After the misadventures of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden which we looked at last week, things went from bad to worse. Cain killed his brother Abel and was exiled from his community. And the larger the human race became the more appalled God became at the limitless capacity for evil they seemed to have. The Noah story asserts that God wiped all but one family out in the flood in order to start over again, but no sooner were they out of the ark than Noah was messing up again. Then there is the whole Tower of Babel story exhibiting human ambition and pride. The prehistory section of Genesis finishes, having told a number of cautionary tales about why people are a mess and why the world is a mess.
Chapter 12 ushers in the period of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The story of this family is traced, and we can follow the places they lived and the people they interacted with. The first eleven chapters try to answer questions about origins, about God’s relationship to human beings, about what makes us human. Beginning with Abram we encounter God having a special relationship with a family which is ongoing and still has tremendous relevance in the world today. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham in chapter 17, which comes after today’s reading. Name changes are always significant in the Bible. Abram means “exalted father,” Abraham means “father of a multitude.”
It really all starts with Abraham, in so many ways. Judaism traces its family back to Abraham through his son Isaac. Islam traces its family back to Abraham through his son Ishmael, born to Sarah’s maid Hagar. Christianity traces its roots back to Abraham as a branch grafted into Abraham’s family tree through Jesus. Hundreds of years after Abraham, when his descendants left slavery in Egypt and settled in the Promised Land, the newly free and settled Israelites were instructed to begin their biographies by saying, “My father was a wandering Aramaean.” My father was Abraham. It is a statement of humility as well as pride in this context. In the New Testament it becomes primarily a prideful statement which John the Baptist chides the Sadducees and Pharisees for flaunting. He says, “Don’t say to me that you are children of Abraham. God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones!”
My father was a wandering Aramaean. We are all interested in each other’s origins. Where are you from? Who are your people? Are you related to so and so? If we have illustrious people in our background, we like to bring them up. If we have crooks in our background we like to conveniently forget about them. A wandering Aramaean was not a crook, but it was a humble image of one who lived in tents, was not a property owner, was at the mercy of the elements and the nearby residents. This was not a time when everyone lived like this. To the south the Egyptians had built the pyramids hundreds of years earlier, and palaces and cities. To the north the Hyksos had invented chariots with which they would terrorize the world. There were vibrant cultures all around while Abraham was living his nomadic life. And in the same way that God chose to have his Son born to peasant parents and brought up in the backwater town of Nazareth rather than at the palace in Jerusalem or in Rome, so God chose to work with Abraham on the go instead of in the midst of one of the thriving cultures of the time.
Abraham’s father, Terah, was a traveler as well, having brought the family from Babylon to Haran, which is in southwestern current day Turkey. But when he was 75, Abraham felt God calling him to move on to a new home that God would lead him to. God promised to make a great nation of him and he promised to bless Abraham so that he could be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And so Abraham and Sarah and his nephew Lot began their journey, along with their servants and possessions. They traveled all the way through what became Israel, from north to south, all the way to the Negev desert. And after they arrived there, a famine struck, so they traveled to Egypt. After some time, they returned to Canaan, reversing their trip through the Negev and all the way north to Hebron, where he settled. He covered lots of territory, and probably ten years went by, so he would have been around 85 by this time. He had no land and no children, so he had surely written off the promises of a great nation that he had understood God to make to him.
But then God came to him in a vision again. “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abram rejected this promise, saying, “What will you give me, for I am still childless and will have to appoint a servant as my heir.” But the word of the Lord said to Abram, “No, your own son will be your heir.” God led Abram out of the tent and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars, because your descendants will be like that.” Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Can you put yourself in Abram’s shoes here? For ten years he has been wearing himself out on the road, difficult journeys and hazardous situations, trying to hold up his end of the bargain to go forth and settle in the place which the Lord would show him. No child, no land, no kingdom. Then God pops into his head again with the same promises as though it has only been a couple of days instead of ten years, as though Father Time has not continued to take its toll on both Abram and Sarai as they become octogenarians. Maybe you picture Abraham and Sarah in their side by side bathtubs holding hands and watching the sun set over the Judean hills, but I don’t think so. Life was tough, demanding, and perilous.
But something about the reassurance the Lord gave Abram and the way he reawakened the miracle of a starry sky gave him the peace and acceptance to believe that the God who did this could also do that. He believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abram had come to accept as a fact that childlessness was going to be continual for himself and Sarah. At a certain point you have to protect yourself against getting your hopes built up too much for something that doesn’t happen and doesn’t happen and doesn’t happen. That’s where Abram was when the Lord suddenly told him not to be afraid. There was nothing in what the Lord told him or showed him that was any sort of proof, nothing he could take to the bank, but it was enough. God did not coerce him into acceptance. Abram had a choice. He could have continued to argue his point, his side of the story, proclaiming his doubt of the promise, that 85 year olds don’t suddenly start having children. But he did not. He believed. He trusted. He accepted that God who made the stars could make a new future. And God chalked that up as righteousness. The word for righteousness does not indicate a perfect, sinless life, but a life lived in right relationship. God credits Abram with making the choice that allows their relationship to move forward in the right direction.
Walter Brueggemann states that no other Old Testament verse has had more impact on the New Testament (Genesis, p. 146). Hebrews chapter 11, the great section on faith, has Abraham as its heart. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That describes today’s encounter between God and Abram perfectly.
And for Paul, whose primary theme in the face of Jewish legalism was that salvation comes by grace through faith, Abraham was absolutely critical. In Romans 4 he writes, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” He continues, “The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith… That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants – not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’ – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told… No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Paul uses that to make his argument that faith in Christ does not require obedience to all the Jewish laws. If Abraham could be considered righteous by God because of his faith before the law was even given, then the law was not crucial for one’s relationship to God. Faith in Jesus Christ as Savior is what is crucial.
He makes a similar argument in his letter to the Galatians, who had allowed Jewish leaning preachers to convince them that circumcision and obedience to Jewish law and rituals was essential for Christians. He writes, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Thus Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ So you see that it is people of faith who are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are people of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith… In Christ Jesus you are all children of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Abram believed, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. You can see why Brueggemann says this verse has more impact on the New Testament than any other Old Testament verse. It is important, however, not to idealize Abraham into a perfect person who from that point forward is in perfect relationship to God. Not hardly. In fact, in the very next chapter Abram and Sarai seem to have despaired of having a child and take matters into their own hands. Sarai instructs Abram to take her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, and have a child by her, and he does. It’s like the Garden of Eden all over again. Here, have some of this apple. Don’t mind if I do. God is used to it by now and doesn’t pronounce judgment, and indeed promises blessings to Ishmael, but bad consequences start immediately in the form of broken relationships. And later Abraham passed off his wife Sarah as his sister because he was afraid of the people around and thought they would kill him if they knew she was his wife.
And not only is Abraham not perfect, but there is still a long wait ahead, another 15 years. Ishmael was born to Hagar when Abram was 86. Isaac was born when Abraham was 100, 25 years after first responding to God’s call and promise, around 15 years after today’s text. The absurdity of the promise being fulfilled after so many years is seen most clearly when the strangers show up at Abraham and Sarah’s tent to announce that their son will be born the next year, and Abraham and Sarah simply laugh. God gets the joke and blesses the laughter by telling them to name their son Isaac, which means “laughter.”
In this ancient story, God is portrayed as One who makes promises and pronounces blessings just because God wants to promise and bless. Waiting and perseverance may be involved, but God carries through on the promises and blessings even if the recipient has messed up, even if the recipient has more or less written the promises off.
Walter Brueggemann writes, “To wait a very long time emerges as an overriding theme in this chapter. The problem of faith is waiting, even when the delay seems unending. We are not accustomed to waiting. In our impatience we are prone to conclude that if it is not given now, it will not be given. Abraham’s impatience reflects the same judgment. But gifts may not be forced. Futures stay in the hand of the God who gives them.” (Genesis, p. 149)
This is a remarkable story with which to begin our study of the people God relates to in the Bible. As God initiates a special relationship with one family through Abraham, God also makes clear that he intends to bless all the people of the earth through Abraham. Our journey through the Old Testament will show an increasing exclusivism of outsiders to the family, though there are always dissonant voices, and beginning with Jesus we will see a radical shift to inclusivism.
A favorite children’s song says, “Father Abraham has many sons, and many sons has Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord!” Amen! There are a lot worse places to start than that!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 18, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church