Faith Matters

Mountaintop Moments: A Promise to Abraham

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Genesis 15:1-18

Abram’s Society:
This period of Biblical history is known as the Patriarchal Period for a very good reason. The Patriarch, the father of the family and leader of the tribe, was the absolute authority. There was no central governmental to enact laws and as yet no God-given commandments or standards. The nearest thing to generally accepted law in the Ancient Middle East was the Code of Hammurabi which was a collection of standards governing business transactions. That code depended on the integrity of the parties or, in case of dispute, by the strength of the parties. Wrongs, whether real or supposed, were dealt with through retaliation. And that retaliation was not limited to “an eye for an eye”, it was massive retaliation. Whole tribes or whole villages could be held accountable for the transgression of a single member. (Gen.34).

Abram’s Household:
Abram was a semi-nomadic wanderer who moved or stayed depending on the pasture for his animals. Abram was also very wealthy in livestock and silver and gold. His immediate family at this time consisted of himself and his wife, Sarai. We are told in Gen.14:14 that he had “318 trained men born in his household” that he mustered to rescue his nephew, Lot. These were fighting-age men, probably married, probably with children, that means that Abram’s “household” probably consisted of well over 1,000 persons. If you have ever seen the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”, the Arabian tribes pictured in that movie are probably pretty representative of what Abram’s “household” looked like – minus the guns, of course.

Abram’s God:
To the Patriarchs, God was very personal and was considered part of the family circle. God was not so much the creator and master of the universe as their own personal deity. As you can imagine, worship took many different forms, but typically included sacrificial offerings and the use of cast or carved images. There was no God-given prohibition of idols at this time and we know from Gen.31 that the family that stayed behind in Haran worshiped idols. Apparently Abram had rejected idol worship in favor of a more spiritual relationship as there is no record of Abram having any idols. The Patriarch served as the family priest who communicated with his god and ordered his personal life, and the life of his clan, accordingly. In response to the devotion of the clan, god was expected to protect them from harm, to prosper them in their lives and property, and to be a witness to their oaths. It is difficult to say whether the patriarchs were true monotheists as we would define that word today. They were probably not too concerned with the deity or religious practices of other clans. What was important to them was their relationship with the god they had chosen to serve.

Abram’s Problem:
Between Gen. 12:10 and 15:1 a lot happens to Abram that we don’t have time to go into in detail. It is a litany of faith and failure and problems. But, Abram’s number one major problem was that “Sarai was barren ” (Gen.11:30). So Abram did not have a son to fulfill God’s promise to make him a “great nation.” (12:2). That is probably why Abram took Lot, his nephew, with him on this odyssey. In the absence of a son, the nephew would be the closest blood relative and, as such, would stand to inherit. But Lot and Abram had been forced to separate. So Lot cut himself off from Abram’s inheritance (which was a pretty stupid thing to do) and Abram was left with a servant named Eliezer to inherit his estate.

As we pick up the story, Abram has just come from the defeat of the kings of the east and the rescue of Lot and his encounter with Melchizedek. Abram had given a tithe of all the spoil to Melchizedek and had received a blessing from him. But Abram had refused the reward offered by the King of Sodom to which he was entitled. Lot had returned to Sodom.

God’s first words to Abram were “Do not be afraid”. What would have made Abram afraid? The four kings of Mesopotamia were strong and in the normal course of events could retaliate against Abram. But God says, “Do not be afraid. I am your shield”. God had protected Abram in Egypt when Abram had lied to Pharaoh about his relation to Sarai, and God had given him the victory over the four kings of the east even when his force was greatly outnumbered. God had proven faithful in the past and was reassuring Abram that God would be faithful in the future.

Also, in the past God had promised Abram great things. Now God reassures Abram that his reward would be great – so much greater than the “stuff” he could have gotten from the king of Sodom.

“Where are you God? How can these things be?”

We need to notice the progress of the relationship between God and Abram. In 12:1, when they were still in Haran, “God said…”. While Abram obeyed, there is no indication that there was any dialogue. Then in 12:8, at the alter at Bethel, Abram “invoked the name of the Lord.” That is, Abram initiated the conversation but there is no record of God’s response. Now here in 15:2 God initiates the conversation and Abram responds verbally – and he responds with his deepest, most heart-felt concern.

O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus. You have given me no children, so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

It’s hard to imagine how Abram must have felt. He had fantastic promises from this God who had inserted Himself into Abram’s life, but no logical way they could be fulfilled: a band of wandering shepherds, living in tents among a settled and established people; an old man with an old wife, abandoned by his nearest blood relative; a slave in line to inherit everything he had worked for. At this point he must have been very frustrated and he vented that frustration to God.

But then God cuts off even the slave from being Abram’s heir and gives Abram an open ended promise that his own son would be his heir. I can see Abram stepping out of his tent into the night and looking up to the sky and saying, “Where are you God? How can these things be?”

God’s response is another open-ended promise. Back in Gen. 13:16 God had said, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can count the dust, then your off-spring could be counted.” Now God says, “Your descendants will be as numerous and the stars in the sky.” One commentator suggested that the dust of the earth represents Abram’s physical descendants while the stars of the sky represent his spiritual descendants. Be that as it may, God is promising Abram a vast number of descendants.

How does one respond to these open ended, seemingly impossible promises of God?

“Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

It is impossible to over emphasize the significance of this affirmation. This is arguably the key verse of the entire Bible. All of Judaism and Christianity are based on this principle – justification by faith.

In Abram’s case, his faith led to obedience, but it was the faith not the obedience that was the basis of God’s judgment of righteousness.

To justify someone means to declare that person righteous, not to make him or her righteous in all their ways. Justification expresses a legal verdict – a “not guilty” verdict – handed down by a judge. And God, the ultimate judge, has determined that God’s verdict will be based on a person’s faith, not on the person’s works.

Later God would give the law to Moses and the Israelites. But the Law demonstrated to Israel and to the rest of the world, that a religion of works was futile. No person could be perfect. No person could achieve perfection under the law so no person could be justified through works of the law. (Romans 3:19-28)

In Abram’s case, his faith led to obedience, but it was the faith not the obedience that was the basis of God’s judgment of righteousness.

In Romans 4:3 Paul restates this key verse. That tells us that trust in God’s promise is what results in justification in any age, Old Testament or New Testament. So justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law (Romans 3:28) applies to all people in every age.

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