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Genesis 12:17; 15:58, 1317 comment (0)

June 6, 2013

By Jeffery M. Leonard

Related Scripture: Genesis 12:17; 15:58, 1317

Bible Studies for Life 
Assistant Professor of Religion, Samford University

God Chooses a People

Genesis 12:1–7; 15:5–8, 13–17

A Plan of Blessing (12:1–3)
The first 11 chapters of Genesis stand as one of the most depressing sections in all of Scripture. Banished from the garden, devastated by the flood, scattered after Babel, humanity in these chapters seems bent on rebellion and God seems equally determined to check that rebellion. Surely there must be more to God’s plan for humanity than this dismal cycle of sin and punishment.

Unexpectedly — a word so often associated with God’s great overtures of grace — God’s next outreach to humanity turns out not to include much of humanity at all. Instead, we find in Genesis 12 God reaching out to just one man and woman, Abram and Sarai, the patriarch and matriarch who would come to be known as Abraham and Sarah. God promises to bless these two, making their descendants a great nation and blessing the whole world in the process.

God’s choice of Abraham and Sarah for this role was an odd one. Old and still childless, these two were unlikely candidates for starting a new nation. Later interpreters would suggest Abraham caught God’s eye because he had rejected the idolatry of his Mesopotamian neighbors. Genesis, though, offers no such explanation for God’s choice. The text tells us only that the Lord told Abraham to go, and Abraham went.

A Response of Obedience (12:4–7)
Just as odd is Abraham’s quiet obedience to God’s call. God’s promises to Abraham ranged from the enigmatic (“a land that I will show you”) to the outlandish (“I will make you a great nation”), yet Genesis offers no explanation at all for Abraham’s willingness to believe the word of this strange deity. It was an act of quiet obedience, one that would mark Abraham as the epitome of faith. More than a millennium later, Paul, James and the author of Hebrews would still find in Abraham the very definition of a life of faith.

A careful reader will note, though, that there are some decidedly unfaithful moments in Abraham’s life. While Abraham shows tremendous faith when he leaves for the land God will show him (Gen. 12), when he allows Lot to choose the best land for himself (Gen. 13) and when he submits to circumcision (Gen. 17), there are darker moments in Abraham’s life as well. He lets the mother of the promise go into another man’s harem, not once (Gen. 12:10–20), but twice (Gen. 20). He takes Hagar as a second wife in hopes of having children through her (Gen. 16). He laughs in God’s face when God promises Sarah would soon have a child (Gen. 17:17).

How can we explain this great contradiction between faith and unfaith in Abraham’s life? The answer is found in the two parts of God’s promise to Abraham. While God promises to give Abraham both land and descendants, Abraham believes only one of these. Abraham so sincerely believes the promise of land that he is willing to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia and journey to the rugged hills of Canaan without so much as a word of protest. But the promise of descendants, that is another matter entirely. Abraham believes in the promise of land, but the promise of descendants is more than he can accept. He lets Sarah enter another man’s harem, takes Hagar as a wife and laughs at God all because he cannot believe God would indeed create a great nation from him and Sarah.

A Relationship of Faith (15:5–8, 13–17)
Abraham is a man of faith, but not when it comes to descendants. There, his faith stumbles and nearly falls. Nearly, because God provides Abraham with one last chance to trust Him on the matter of descendants. The famous story in Genesis 22 begins with the words, “And God tested Abraham,” and ends with, “Now I know that you fear God.” Between these two famous phrases, Abraham finally decides to trust God in the area he has previously held back. Against all odds, he follows God’s outrageous command, even when it pertains to his descendant, and passing the test at last becomes a genuine man of faith.

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