As a boy I heard the story of Abraham recounted at least once a week, and it usually went something like this: “God told Abraham to go, and he went. He didn’t ask questions; he didn’t hesitate; he just packed up and left everything he knew—country, family—and went. That’s how all of us should obey God. When God says ‘jump,’ you don’t ask ‘how high?’ – you just jump.”
Maybe you have heard a similar story. There’s no disputing the point—we should put the will of God first in our lives. But we don’t. Not all the time—not even most of the time. It usually takes us a while to get our act together. We might want to do what God says, but we put it off. We might try to do what God says, but we chicken out. We might even get started doing what God says, but then not follow through.
The background for the story above comes not from the Genesis account of Abram’s call, but from Hebrews 11, commonly called the “faith chapter.” Verse 8 reads: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (NKJV). Verse 11 adds, “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.”
You might at first think that the author of Hebrews was reading the Classics Illustrated version of the Abraham story, because the Genesis version paints a somewhat different picture—a not so sanitized picture of the patriarch and matriarch of the chosen people.
The early record is found in Genesis 11:27-32. Let’s read it:
This is the account of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.
Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.
It’s a sketchy story: Abram was the son of Terah; his wife’s name was Sarai and she was barren; Terah moved Abram and Sarai, along with his grandson, Lot, to Haran; Terah died. (There is no mention of the rest of the family moving to Haran.)
Somewhere along the line (we are not told exactly when), God spoke to Abram, giving him a most remarkable promise. Let’s continue the story in Gen 12:1-3:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God told Abram to “go forth from your county.” What exactly was Abram’s country? Haran was only a temporary home for Abram, not Abram’s home country. Gen 15:7 says, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” So Ur was Abram’s country and the location of Abram’s “father’s house.”
That means it is likely that God said these things to Abram while Abram was still in Ur—while he was still with his relatives and still in his home country. Which in turn tell us that Abram may have been rather slow about getting out of his country, from his relatives and from his father’s house.
It would make one wonder whether Terah, Abram’s father, moved Abram, Sarai and Lot from Ur in response to what Yahweh had told Abram, because Genesis 11:31 says that Terah took Abram and headed to the land of Canaan, but stopped short in Haran.
Was he trying to light a fire under Abram by getting him started? Maybe so. But whether it was immediately or later, at some point after God’s call, Abram did pack up all his considerable possessions, including slaves, and traveled from Haran across the Euphrates River and down to Canaan, leaving his father’s house and whatever relatives might have also made the trip from Ur to Haran.
But Abram had barely set up shop in we call the “land of promise” before there was a famine so bad that he again packed up and moved to Egypt. We have to wonder, if Abram trusted God’s promise about the land flowing with milk and honey, why go straight to Egypt when there was trouble?
Abram’s stay in Egypt was no triumph of faith either. Fearing that the king would kill him in order to marry his beautiful wife, Abram asked Sarai to tell the king that she was his sister. Let’s read it in Gen 12:10:
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.
But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.”
There are several things to consider here. One is that Abram handled his affairs a lot like many of us tend to: Seek the most expedient way out of a problem. In other words, shortsighted, knee-jerk, unplanned living.
What about faith? Abram didn’t show much in this episode. But there is another side to the story. In this incident, Abram was weak in faith. But here’s the kicker: Consider what God did in spite of Abram’s lack of faith. He blessed Abram with more stock. He protected Sarai, in spite of Abram’s willingness to let the king take her. He got Abram back into the Promised Land, though it took a deportation to do it. Who knows how long Abram would have stayed in Egypt otherwise?
What is the lesson?
God is faithful, even when we are not. That’s a pretty big lesson. We begin to get the impression that these Genesis stories are not here to give us models of excellent living, but to show us God’s faithfulness to those who call on his name.
When we read Genesis, the facts are stacked against Abram. He doesn’t sound very faithful at times. But it’s often the case that the obvious, simple facts don’t tell the whole story, or “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey’s popular radio short was called. There is often something going on under the surface, behind the scenes, that plain facts don’t have the capacity to convey.
From your own experience, you know that “just the facts, ma’am” doesn’t always convey the real story. Sometimes the facts give a false impression, because they don’t contain the deeper facts, the invisible facts—the heart, the motivation, the mitigating circumstances, the personal journey.
In Mark Twain’s story of Tom Sawyer, the facts were against Muff Potter. He was holding the bloody knife, he was drunk, there was a witness against him, and worst of all, he remembered nothing, so even he believed he must be guilty—from the facts. But the simple, obvious facts conveyed an untrue story. There were deeper facts, unseen facts, which told the true story and spoke louder than the simple, obvious facts.
It’s easy to say Abram was weak in faith. But consider this from Abram’s perspective: God spoke to Abram, giving him some of the most dramatic, famous and far-reaching promises in the Bible. In spite of such unprecedented special treatment from God, Abram’s life was far from a bed of roses.
For example, where was God when the so-called promised land of blessing and descendants was a parched, cropless wasteland with no kids bearing Abram’s name, when in desperation Abram decided he had to head down to Egypt so he could feed his wife, slaves and animals?
Where was God when Sarai’s desperation over her barrenness drove her to offer her servant Hagar to Abram to give him a child, or when Abraham had to contend with Sarah’s bitter jealousy toward Hagar and Ishmael?
Where was God when Abraham’s love for Ishmael was brushed aside as irrelevant when it was time for Isaac to come along? What were the big promises worth to Abraham when he had to struggle with water rights, when he had to go to war to rescue his kidnapped nephew, when he had to send Ishmael away with nothing but the bread and water he and his mother could carry, and most of all when he was trudging along beside a donkey toward Mount Moriah, like some worshiper of Molech, to make a burned sacrifice of Isaac?
Abraham had to deal with strife, pain, heartache, tragedy and grievous disappointment, just like you and me. And through it all, he kept trusting God to be faithful to his word of grace and promise. Look at what Paul wrote in Romans 4:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”
Paul is telling us the real meaning of Abraham’s story, the truth behind the bare facts. Abraham did not earn righteousness by what he did, not even by his own faith. God gave it to him. It was a gift. His faith, weak as it was, was credited as righteousness. Paul doesn’t say his faith was righteousness. Paul says his faith was credited as righteousness.
Let’s continue in verse 13: “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” Paul is not saying that faith itself is righteousness; he is saying that righteousness comes by faith. In other words, righteousness is God’s gift; its free; and it is experienced by faith.
Let’s go to verse 19:
Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
Did you see that? Paul is telling us the end, the outcome, the meaning of the story as God sees it. In God’s view, the facts, the details, the places where Abraham was not full of faith, aren’t important. What is important is what God makes of the facts and details.
We don’t see unwavering faith in Genesis 17. Let’s turn there, Genesis 17:17-18, and read what actually happened: “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’”
Abraham found the promise that he and Sarai would bear a child to be laughable at this point. He had already resolved himself to accept Ishmael, who was born of Sarai’s handmaid Hagar, to be the fulfillment of the promise. That wasn’t unwavering faith.
But Paul gives us the real story behind the story – it wasn’t the strength of Abraham’s faith that made any difference – it was the truth of God’s promise. Human faith, by nature, does waver, but truth is truth, and the truth of God’s word is certain regardless of the strength or weakness of our faith.
Abraham is called the father of the faithful: not because he had unwavering faith – his faith wavered a lot. He’s the father of the faithful because God transformed his weak and wavering faith into the strong and unwavering faith of Jesus Christ, whose atoning work reaches both forward and backward in time.
Abraham believed God would do whatever he promised, even though he had no idea how he would bring it about. He stuck with God in spite of his personal weakness, not because of his personal strength.
What Paul calls “unwavering faith” has to do with trusting God in spite of your doubt. Faith is not about your strength; it’s about God’s strength. We trust in Christ, not in our faith. Our faith can’t save us: Christ saved us.
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that when the story in Genesis moves over to Jacob, Abraham just kind of fades out. He remarries – a woman named Ketura – has more kids, and you just don’t hear much about him any more. The same happened with Jacob, once the spotlight moved to Joseph.
All the so-called giants of faith of Hebrews 11, the faith chapter, were just regular people who had to struggle their way through life like the rest of us. They live, they struggle, and they die. Their story is our story. They didn’t have super powers. They weren’t X-Men or born on Krypton. They doubted, they lusted, they lied, they got mad, just like us….
And yet, God loved them, just like he loves us. In their weakness, God made them strong, just as he does us. God takes our story, including all the ugly facts of our lives, and transforms those facts and that story into his victory, the victory of Jesus Christ – and that new story, that new creation he makes of us, is more real and more true than the weak, wavering and failing story we see in the mirror every morning.
So what’s the real story of Abraham, the father of the faithful? Well, sometimes Abraham put things off. Sometimes he tried to solve things himself (he did the tell-them-you’re-my-sister thing again the very year Isaac was born). Sometimes he acted unwisely. But it was in the middle of the pains, problems, frustrations and mess-ups of life that Abraham trusted God, not in some happily-ever-after fairy-tale land where heroes are practically-perfect-in-every-way and nothing serious ever goes wrong.
And God was faithful to Abraham, just as he is faithful to us—not faithful to do the kind of things we think a proper God should do, like giving us whatever we long for or think we need—but faithful to us, his beloved children—to his redemptive purpose for us, to his new creation of which he has made us part in Christ.
In the same way, God has redeemed your story—your personal history, the record of your weaknesses, shortcomings and failures, and has transformed you and your history into something new—his new creation in Jesus Christ.
In Christ, we can put our troubled past behind us, and trust his word of truth for us. As Paul put it, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthian 5:17, NIV).
Author: J. Michael Feazell