62; 1Chron 27:23; Neh 9:23; Heb 11:12). The Genesis narrative engages in a kind of word play because Abram is challenged to "count" the stars (Gen 15:5; Heb. saphar, to count or measure, or to number, i.e., take account of, carefully observe and consider, BDB 707).
At the time the Torah was written the population of Israel ran into the millions, but these numbers were vastly more than the number of visible stars that may be seen without the aid of a telescope, about four thousand (BBMS 156). Whether Abram assumed that he would have descendants equivalent to the number of stars he could see in the nighttime sky is not stated. God may have meant that just as Abram did not have the ability to count the stars, he could not possibly comprehend the numbers of his descendants, both biologically and spiritually. All Abram wanted was a son, but God wanted him to see the big picture.
Future generations would spring from that one son, more offspring than Abram could imagine. Then Moses recounts that on the basis of this promise Abram "believed the LORD and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6 ESV). The translation of "believed in the LORD" found in many versions gives the impression he had never believed in the true God before this point. This verse is not describing a transition from atheism to monotheism. The verb "believed" is Heb. aman (Hiphil Perf.), which essentially means to confirm or support (BDB 52). In the Hiphil form aman means to stand firm or trust. The Perfect of aman indicates a complete condition, one that began in past time with continuing results to the present.
Abram had been trusting God ever since he left Haran in obedience to God's direction. As a result of this trust he was faithful to God. The Hebrew verb "counted" (chashab, Qal Impf.) means to think or to account. The verb is used in the sense of to think in a certain way, to estimate value or to calculate or compute something (BDB 362). The Qal is a simple action and the Imperfect points to action that has been going on but is not yet complete. As a word picture of arithmetic the counting had been going on coincidental with the trusting so that each time Abram trusted it was added to the sum total representing his righteous character.
The promise to Abram of an heir contains a word play on "seed," a singular noun, and a hint of the Seed of the Woman, the Messiah, which Paul mentions in Galatians 3:16. The heir is a Seed comparable to the stars of the heavens. The stars are symbolic of eternity and the majesty of God (cf. Ps 19:1; Jer 31:35-37; Dan 12:3). The number of stars is beyond the knowledge of man, therefore Abram's Seed will be greater than any man.
The fourth time God declared his covenant He reaffirmed His previous promise of land, but modified it as "the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession" (Gen 17:8 NASB). God also added expectations (Gen 17:1-22). The expectations were these: (1) walk in a blameless manner; (2) every male of the present and future generations would be circumcised; and (3) accept a name change for himself as Abraham and his wife as Sarah. God made the promise of an heir more specific by declaring that a son would be born of Sarah and he would be named Isaac. On this occasion God declared the covenant to be everlasting.
Marriages and Children
During his lifetime Abram had at least three wives, perhaps more. Sarai was the wife of his youth (cf. Mal 2:26) and she was with him when he left Ur of the Chaldeans. Sarai was barren for many years, and no doubt frustrated with her barrenness she finally decided to take some action. She gave her servant Hagar to Abram as a concubine-wife in order to gain a child. Hagar became pregnant soon thereafter and bore a son, Ishmael, when Abram was 86 years old. At the age of 90 Sarah finally became pregnant and delivered a son, Isaac.
Scripture does not record any other children born to these two wives, although daughters are possible since they are rarely mentioned by name in Scripture. After Abraham divorced Hagar (Gen 21:14) and Sarah died (Gen 23:1-2) he took another concubine-wife, Keturah, who bore him six sons (Gen 25:1-2). Before his death Abraham distributed portions of his wealth to the sons of his concubines (Gen 25:6), which probably included Hagar, and possibly other unnamed concubines.
Abraham died at the age of 175 and was buried with his wife Sarah in the cave of Machpelah in Ephron by his sons Isaac and Ishmael (Gen 25:7-10). Abraham is acknowledged in Scripture as both the biological father of the Israelites and Jews (Gen 25:19; 26:3; 1Chron 29:18; Isa 51:1-2) and a spiritual father to many of all nations (Gen 17:5). In the covenant of circumcision God called Abraham to be blameless (Gen 17:1), but the LXX of that verse precedes the command with the evaluation, "you are well-pleasing before me" (ABP). According to God's retrospective evaluation Abraham lived faithfully by His commandments (Gen 26:5; cf. Isa 51:1-2). God was never ashamed of Abraham and it is no wonder that He is known as the "God of Abraham" 20 times in Scripture.
Abraham faced many challenges and dilemmas in his life, some that would confound and overwhelm most men. When God gave him specific instructions Abraham obeyed. There is a common denominator in all of Abraham's decisions that affect others. He wanted and sought for shalom with God and with men. Shalom is a Hebrew concept that involves completeness, soundness, safety, security, health, prosperity, welfare, peace and tranquility, all at the same time. He went as far as he could to accommodate the desires of others in order to enjoy shalom. God affirms such when He confirmed his covenant with Abraham, "You shall go to your fathers in peace [shalom]. You will be buried at a good old age" (Gen 15:15). Abraham's desire for shalom may be seen in all his actions and decisions:
· Leaving Haran for Canaan at God's instruction. (Gen 12)
· Going to Egypt and there deceiving Pharaoh regarding his wife Sarah. (Gen 12)
· Allowing Lot to take the best land for his flocks. (Gen 13)
· Going to the rescue of Lot and refusing any reward for defeating a foreign army; instead tithing to Melchizedek. (Gen 14)
· Believing God upon the promise of a son of his body and then sacrificing animals at God's instruction to ratify the covenant between him and God. (Gen 15)
· Agreeing with Sarah to take Hagar as a concubine-wife and then allowing Sarah to treat Hagar harshly. (Gen 16)
· Accepting the covenant of circumcision by receiving circumcision himself, and then circumcising his son Ishmael and all the males in his household at the instruction of God. (Gen 17)
· Interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of Lot. (Gen 18)
· Dwelling in Gerar and deceiving King Abimelech regarding his wife Sarah. (Gen 20)
· Divorcing Hagar at the insistence of Sarah with God's consent. (Gen 21)
· Taking Isaac to Mt. Moriah in order to sacrifice his life in obedience to God's command. (Gen 22)
· Negotiating for a burial site with the sons of Heth where he buried his wife Sarah. (Gen 23)
· Sending his steward to Mesopotamia to obtain a bride for Isaac. (Gen 24)
· Transferring the substance of his wealth to Isaac and giving generous gifts to the sons of his concubines before his death. (Gen 25)
Abraham is often criticized by Bible interpreters because of assumed inconsistency, bad judgment or outright misconduct in regards to some of the above actions. Before commenting on specific accusations we need to be clear that no criticism can be found in Scripture of Abraham's actions. Unlike "blameless" Noah who became drunken on his wine (Gen 6:9; 9:21), Abraham never did anything that was later prohibited in Scripture.
Deception in Egypt
"Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to live as an outsider there, because the famine was severe in the land. 11 Just as he was about to enter Egypt he said to Sarai his wife, "Look, please, I know that you are an attractive woman. 12 So when the Egyptians see you they’ll say, ‘This is his wife.’ And they’ll kill me; but you, they’ll let live. 13 Please say that you are my sister, so that I’ll be treated well for your sake, and my life will be spared because of you." 14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians did see that the woman was very beautiful. 15 Indeed, Pharaoh’s officials saw her and they raved about her to Pharaoh. Then the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 But Abram was treated well for her sake, and he got sheep, cattle, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys and camels. 17 But ADONAI struck Pharaoh and his household with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, "What’s this that you did to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now, here is your wife. Take—and go!" 20 Then Pharaoh instructed men concerning him, and they expelled him, with his wife, and everything that belonged to him." (Gen 12:10-20)
A conundrum in this story of Abram is his asking Sarai to be silent about their marriage. In Egypt Abram was trying to preserve the shalom of his home and his relations with Pharaoh, whom he knew to have an acquisitive nature when it came to beautiful women. Apparently pagan monarchs wouldn't hesitate to kill a man with a beautiful wife and take her into his harem. Abram did not ask Sarai to tell an outright lie, since Sarai was actually Abram's sister (Gen 20:2). Sarai loved her husband and obeyed without demur. When her welfare was jeopardized God protected her. God did not fault Abram for his decision, but instead judged Pharaoh with plagues for taking Sarai.
Relevant to Abram's decision is that biblical heroes held an ethical principle that permitted lying to an enemy of God's people. Rahab lied to protect the Israelite spies and later was rewarded by marriage into the community of faith. The Hebrew midwives lied to protect innocent lives from Pharaoh. (See my web article Is Lying Always a Sin?) In reality Sarai's relationship to Abram was none of Pharaoh's business. He was an evil dictator who got what he deserved and Abram left Egypt a wealthier man.
Marriage to Hagar
"Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not borne him children. But she had an Egyptian slave-girl—her name was Hagar. 2 So Sarai said to Abram, "Look now, ADONAI has prevented me from having children. Go, please, to my slave-girl. Perhaps I’ll get a son by her." Abram listened to Sarai’s voice. 3 So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her slave-girl Hagar the Egyptian—after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan—and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife." (Gen 16:1-3)
By the time Sarai had reached the age of 75 she had become sick and tired of her barrenness. Even with regular sexual congress with her husband God had prevented her getting pregnant, even though God had promised Abram that he would have descendants (Gen 13:14-16; 15:5, 12, 18). The solution, commonly accepted in ancient times, was to ask her husband to take her servant Hagar as a concubine-wife to have a child. In that circumstance the child would legally belong to Sarai.
Most Christian interpreters classify polygamy as either a form of immorality at worst or a dispensational condition that ended with the New Covenant. Biblical characters that engaged in polygamy are typically cast in a bad light and we must not be like them. The main problem for this viewpoint is that nowhere in Scripture is the practice of polygamy classified as sinful, prohibited or even criticized (cf. Rom 4:15; 5:13). It is never included in the definition of adultery, prostitution or incest. The spiritual and salvation implications for Abraham and his blood descendants would be very grave if polygamy were to be defined as immoral and wicked (cf. Deut 23:2; John 8:41). In reality, all of the biblical marriage values and ideals can apply to polygamy as well as to monogamy.
Concubinage and plural marriage were universally practiced in all ancient societies. The Bible records at least forty men by name with multiple wives, including four Gentile kings. At least half the men had more than two wives. The earliest recorded plural marriage was Lamech (two wives, Gen 4:19), six generations after Adam. Even though Lamech is the only polygamist identified before the global flood, there is no reason to believe that he was alone in that status. Abram's father and grandfather continued the plural marriage tradition: Terah (Gen 11:26; 20:12) and Nahor (Gen 22:20-24).
In short, God has never permitted something He deemed immoral. If God had wanted only monogamy just one "thou shalt not" would have taken care of the matter. When God permits something or allows something He is still making a choice. When God is morally outraged He does not keep it to Himself. There are things God hates that are clearly identified in Scripture, but polygamy is not one of them. Since the Bible is the final arbiter of faith and practice, then the ethics of polygamy is settled. (Whether it is advisable or practical is a separate issue.) For a thorough analysis of the practice of polygamy in ancient times see my web article Polygamy. In the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, there are certain facts that should be considered.
First, God is the author of life. If God was so opposed to Hagar becoming Abraham's concubine, then why did He keep Sarah barren for over 60 years but gave Hagar a baby soon after she and Abraham began having relations? Second, after Hagar quickly conceived relations between her and Sarah soured due to Hagar gloating over her fertility. With Abraham's permission Sarah began to treat her rival in a harsh manner. Hagar was not one to tolerate such abuse so she ran away (Gen 16:6). However, the Angel of ADONAI, likely the pre-incarnate Son of God, found her and told her to go back to her marriage and submit to Sarah (Gen 16:9). Hagar was also promised many descendants. If God was so opposed to the marriage why would Yeshua tell Hagar to go back to her husband?
Third, Abraham was delighted in his firstborn son, Ishmael. When promised a son through Sarah he pleaded that God might bless Ishmael and God agreed. Ishmael would father twelve princes and become a great nation (Gen 17:20). The twelve princes are later listed by name (Gen 25:12-16) and descendants of Ishmael are mentioned several times in the Tanakh (Gen 37:25, 27-28; 39:1; Jdg 8:24; 1Chron 2:17; 27:30; Ps 83:6). So, when God enacted the covenant of circumcision with Abraham he circumcised 13-year old Ishmael along with all the males of his household (Gen 17:23-25). All of this occurred before Isaac was even born.
Fourth, the birth of Ishmael was part of God's sovereign plan. Note what God said before Isaac's birth: "I have made myself known to him [Abraham] so that he will command his sons and his household after him to keep the way of ADONAI by doing righteousness and justice, so that ADONAI may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him" (Gen 18:19). Considering Abraham's love for Ishmael he probably carried out God's instruction. Perhaps it was because of his father's influence and continuing relationship that Ishmael preserved the story of his father.
Intercession for Lot
"Abraham drew near and said, 'Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from You to do such a thing—to cause the righteous to die with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked share the same fate! Far be it from You! Shall the Judge of the whole world not exercise justice?" (Gen 18:12-25)
Sometime after the covenant of circumcision was enacted ADONAI (the pre-incarnate Son of God) and two angels paid a visit to Abraham. All three guests appeared as humans whose feet needed washing and who then ate and drank with Abraham. After the fellowship meal of bread, curds, milk and calf-meat, ADONAI revealed that Sarah would become pregnant and deliver a son the following year (which she found hilarious) and then spoke of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their degenerate immorality. Abraham took the news about Sarah in stride but was deeply shocked over what God intended to do to the cities where his nephew Lot lived.
The idea that good, righteous people should suffer along with the wicked was incomprehensible. It's a moral dilemma that still troubles God's people. Abraham did the unthinkable. He began to negotiate with ADONAI, beginning with 50 and then reducing the number to 40, then 30, then 20 and finally 10. He actually succeeded in gaining an agreement that ADONAI would spare the cities for ten righteous people. Abraham's intercession presents some important principles for consideration. First, he actually prayed for mercy on wicked cities. Granted, his concern was for Lot and his family, but he could have prayed for God just to spare Lot. He could have said, "How about sending your angels to bring out Lot and his family and then you can destroy those rotten sinners." Abraham desired shalom for Lot and for the cities.
Second, Abraham knew that God cared about him and his family. He knew that his prayers mattered to God and so he could afford to be bold. ADONAI could have said, "This is not a matter open to negotiation." The fact that ADONAI knew there were not ten righteous people in the doomed cities is irrelevant. ADONAI's willingness to hear Abraham is a tacit encouragement for all of God's servants to be bold in prayer and not be afraid to ask for big things, impossible things.
Third, ADONAI is more concerned about justice than we are. People want fairness, by which they really mean to obtain whatever they want (often regardless of what Scripture might say). Justice in biblical terms must preserve the reputation of God's name, the character of His holiness and the standards of His commandments. While God has a passionate desire to seek and save the lost, He is also an awesome holy God who will not tolerate sin. God warned mankind from the beginning that the wages of sin is death. Justice sometimes requires divine judgment. Indeed, the return of Abraham's descendants to Canaan would be postponed to allow the indigenous tribes to repent (cf. Gen 15:16), but knowing the wicked Canaanites would not change, Abraham's descendants would become God's means of judgment.
Deception in Gerar
"Then Abraham journeyed from there to the land of the Negev and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he was dwelling as an outsider in Gerar, 2 Abraham said of Sarah his wife, "She is my sister." So King Abimelech of Gerar sent for and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream at night and said to him, "Behold, you are as good as dead, because of the woman whom you have taken—since she is a married woman." 4 Now Abimelech had not come near her. So he said, "My Lord, will You slay a nation, even though innocent? 5 Didn’t he say to me, ‘She’s my sister’? And she herself even said, ‘He’s my brother.’ I did this with integrity of my heart and guiltlessness of my hands." 6 Then God said to him in a dream, "Yes, I myself knew that you did this with integrity of your heart, so I, yes I Myself prevented you from sinning against Me. That is why I did not allow you to touch her. 7 So now, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet. And let him pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, know that you will surely die—you and all who are yours." (Gen 20:1-7)
Abraham's sojourn in Gerar resulted in a similar situation as in Egypt. King Abimelech is an example of absolute power corrupting absolutely. As in Egypt Abraham sought to protect himself and his wife. Unfortunately, King Abimelech deemed that he had the right to take any woman he wanted and he violated a sacred custom of marriage, the right of the bride's choice (cf. Gen 24:57-58). He simply took Sarah against her will, a kidnapping in reality. God's judgment was swift and He threatened Abimelech with death. Moreover God imposed barrenness on all the women in Abimelech's harem (20:18). Abimelech protested his innocence on the basis of his "integrity," that is, he had not broken any laws. God did acknowledge that his sin was "unintentional," but that agreement did not remove the judgment on Abimelech's household. The remedy would only come through Abraham.
God informed Abimelech that Abraham was a prophet (Heb. nabi, Gen 20:7). This is the first mention of a prophet in Scripture. Nabi is the most frequent word used for "prophet" in the Tanakh and refers to one who spoke for God. Abimelech summoned Abraham and proceeded to blame him for sinning against Sarah. Abraham told the truth. He knew there was no "fear of God" in Gerar and Sarah was in fact his sister. Abraham had determined his plan on how to deal with pagans when he left Haran. So he had routinely told people in the land that Sarah was his sister. On just two occasions did it become a problem. Abimelech immediately changed his tone and became conciliatory. In the end Abraham interceded for Abimelech's household and God restored fertility to his women (Gen 20:17). Abraham left the territory an even more wealthy man.
The fact that God answered prayer for fertility in Gerar adds emphasis to the fact that Sarah's barrenness was divinely imposed. There can be no doubt that Abraham must have prayed many times for Sarah to become pregnant just as Isaac would do for Rebekah for over twenty years before she became pregnant (Gen 25:20-21, 26). The lesson from the life of Abraham is to pray and keep on praying for the things that matter.
Divorce of Hagar
"The child grew and was weaned—Abraham made a big feast on the day Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian whom she had born to Abraham—making fun. 10 So she said to Abraham, "Drive out this female slave and her son, for the son of this female slave will not be an heir with my son—with Isaac." 11 Now the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s eyes on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, "Do not be displeased about the boy and your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice. For through Isaac shall your seed be called. 13 Yet I will also make the son of the slave woman into a nation, because he is your seed." 14 So Abraham got up early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away. She went and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba." (Gen 21:8-14)
The first recorded divorce in history was committed by Abraham against Hagar. The divorce came about because of Ishmael mocking and laughing at his half-brother Isaac, who would have been a very young child at the time. If Hagar has corrected her son there would have been no problem. Her failure to act caused Sarah to demand that Abraham drive out (Heb. garash, "cast out") Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 21:10). Abraham was distressed over Sarah's demand, so he went to God, demonstrating the principle of "pray first." God ordered Abraham to grant Sarah's wish, and so he sent (Heb. shalach) Hagar and Ishmael away with some provisions (Gen 21:14). (NOTE: Both the verbs shalach and garash are used in the Tanakh for divorce.)
However, "bread and water" seem a most stingy settlement considering Abraham's great wealth and the normal rights of a firstborn son. We should not infer that Abraham's decision in this instance reflected God's will. In fact, God would later instruct Israel that the inheritance rights of the firstborn of the family must be honored regardless of which wife delivered the firstborn (Deut 21:15-17). It may well be that conviction of the Holy Spirit led to Abraham's later distribution of his wealth to the sons of his concubines (Gen 25:5-6), which no doubt included Ishmael. The same equality was followed by Jacob, whose sons by his concubines Bilhah and Zilpah shared equally with his sons of Leah and Rachel.
The divorce of Hagar presents an issue for the theology of divorce that developed within Christianity. Hagar had not committed adultery, which many believe to be the only acceptable grounds for divorce (cf. Matt 19:9). The marriage had not been unlawful, which was used as the ground for the divorces ordered by Ezra two millennia later (Ezra 10:3). The precedent established by Abraham clearly shows that while divorce is not preferred, it is acceptable when a spouse rebels against the covenant with God, similar to Paul's ruling on unequally yoked marriages (1Cor 7:12-15). (For more discussion on this subject see my web article Divorce in the Bible.)
Sacrifice at Mt. Moriah
"Now it was after these things that God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham." "Hineni," he said. 2 Then He said, "Take your son, your only son whom you love —Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains about which I will tell you." (Gen 22:1-2)
In the story of Abraham no event is more puzzling than the instruction of God for Abraham to present his son Isaac as a burnt offering. The sacrifice of a burnt offering typically involved the total destruction of an animal by fire, the first time done by Noah (Gen 8:20). Offering sacrifices was generally a priestly role and a burnt offering signified total consecration and devotion to God. The divine instruction in this instance was a test of Abraham's faithfulness. God clearly had a larger purpose that He hid from Abraham. Moriah is very significant since it is one of seven mountains on which Jerusalem would later be built and would be the specific site of Solomon's temple (2Chron 3:1).
Yet, not knowing the "why" Abraham obeyed, making the necessary preparations and then traveling about 45 miles from his home in Beersheba with hope of a good outcome. Upon arrival at Moriah Abraham told his servants, "Sit yourselves down here with the donkey. As for me and the young man, we’ll go over there, worship and return to you" (Gen 22:5). "Young man" renders a Hebrew word that has a range of usage from lad, youth or young man. He was old enough to carry wood on his shoulders (22:6). Jewish sources are divided over the age of Isaac at this point, ranging from five to thirty-six (Gill). Isaac as an adolescent would seem to fit the scenario best.
Abraham clearly expected to bring Isaac back alive. Isaac demonstrated implicit trust in his father and cooperated with being bound to an altar. Just as Abraham was about to kill Isaac (22:10) God reversed the order and a ram was substituted for Isaac. In celebration Abraham gave a new name to the place, ADONAI-Yireh or "ADONAI will provide" (Gen 22:14). As the story plays out it becomes clear that God's original intention was not for Abraham to actually kill his son as translations of 22:2 imply. The Hebrew verb translated "offer him" literally means "to go up, ascend, or climb."
God's instruction could be interpreted as "Take your son Isaac, go to Moriah and ascend the mountain for a burnt offering." Moreover, when Isaac questioned his father, Abraham said, "God will provide" (22:8). Rashi, the Medieval Jewish commentator, argues "He did not say to him, 'Slaughter him,' because the Holy One, blessed be He, did not wish him to slaughter him but to bring him up to the mountain, to prepare him for a burnt offering, and as soon as he brought him up [to the mountain], He said to him, 'Take him down.'"
In response to such radical obedience and completion of the intended sacrifice the Angel of ADONAI (pre-incarnate Son of God) called to Abraham from heaven and made three special promises (Gen 22:16-18). First, Abraham's "seed" (descendants) will be as numerous as the stars of heaven, and the sand on the seashore. Second, Abraham's "Seed" (Messiah) will possess the gates of his enemies (cf. Matt 16:18). Third, in Abraham's "Seed" (Messiah) the nations of the earth will be blessed. These promises were given because Abraham obeyed the voice of ADONAI.
As for the analogy of fruitfulness Scripture points out the obvious that the number of the sands of the seashore cannot be counted (Gen 32:12; Jer 33:22). The promise to Abraham implies a correlation between the number of the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore. Abraham's legacy would far exceed his expectations. With the successful outcome of the trip to Moriah Abraham returned to Beersheba. Sometime later he was informed of the thirteen sons born to his brother Nahor of his wife and concubine (22:20-22). Blessings upon blessings.
Abraham in the Besekh
The person of Abraham appears in 65 verses of the Besekh and mentioned by eight different personalities: Miriam (mother of Yeshua), Zechariah, Yochanan the Immerser, Yeshua, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and Jacob ("James"). As in the Tanakh Abraham is preeminently the father of the Jewish people (Matt 3:9; Luke 1:55, 73; John 8:33, 37; Acts 7:8; 13:26; Rom 4:1). There is significant spiritual meaning attached to the name of Abraham.
Yeshua on Abraham
Yeshua refers to Abraham as an individual a number of times (Matt 8:11; 22:32; Luke 13:16, 28; 16:22-25, 29-30; 19:9; John 8:33, 37, 39-40, 53, 56, 58). In the Synoptic Narratives there are some special statements. First, Yeshua's disciples will recline at table with Abraham in the future Kingdom (Matt 8:11). Second, Yeshua calls the woman who suffered an affliction caused by Satan a "daughter of Abraham" (Luke 13:16). This accolade was probably due to the fact that even though she suffered for eighteen years she remained faithful to God in Sabbath observance and synagogue attendance.
Third, Yeshua called Zacchaeus a "son of Abraham" (Luke 19:9), probably because he was generous to the poor and welcomed the Messiah. Contrary to common interpretation Zacchaeus was not a repentant sinner. (See my web article The Defamation Against Zacchaeus.) Fourth, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the blessing of heaven is described as the "bosom of Abraham" (Luke 16:23). Fifth, consistent with the previous parable in which Abraham answers the rich man from heaven, Yeshua reminds the Sadducees that Abraham was still alive, which demonstrates the truth of life after death (Luke 20:37).
In the book of John the name of Abraham appears only in chapter eight. To those who claimed to be the "seed of Abraham" Yeshua challenged to produce the works of Abraham (John 8:39). These works no doubt included actions described in the above section "Abraham's Actions," particularly those occasions when Abraham obeyed specific instructions from God, as well as when he voluntarily performed righteous acts. In addition, Yeshua declared that Abraham rejoiced at the revelation of the coming Messiah (John 8:56) and shocked his audience by claiming that he was greater than Abraham (John 8:58).
Peter on Abraham
Peter mentions Abraham by name on only two occasions, first in a sermon at the temple not long after Pentecost. Peter identified God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Acts 3:13) and this God has raised Yeshua from the dead. Then he asserted that all of God’s promises of blessing and life have their origin in Abraham and that Yeshua is the promised Seed of Abraham (Acts 3:25). Many years later in his first letter to Messianic believers in the Diaspora he held up the submission of Sarah to Abraham as an example to be followed (1Pet 3:6). Peter points out that Sarah called Abraham adōn, meaning master, owner, or lord (cf. Gen 18:12; 1Sam 25:41; Ps 45:11). The godly women of the Bible could submit to their husbands because they trusted in God.
Abraham is also the unstated model for Peter's counsel to husbands to live with their wives "in an understanding way ... honor them as equal heirs of the grace of life. In this way, your prayers will not be hindered" (1Pet 3:7). Just as Abraham was an intercessor for his family so husbands should be faithful in prayer. In his second letter Peter alludes to Abraham as do other biblical writers by the term "fathers," and answers critics of the belief in the Second Coming of the Messiah (2Pet 3:3-9). Peter affirmed that the promise of God would not fail.
Paul on Abraham
The apostle Paul mentions the name of Abraham as an individual more than anyone else in the Besekh and spoke on the themes of the Seed of Abraham and the faithfulness of Abraham. (Acts 13:26; Rom 4:1-9, 12-13, 16; 9:7; 11:1; 2Cor 11:22; Gal 3:6-9, 14, 16, 18, 29; Heb 2:6; 6:13; 7:1-2, 4-6, 9; 11:8, 17).
For Paul the great patriarch represented the great promise-plan of God and he communicated this truth first to Jewish audiences. Paul’s sermon to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch during his first missionary journey (Acts 13:16-41) declared the fulfillment of the promised Seed for the people of Abraham as demonstrated by the resurrection of Yeshua from the dead. Then in his sermon before the Jewish King Agrippa, Paul again spoke of the fulfilled promise, "Yet now I stand here being judged for the hope in the promise made by God to our fathers. 7 It is the promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day" (Acts 26:6-7).
Paul quoted the affirmation in Genesis 15:6 concerning Abraham, that his faith in God was counted to him as righteousness, three times in Romans (4:3, 9, 22) and once in Galatians (3:6). When Paul spoke of the faith of Abraham he really meant the faithfulness or fidelity of Abraham. Biblical faith (Heb. emunah; Grk. pistis) incorporates two vital elements at the same time, confidence and constancy, or trust and faithfulness. The lexicons emphasize these two inherent characteristics, but they are generally overlooked in Bible translations and interpretation. All of Abraham's works demonstrated his faithfulness to God.
When Paul quoted Genesis 15:6 he was not attempting to make "faith" and "law" or "faith" and "works" antithetical concepts. David Stern conveys the accurate meaning with this translation, "It was the same with Avraham: He trusted in God and was faithful to him, and that was credited to his account as righteousness" (Gal 3:6 CJB). Only those who are faithful in the same manner as Abraham can be called "sons of Abraham" (Gal 3:7, 29). He explained further in Romans,
"And he [Abraham] is the father to those of the circumcision, not only of the circumcision, but also to those walking in the steps of the trusting-faithfulness of our father Abraham when he was in uncircumcision. 13 For not through legalism was the promise to Abraham or to his seed, that he should be heir of the world, but through a righteousness of trusting-faithfulness." (Rom 4:12-13 Mine)
When Paul said that Abraham was not made righteous by "law" or "works," he meant legalistic works or man-made traditions. He did not mean commandments given by God to Israel through Moses. As Paul said to the congregation in Corinth, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God" (1Cor 7:19 NASB). Abraham could not have been made righteous by legalistic works because they did not exist in his day. Those saved from God's wrath by grace (Eph 2:8) must produce works of righteousness (Eph 2:10). In this way the blessing of Abraham will accrue to the follower of Yeshua (Gal 3:9).
Paul goes on in Galatians 3 to declare that the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 15:4-5 points to the Messiah. "Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. It doesn’t say, "and to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "and to your seed," who is the Messiah" (Gal 3:16). Then in Galatians 3:17 Paul mentions the prophecy of the future of Abraham's descendants following the promise (Gen 15:13), and that period would take history up to the point of Israel receiving God's commandments at Sinai. The giving of the Torah to Abraham's descendants was intended to serve as a tutor to bring them to the Messiah that they might be made righteous by the same faithfulness as Abraham (Gal 3:24).
Paul also mentions Abraham's first two wives, Hagar in Galatians 4:24-25, and Sarah in Romans 4:19; and 9:9. These two women serve as symbols of the Old Covenant (Hagar) and New Covenant (Sarah). Hagar also represented Mount Sinai where the Torah was given, but more particularly Jerusalem of Paul's day by which he meant the transformation of Torah into an oppressive and legalistic system. Those of Sarah receive the promise of God, have a right to the Jerusalem above, our true home, and are free of legalistic constraints. When Paul quotes Sarah's words "cast out the servant woman" (Gal 3:30; Gen 21:10), he meant to cast out legalism as a basis for relationship with God, radical words for a transformed Pharisee (cf. Col 2:16).
Paul mentions that in spite of the "deadness" of Sarah's womb Abraham kept faith in the promise (Rom 4:19). His mention in the same verse that Abraham at age 100 was "as good as dead" (which he also says in Heb 11:12) does not reflect his virility as commonly thought, but rather a rabbinic saying "at a hundred, one is as one that is dead, having passed and ceased from the world" (Avot 5:21). The various ages described in Avot have to do with physical ability for manual labor or pursuing a vocation. Abraham's virility is demonstrated by his fathering Ishmael and later his six sons by Keturah. Paul again mentions the promise in connection with Sarah, "It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God; rather, the children of the promise are counted as seed. For the word of promise is this: 'At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son'" (Rom 9:8-9).
In his letter to Messianic Jews Paul makes several historical references to the life of Abraham. In 2:16 Paul identifies Yeshua as the "Seed of Abraham" and goes on to say that Yeshua had to be made like his brethren so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest and make a permanent atonement for the sins of the people. In 6:13 Abraham is mentioned in connection with God swearing to bless and multiply Abraham. As a result Abraham waited patiently and received the promise, which represents the unchangeable purpose of God to bring the high priest Messiah.
In 7:1-10 Paul repeats the meeting of Abraham with Melchizedek who is a type of the Son of God. Paul notes that the greatness of Melchizedek is illustrated by the fact that Abraham gave him tithes of his spoils from war. The only one greater than Abraham of his generation was the priest-king of Salem. The action of Abraham provides for the later legislation for the sons of Levi to collect tithes from the people. This means that the biblical obligation of tithing devolves from Abraham and not Moses, which explains Yeshua's insistence of tithing as an obligation, though of lesser importance to other virtues (Matt 23:23).
In Hebrews 11 Paul illustrates the trusting-faithfulness of many great Bible heroes. In this hall of fame Abraham has a special place and more verses are devoted to him than any other person. Abraham demonstrated trusting-faithfulness in specific ways (verses 8-19). First, when he was called to leave Haran, he obeyed even though he was going to a place he had never been before. Second, Abraham lived as an alien in the land of promise as God directed, in hope of seeing a permanent place built by God. Third, he believed God's promise of descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore. Fourth, Abraham's trust in God affected Sarah so that she too considered that God would be faithful to His promise. Finally, Abraham demonstrated his trust when tested by preparing his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Paul interpreted Abraham's obedience as a belief that God would raise Isaac from the dead (Heb 11:19).
Jacob on Abraham
Abraham's name appears twice in the letter from Yeshua's half-brother Jacob (aka "James") to Messianic Jews in the Diaspora.
"Was not Abraham our father proved righteous by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that trust was working with his works, and by his works his trust was perfected. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness;' and he was called the friend of God." (Jas 2:21-23 Mine)
Christian theologians have historically tried to create a rift between Jacob and Paul. Jacob is supposedly an advocate of salvation by works and Paul the advocate of salvation by grace. Yet both apostles quote Genesis 15:6 to make their respective theological points. Jacob is simply arguing that works of righteousness, not legalistic works, are necessary to demonstrate genuine trust in and faithfulness to the Messiah. Abraham serves as Exhibit A for Jacob's argument. In other words, Abraham put feet to his faith, thereby demonstrating his trusting-faithfulness.
Perhaps most significant is Jacob's quotation of Isaiah 41:8 that Abraham was a friend of God. Although Jacob does not reverse the proposition it's fair to say from the record of Abraham's life that God was a friend of Abraham. Being a friend of God meant that Abraham was on God's side in all matters. Perhaps Jacob had in mind Solomon's proverb that a "friend loves at all times" (Prov 17:17). Abraham didn't just love God when things went well, but when things were difficult. Being a friend of God meant that Abraham listened to God's counsel (Prov 27:9) and enjoyed shalom with God.
The story of Abraham is an inspiration to all disciples of Yeshua. He was a prophet, a priest, an intercessor, a teacher and a peacemaker. He was a godly and righteous man. His life and example challenges us to believe for great things from God and to perform daring deeds for God, knowing that God's purposes will be fulfilled in and through us.
ABP: The Apostolic Bible Polyglot. Ed. Charles Van der Pool. Apostolic Press, 2006. An interlinear of the Septuagint with English translation. Online.
BBMS: Henry Morris, The Biblical Basis for Modern Science. Baker Book House, 1984.
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
CJB: Complete Jewish Bible. Trans. David H. Stern. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1998.
Gill: John Gill (1697-1771), Exposition of the Entire Bible. Online.
Kaiser: Walter C. Kaiser, The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Zondervan, 2008.
Morris: Henry Morris, The Genesis Record. Baker Book House, 1976.
Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Iitzhaki (1040-1105), Commentary on the Tanakh. Online.
SH: Reference to a Hebrew word in James Strong (1822-1894), Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (1890). Print versions available from various publishers. Online.
TWOT: Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, ed. 2 vols. Moody Bible Institute, 1980.
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