The Story of Abraham and God’s Redemption of Mankind – Part 2

God works out His purposes through the messiness of human history.

The story of God’s redemption of mankind in the Bible funnels through one man, Abraham from Mesopotamia. I introduced Abraham (known as Abram then) and his family in Part 1 of this series of articles.

Abram’s sister, Sarai, became his wife. Both of them were children of their father, Terah, by different mothers. Terah’s son, Haran, died in their homeland (Ur). The family with Lot, Haran’s son, left Ur and and traveled to a place they called Haran in southern Turkey, just north of Aleppo Syria.

Terah and Nahor remained in Haran, but God gave Abram the direction, “Go to the land that I will show you”, and the promise, “I will make you a great nation….”, and “Through you every family on earth will be blessed”. (Gen. 12:1-3) Thus, at the age of 75, Abram and Sarah left Haran and continued on to Canaan, and Lot went with them.

When they arrived at Shechem in Canaan, God renewed the promise as Abram looked out over the land: “I’m going to give this land to your descendants.” Abram built an altar there, Then, he continued on to the high country in Canaan, between Bethel and Ai, where he also built an altar and worshiped God. (Gen. 12:7-8)

Though God had promised him twice at this point to give Abram this land, Abram continued on. They traveled south out of Canaan, into the Negev desert, and they kept going further south to Egypt because of famine. (Gen 12:9-10)

Abram remained in Egypt long enough to accumulate some wealth before he started moving again. (Gen. 13:2) It is written that Abram “traveled from place to place” when he left Egypt. He seemed to be wandering.

He traveled north again, back to the Negev and eventually back to Bethel and Ai, where he settled down. (Gen. 13:3-4) It must have been some time, as he and Lot had accumulated so many animals their herds and servants couldn’t coexist peacefully. Thus, they parted ways. (Gen 13:5-13)

Lot settled south of Canaan in the Jordan Valley. Abram remained in Canaan, and God gave him the same promise a third time: “Look north, south, east, and west of where you are. I will give all the land you see to you and to your descendants….”; and “I will also give you as many descendants as the dust of the earth.” (Gen. 13:15-16)

Still, Abram moves again, this time south about 35 miles to another part of Canaan known as Hebron. Many years pass. Abram seems to be waiting for God to do what he said, and, for the first time, Abram begins to show signs of doubt that God’s promises would come to pass, . Perhaps, this is why God promises him a fourth time: “Your own son will be your heir” (Gen. 15:4); and “I will give this land to your descendants.” (Gen. 15:18)

When Abram was 86, however, Sarai takes matters into her own hands and offers her Egyptian servant, Hagar, to Abram. Abram agrees, Hagar conceives, but all is not well in the Abram household. Hagar disrespects the barren Sarai, and Sarai mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away. (Gen 16)

God comforts Hagar in her distress and says of Ishmael, “He will be free and wild”, but “[h]e will fight with everyone, and everyone will fight with him….,” and “[h]e will have conflicts with all his relatives.” (Gen. 16:12)

It seems that nothing is going right for Abram, and God promise takes on a sour taste. Is this the son through whom God will bless all the nations? This wild and contentious boy? Is the son of Sarai’s now despised Egyptian servant Abram’s heritage?

Thirteen years go by, and nothing has changed. Ishmael is all that Abram can hold onto in believing God’s promise. We see (later) that the tension continues in the Abram household.

Abram is, no doubt, disappointed. This isn’t how he envisioned the fulfillment of God’s promises. He has a hard time understanding how God is going to “bless all the nations” through his contentious son, but Abram doesn’t lose hope or stop believing that God is going to do what He said He would do.

At this low point, God appears to Abram again and renews the same promise to him: “My promise is still with you. You will become the father of many nations.” (Gen. 17:4) Naturally Abram thinks God is referring to Ishmael, but God says, “No! Your wife Sarah will give you a son, and you will name him Isaac [meaning He Laughs].” (Gen. 17:19)

This is the point when God changes Abram’s name to Abraham (Father of Many) and Sarai’s name to Sarah (Princess). Note that God changes their names before they do anything, before they affirm their belief in God’s promises, before Sarah conceives and Isaac is born.

God asks Abraham now to enter into the covenant (promise) with him by circumcising himself and all males in his household. Abraham did as God said and circumcises all the males in his household, including the 13-year old Ishmael (who remains in the household though he and his mother had run away previously). (Gen. 17:23-27)

Sarah laughed at the absurdity of the idea that she would have a child at her age (Gen. 18:1-15), but a year later, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. (Gen. 21:1-2) Then she laughed with joy for receiving what God had promised. (Gen. 21:6-7)

Ishmael laughed also, but not for joy. Ishmael mocked Isaac, the unlikely son of of the long-barren Sarah and her elderly husband, Abraham, and Sarah is cut to the heart by it. (Gen. 21:9) She demands that Abraham cast Ishmael and his mother out. (Gen. 21:10) Abraham is cut to the heart by Sarah’s demand. (Gen. 21: 11).

For 13 years, Abraham settled in his heart that Ishmael was his son by which God’s promise was to be fulfilled. Abraham loved Ishmael despite his wild, unruly and contentious temperament. Abraham was being faithful to God’s promise the best way he knew how – from the heart – so that Sarah’s demand didn’t sit well with him.

God assures Abram, though, that he should listen to Sarah. (Gen. 21:12) Ishmael and Hagar are cast out of the fold, and they were left to wander in the wilderness in Beersheba. (Gen 21:13-14)

Of course, God protects and watches over them (Gen. 21:15-21), as does Abraham, who makes a treaty with the neighboring king, Abimelech, to allow them the use of a well that Abraham had dug and to remain there unharmed. (Gen. 21:22-34)

This story is messy. Abraham and Sarah are not the people of faith we might imagine them to be, always confident and never doubting. They struggle with faith. They have feelings. They don’t always agree between them. There have tensions in their relationships.

They don’t see the big picture, but they hold on to what God tells them and try, in very imperfect ways, to be faithful to it – they are regular people like us.

In fact, if the narrative of the Bible reveals one thing, it reveals that God works out His purposes through the messiness of human history. He works His purposes despite the faults and failings of people, even the very people who were most responsive to Him. He gave His promises to people who struggle to be faithful to God, but God is always faithful to them.

As we come to see in the New Testament interpretations of this narrative, people don’t accomplish God’s purpose; God accomplishes His purposes through people, and often despite them.

Further, people are not justified before God by their good, moral behavior and their own righteousness. Some people may be “better” than others, but goodness is only relative. No one is truly good, but God. The righteousness of people, even “good” people, are like dirty rags.

In the following articles, I will continue in my exploration of the story of God’s redemption of mankind through Abraham (via his father Terah) and the descendants of Abraham.

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