The Life of Abraham, Part 1: The Call
We begin today with the study of Abraham who is one of the most important persons who ever lived. He is revered by Islam, Judaism, and Christianity alike. The call of Abraham marks a huge development in God’s plan of redemption of the earth from the curse which resulted from the fall of Adam and Eve,
The book of Genesis shows five blessings which God gave to the human race. He breathed life into them, a life which was made in the image of God. He gave Adam dominion over creation. He gave Adam and Eve land, a garden. He gave them fellowship with Him as well as human companionship. Finally, he gave them the means to create children to fill the land he had given them.. All of these were affected by the fall. But God chose to redeem rather than destroy. He gave Eve a promise of a special child who would come in Genesis 3:15. After this, Adam and Eve were cast from the land. They lost control over the earth in that briers, thorns, and hard work would be necessary. Life would be limited by death, God would not walk with them like before in the cool of the day, and human companionship would be marked by strife. Finally, the offspring would be under threat from harm. This threat would come from within, such as the murder of Abel by Cain, and from wild beasts and by storms and other phenomena.
The whole of the Bible can be seen as God working to redeem man from this fivefold curse to the fivefold blessing. This work as we shall see is demonstrated in the life of Abraham. The promises given to Abraham involve the next unfolding of God’s great plan.
We might ask: “Why did God choose Abraham? Did he have more insight to the ways of God than his peers? Was he chosen because Abraham was a good man? Or did God choose Him because He knew in advance that Abraham would obey. Let us see.
Joshua 24:2 gives us an important clue to the “before” picture of Abraham. Joshua who was near death reminded Israel that Abraham and his ancestors worshiped other gods. This means that Abraham was an idolater when the LORD called him. Joshua emphasizes the mercy of God to Abraham as the reason Abraham was chosen. So God’s call was not a reward for Abraham’s good works. Instead, the call given to Abraham was solely by God’s unmerited favor which we call grace. All of God’s works proceed from grace. One can even say that even the fivefold blessing given to Adam and Eve was an act of grace. After all, they hadn’t done anything to deserve these as they did not even exist at this point to deserve either good or ill. They are also by grace because God foreknew that Adam and Eve would disobey.
The first mention of Abraham occurs in Genesis 11:26 when we are introduced to him by his original name of Abram which means “Father of the High Place” or perhaps “Exalted Father.” This means that he was a man of prominence in the city of Ur of the Caldees. Ur was near Babylon and is located in what is today called “Iraq”. It was a very advanced city for its time and gained great wealth through trade. The civilization there rivaled that of Egypt. There were magnificent pagan temples there, and some think that Abram was a priest of the moon goddess there, although we have no proof of this.
We also know that Abram married his half-sister Sarai who would later be called Sarah. It mentions in 11:30 that Sarai was barren and had no child. This is the first mention of a threat to Abraham’s posterity. He had no child. In verse 31, it says that Abram’s father for some reason left this magnificent city to a border town named Haran and took his family with him. Abram’s brother had died and left a son named Lot in his father’s and later Abram’s care. Lot would become Abram’s heir if He and Sarai continued childless. While Abram’s father lived at the border of Canaan in the town of Haran, he died, leaving Abram as head of the clan.
Exposition of the Text
Chapter 12 represents a sea change in Abram, Sarai, and Lot’s lives as well as for the entire human race. The voice of the LORD had been silent for a long time. The human race after Noah had forgotten the LORD and were worshiping other gods. No one was expecting what happened next, most of all Abram and Sarai. The LORD came to Abram and called him to leave the land of Haran and to go to another land which He would show him. Here there is the promise given to Abram of a restored land and dominion over it. The promise came with few specifics. What kind of land was it? Where? Abram was summoned to follow the LORD on faith. If as I suspect Abram did not know the LORD or His voice prior to this point, this would have been quite a shock to Abram. He would gain title from a strange to a land he had not seen before and would have dominion and influence over the people there, wherever there was.
Some have speculated what Sarai might have said to Abram when he said to pack their bags. Perhaps she might have thought at first that they would be returning to Ur and civilization. Did they know that they would spend the rest of their lives as wanderers without any fixed citizenship? As Abram was now head of the clan, she had to submit to his authority as did Lot. So this special family of Abram, Sarai, and their adopted son, Lot with all their servants left for this mysterious land.
In verse six, the wanderings of Abraham came to a temporary pause near a place called Beth-El which means the “house of God”. The text mentions that the Canaanite was in the land which means that the land belonged to them. This would be a threat to the fulfilment of God’s promise of the land as it was in the possession of another. There the LORD appears to Abram once more and broadens the promise. He specifies that this was the land he promised Abraham. But He does not promise this to Abram directly. Instead it would become the possession of his “seed” after Him. In fact, the only part of this land he would ever own was the family burial plot in Hebron.
We also see another escalation of God’s promise to Abram in the mention of his seed. Abram and Sarai were barren. Would Lot become the heir to the land? This is the only “seed” that Abram and Sarai knew. Again, we would love to have been party to the dinner conversation that night. Here they were. It was their land and yet it wasn’t. Because the best land was occupied by the Canaanite merchants and farmers, Abram and Sarai would have to make a living as nomads raising sheep and cattle at the edge of the desert. What would you think if in response to your boss that you went out to some “great opportunity” with the expectation of promotion and saw this instead? Abram and Sarai were human. Did they feel a sense of letdown? Had they made a mistake? Did the LORD really call them? Who was this LORD anyway?
We know from Abram and Sarai’s later actions that they had difficulties with God’s promises in the face of challenging circumstances. In this way, they were no different than us. We like to see the Old Testament saints as great heroes of the faith, but the bible emphasizes that they were human, just like us. James in his epistle reminds us that even the great Elijah who called fire down from heaven was a man of like passions. And we see this in 1 Kings that after the great Mt. Carmel experience that he retires in despair of his life running from Jezebel. Yet God’s grace shone brightly in the lives of Abraham, Sarah, David, Elijah, and others. In spite of our weaknesses, God’s grace can shine through us as well.
At first, Abram did not seem to take the news as a disappointment. He pitched his tent. He understood that his family would be wanderers. He built an altar to the LORD and called upon His name. From there, he drifted farther south to a place we know today as the Negev which was dry, barren wilderness. This land was a difficult place to eke out a living as a shepherd even in good times. Those green pastures of the shepherd we imagine when we hear the 23rd Psalm are vastly different than the reality that Palestinian shepherds face in the twisted, torturous land they had to raise sheep. The green pastures were occasional shoots caused by infrequent rain. Flash floods were a concern there as well as finding water for the livestock. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, Abram and Sarai came to a land which on the surface suffered double from the curse of the land pronounced by God on the earth, a land of briers and thorns and hard labor.
So we leave off here today with Abram and Sarai trying to make the best of a situation which did not seem all that promising. But perhaps by their hard work, they could make something of it. They had received a promise of land which wasn’t all that promising. They had a promise of influence and dominion, but their lack of influence in the land relegated them to have influence over jackals, hyenas, and other wild animals in the wilderness. They had been promised an heir, but the only option at this point was their nephew, someone who we shall later see would be a poor choice of an heir. How long will they be able to keep up a brave front?
Today, we are surrounded by a name it and claim it theology. This so-called gospel promises your best life now. The proponents of this gospel go about saying that Jesus has already redeemed us fully from the curse. Therefore, we are to experience the fivefold blessing of life, fellowship with God and man”, land and possessions, influence, and children. If your life does not measure up to these standards, it is because you lack faith in God’s promises. The answer to receiving these blessings is to work up faith in the middle of your briar patch. The emphasis is on what you need to do.
However, I would like to ask: Were Abram and Sarai stuck out in the middle of the wilderness because they were out of the will of God, because they lacked faith? The Bible seems to indicate that they were right where God needed them at this time. In fact, the real troubles in the life of Abram and Sarai seemed to occur when they took matters into their own hands. Things might not seem so rosy for you right now and you may be mightily shaken in your situation. But does this mean that God is punishing you for your lack of faith? We should not come to any hasty conclusions based upon out standing in life whether good or ill. It just may be that you are exactly where the LORD wants you right now.
The life of faith is one where God leads you into the promises of a restored creation and blessing. But we must see these promises at a distance. Meanwhile, we must persevere in this land as pilgrims and strangers. We may never receive these promises in this life. Like so many other pilgrims have had to strike their earthly tabernacle here and be planted in the ground which is their only and last possession in this life. But those who have trusted in the Lord Jesus know that the full promise will someday be theirs. This causes us to look forward to that city.