I am covering some ground in the story of God’s redemption of mankind through Abraham and his progeny. This is a story of God redeeming people because of their faith (trust in God), not for their morality. It’s also a story of God accomplishing His purposes through people despite their messiness.
Abraham and Sarah were childless for 25 years after God gave Abraham promises that He would give Abraham a land for his descendants who would be numerous and that God would bless all the nations through them. On the basis of those promises, Abraham left his ancestral home and journeyed to “a land God would show him”.
Through those 25 years, Abraham and Sarah continued to live their lives. The moved many times over those years, in and out of the land of Canaan, which is the land God promised to them.
Abraham wavered at times. At one point, when God visited Abraham, Abraham questioned God, saying, “[Y]ou have given me no offspring….”, and telling God (as if He didn’t know), “[T]he heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.” (Gen. 15:2-3)
God God didn’t waiver, though. He renewed the promise, saying, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son [out of your loins] shall be your heir.” (Gen. 15:4)
Years went by. Abraham and Sarah had been in Canaan for 10 years already (Gen. 16:3), and Abraham was 86 years old. (Gen. 16:16), Sarah got impatient and offered her Egyptian servant, Hagar to Abraham, they conceived, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. (Gen. 16:1-4)
We find out that this wasn’t God’s plan either, but He let 13 more years go by before letting Abraham know. Abraham was 99 years old when God visited again!
God said again, “I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you” (Gen. 17:6); and, “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you.” (Gen.17:8)
How would Abraham have taken that?
God had made this same promise since Abraham stood in Haran imagining the land God was promising him and the descendants he would have, but that was 25 years ago! Abraham was now 99, and Sara was 90. The likelihood that the two of them would have a child together was slim to none.
Thirteen years prior, Abraham had a son. His name was Ishmael. Surely, Abraham thought by that point that Ishmael was the fulfillment of God’s promise, but it wasn’t so.
After almost 25 years, God finally gave Abraham some missing details:
“As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Gen. 17:15-16)
Abraham’s response isn’t surprising:
“If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Gen. 17:18)
Abraham had not only come to accept that Ishmael was the fulfillment of God’s promise; Abraham had embraced it. Abraham undoubtedly loved Ishmael, despite his abrasiveness. Thus, his response to God’s new direction was, “What about Ishmael?!”
Why did God wait 25 years from the time He first promised to fill the land with Abraham’s descendants to give Abraham all the details? Why did God let Abraham sleep with Sarah’s servant and have another son first? Why did God wait 13 more years before letting Abraham in on the additional details?
I’m not sure I know the answers. It was obviously God’s plan, though, to fulfill the promise to Abraham through Sarah, his half-sister, the daughter of Abraham’s father, Terah. God also wasn’t done with using the line of Terah in this story.
For the next part of the story, we have to go all the back to Ur, the place where Terah lived with his children: Abraham, Sarah, Nahor and Haran. Haran died in Ur, leaving a wife, Milcah, and Nahor married Milcah.
This seems strange and repulsive. Milcah was Nahor’s niece, his brother’s daughter. But it gets worse.
Abraham got word that Micah, his niece, had eight sons with Nahor, Abraham’s brother. One of those sons, Bethuel, had a daughter, Rebekah. (Gen. 22:20-23)
Though we might be repulsed at the thought, Abraham had a different reaction. He sent a servant to inquire of Rebekah in the area where Nahor had settled. Abraham’s servant went as he was told and recruited Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife. She came back to Canaan, and she was married to Isaac. (Gen. 24)
The following graphic shows the inter-relationships of the children of Terah coming together in the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca:
All four of Terah’s children come together in the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca.
Milcah carried the DNA of her father, Haran, and married her uncle, Nahor. Rebecca carried the DNA of Terah’s children, Nahor and Haran, and married Isaac who carried the DNA of Terah’s two other children, Abraham and Sarah. The offspring of Isaac and Rebecca would carry the DNA of all four children born to Terah.
This seems unspeakable today. It seems like an incestuous soap opera, and it kind of was!
These were very different times, and people weren’t as numerous. Choices might have been limited, and other clans might not be trusted. But still!
The law introduced by Moses many hundreds of years later would forbid these incestuous relationships. (Leviticus 18:9) In the meantime, God would work through them.
In fact, I think it is significant that He does work through them.
It may seem at first blush like a hot mess. When God planned for Abraham and Sarah to have a son, did He mean for all these incestuous relationships to happen?
Did He mean for Abraham to sleep with Sarah’s Egyptian servant and have Ishmael?
Did God’s plan include Abraham soliciting the daughter of his own kin to marry his son?
Did God intend Abraham to marry his half-sister, Sarah?
If you read carefully through the text, you won’t find God instructing Abraham to do any of these things.
Abraham and Sarah were already married when God found faith in Abraham and gave him these initial promises: 1) to show Abraham a land his descendants would live in; 2) to make Abraham’s descendants numerous; and 3) to bless the nations through them.
Later, God refined the promises in this way: 1) to clarify that Abraham’s descendants would come from his own offspring; and 2) to clarify that Abraham’s descendants would also come from Sarah’s offspring.
All of the other things were Abraham’s and Sarah’s choices, but God worked through the hot mess of those choices to fulfill His promises and to accomplish His purposes.
This speaks volumes to us today. It shows that God can work through the hot mess of our choices too!
In fact, this is a central theme of Scripture: that God works through the messiness of people to redeem them. He calls us into relationship with Himself out of our messiness, and He works His purposes in us and through us despite the mess.
As we explore this story of God and Abraham further down the line to succeeding generations, the truth of these things is repeated over and over again. The line of descendants that produce Jesus, eventually, gets even messier!