Abraham: Separated, Faithful, Obedient

May 20, 2019

A closer look at three interwoven themes in the Biblical account of this man who became known as “the Friend of God.”
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he Bible opens with four great events: Creation, the fall of man in the Garden, the flood of Noah’s day, and the scattering of nations after the tower of Babel. Approximately one thousand years after the days of Noah, a transition occurs in the Book of Genesis, beginning with chapter 12. Prior to that time, God had dealt with the entire human race, but at that point, the Scriptural narrative shifts to the man Abram, whose name was later changed to Abraham. Though an idol-worshipper when God first called him,[1] Abram answered God’s summons and became not only the first great patriarch of ancient Israel, but a model of faithfulness for Christian believers through the ages.  

While we can learn many spiritual lessons from the life of Abraham, three primary and interwoven themes are notable throughout the Biblical account of this man who became known as “the friend of God”: separation, faith, and obedience.

Separation

The final verses of Genesis 11 establish the lineage of Abram. His family, descendants of Noah’s son Shem, lived in a city of Babylonia named Ur of the Chaldeans. Genesis 11:31 indicates that his father, Terah, took his family from Ur to go into the land of Canaan. However, he settled instead in the flourishing trade center of Haran, several hundred miles to the northwest.

In Genesis 12, the theme of separation begins to unfold. While living in Haran, Abram took a step of obedience that changed the course of his life—he responded to God’s call that had come to him before he left Ur of the Chaldees.[2] Acts 7:2 relates that “the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham.” The Genesis record indicates that God “said unto Abraham” (emphasis added). Little detail is given about what actually transpired, but the call of God was unmistakable: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee” (Genesis 12:1).

The message was a command. However, God did not just tell Abram to go. He made promises to him with far-reaching implications, saying, “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).

It was no small decision for Abram to separate himself from home, friends, and family and start out for a land that he did not know. As a prince in his tribe, he was wealthy and had many servants. In the natural, there was no apparent way he could become a great nation away from his position in the family hierarchy and the benefits of being part of a great clan. However, he believed in the divine authority of God and determined to obey.

Leaving behind the protection of his larger tribal connections, Abram traveled without maps, travel guide, or GPS—nothing more than traders’ accounts to tell him what lay over the horizon. Along with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, he became a nomad in a strange land solely based on God’s promises. His pilgrimage took him south on a 1500-mile trek along the trade routes from Haran, through Shechem and Bethel, to the land of Canaan—an area populated by wicked, warlike people who were later to be destroyed because of the abominations they practiced.

For the next century, until his death at the age of 175, he lived separate from the native peoples around him. He was among them but not of them.

When Abram started his long journey southward into the land of promise, he was seventy-five years old. For the next century, until his death at the age of 175, he lived separate from the native peoples around him. He was among them but not of them, guarding his son Isaac from inter-marriage with the ungodly population and engaging in minimal social interaction outside of his family. Except for an agreement with his nearest neighbors, Abram made no alliances nor did he take part in the politics or religious practices of the people of the land. The only property he purchased was a burial place for his wife, Sarah. He did not reside in any permanent location, but “sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles [tents]” (Hebrews 11:9). And he lived this way for one hundred years!

Bible scholar and author F. B. Meyer (1847 – 1929) commented that Abram was from first to last a separated man. “Separated from his fatherland and kinsfolk, from Lot, as a pilgrim and stranger, from the people of the land, from his own methods of securing a fulfilment of the promises of God, from the rest of mankind by special sorrows, . . . [he was brought] into closer fellowship with God than had ever been reached by man, and separated to high and lofty fellowship in thoughts and plans, which God could not hide from him.”[3]   

Faith

Tracing the account of Abram’s sojourn in Canaan and the events he faced in a new and unfamiliar land reveals that his faith grew little by little. At times Abram was impatient and failed to fully trust in God, instead acting according to his own judgment. He looked at the difficulties he faced and feared, so he took matters into his own hands in attempts to secure his desired outcomes. Still, God was patient, and led him step by step to a deeper faith.

In Haran, God had promised he would show Abram the land (Genesis 12:1). After Abram entered into Canaan and built an altar at Shechem, God told him, “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (Genesis 12:7). Some years later, when Abram allowed his nephew Lot (who had accompanied him out of Haran) to choose first where to settle, God promised that the land would be given “to thy seed for ever” (Genesis 13:15). However, Abram still had no deed or official evidence to prove the land was his. All he had was the promise of God—but that was enough.

In chapter 15, God gave Abram a further renewal and amplification of His promises. Many years had gone by, and Abram and his wife, Sarai, were still childless—a great grief and shame in their society. If Abram died childless, his only heir would be Eliezer, his trusted servant. Although Abram loved God and believed His promises, he was also human. In verses 2-3, he expressed his concern to God. In response, the Lord made a new promise to Abram: he would have a son—an actual flesh-and-blood heir. Then God took Abram outside, showed him the stars, and pledged, “So shall thy seed be.”

For the first time in Scripture, the word believe occurs—Genesis 15:6 states that Abram “believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”

For the first time in Scripture, the word believe occurs—Genesis 15:6 states that Abram “believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” When God further promised Abram to “give thee this land to inherit it,” (verse 7) he responded by asking, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” This was not a demand for a sign in order to believe, but rather, a simple request for outward evidence of his inner assurance.

It was at this point that God formally established His covenant with Abram. He instructed Abram to prepare a sacrifice, which Abram did, understanding that God was telling him to get a contract ready for ratification. Ancient customs for contractual agreements required the two parties of a covenant to walk between the pieces of the sacrifice, but God did not appear immediately. Abram had to wait and watch for a time, driving away the vultures that came in an attempt to consume the sacrifice. At last God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Abram, and “a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp” appeared and moved between the sacrificial animals, indicating that God was ratifying the covenant and would fulfill all the commitments attached to it.

No doubt Abram’s heart was filled with joy at that moment. But then a month went by, two months, a year, two years. Ultimately, it was thirteen years before the Lord appeared to Abram again.

In verses 18-21, God revealed to Abram for the first time the geographical boundaries of the land his descendants would possess: they would stretch from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates. No doubt Abram’s heart was filled with joy at that moment. But then a month went by, two months, a year, two years. Ultimately, it was thirteen years before the Lord appeared to Abram again.

Undoubtedly Abram’s faith in God was tested during that period. Would he continue to take God at His word, no matter what his reasoning told him? It was difficult to see how God would be able to fulfill His promise, because Sarah was well past her childbearing years. Then Genesis 17 records that the Lord appeared to Abram again. In verses 1-8, God promised Abram that he would have many descendants, that many nations would come from them, that God’s covenant would continue to apply to these descendants, and finally, that those descendants would occupy the land of Canaan. God reinforced this expanded covenant by changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah.

More years went by, but still Abraham did not waver in his faith. In the New Testament, Paul wrote to the Romans that “he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Romans 4:20-21). And when Abraham was ninety-nine years old and Sarah was eighty-nine, their long awaited son, Isaac, was born. Abraham had triumphed in his lengthy test of faith, and God’s promise was fulfilled. What a time of rejoicing that must have been!

Obedience

At this point in the narrative, we might suppose that since Abraham’s faith had been tried and proven, he would live out his remaining years in peaceful enjoyment of the blessings God had given him. However, a great test of obedience was still ahead for Abraham. In Genesis 22:2, God told Abraham, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” 

It is not difficult to imagine the anguish that must have pierced Abraham’s heart at this command. Perhaps he thought, Sarah’s heart will break. Will she ever forgive me? I’ll be a murderer. And Isaac is the son of promise! How can I slay him? God himself told me, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” In addition to his deep love for his son, Abraham knew that God condemned the heathen practice of child sacrifice. Yet, he also knew the words, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac…” were not his imagination. Only someone in a very close relationship with God could obey when faced with this command.

While clearly determined to follow the path God had marked out for him, he must have anguished over what was to take place there. Like the departure from his homeland of Ur, Abraham once again traveled a path unfamiliar in both geography and intent.

It appears that God’s instruction was sudden and unexpected, and that Abraham immediately responded. He rose up early in the morning and prepared for the trip, taking two of his young men along with Isaac for the journey of about fifty miles. The Biblical account does not say whether Abraham told them or Isaac where they were going. It does not indicate that he told Sarah what was about to happen. Abraham was focused upon the destination that God told him to approach. Still, while clearly determined to follow the path God had marked out for him, he must have anguished over what was to take place there. Like the departure from his homeland of Ur, Abraham once again traveled a path unfamiliar in both geography and intent.

When he arrived at the destination God had appointed, Abraham built an altar. Then he bound his beloved son, placed him on the wood, and took the knife into his hand. Hebrews 11:17-19 reveals that he expected that God would raise Isaac back from the dead. However, as Abraham raised his hand to slay his son, an angel of the Lord called to him out of heaven, saying, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Genesis 22:12). God saw that Abraham’s intention was to follow through, and that was enough. He provided a ram caught in a nearby thicket for Abraham to sacrifice instead.

An example for us

Abraham’s importance in redemptive history is clearly seen throughout the Word of God. His story takes up a good portion of the Genesis narrative from his first mention in Genesis 11:26 to his death in Genesis 25:8. He is mentioned by Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. He is referred to by Joshua, by the writer of the psalms, by Nehemiah, and by the prophet Isaiah. Aside from Moses, no Old Testament character is mentioned more frequently in the New Testament, and a summary of his accomplishments occurs in Acts 7 and Hebrews 11. James refers to Abraham as “the Friend of God” (James 2:23), a title used for no one else in Scripture. Clearly, God used Abraham to play a pivotal role in the story of redemption, culminating in the birth of Jesus as a fulfilment of His promise, “…in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

Abraham’s circumstances were challenging and his faith was tested repeatedly. Like us, he could not see the path ahead nor fully understand what God was doing. Still, he held fast to the promise in his heart. What an example this man left us of separation, faith, obedience, and hope in God! Let us learn from Abraham, so we too can be used for God’s purposes, and leave behind an enduring spiritual example for those who come after us.

 

[1] See Joshua 24:2.

[2] See Acts 7:2-4.

[3] Dr. F. B. Meyer, Abraham, God’s Friend (Westchester, IL: Good News Publishers, 1962), 9.