This is first post in series on the life of Abraham. Like most of the posts that I will write, this is an expansion of notes for a Sunday School class that I teach. I didn’t want the notes to be something that would be used once and then discarded, so I wrote this post. I hope you enjoy. The text for this post is primarily Genesis 11:1-4 and Genesis 11:27-32. You will probably want to read the passage first.
What’s the purpose in understanding the life of Abraham? In many ways, it is in Abraham’s life that the Bible really begins to manifest the covenant of grace. To understand the covenant of grace, we must look at God’s covenants with man. The first of these is the covenant of works. The covenant of works began with God making a covenant with Adam and, by extension, all of his descendants. In this covenant, God required perfect obedience to His revealed will. When Adam and Eve sinned in eating the forbidden fruit, the covenant of works became a covenant in which humanity was doomed to suffer God’s wrath for disobedience.
If the story ended there, the future of humankind would have been very bleak. However, in His pleasure, God established the covenant of grace wherein the participants were restored to right standing with Him by the good pleasure of His grace. This covenant has been upheld and restored repeatedly throughout history, and each new occurrence of the covenant pointed toward to its fulfillment. The coming of Christ served as the ransom and substitution that allowed the extension of God’s grace to humanity. This is all a very brief summary of the covenants, but it lays the foundation for understanding the totality of the Bible. Abraham is one link in the chain of the covenant’s fulfillment, but he is one in which the picture of God’s redemption is thoroughly revealed.
Another important reason for understanding Abraham’s life is to understand our roots in the faith. In Romans 11, the Apostle Paul compares Gentile believers to wild branches that are grafted into a tame rootstock. This is contrary to established agricultural practice. Most often, a tame branch is grafted into a wild rootstock. Paul’s point is that Gentile Christians were not originally part of God’s covenant. It was to the patriarchs that God promised the covenant. In grafting the Gentiles into the covenant, the wild branches are nourished by the tame rootstock. Thus, Gentile Christians receive blessings that they would otherwise have no part in. We should then take an interest in God’s promises to the patriarchs that are now lavished upon us by grace.
The book of Romans also declares that Abraham was the forbearer of those who walk by faith. Romans 4 makes it clear that Abraham received the sign of circumcision after he was already justified by faith. His faith, and therefore his righteousness, existed before the sign was placed upon him to mark his physical offspring. In the same way, we are justified by the same faith that Abraham had. Even as Gentiles, we have access to the righteousness of God by the faith that He gives us.
The chief difference between us and Abraham is what side of Christ we stand on. We have the benefit of knowing the name of Jesus Christ. We know what work He done for us on the cross. We know of His resurrection. We know of His glorious reign. Abraham did not know these particulars, but he trusted in Christ all the same. How is this possible? He trusted in God’s promise of a coming “offspring” or “seed” that would fulfill the covenant. He trusted God’s promise of a land that he did not possess. Hebrews 11:10 says, “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (ESV) Abraham trusted in God’s promise of redemption. Jesus himself said in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” Abraham awaited the promise of Christ
The narrative of Abraham loses some of its meaning without a little context. The first part of Genesis 11 frames the world into which Abraham was born. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 years ago, Abraham was born in Mesopotamia in what we now call Iraq. He would have spent a good chunk of his life in Ur of the Chaldeans which at the time was one of the largest cities in the world. It was prosperous, politically influential, militarily secure, and an heir to the culture of Babel.
The hallmark of the account that we commonly call the Tower of Babel was pride. The people of Babel were interested in self-exaltation and self-glorification rather than the glory of God. They sought to set themselves up in the heavens as equal (or perhaps superior) to God. This self-exaltation is the center of the rebellious heart. They even resisted the command of God to spread out and subdue the whole earth. God dealt with them for their pride and self-worship, but the seed of their sin permeated the world after them. The spirit of Babel was one of self-worship and led to the worship of false gods. In short, Babel was the picture of a culture in opposition to God’s will. Indeed, Babel and its successor Babylon are often symbols for the spirit of the world that opposes God.
It is into this world that Abraham is born. He was the son of Terah and a brother to Nahor and Haran. We know very little about Terah and his sons, but we are given some hint in the book of Joshua. Joshua 24:2 tells us that Terah and his sons were worshipers of false gods. Terah is also a descendant of Eber, the father of the Hebrew people. The picture that we get of the Hebrews in the early Old Testament is that they were nomadic shepherds. Terah and his sons likely lived on the outskirts of Ur grazing their flocks and selling the proceeds to Ur’s people.
Acts 7:2 tells us that God initially called Abram (as he is known here) when he was in Ur. It seems that Terah desired to leave Ur after the death of his son Haran. They initially set out as a family leaving Ur behind and heading toward Canaan in what is now Israel. Somewhere along the way, Terah decides to remain in the city of Haran in northern Mesopotamia near what is now the borders of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The city was in many ways similar to Ur. The culture and religion of Haran were very similar to what they were used to. When Terah decides to remain, so does Abram until his father dies.
Abram is a major pillar of our faith, and we look to him as the father of all who believe. When we first see him, however, his great faith seems much less strong. He does not follow through with God’s initial call and waits for the death of his father. On one hand, this is a bit disheartening if such a great hero of the faith can falter so easily. On the other hand, this is a great comfort if such a great hero of the faith is just as flawed and prone to error as we are. He was human just like us, and God called him just like us. God’s grace does not depend on us; it depends on Him.
The last element that is noteworthy is that author of Genesis focuses on the fact that Haran has a son and two daughters, but Abram is without progeny. Sarai is barren. In ancient times, a barren woman was viewed as cursed. Here is a man with a cursed wife who lives in a pagan culture. Is such a man a candidate to be the father of the faithful? Absolutely. Why? Because in such a man, God is glorified, not himself. As with all things, God works all things for His own glory. In the beginning of His work of redemption, God chooses the weak things of this world to confound the strong.
In the next installment, we will look at the details of God’s call to Abraham, the promises that God makes to him, and Abraham’s disembarking on his journey to the land that God would show him. In it, we will some aspects of his faith and some aspects of his faltering. This is an excellent reminder of God’s grace in the lives of all of His people.