Abraham has a unique place in the history of redemption. The LORD called Abraham to belong to him in a special way. This was the beginning of the covenant between God and his people, which eventually would lead to the birth of the Saviour, Jesus Christ, through whom all nations share in the blessing of Abraham.
How it began
After the Flood, Noah’s family grew into large nations that spread over the earth. From all appearance, they quickly forgot about the LORD who had judged the earth and saved their ancestor in the ark; and if pagan mythology is any indication, no more than an echo of Noah’s religious commitment remained. Once again, the earth was filled with people living for themselves and worshipping sun, moon and stars, but ignoring their creator.
In this context, God appeared to Noah and gave him a radical instruction: “Leave your land and move to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) From the end of Genesis 11, we get the impression that Noah was called together with his father’s family. They set out from Ur in Mesopotamia (near modern Baghdad), travelled northwest along the rivers. For a while, the family stayed in Haran; then Abraham and his wife Sarah, together with cousin Lot, continued the journey south, until they arrived in Canaan.
It is most remarkable that Abraham made this move prompted by nothing but the instruction from God, whom he barely knew. He left everything behind to become a temporary resident in a far country, simply because the LORD told him so. The Bible presents Abraham’s response as the key example of faith, the kind of faith that God rewards:
Abraham believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
When God called Abraham to move to Canaan, he also made several wonderful promises. These promises are repeated throughout the Abraham narrative, and in fact, throughout the history of Abraham’s family.
First, the LORD promised to make Abraham into a great nation, numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the shore. The Bible often uses the expression offspring (literally, “seed”) of Abraham. This was a remarkable promise, given that Sarah was past the age of childbearing and had been unable to have children. In Gen. 17, God makes very clear that he would nonetheless fulfill this promise through Sarah as the mother of a great nation.
Second, God promised that Abraham’s family would possess the land of Canaan. At this time, Abraham was merely a sojourner, a temporary resident, well aware that he was a foreigner. And while Abraham was well-off and somewhat influential, he had no claim to the land. At the end of his life, Abraham possessed no more than one field, with a cave that functioned as a family grave. But one day, God said, all of the land would belong to his family.
Third, God gave Abraham the promise of blessing; he would be Abraham’s ally, protect him, and make his prosperous. “I am your shield and your great reward” (Gen 15:1). Ultimately,
in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:3)
Thus, Abraham and his family would be of international importance, key figures in the history of the world.
In his lifetime, Abraham saw no more than the very beginning of the fulfillment of these promises. It is interesting to trace these promises through the rest of Biblical history. (In fact, this historical development is the central line in the Bible.) In the Old Testament context, the promise of the offspring is fulfilled in the nation of Israel and that of the land in their settlement in Canaan.
In the New Testament, the focus is on the singular “seed”, that one special descendant of Abraham, Jesus of Nazareth:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)
The New Testament also reinterprets the essence of being a “child of Abraham”.
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Gal. 3:7)
Thus, the promise of Abraham continues in the community of those who have faith in God and in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. In this way, the New Testament also explains what it means that all nations would be blessed in Abraham, as many “Gentiles” (who are not physically descendants of Abraham) become believers in Jesus (see Gal. 3:9). Finally, the promise of the land will find its fulfillment when Christian believers “will inherit the earth” (Mat. 5:5).
The Bible identifies the relationship of God with Abraham as a covenant. In many ways, the covenant of Abraham is the archetypal Biblical covenant. It is not the first; there is a covenant with Noah, and one may identify covenantal patterns both before and immediately after the fall. But in the covenant of Abraham, as narrated in Gen. 12, 15, and 17, we find an explicit description of a gracious covenant that is the basis for the relationship between God and his people throughout the Bible.
The two parties in the covenant are the LORD on one hand, and Abraham and his family on the other hand. It is an asymmetric relationship: if God had not initiated it, Abraham would have no right to even presume that such a relationship would be possible. At the heart of the covenant is God’s claim on Abraham: “I will be God to you,” connected to promises of protection and blessing. On their part, Abraham and family “will be his people”, showing allegiance to the LORD, and separating themselves from the world as a group with a special identity. The covenant with Abraham has a specific sign: all males had to be circumcised to remind them of their unique covenant identity.
This covenant is, in a sense, a “legal” or “formal” structure, with explicit promises and duties. But the beating heart of the covenant is a living relationship between God and his people. On several occasions, the Bible calls Abraham the “friend of God” (2 Chr. 20:7; Is. 41:8; Jas. 2:23). Uniquely, in Gen. 18:17f, God shares future plans with Abraham, and allows Abraham to negotiate with him.
In the following generations, Abraham’s family would often be unfaithful to God and his covenant. They forget him, or offended him by worshiping other gods. But each time, God came to their rescue and received them back into his fellowship; and the Bible explains that he did this for the sake of his covenant with Abraham. Because of his friendship with Abraham, the LORD continued to bless Abraham’s family, in spite of themselves.
victories and Failures
In the narrative of Gen. 12-25 we learn many sides of Abraham. He was, of course, famous for his faith in God, as he traveled from Ur to Canaan simply because the LORD told him so. The depth of Abraham’s faith is especially clear in the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22; see next installment).
During his lifetime, Abraham experienced the blessing of the LORD. While a stranger in Canaan, he grew rich and influential, not unlike a nomadic sheik. Abraham was in a position to negotiate a covenant with his neighbors. When his nephew Lot was taken prisoner in a war, Abraham was able to mobilize an army large enough to defeat the enemy, and return the population of Sodom to their city.
But Abraham also had his failures. Twice (Gen. 12 and 20), during extended stays in neighboring countries, Abraham was afraid of being assassinated. In spite of her old age, his wife Sarah was apparently attractive enough to turn the heads of kings. By pretending that she was his sister, rather than his wife, Abraham avoided being killed. But through this ruse, he also allowed Sarah to become part of the king’s harem. Not only was he unfaithful as a husband, but he also endangered Sarah’s role as covenant mother. Instead of trusting that the LORD would keep him save, Abraham was willing to compromise for the sake of his own safety.
So we get to know Abraham first and foremost as a man of faith and as the spiritual ancestor of all believers. At the same time, it is clear that even this friend of God was flawed.