To Jews and Christians alike, Abraham is regarded as “the father of the faith” –and rightly so. Yet this giant of faith wasn’t born faithful; he didn’t grow up in a Jewish home. On the contrary, during Abraham’s earliest years, he was exposed to pagan religions.
At some point in his life Abraham had to decide to put his faith in Jehovah –and with every test that came his way he had to decide to grow in his trust in God. Abraham had his moments when he faltered in his faith and when he questioned God’s plan. But overall, Abraham’s life exhibited a pattern of consistent growth –to the point where God was convinced that He was the absolute, unquestionable number one priority in Abraham’s life.
Because of Abraham’s faith God blessed him, and through Abraham He blessed all of humanity. As a result of his faith, Abraham became the progenitor of the Christ, and the spiritual ancestor of all that would be saved. God made Abraham a key instrument in his universal salvation plan.
Abraham’s life is inspirational because it is a life that all of us as weak, flesh-and-blood men and women can relate to. His life demonstrates that regardless of our background and circumstances, God can and wants to use us in a powerful way –that He has a vital role for each one of us in the execution of His plan.
As was the case for Abraham, it is our decision as individuals –and ours alone- whether or not we are going to trust God, and therefore, whether or not we will be tools in the Master’s hands.
A Faulty Foundation
Abraham (born Abram), the son of Terah was likely born in the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia (referred to as “Ur of the Chaldeans” –the Chaldeans being an ancient people that inhabited southern Mesopotamia). As Ur was a centre of pagan worship, it is highly likely that Abram would have been exposed to pagan practices such as idolatry in his formative years. It is also possible that Abram would have participated in such practices before he knew Jehovah.
According to Joshua, Terah worshipped “other gods” (Josh 24:3). According to a non-Biblical tradition, Terah was a general and confidant of Nimrod’s, as well as a maker and trader of idols. According to this tradition, Abram was at times entrusted with his father’s business, while Terah was away on army campaigns. On one such occasion, Abram, having become convinced as to the futility of trusting in lifeless idols, is said to have smashed his father’s entire inventory of idols. It was further suggested that Nimrod was so incensed by Abram’s irreverence that he ordered his execution. According to the story this was the reason why Terah left Ur with Abram and Lot and settled in Haran.
The factualness of the above story might be questioned, but it does give credence to the idea of Abram being exposed to and possibly engaging in idolatry before his “conversion”. Until God had called him, pagan religion would have been the only religion known to Abram. However, at some point in time Abram became convinced that Jehovah was the only true God, and that he had to choose between this “new God” and his father’s gods.
A Shaky Start
Even after Abram’s “conversion”, obedience to God was seemingly neither natural nor complete.
Upon reading the Genesis account of the calling of Abram, one could come to the conclusion that God first called Abram while he was living in Haran after the death of his father, Terah, and that Abram obeyed this call fully and immediately (Gen 11:31 -12:1).
According to Stephen, however, God first called Abram while he was still living in Ur and while Terah was still alive, and commanded him to go to a land that God would show him. According to this account Abram left the land of the Chaldeans (Ur), and settled in Haran. After the death of Terah, according to Stephen, God sent Abram to Canaan (Act 7:2-4). Thus there were at least two interactions between God and Abram in connection with Abram’s call to go to the Promised Land, firstly in Ur, and secondly in Haran. Stephen’s account leaves us with two possibilities:
(1) When God first called Abram in Ur, God was not specific about Abram’s final destination, and only specified his final destination as Canaan when He called Abram again in Haran.
(2) God did make it clear at the first call that He wanted Abram to go to Canaan, but Abram did not obey God fully; it was only after God repeated the calling in Haran that Abram complied fully.
Thus it is possible that Abram did not obey God fully to begin with, and only complied fully with God’s request after God had repeated it. If this were indeed the case, Abram’s transformation into the father of the faith is even more remarkable.
A Faltering Faith
Notwithstanding the possibility that Abram only complied fully with his calling after the second request, the fact that Abram left behind all that he had been familiar with is still a remarkable act of faith. Even so, after his arrival in Canaan, there were times that Abram faltered in his trust in God:
(1) When Abram went to Egypt to escape the consequences of a devastating drought in Egypt, Abram feared that he might be killed in Egypt on account of his wife who was a woman of exceptional beauty. Instead of relying on God’s protection, Abram lied and claimed that Sarai was not his wife, but his sister. In the process, Abram not only put his marriage at risk (the Egyptian Pharaoh actually took her into his harem), but also exposed his wife and the Pharaoh to possible adultery.
(2) Amazingly Abram repeated this attempted deception when he went to Gerar. Instead of relying on God’s protection, Abram again resorted to deception to try and save his own skin.
(3) Even though God had promised Abram numerous descendants, Sarai’s infertility was a challenge to both Abram’s and Sarai’s faith. So, instead of trusting God, Abram and Sarai decided that they needed to “help God out” –they decided that Abram would sleep with Sarai’s maid-servant, Hagar, and build a family through her. Hagar conceived and bore Ishmael to Abram, but this act of Sarai and Abram would cause them both a lot of anxiety and discomfort.
Even as Abram was steadily growing in his faith, the above episodes demonstrated that at times Abram’s faith was not that steady. These incidents underlined the fact that Abram was human like the rest of us and prone to human failures –but it also demonstrates that we can all become people of great faith in spite of our human frailties.
In his relationship with people, Abram exhibited loyalty without sentimentality. These qualities typified Abram’s relationship with Lot. When quarrelling between their herdsmen threatened their relationship, Abram initiated their separation, because that was what they both needed at that time (Gen 13:5-9). Abram did not let sentimentality cloud his thinking. Yet when Lot was captured, Abram did not hesitate to attack four armies to rescue his nephew (Gen 14:12-16). And when Abraham understood that God was planning to destroy Sodom, he wrestled with God to not execute His plan for the sake of Lot who had taken up residence in Sodom (Gen 18:20-33).
From Abram’s relationship with Lot, we learn that our relationship with God has to be our number one priority. There may come a time when we might have to sever a close relationship if such a relationship is causing avoidable strife and, with that, the possibility of us not living a life that is wholly pleasing to God. But when a parting of the ways is inevitable, we have to the humbler party, and we have to make every effort that the parting is on the most amicable basis possible, just as Abram did. And even then, it should never be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Even though Lot made some bad choices (settling near Sodom and eventually taking up residence inside that pagan city) and as a result paid a heavy price (he was taken captive along with presumably the rest of Sodom when it was conquered), Lot knew that he could rely on Abram to come to his rescue when he was in trouble. Our family and friends need to know that no matter what, they can always rely on us when they really need us. And just as Abraham wrestled with God for Lot’s sake when the Lord had decided to destroy Sodom, so we also need to always wrestle in prayer for our friends and family, especially those with whom relations have become somewhat tense.
In his interactions with kings, Abram distinguished between respect for authority on the one hand, and people pleasing on the other. Abram firmly, rejected the king of Sodom’s offer for Abram to take all the plunder, because he would not put himself in a position where the king might claim authority over him (Gen 14:21-23). Abram had one lord –God –and he made sure that the king understood that his allegiance to God was non-negotiable. Yet Abram readily acknowledged the authority of Melchizedek, king of Salem) by handing over to him a tenth of everything, because Melchizedek also held the office of priest of God (Gen 14:18-20).
From Abram’s interaction with authority, we learn that we need to be respectful towards authority, but that we owe our allegiance firstly to God, even if those in position of authority are potential benefactors. Especially, in our relationship with our employers, we need to be reminded that allegiance to God is an absolute non-negotiable.
Abram was equally open with God. When God confirmed that He would be Abram’s great reward, Abram’s frank response was, “What can you give me since I remain childless…?” He continued, “You have given me no children…” (Gen 15:1-3). In a way Abram was saying, “What’s the point of more blessings if I don’t have sons to inherit it, and all of it will end up going to one of my servants!” Abram’s response seems ungrateful and gives the impression that he was blaming God for his dilemma. The reality is that, not having any children was an issue of major proportions to Abram –and so he had a frank discussion with the Lord about how he was feeling about things. Remarkably, the Lord did not take offence at Abram’s forthright remarks, but instead reassured Abram that he was planning to fulfil every promise completely.
Similarly Abraham would enter into a debate with God over the impending destruction of Sodom, seemingly just to save his nephew, Lot. Abraham even went as far as to remind God as Judge of all the earth He had a responsibility to do the right thing. One could say that Abraham was rather “cheeky” in this interaction with God. Yet, instead of getting upset with Abraham, God understood that Abraham was really motivated by a concern for his relative, and allowed Abraham to talk Him into agreeing to spare Sodom if there were ten righteous people living there.
Abraham’s faith was apparent through his obedience. God put Abraham through a series of trials, each one requiring more faith than the previous. Each time Abraham proved his faith through his obedience and thereby demonstrated his readiness to progress to the next level of trial and faith.
The first such test was the call to leave behind his father’s household and to go to a place that God would show him. For us living in the 21st century who go on holiday or travel to other countries to work or settle there, this may not seem to be such a big deal. But in biblical times when one relied principally on one’s clan for protection, Abram’s move required a giant leap of faith. Exchanging his settled life in Ur for a nomadic life in Canaan would similarly be a great sacrifice.
Abram’s separation from Lot was a further demonstration of faith. Lot was after all Abram’s last connection to his clan. It could have been tempting to stick together, in spite of the bickering between their herdsmen. By allowing Lot to choose the better pasturelands, Abram was also demonstrating that his trust was in his Creator rather that the creation.
Abram’s decision to rescue Lot after the latter had been captured, demonstrated just how much Abram had grown in his faith. To pursue four kings and their armies with 318 men made no sense whatsoever –but it did demonstrate just how much Abram trusted God for his protection.
When Abraham was 99 years old God commanded that he and all the males in his household be circumcised. Now there are very good reasons why subsequently God commanded that Israelite boys be circumcised on the eighth day after birth –not the least of which is the debilitating pain that follows. (The Bible relates how Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, put all the males in the city of Shechem to the sword after persuading the Shechemites to circumcise themselves in order for them to intermarry with Jacob’s household. Three days after they had been circumcised they were in such pain as to render themselves utterly defenceless –they would have been unable to flee, let alone put up a fight! Simeon and Levi just walked in and mowed them down!) So without a doubt, being circumcised as a mature man was a huge cost to count for Abraham and all his men. Yet “on that very day” Abraham and all the males in his household were circumcised. The promptness and completeness of Abraham’s obedience were truly remarkable.
Some time later after Isaac was born, Sarah became insecure about the threat that Ishmael posed to Isaac’s inheritance and insisted that Abraham get rid of Ishmael. Now one must bear in mind that for 15 or so years, Ishmael was the only son that Abraham had –and for most of that time it would have seemed like Ishmael would be the only son that Abraham would ever have. The two of them must have bonded like only a father and son can. And so, when Sarah insisted that Ishmael had to go, one can well imagine how this must have torn Abraham up on the inside. According to the Bible, “The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.” (Gen 21:11) Yet after God reassured Abraham that sending Ishmael away was the appropriate thing to do, and that God had a plan to bless Ishmael as well, Abraham complied by sending both Ishmael and Hagar away “early the next morning”. Again, in spite of his own anguish, Abraham obeyed God promptly and completely (Gen 21:11-14).
Abraham’s greatest test, without a doubt was the call to sacrifice Isaac. I cannot imagine how I would react given a similar instruction. It would be tempting to reason that God was simply unreasonable, or even to reason that this request could not have come from God –that it must have been Satan masquerading as God. Amazingly, Abraham neither questioned God nor grumbled about the instruction. Instead, “early the next morning”, Abraham set off with Isaac to do exactly what God had commanded. Again, Abraham exemplified prompt and complete obedience (Gen 22:1-3). According to the Hebrew-writer, Abraham was convinced that he would slay Isaac, but that God would raise him back to life (Heb 11:19)! So complete was Abraham’s surrender that the Angel of the Lord proclaimed, “Now I know that you fear God” (Gen 22:12).
There is no further record in the Bible of Abraham being tested again after this. It was as though Abraham had convinced God that nothing could get in the way of his relationship with God –and God had no reason to test Abraham any further.
We often consider Abraham’s great faith and make the assumption that Abraham had always been a person of great faith. The reality, however, is that Abraham was not born faithfaul, and had to overcome major obstacles to his faith –obstacles more serious than those of us raised in “Christian homes” could relate to.
Even after Abraham came to faith in God, he had relapses. He had times like all of us when his faith was a bit shaky –to put it very mildly! But in spite of his slip-ups, Abraham’s growth was consistent. The general direction of his faith was forward and upwards.
What helped Abraham grow was frank communication with God and with people. When Abraham was perturbed, he dealt honestly with his concerns –to the point that he came across as petulant. But instead of becoming impatient towards Abraham, God dealt reassuringly with his concerns.
The latter part of Abraham’s life was characterised by immediate and complete obedience. No matter how difficult or strange God’s requests might have seemed, Abraham obeyed promptly and fully.
Abraham’s story is hugely inspirational. It demonstrates that regardless of our beginnings, and no matter what setbacks we may have experienced, we can put all of that behind us and also become giants of faith by making the decision to obey God promptly and completely.
From the Cape Town Church of Christ website