Today I begin a series of studies on the five failures of Abraham. Abraham was a man of faith, but even men of faith at times fail God and fail to trust the promises that God makes. Abraham failed in his walk with God because in times of crisis, Abraham failed to trust in God. Abraham was called to “be a blessing” to people (Genesis 12:20), and yet, many times he brought trouble rather than blessings to people. As Fretheim explains, “Abraham, the chosen one, all too often brings trouble rather than blessing to outsiders, not attending very well to be a blessing to all families” (Fretheim 2007:46).
Abraham and God’s Purpose
The story of Abraham begins with the events found in Genesis 1-11. This section of the book of Genesis is called “The Primeval History.” Genesis 1-11 deals with the story of creation and focuses primarily with the problems of sin, violence, and alienation. The disobedience of Adam and Eve was the prelude for the alienation between human beings and God.
The call of Abraham is preceded by the flood and the Tower of Babel. The flood reveals that during the time of Noah, the earth was filled with violence. The Tower of Babel was a demonstration of human hubris, a strong arrogance toward God and his desire to bring human beings back to himself.
The call of Abraham is related to God’s saving purpose for his creation. God’s purpose for his creation is to reclaim the world to himself. The story of Abraham cannot be understood apart from God’s desire to reconcile the world unto himself through Abraham and his descendants. In order to accomplish his work of salvation, God calls a man whose family worshiped other gods to become the agent through whom all the families of the world would be blessed.
God’s Promises to Give a Son to Abraham
As we will discover in our studies, all the failures of Abraham are related to his becoming a father in his old age, for as the Bible says, “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age” (Genesis 18:11). We have to remember that Abraham was 75 years old when God called him. Sarah, his wife, was 65 years old.
It is almost impossible for a couple to conceive in their old age. When the Lord appeared to Abraham saying that he would bless and protect him, Abraham said to God, “O Sovereign LORD, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you have given me no children” (Genesis 15:1-2 NLT). Abraham knew that God could give him a son in his old age for he knew that sons are gifts from the LORD (Psalm 127:3).
Sarah had the same problem; she could not be a mother in her old age. When the Lord announced that Sarah would become a mother, at the age of 90, Sarah was past the age of childbearing. When Sarah heard God’s promise to Abraham that he would become a father in less that twelve months, Sarah laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my husband is also so old?” (Genesis 18:12 NLT).
Both Abraham and Sarah said that it would be impossible for them to have children in their old age, Impossible, said Abraham. Impossible, said Sarah. But when the Lord heard Sarah’s laughter, he said to both of them, “Is anything impossible for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14 HCSB).
Nothing is impossible for God. Thus, notwithstanding their unbelief, Sarah conceived and gave birth to a son. The son was named Isaac, a name which means laughter because Sarah had laughed at the news of her coming pregnancy. When Isaac was born, Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 years old, proving once again that nothing is impossible for God.
The Faith of Abraham
Although Abraham had problems believing that God would give him a son, Abraham was a man of faith. From the beginning of his encounter with God, Abraham believed in God and in his promises.
One of the greatest demonstrations of Abraham’s faith was when God appeared to him while he was living in Ur, a great ancient city in Mesopotamia. When God first appeared to Abraham, Abraham believed in other gods. When Joshua was retelling the history of God’s people after Israel had settled in the land of Canaan, Joshua told the new generation of Israelites, “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:2).
The Bible does not say when and how God appeared to Abraham, but it was a powerful revelation, so powerful that it convinced Abraham to abandon his gods to follow the true God who would lead him into an unknown land. Abraham came out of paganism to become the father of a nation that would serve the true God, a nation which would carry God’s purpose unto all the nations of the world.
While Abraham was still in Mesopotamia, Abraham left his nation and his family to follow his new God. Abraham showed his faith by going to the land of Canaan. The author of the book of Hebrews speaks about Abraham’s faith: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).
Abraham also showed his faith in God when he believed God’s promise that he would become a father in his old age: “By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old — and Sarah herself was barren– because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11).
The greatest demonstration of Abraham’s faith was when he obeyed God’s request and prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you’” (Hebrews 11:17–18).
The author of the book of Hebrews focuses our attention on the faithful response of Abraham to God’s call to leave his country and his family. This points us to the narrative of Genesis 12, where the call of God and the obedient response of Abraham was the beginning of a new relationship between God and Abraham. By examining who Abraham was and where he came from provides important information for the proper understanding of this extraordinary man whom God called “my friend” (Isaiah 41:8).
Abraham’s faith was the faith of a new believer. He had encountered God and when his new God presented his request to his new follower, Abraham believed and did what he was requested to do.
In evaluating Abraham’s faith, it is necessary to understand the background from which Abraham was taken. Before Abraham believed in God, he served other gods: “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods” (Joshua 24:2).
Abraham’s ancestors were Peleg, Serug, Nahor, and Terah (Genesis11:18, 22–23, 26). The names of Abraham’s ancestors were also names of gods mentioned in documents from Mesopotamia.
When Abraham came to the land of Canaan, he did not come alone; his family came with him. Abraham’s father brought him from Ur: “Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran” (Genesis 11:31-32).
My next post will deal with the location of Ur of the Chaldeans and whether the city of Ur is located in upper or lower Mesopotamia.
Further Studies on Abraham: Visit The 5 Failures of Abraham to read other studies on this series.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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