ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
1.In the record of Abraham’s life in the book of Genesis, he is first called Abram and his wife is Sarai. Then in chapter 17 they are renamed by God as Abraham and Sarah (the names signifying “Father of many” and “Princess”). To avoid any confusion I have used Abraham and Sarah throughout.
- This paper does not attempt to include everything the Bible tells us about Abraham and Sarah but I have tried to mention the most important points.
- Abraham the traveller.
Abraham’s travels began when his father Terah decided to move from Ur (in south-east present day Iraq) to Canaan (i.e. Israel), taking with him Abraham, Sarah and Lot (his grandson, whose father had died) (Genesis 11:31). Basically they followed the river Euphrates but they only got as far as Haran (in southern present day Turkey) which was a journey of some 600 miles. They settled there until Terah died. Of course such a journey would be nothing today with air-travel etc., but by camel caravan (and with possessions and livestock) limited to some 12 miles a day, it would be a very long and tiring journey.
After many years, Abraham (now 75 years old) was told by God to continue the journey to Canaan (Genesis 12:1-5), another 400 miles or so. Then, when famine hit the land he went on to Egypt and then back to Canaan to the region around Bethel and Ai (just north of Jerusalem), more hundreds of miles. In this way a much travelled man was brought by God to the land which would, some 600 years later, become the home of Abraham’s descendents, the people of Israel under Moses.
- Abraham and Melchizedek.
When Abraham and his nephew Lot returned from Egypt, each had much livestock – so much that they could no longer stay together because of the amount of pasture needed. Lot chose to go to the land near the river Jordan.
In a battle between two groups of “kings” (rulers of cities) Lot was on the losing side and was taken prisoner (Genesis 14). Abraham went to his rescue and brought Lot and all his possessions safely back. “Then Melchizedek king of Salem (i.e. Jerusalem) brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abraham…” (Genesis 14:18,19). Abraham gave him a tenth of all that he had captured.
Melchizedek is only mentioned once more in the Old Testament when, in a reference to the Messiah, David states, “You are a priest for ever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4).
It is left to the unknown writer to the Hebrews in the New Testament to draw out more of the significance of this king-priest. He shows that because Melchizedek has no known parents or children, he, like Jesus, remains a priest for ever. Then because Abraham gave him a tithe of the spoils, Melchizedek is seen as greater than Abraham, an idea reinforced by Melchizedek blessing Abraham, for “without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater” (Hebrews 7:7).
The author of Hebrews points out that Melchizedek preceded Aaron (Moses’ brother from whom all Jewish priests were descended) and was indeed superior to Aaron. Secondly he points out that Jesus was from the tribe of Judah and so not of the priestly tribe of Levi, but was a priest, like Melchizedek, “on the basis of the power of an indestructable life” (Hebrews 7:16),
So Melchizedek is seen as a model, fulfilled in Jesus, as an eternal king-priest, surpassing the Levitical (Jewish) priesthood. So that Jesus “is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
- God’s covenant with Abraham.
When Abraham was called by God to leave Haran and journey on to Canaan, God made great promises to Abraham, especially that his descendents would form a great nation and that through Abraham “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3b). However Abraham did not see how this could be as he had no children and was now an old man. He had even thought that one of his servants would have to be appointed as his heir (an accepted custom in those days). But God said, “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). Then Abraham was taken outside on a clear, dark night where he could see the vast number of stars and told that his descendents would be just as numerous. Abraham believed God and his faith caused him to be counted righteous in God’s sight (Genesis 15:6, one of the greatest of Old Testament verses because it is such an early link between faith in God and being accepted by God). So a covenant or agreement was set up between God and Abraham – Abraham was promised descendents and that they would have a land to dwell in and that God would be the God of his descendents (Genesis 15:8; 17:8). As a sign of this covenant all the men and male children were circumcised (Genesis 17:10).
- Abraham’s Son.
Abraham had believed God’s promise that his heir would not be one of his servants but a son of his own, but he still could not see how this would happen in his old age and because his wife, “Sarah was past the age of childbearing” (Genesis 18:11). Rather than wait for God’s timing, Sarah suggested that Abraham should have a child by her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar (an ancient custom in the search for a male heir –Genesis 16:1,2). This resulted in the birth of Ishmael when Abraham was 86 (Genesis 16:16). Yet this was not God’s way forward and indeed the birth of Ishmael caused much friction within the family. However God spoke yet again to Abraham and foretold that Abraham and Sarah would themselves have a son who would be called Isaac and who would be Abraham’s true heir and the link to the many descendents that Abraham had been promised. So at the age of one hundred Abraham became the father of Isaac (Genesis 21:5) and Hagar, together with Ishmael were sent away.
- Abraham’s faith tested.
As we read Genesis 22:1-19, note first that this was a testing (with the purpose that Abraham’s faith would grow stronger), not a temptation (a ploy of Satan with the purpose that Abraham’s faith would fail and that he would move away from God).
So why did God test Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac? There could hardly have been a greater test. Abraham and Sarah needed a son for God’s promises to be fulfilled, and here was God asking for the life of that only son. We, with hindsight, know that that life was preserved but what was Abraham thinking as he and his son made their way to the place chosen by God? It is hard to imagine the conflict between faith and incredulity that must have raged in his mind. Yet the crux is that faith won – even as Hebrews 11:19 suggests that “Abraham reasoned that God would raise the dead.” Indeed Abraham’s faith reached its peak as he raised the knife.
But, besides testing and developing Abraham’s faith, the action that God took in providing a ram which could be sacrificed instead of Isaac, introduces into the Bible record the idea of substitutionary sacrifice – of one dying in the place of another. It was this principle that saw Jesus dying on the cross in our place. We deserve to die because of the many sins we have committed and go on committing, despite our best efforts, but Jesus paid the price for us, just as the ram did for Abraham and Isaac.
There is no doubt that some will find the idea of this incident involving Abraham and Isaac repugnant and almost impossible to understand, but if we look at it as Abraham, in great faith, putting Isaac into the hands of God, it may seem less objectionable and more inspirational. As Abraham said on another occasion, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).
The fact that Abraham obeyed was rewarded as God confirmed the covenant He had made with Abraham (Genesis 22:16-18). Note, in particular, the promise that “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (verse 18). Indeed the world has been blessed because through Abraham’s offspring Isaac and his descendents (Matthew 1:1-16), a line which led, humanly speaking, to Jesus Himself, the greatest possible blessing has come to this planet and its people.
- Abraham and the Land.
God had promised that the whole land of Canaan “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18) would be given to Abraham’s descendents, but Abraham himself possessed no property in the land which was occupied by several tribes (Genesis 15:19-21). However as the years passed a new situation occurred – Sarah died and Abraham had nowhere to bury her body. So he had to buy a suitable place. Therefore Abraham bargained with Ephron the Hittite and bought from him the “field in Machpelah near Mamre” (Genesis 23:17), which had a cave in it, a suitable spot for burying Sarah. He paid 400 shekels of silver, apparently a high price for such a field, but his need was great and urgent. However this was the only land which Abraham himself was ever to possess but it was a first step, reinforcing the promise that one day his descendents would own not only that field but the whole land.
- Abraham the Patriarch.
The unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews (see 2 above) also calls Abraham a patriarch (Hebrews 7:4), a word which means the founder or father of a race (from the Greek patria (family) and arkhes (ruling)). So the Jews look to Abraham (along with Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons) as the fathers of their nation – “Are you greater than our father Abraham?” they asked Jesus (John 8:53).
Abraham is certainly worthy of respect as a man who trusted God in so many ways and was blessed by God for his faith. However we must never forget the answer given by Jesus to that question put to him by the Jewish authorities: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered “before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). So Jesus claims to be greater than Abraham and in using the words “I am” underlines His deity. Abraham may be great, Jesus was infinitely greater.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.