Abraham’s Faith Journey
The Macrostructure of the Abraham Story
Most of us have trouble seeing or understanding Scripture in terms of
large blocks of material, especially if we have spent much time around the
church. Instead, we tend to focus on single verses or short passages. There
are various reasons for that. Sermons we hear preached tend to be built from
four or five verses or from fairly short passages. Public reading of
Scripture tends to be in very short sections, not usually more than ten or
fifteen verses, simply because we tend to tune them out and stop listening
if they are much longer. Personal devotional reading whether from devotional
books or the daily Lectionary tends to be limited to a few verses at a time.
And time pressures and priorities direct us to other things than spending
time with many chapters of the biblical text at one sitting.
As a result,
most people simply have not trained their attention spans to focus on
Scripture for extended lengths of time that it would take to read or hear
more lengthy sections. All of this has conditioned us to see Scripture in
terms of just a few verses and often prevents us from looking at large
sweeps of material. And so we tend not to think of Scripture in terms of
large blocks of material that function together.
There is a growing awareness among students of Scripture of the need
to understand the Bible in terms of larger blocks of material than single
verses or even chapters. When considering the Torah, Genesis through
Deuteronomy, there is increasing agreement that all five books are a
coherent unity comprising a single ongoing story that needs to read all
together in order to be understood adequately. Many have tried in the past
to maintain some sense of unity of this material, but most often did so by
appealing to a single author, Moses. Therefore since a single person wrote
it, it must be unified around the coherent ideas of the author. Yet there
is a tremendous diversity of material in these five books that makes it
unlikely that a single person wrote all of the material. For this and
other reasons (e.g., the fact that Moses' death is recorded in the
material), most scholars have concluded that Moses probably did not write
all of this material. That led some to claim that there is really very
little unity in the Torah, that it is only loosely organized collections
of stories about Israel’s early history.
However, there is a great deal of renewed interest in examining these
five books to see if they exhibit another kind of unity besides that of
authorship. There is a general agreement among biblical scholars that the
material of the Pentateuch grew out of the life of the Israelite community
of Faith over 800 years of history. It is composed of very divergent
material from different periods of that history with significantly different
emphases within the different strands of the tradition that went into the
composition of the books (see JEDP: "Sources" in the
Pentateuch). Yet as Scripture, as confession about Israel’s own journey
of faith in interaction with God, there is clearly a sense that as the
biblical material grew it was shaped in and by a community that had a
consistent story to tell about God’s work in their history.
This suggests that the Torah, the Pentateuch, is a literary and a
theological unity, that these five books tell the story of God and people’s
encounter with God, and the story of the community that emerged from those
encounters. There is a coherent story that runs from the beginning of
Genesis through the end of Deuteronomy. It is not just a story line that
shares some common aspects, but a coherent confession of the identity,
values, and purpose of this community as it responded to God’s
self-revelation in history.
And even further, there is a growing awareness of a very consistent and
carefully worked out theological and literary unity between these five books
and the next major section of the Old Testament, the Former Prophets. The
whole sweep of material from Joshua to the end of 2 Kings is also recognized
to be a coherent story that continues and expands the Pentateuchal material,
even amid the diversity of material and the span of time contained in those
books. (Note: this material from Joshua to 2 Kings is often
called the Deuteronomistic or Deuteronomic History, indicating that the
perspective in the whole narrative is similar to the book of Deuteronomy;
see History and
Theology in Joshua and Judges, especially the chart in the
section History as Theology).
To say that, however, means that the coherence of this biblical material
does not lie just in single coherent stories. Individual stories cannot
simply be extracted from the larger narrative and be expected to communicate
that story on their own apart from the larger context. When treated as
totally independent units, there is great risk that they will lose a frame
of reference in which to hear them and so be misunderstood. If there is,
indeed, a larger coherence to the Pentateuch that lies on the level of
literary organization and theological communication, then in order to be
understood adequately the individual stories must be seen as part of that
larger narrative. Seen in that larger context, the individual narratives
sometimes take on a different shape and texture.
It is this perspective of the Pentateuch as being a larger coherent whole
that allows us to move to larger sweeps of narrative rather than focusing on
the details of only a few verses or a single story. It is the realization
that in Scripture there is communication and confession at work on the level
of the larger narrative, perhaps even more so than on the level of single
As an example, we can examine the macrostructure of the Abraham stories.
Here macrostructure refers to the coherence of that larger narrative, the
rhetorical features of the narrative that serve to guide the salient points
of the story and the theological reading that flows from it. Often in
literary studies certain physical features of the text or certain formal
characteristics identify the macrostructure of a text. While that can
certainly be done on a technical level in the Abraham stories, for our
purposes here we will only track the macrostructure in terms of the story
line and some basic governing theological implications that arise from that
From this perspective, we can understand that the narrative of Abraham in
Genesis 12-22 is composed of a series of stories that certainly can be heard
and told as individual units of narrative. But yet they can also be seen as
mutually interdependent, with the individual stories functioning within the
entire sequence of narratives to communicate something that the single
narratives cannot communicate on their own. We might say, to use an old
adage, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words,
the individual narratives of this sequence of stories need to be seen in the
context of the entire story of Abraham in order to hear what the community
tells us through the stories.
As Christians, we are often used to hearing and thinking about Abraham
from the perspective of Hebrews (11:8-12), the "hall of fame" of faithful
people. God called Abraham, he obeyed, and so received the promised
blessings of God. From that perspective Abraham is easily seen as a model of
Bible Study on Hebrews 11:1-22). Then we tend to import that perspective
back into Genesis and read the individual passages of the Abraham story as
if Abraham were a model of faith from the very beginning of the narratives.
So, for example, as we read of Abraham’s actions at the end of chapter 12,
where he gives away his wife to a king’s harem in order to save his own
life, it is easy to read it in light of Abraham as the model of faith. So,
we can conclude, the story really can’t be what it seems to be because
Abraham the man of faith would not act in this way.
Yet, the story is there and the text does
present Abraham as something less than a model of faith, part of a larger
narrative in which Abraham seems to act in very unfaithful ways on many
occasions. There are elements on that broader vista that tell us that
perhaps a different story is at work than what we have assumed, that maybe
the actual biblical text of Genesis wants to tell us the story in a
different way than we want to hear it.
That simply suggests that we step back from the individual stories and
take a more careful look at that broader context as a setting in which to
hear the single stories. That means that we need to look not so much at the
details of the individual stories first, but at the sweep of the entire
Abraham narrative in order to trace the general outline of the story and the
high points that are emphasized by the text itself. Hopefully, that will
give us a context in which to hear the details of the individual stories, as
well as a sense of the points of coherence of the larger narrative.
So, let’s examine the Abraham narratives in Genesis 12 through 22 to see
if we can discern the shape and texture of that larger narrative as a
context for the individual stories. Chapter 12 opens with the call of God
coming to Abraham against the dead end of chapter 11 (see
commentary on Genesis 12:1-9). Abraham received a commission of God to
leave his homeland and strike out into a future that God would show him. God
promised remarkable things for that future: a great name, protection, and
blessing for both Abraham and the whole earth.
And Abraham did respond in faith and went just as the Lord had told him
(12:4). Certainly here is presented a man of faith who was willing to risk
an unknown future on God’s leadership. Here is the picture we are used to
seeing of Father Abraham, a great man of faith who was willing to obey God.
At this point in the story, Abraham (or Abram as he is called early in the
story) is doing everything right.
The story continues to track through the first part of chapter 12 by
noting that Abraham was 75 years old . He left Haran, the place to which his
father Terah had already migrated from Ur, and began his journey south to
the place that God had called him. He took his wife and his brother’s son
Lot and a portion of the clan and their possessions and journeyed south to
the land of Canaan.
As he arrived in Canaan, God reaffirmed his promise and gave more detail
(12:7): "To your offspring I will give this land." First, Abraham had just
been given general promises about a future and blessing. From here
throughout the rest of the story the promises will continue to unfold in
more specific dimensions as Abraham journeys through the land and through
the next 25 years.
We need to notice that Abraham responded to a very unspecified and
undifferentiated promise. Basically, he simply responded to the command to
go, with very general promises of a future. The problem that unfolded for
Abraham across the next decades was how to live in the real world in light
of such an open-ended and ambiguous promise. How could he translate that
promise into daily living? How should he come to terms with how the promise
works out in real life? These chapters unfold the depth of that problem for
As Abraham moved into Canaan, and as God reaffirmed the promise, Abraham
responded by building an altar thereby acknowledging God as the one leading
him in his journey. Abraham continued his journey through the land and
eventually traversed its full length from north to south. Yet in the middle
of all this positive dimension of the text, the call of God and Abraham’s
faithful response, a note of discord in introduced into the narrative in
12:10 with the observation that there is a famine in the land. This is the
first hint that this story may not track as idyllically as it seemed to have
In the arid ancient Middle East famine was a very serious matter. It was
not simply an inconvenience, but was a matter of life and death. Famine
meant that no one had food, so it was not just a matter of trading or buying
food from someone else. The only option was to go somewhere where there was
no famine in order to survive. There is tremendous irony in the story here.
Abraham had left everything to risk following God for a new future that God
would show to him. And yet even though Abraham had faithfully responded to
God, God had led him to a land that was in the middle of a famine!
No sooner had Abraham entered the land that God had promised him, than he
had to leave that very land because it is not livable. We do not yet know
the story, but this is the first of many times that faithfulness to God will
place Abraham and his clan at risk. From God’s side, one of the governing
themes that emerges in this story is the question of whether Abraham will
hold fast to the promise and continue to follow God even in the midst of
seeming dead ends like this one. Or will Abraham abandon the promise and
seek to make his own way in the world?
And yet from Abraham’s side, the questions are just as pointed. Will God
be faithful to Abraham in support of the promise? Or will Abraham have to
take matters into his own hands and try to shape his own future amid the
realities of life?
So Abraham left his "promised land" and journeyed on to Egypt because
there was food there. Because of the fertility of the Egyptian land watered
by the annual flooding of the Nile, food was usually plentiful in Egypt even
when the rains failed in Canaan. And yet this circumstance sets the stage
for an immediate crisis.
As Abraham was about to enter Egypt, he began to fear for his life. His
fear revolved around Sarah, his wife. He was afraid that she would catch the
eye of the powerful in Egypt, and they would eliminate him in order to take
Sarah. So he said to Sarah (12:11-13):
I know well that you are a woman
beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say,
"This is his wife"; then they will kill me, but they will let you live.
Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and
that my life may be spared on your account.
Here we must resist all attempts at rationalizing Abraham’s actions as if
the text does not really intend to say what it says. The simple fact here is
that Abraham is scared and devises a scheme that includes lying to escape
with his life, but at the expense of his wife Sarah. He has Sarah protect
him by lying for him.
What does that say about Abraham? What is going to happen to Sarah if
Abraham says that she is his sister? Well, Abraham would probably get out of
this situation with his life. But then what would happen to Sarah? In that
culture, she would become part of pharaoh’s harem, one of his many wives.
Abraham had just chosen to sacrifice Sarah for his own neck!
Now, maybe we ought to give Abraham some benefit of the doubt because God
had not really made the promise very specific yet. There had been no mention
of Sarah in the promise, even though there was clearly the implication that
Abraham would have children. Perhaps Abraham thought the promise was only
his promise. Or perhaps he thought that Sarah was expendable since, after
all, she was barren and had no children. Whatever the motivation, Abraham
had eliminated Sarah from the promise by this cowardly action. Even if the
plan worked, if Sarah had been taken into Pharaoh’s harem any children that
Sarah bore would not be Abraham’s children. Abraham had simply taken upon
himself, from a position of fear, to decide how the promise should unfold.
He has sacrificed Sarah and totally cut her out of this work of God in the
world in order to save his own life.
On some level, would that not have been a legitimate and prudent move?
How can the promise work out if Abraham had been killed? So on some level
perhaps Abraham still exhibits a certain amount of faith. But it is not
much, because God had also promised him that he would bless those who bless
him and curse those who curse him. God had promised the outworking of the
promise, and yet Abraham thought that he had to manipulate things to make
the promise work. He had not yet understood that the dead end from which God
had called him could only be transformed by God.
Part of the problem that would continue to unfold with Abraham in this
story is that he was willing to believe the promise but he was not always
willing to believe God. Abraham thought that he had to make the promise work
out, so he was willing to do whatever he thought necessary to make the
promise happen for him. And so he was willing to sacrifice his wife Sarah to
get there. The fact is, Abraham was simply a coward here, unwilling to trust
God when his life was on the line.
That will become important as the story unfolds. Was Abraham really that
kind of coward here? What happened to his faith in verse four? He did have
faith, but it appears that he wanted faith on his own terms. He believed God
but not to the point of total trust. Abraham was much more comfortable when
he could get things under control on his own.
There is another subtle element at work in this story. Since Sarah was
barren, in that culture it was simply assumed that it was impossible for her
to have children. And yet the promise was for children. In that context, it
would become easy for Abraham to give away something that he didn’t think
had any value to him in working out the promise. He trusted the promise but
he didn’t trust God to work through the impossible, because in his way of
understanding and his way of seeing there was no future in Sarah. In would
be many years before Abraham could come to that kind of genuine trust in a
God of impossibilities.
By Abraham’s actions he brought a curse in verse 17. "The Lord afflicted
Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarah Abram’s wife." The
first thing that Abraham did as he went into the world as the bearer of
promise was to bring on other people a curse instead of the blessing that he
was commissioned to bring to the whole earth. Pharaoh came back to Abraham
and asked, "What have you done to me?" (12:18). Pharaoh did not know that
Abraham was supposed to be a blessing, but he knew that he was being
afflicted and that it was Abraham’s fault.
Pharaoh returned Sarah and Abraham continued his journey. But this
initial failure would become all too common for Abraham. And yet the story
emphasizes God’s commitment to Abraham in spite of his failure. That will
also become a significant aspect of the larger narrative.
In chapter 13 Abraham and his extended family left Egypt and journeyed
into the Negeb, the desert area in the southern part of Canaan. The story
continued unfolding there with the interaction between Abraham and Lot as
they settled together. God again reaffirmed the promise to Abraham (13:4) as
he blessed him. The promise was again land and children, even though Sarah
was still barren. The promise was still there for a great number of children
and vast amounts of land, the future possibility of which Abraham still had
After a short interlude in the narrative in chapter 14, the story returns
its focus to Abraham and the promise in chapter 15. God returned to Abraham
again in a vision and again gave him a promise. "Do not be afraid Abram I am
your shield, your reward shall be very great" (v. 1). Abraham’s response in
verse 2 is interesting: "Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue
childless." Obviously, Abraham was beginning to get a little impatient with
God’s timetable for the promise. God was willing to reaffirm the promise,
but Abraham still saw no sign that anything was happening to make it a
reality. Abraham’s very human frustration was clearly evident. How could he
be the father of a great nation when he still had no children and Sarah was
Abraham still believed but was starting to get a little impatient with
God. His only male heir was a servant, Eliezer of Damascus: "Look, you have
given me no offspring so a slave born in my house is my heir!" He was not so
gently pointing out to God that if he didn’t do something about the promise
the only descendants Abraham would have would be through legal customs and
not his own offspring. And yet God steadfastly affirmed the promise, this
time giving Abraham more specifics on the outworking of the promise. The
word of the Lord came to him, in verse 4: "This man shall not be your heir;
no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." For the first time God
specified that it will be Abraham’s own physical descendant that will be the
inheritor of the promise. And again God reaffirmed the larger promise to
Abraham (v. 5): "Then he brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward
heaven, your descendants will be like the stars of the sky.’"
Abraham’s response here is one of the high points of the entire
narrative, as he believed God and trusted him for the promise. At least
here. There would be more failures. But at this point, Abraham, for the
second time in the narrative, was willing to trust God with the promise. He
still did not know how the promise would unfold. But he believed. What
follows in the rest of chapter 15 is a covenant ceremony that served to
express in cultural metaphors God’s commitment to Abraham, and Abraham’s
commit to God.
The story continues in chapter 16. After the beautiful passage where God
entered into covenant with Abraham and again affirmed his call upon his
life, the narrator intrudes with a stark reminder of the reality of life:
"Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children." Nothing really had changed
in Abraham’s life. There was still no future here, even after all the great
things that God had said. Now at this point Abraham was convinced that the
promise was real, and he now knew that he would have a child who would be
heir of the promise. But he was still not convinced that Sarah would be a
part of the promise. What unfolds in the chapter is the well known incident
of Hagar that again marks Abraham’s failure to trust God.
Eleven years had gone by since chapter 12. Abraham had been waiting for
this promise to unfold for eleven years; eleven years of living under a
promise but with no obvious future and no tangible hope for a future. And
when we recall that Abraham was 75 years old when he received the promise we
can understand his anxiety over the delay. The possibilities were not
getting any better but were actually worse. So Abraham decided to try to
force the promise to unfold. Sarah actually suggested to Abraham that he
take her handmaid Hagar and father a child with her. That seemed reasonable
to Abraham. While from our cultural perspective this sounds shocking, in the
context of ancient culture this was an acceptable practice to provide heirs
for a family when an elder family leader had no children. "So Abram listened
to the voice of Sarai" and had a child by Hagar.
Finally, Abraham had a child and the promise could begin unfolding! But
as we have already come to expect now in the narrative, Abraham had created
a problem by attempting to make the promise happen on his own terms. Tension
emerged as Sarah became jealous of Hagar, and Hagar was forced to flee with
the child Ishmael. God took care of Hagar and the child. But as soon as
Hagar left the future was again at risk. Even though Abraham had a child, it
seemed obvious that this was not the way to the promise. And so once again
the failure of Abraham to trust God with the promise introduced something
less than blessing into the world, and unfolded in pain and conflict.
By chapter 17 Abraham was 99 years old. It had now been 24 years since
the giving of the promise. Another 12 years had now elapsed. After 24 years
of living under this promise God came again to Abraham, promised his
presence with him, and reaffirmed the promise (17:4-8):
You shall be the ancestor of a multitude
of nations. . . . I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make
nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my
covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their
generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your
offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after
you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a
perpetual holding; and I will be their God.
And for the first time in the story, God extended the promise to include
Sarah (17:15): "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but
Sarah, I will bless her and I will give you a son by her." There is some
sense in the narrative that Abraham probably should have figured that out
back in chapter 12. In this chapter, it is likely a matter of God responding
to Abraham’s failure and impatience in spelling out for him the exact nature
of the newness that he will bring into the world through Sarah. But that
apparently had not yet dawned on Abraham.
It is a function of God’s grace that he tends to respond to our failure
and slowness on a level that brings us to faith. If Abraham needed to hear
that Sarah was going to be the mother of a child, then God was willing to
meet Abraham on that level of need. Even after 24 years of a mixture of
faithfulness and failure, God came back to Abraham to encourage him in
patience and faithfulness as he waited for the promise.
And yet Abraham’s response to this renewed promise of God is interesting.
Abraham simply fell on his face and laughed at God and at the absurdity at
what God had just told him. This simply tells us that Abraham hasn’t really
believed very deeply in the promise during these 24 years or this new
affirmation would not have come as such an absurdity to him. And now faced
with overwhelming circumstances that provided evidence to him that it could
not happen, Abraham had simply abandoned the promise as a cruel joke! Could
a child be born to a man who is 100 years old? Could Sarah really have a
child at 90? He really thought that God had missed his chance 20 years
earlier, and there really was no future now.
I suspect if most of us were honest, we’ve told that to God before in one
way or another. Abraham’s faith was always in what he could do. It was
always faith on his terms, which really wasn't much of a faith at all. He had
faith in God, but in terms of what he could conceive as possible or what he
could control and make happen. And when he realized that there was no future
in those terms, he just laughed at the promise.
And yet, Abraham still believed just enough of the promise to be willing
to take one more stab at making it work. So Abraham reminded God that he
already had a son, and that perhaps God could work through Ishmael (17:18).
But God reminded Abraham that he had already promised that Sarah was to be
the mother of the child of promise. Abraham still wanted to take the easy
way that he could see and was unwilling to believe in what was clearly
A final irony here reveals a delightfully playful aspect of the
narrative. And it also reveals a tender conception of God with a touch of
humor and irony that serves to drive home an important lesson. Picking up on
Abraham’s laughter at the absurdity of the promise, God told Abraham to name
the child Isaac, "laughter." And yet once again, the promise is reaffirmed
but with an important added dimension. While the first promise was very
unspecified, across the past 25 years God had gradually unfolded more
narrowly focused dimensions of the promise. It was narrowed from "great
name" to children to Abraham’s own children and then to Abraham and Sarah’s
children. And now for the first time in the narrative, there was a time
frame placed on the promise (v. 21): "My covenant I will establish with
Isaac whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year." For the first
time in 25 years God left Abraham with a specific promise with a specific
time frame of one year.
Chapter 18 recounts the visit of the three messengers from God who
visited Abraham. This leads to the interlude of the destruction of Sodom
that interrupts the flow of the narrative of promise here, although it has
tremendous importance in the whole Abraham story. But that very interruption
serves to underscore the period of waiting even for this single year. As the
men visited Abraham, they asked, "Where is your wife Sarah?" and Abraham
responded, "In the tent." Then one of the men told Abraham that he would
return at the same time next year and that Sarah would have a son.
Sarah had been listening in the other half of the tent listening. To
underscore the impossibility of this unfolding, again in case we have
forgotten, the narrator interjects that Abraham and Sarah were old and could
no longer have children (18:11). This serves again to emphasize the
absurdity of the situation and the promise. And so Sarah responded just like
Abraham had done and laughed at the joke of her having a son.
And yet the men calmly reassured them both that this is indeed what God
intended to do (18:14): "Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set
time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son."
What I find fascinating here is that both Abraham and Sarah laugh at God
and yet God took their laughter and made it part of the promise. Maybe that
says something about our own lack of faith, that maybe we shouldn’t be as
afraid of God as we sometimes are, even when we are laughing at him. It says
something profound about God’s grace that he can take our worst moments of
skepticism and make them part of the future.
What unfolds next is the interlude of the Sodom and Gomorrah stories.
While they interrupt the story of the birth of the child, they provide us
with a further glimpse into Abraham’s story and journey. In these 25 years
since the beginning of the promise this is the first time that Abraham had
shown any understanding of that third part of the promise of being a
blessing to the world. In fact, he had tended in the past to bring curse to
others instead of blessing. And yet here he interceded for the city of
Sodom. Abraham modeled here what Israel would later understand as its role
in the world as God’s people. Again, in the midst of his failure and
laughter, Abraham managed to respond in ways that showed he was still
willing to try to live out the promise, imperfectly though his efforts may
After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and after Abraham’s rescue of
Lot from Sodom, Abraham again settled again in the southern part of Canaan.
Twenty-five years have gone by and God had gradually focused the promise
from just a general promise down to Sarah and now to a single year. Surely
now Abraham could believe the promise and trust God. He was residing in
Gerar in the southern part of the Philistine territory. He was living in an
alien country, and apparently a situation arose in which Abraham felt
threatened by the Philistines. And incredibly, almost unbelievably in the
context of this unfolding story, Abraham again made a cowardly mistake. For
the second time, he gave Sarah away to the king of Gerar to secure his own
safety! He told the same lie to cover the same cowardice and lack of faith.
What was Abraham thinking? After all this time, he almost had the promise
in his grasp. And he simply let it go. By giving Sarah to the King of Gerar
he had again abandoned the promise, because again, even if Sarah would have
had a child within the year, it would not have been Abraham’s child, and so
would not have been the child of promise.
This time it is not that Abraham had misunderstood the promise nor that
he did not know or believe that Sarah was part of the promise. He did it
simply because he was afraid. He gave away the whole future to secure his
temporary personal safety. I think if I were God that I would have found
somebody else by this time. Abraham gave a lengthy explanation of his
actions in verse 11. But some scholars think that verse 11 is actually the
narrator’s comments put into the mouth of Abraham to try to salvage Abraham
at this point and show that he was not really lying.
But the lying was the least of his worries here and is really incidental
at this point of the story. The problem is that Abraham had given the
promise away. To use the modern adage, he snatched defeat from the jaws of
victory. On the very eve of the unfolding of the promise, he abandoned it.
And yet God did not abandon Abraham. He had entered into a covenant with
him, and remained faithful to that commitment. Again, God reunited Sarah and
Abraham in order to carry out the promise.
In chapter 21, the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived
and bore a son, and they named him "laughter" (the name Isaac is a form of
the Hebrew verb "to laugh"). Sarah said (21:6), "God has
brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me." The
laughter that had earlier been a sign of their unbelief God had now
transformed into a symbol of promise and the future.
We would think that the story would end here with the promise of a new
future resting securely in the arms of Sarah as she "laughs" with "laughter"
(Isaac). But as we might expect, it was never that easy for Abraham. After
all this time Abraham was finally to the point where he could believe the
promise. He could believe the promise because he could hold it in his hands.
It is easy to believe when you can bounce the promise on your knee.
Abraham believed because, as he was used to doing earlier in the story,
he could now control the promise. Except now God came to him and said, "I
want it all back. I want you to take this child that I gave you and I want
you to give him back" (Gen 22:1-2). God called Abraham to go to a mountain he would show
him, and offer up the child as a sacrifice. Abraham had once before been
called to go to a place where God would show him. But that time it was for
the purpose of embracing the promise. This time, the unknown journey to
which God had called him was for the purpose of letting go of the promise.
Abraham had been willing to do that so many times in the past on his own
terms because he could not see God’s possibilities. And now that he could
hold the possibilities in his hands, God called him to let it go. God simply
would not let Abraham live the promise on his own terms!
The story here in Genesis 22 is not about child sacrifice. It is about
whether Abraham would be willing to trust God for the future. That had
always been Abraham’s problem, that he had wanted the promise but in his
own way in terms of what he could see and manipulate and make happen. He
could trust God as long as it was under his control, but he had a much
harder time trusting God when it was not under control. When the promise
involved circumstances that he could not control or make happen he had
This was Abraham’s final test. Could he really trust God? Had he learned
anything about God from his 25 year journey of faith? Could he give up what
he can see and hold for nothing more than God’s promise? The climax of this
whole story is in verses 15 and 16 where Abraham was willing to give Isaac
back to God. God’s response was the final judgment of Abraham’s faith: "Now
I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your only son from
me." For the first time in 25 years in ten chapters, Abraham was willing to
trust God for the future. It was a future that he could not manipulate or
control, but a future that God had promised him and for which he was willing
to trust God.
Finally, Abraham became the kind of person of faith that we read about in
Hebrews 11. But it took him a long and failure strewn journey and a 25-year
struggle to get there. It is easy to want everything that we think God has
promised all at once and all up front. And there is certainly some dimension
in which our faithfulness and willingness to respond is part of the
outworking of God’s call on our lives. But finally this story says that the
future that God calls us to is not dependent on our efforts to make it
happen. It’s dependent upon our willingness to have faith in God to make
happen what we can’t make happen on our own. And it also tells us that God
is faithful to those whom he has called in spite of their failure and
That leaves God’s grace at the center of the story, God’s willingness to
work in the world with less than perfect people to help them grow and
journey toward the promise that only he can bring to pass. That is why
Abraham’s 25-year journey can be called a journey of faith, or perhaps a
journey to faith. And while Abraham’s failure and inadequacy consistently
mark that journey, it is just as surely marked by God’s faithfulness to
There is a final understated irony at the conclusion of the Abraham
story. Abraham owned no land at all when Sarah died. He had to go to the
Hittites and pay an extravagant amount of money for a single cave in which
to bury Sarah. When Abraham died shortly after he had no great number of
descendants, let alone having descendants like the stars of the heaven or
the sand of the seashore. When he died he had one son at home, and owned one
burial cave. So where were the great promises? What had become of all the
great things that God had promised Abraham?
Part of the dynamic of this whole story is that the faith journey of
Abraham doesn’t end in chapter 22 or even in chapter 25 with Abraham’s
death. Abraham’s faith was not for himself because the promise was not for
Abraham. The promise was for the children of Abraham. Part of Abraham’s
faith journey was that he came to a willingness to trust God for the future,
not just his own future but for God’s future.
It would be a long time after Abraham, nearly 800 years, before his
descendants would ever own the land that he was promised. And it would be
some time after that before they would be a great nation. But it would come.
And it began with a cowardly man who had a great deal of trouble ever
believing God, but who finally came to trust the future to God when he had
no idea how that future would unfold.
It is really only in looking at this entire sweep of narrative between
Genesis 12 and 22, and even extending into chapter 25, that we have an
adequate frame of reference for understanding any of the individual Abraham
stories. But set in that larger context, they become a powerful affirmation
of God’s grace and patience in dealing with a weak and vacillating people.
The larger narrative clearly points, not to Abraham as a hero of faith, but
to God as graciously dealing with an imperfect yet seeking Abraham. In that
sense, this larger narrative becomes the story of Israel’s own faith
journey, and ours as well.