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14. Lot Looks Out For Number One (Genesis 13:5-18)


This week, as I was preparing for this message, I was reminded of a recent best seller entitled, Looking Out For Number One. Thinking that this book might provide me with some illustrative material, I went to the library to check it out. All the volumes were missing from the shelf. I take it that many today are operating on this premise.

Lot never read any books on the subject, but he had it down to a science, as we can see from the account of Moses in Genesis chapter 13. Here, the time for Lot and Abram to separate had come. In their parting we find a contrast between these two saints in their motives and actions, a contrast which serves as a warning for those who think that God blesses those who look out for themselves at the expense of others.

A Relationship Is Strained

As they came out of Ur with Terah, Abram and Lot seemed inseparable, even when God had commanded Abram to leave his relatives behind.

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;’ (Genesis 12:1).

But finally, the ties between the two were weakening. Essentially their separation was caused by three factors which are recorded in verses 5-7:

Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents and the land could not sustain them while dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they were not able to remain together. And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. Now the Canaanite and the Perizzite were dwelling then in the land (Genesis 13:5-7).

The first problem was the success of both men as keepers of flocks. Both Abram (13:2) and Lot (13:5) had prospered. Now their flocks and herds had become so large that they could no longer dwell together (13:6). This was especially true for nomadic tribesmen who must travel about looking continually for pasture for their sheep and cattle.

The second problem was the strife which seemed to be steadily growing between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot (13:7). Each man’s herdsmen sought water and the best pasture for the animals of their master. This competition inevitably led to conflict between the herdsmen of Lot and Abram.

It would probably not be far from the facts to suggest that some irritation already had become evident between Abram and Lot themselves. This may be implied by Abram’s words in verse 8. This also would be true to life. Whenever there is contention between followers, there most often will be strife between the leaders also.

If the first problem is the success of both Abram and Lot, and the second is the resulting strife, the third is the fact that the land where they sojourned was shared with others; namely the Canaanites and the Perrizites (13:7).

It is all too easy to forget that none of the land of Canaan as yet belonged to either Abram or Lot. When Abram and Lot separate in this chapter, they part paths; they do not divide real estate. They are both living in a land which is occupied by the Canaanites and Perrizites.

This seemingly incidental remark from the pen of Moses not only reminds us that Abram was a sojourner, dwelling in a land that would some day belong to his seed, but it may also suggest that the strife which existed between he and Lot was a poor testimony to those who looked on with interest. Further, Abram and Lot not only had to share pasture between themselves, but were at the mercy of those who had prior claim to the land.

I smile as I read these verses, for God works in strange and sometimes humorous ways to accomplish His will. Long before, God had told Abram to leave his country and his relatives. At that time, leaving Lot was mainly a matter of principle. Abram was to do it because God had said to. Now, years later, Abram reluctantly acknowledged that a separation must take place, not as a matter of principle, but out of practical expediency.

My friend, one way or the other God’s will is going to be done. It could have been done by Abram in Ur, but it was not. God providentially brought an irritation and competition between Abram and Lot which forced a separation to occur. Sooner or later, God’s purposes will come to pass. If we do not see the need for obedience, God will create one. You can count on it.

A Request Is Made

No doubt the problem which caused Abram and Lot to separate had long been evident. I would imagine that Abram had frequently discussed it with Sarai, his wife. The text does not tell us any of this, but I suspect that Sarai’s words were to Abram the same as countless wives have reserved for such a time as this: “I told you so.”

Often, the course of action which is inevitable is obvious to our mate long before we are willing to accept the reality of our circumstances. Sarai may well have posed a very different solution than the one Abram formulated. She might have said to Abram, “Tell Lot to hit the trail.” “God didn’t call Lot to Canaan, Abram, but you.” “Let him leave!” All of this, of course, is mere conjecture on my part. But any student of human nature would have to find it at least a realistic possibility.

Abram’s solution could not have been more gracious or godly. His motivation seems to be ethically, and not economically, based.

Then Abram said to Lot, ‘Please let there be no strife between you and me, nor between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me; if to the left, then I will go to the right, or if to the right, then I will go to the left’ ( Genesis 13:8-9).

More than anything, Abram wanted to maintain peace and heal the strife which had come between himself and Lot. The overriding principle is that of the unity of brotherhood that must be preserved. Strangely, though very practically, this unity is to be preserved by separation. Someone must leave, either Abram or Lot.

Seemingly, it was obvious that they must separate. The only question was who would leave, and where would he go? Abram left that decision to Lot. Whichever way Lot chose, Abram would act correspondingly. The offer gave Lot the advantage, and left Abram vulnerable.

A Resolution and Its Results

It would seem that both men were standing on a high spot from which all of the surrounding land was visible when Abram made his offer to Lot. Lot’s decision was made on the basis of cool calculation. With the eye of an appraiser, he looked over the land, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the options:

And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere—this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar. So Lot chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they separated from each other (Genesis 13:10-11).

As the father of five children, I can appreciate what went into the look of Lot as he surveyed the land about them. Any of my children could work for the Bureau of Standards. With a mere glance, each can easily gauge the quantity of root beer in any glass. Without any apparent effort they reach out for a glass and the first to grab always ends up with the largest, no matter how small the difference. That same kind of look was evident in the eyes of Lot.

He fixed his gaze on the beautiful Jordan valley. Its beautiful green evidenced the presence of the plentiful waters of the Jordan for irrigation. The parched hills and dusty ground beyond were of little interest. There was scarcely any water there.

Literally, this Jordan valley was a paradise. It was just like that ‘garden of the Lord’ (13:13). It, too, seems to have been provided for by irrigation, rather than rain (Genesis 2:6, 10ff.). The Jordan valley was also like the land of Egypt. One did not have to live by faith in such a place for water was abundant, and one did not have to look to God for rain.

And so Lot’s choice was made, clearly the shrewd decision, and seemingly the choice that gave him the decided edge in the competition between himself and Abram. It was, in my mind, a selfish decision—one that took all of the best and left Abram with that which seemed worthless.

The simplest and fairest separation would have been to make the Jordan river the boundary between the two men. What would have been more fair than to have chosen one side of the river to dwell in and to leave the other to Abram? But Lot chose ‘all the valley of the Jordan’ (verse 11). He did a masterful job of looking out for number one. He could have written a book on that subject.

Abram and Lot have now separated. Abram dwelt in Canaan, while Lot edged more and more closely to Sodom.

Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom (Genesis 13:12).

Lot had considered very carefully the economic factors of his decision, but he totally neglected the spiritual dimensions. God had promised to bless Abram, and others through him as they blessed Abram (Genesis 12:3). As Lot went his way, I believe he patted himself on the back for putting one over on old Abe. He must have been soft in the head to give such an advantage to Lot, and Lot was just sharp enough to cash in on it. But in the process, he did not bless Abram, but belittled him. That necessitated cursing and not blessing (Genesis 12:3).

Furthermore, Lot had not considered the consequences of living in the cities of the valley. While the soil was fertile and water was plentiful, the men in those cities were wicked. The spiritual cost of Lot’s decision was great. And, in the final analysis, the material benefits all become losses, too.

Lot did not intend, I believe, to actually live in the cities of the valley. At first, he simply set off in that general direction (cf. verse 11). But once our direction is set, our destination is also determined for it is now only a matter of time. While Lot lived in his tents at first (13:2), before long he has traded in his tent for a townhouse in Sodom (19:2,4,6). He may have lived in the suburbs initially, but at last he lived in the city (19:1ff).

Some decisions may not seem very significant, but they set a particular course for our lives. The decision may not seem very important, but its final outcome can be terrifying and tragic. And often the appearance is that his choice is one that is certain to be to our advantage. Material prosperity should never be sought at the cost of spiritual peril.

How time can change our perspective of prosperity! When the decision was made to settle in the Jordan valley, it was a virtual paradise (13:10). Moses, however, included a parenthetical remark which put this beauty in a very different light: “This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10).

How different things appear in the wake of divine judgment. A beautiful paradise, and so it was—until God brought down fire and brimstone upon it (19:24). From that day on it was a wasteland.

Far more than the loss of his possessions and his prosperity, Lot paid a terrible price for his short-lived pleasure. According to Peter, Lot’s soul was continually vexed by what he saw in that city (II Peter 2:7). Even when the saint is surrounded by sensual pleasure, he cannot enjoy sin for long. And more tragic than anything, Lot paid for his decision in his family. His wife was turned to salt because of her attachment to Sodom (19:26). His daughters seduced Lot and caused him to commit incest, no doubt a reflection on the moral values they had learned in Sodom (19:30ff.).

Reassurance for Abram

It is of interest that God did not speak to Abram (so far as Scripture informs us, at least) until after he had made his decision to separate. This fact is not incidental, but fundamental, for we read, “And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, … ” (Genesis 13:14).

God’s call of Abram (12:1-3), so far as we can discern, was to Abram alone. So also was the confirmation in chapter 13. God had commanded Abram to leave his relatives (12:1). Blessing could not come apart from obedience to God’s revealed will, and neither would reassurance. Humanly speaking, the only thing which stood in the way of divine blessing was human disobedience. God removed that barrier by providentially separating Lot, and now the promise of God is restated.

‘… Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered. Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you’ (Genesis 13:14b-17).

Lot had ‘lifted up his eyes’ (verse 10) and beheld the land before him with the eyes of one weighing financial promise, Abram was commanded to look through the eyes of faith in God’s promise.

Abram here may have stood on some elevated spot, surveying the land that was his, and perhaps also that land which Lot had chosen to occupy. If I had been standing in Abram’s sandals, I would have had many second thoughts. Had I not given up my golden opportunity? Did Sarai think that I had played the part of the fool? Had I failed her; had I failed God in my decision? A look at the luxuriant green of the Jordan valley against the brown barrenness of the waterless hills might have inspired such thoughts.

Yet God assured Abram that all the land he beheld was to be given him. Lot may have chosen to live in Sodom, but God had not given it to him for a possession, nor would He. Lot was to be a sojourner in Sodom (cf. 19:9) and not for long, either. Giving Lot the advantage was not giving up his hopes for the future, for it is ultimately God Who brings blessing to men by His sovereign choice.

As Abram stood, looking over the land, he could perhaps see the rich black dirt of the Jordan valley where Lot was headed. Also he could see the dust which blew about him, typifying the land where he would live. But God used that very dust as a testimony to the blessings that would come. His seed would be as plentiful as the dust which dominated the land where he lived. No longer was he to look on that dust with doubt, but with hope, for it was to be the symbol of future blessing.

God’s final word to Abram in this visitation was to survey the land which would someday be his. For now he was not to possess it, but to inspect it with the eye of faith. The promise, “For I will give it to you” (verse 17) is future. It was not until the occupation of the land by the Israelites under Joshua that this promise was fulfilled. God’s promises take time to be possessed, and this is because God has planned it that way.

How gracious God is to speak words of comfort and reassurance when all appearance of blessing seems out of reach. How good to be reminded that God’s Word is reliable and that His promises are as certain as He is sovereign.

Abram’s Response

Abram’s response revealed a growing faith in the God Who called him. He moved his tents toward Hebron, settling near the oaks of Mamre. It was a plot of ground which belonged to another, not Abram (cf. 14:3), but it was where God wanted him to be. There Abram built an altar and worshipped his God.

How different were the paths of these two men after they separated. The one was almost imperceptibly edging closer and closer to the city of Sodom, to live among godless and wicked men, and all for the sake of financial gain. The other was living the life of the sojourner, dwelling on those barren hills, with his hope in the promises of God. One lives in his tent and builds an altar of worship; the other trades in his tent for an apartment in the city of wicked men. Here was a decision which bore heavily on the destiny of two men, but, far more, on the destiny of their offspring.


The decisions reached by Abram and Lot are the same as those which confront every Christian. We must decide whether to trust in the sovereignty of God or in our own schemes and devices. We must determine whether to trust in the ‘uncertainty of riches’ or in the God Who ‘richly supplies us’ (I Timothy 6:17). We must decide whether to invest in the ‘passing pleasures of sin’ or the future ‘reward’ which is promised by God (Hebrews 11:25-26).

These decisions are clearly contrasted in the separation of Lot and Abram. Lot chose to act on the basis of utility; Abram on the basis of unity. For the sake of unity, Abram was willing to be taken advantage of (cf. I Corinthians 6:1-11, esp. verse 7).

Abram acted on the ground of faith in a God Who had promised to provide. Lot chose to direct his life on the uncertain foundation of financial security. Abram was greatly blessed, and Lot lost it all.

Lot chose to dwell in a city which seemed like paradise (13:10), but was filled with sinners. Abram decided to live in a deserted place, but where he could freely worship his God.

Abram beautifully illustrates the truth of two New Testament facts. First, he provides a commentary on these words, spoken by our Lord:

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God (Matthew 5:5,9 NIV).

Abram was a man of meekness. He was not a man of weakness, as chapter 14 demonstrates. He did not have to forcefully snatch blessing, but faithfully wait for it from God’s hand. He was one who was given to peace, rather than to sacrifice it for prosperity.

Then, too, we find this incident in the life of Abram instructive when compared to these words from the apostle Paul:

If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the some mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:1-5).

Abram was successful because he was a servant. He did not get ahead in life because he climbed the hill of success over the wreckage of men’s lives who got in his way. He was exalted by God because he placed the interests of others ahead of his own.

He did not consider Lot better than himself, as some translations wrongly suggest. Surely our Lord, Who is the supreme example of humility, did not consider fallen and sinful men better than He, the infinite, sinless God. Rather, He asked to secure their benefit at His expense. He looked to God for blessing and for justice (cf. I Peter 2:23).

The world’s way of getting ahead is to look out for number one. That was Lot’s way, as well. God’s way to blessing is looking up to Number One, and looking out for others (cf. Matthew 22:36-40). Such a life can only be lived by faith. Such a life can only cause our faith in God to grow.

The beginning point for every man, woman, and child is to look to God for salvation. We cannot, we dare not, trust in our own shrewdness to get us entrance into God’s kingdom. Often what we perceive to be ‘paradise’ is soon to be destroyed by divine wrath. Faith recognizes our sinfulness and trusts in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary for eternal security and blessing. Our own best efforts are doomed to destruction. Only what God promises and provides will endure.

May God enable each of us to trust in Him, and not in ourselves.

15. The Rescue of Lot (Genesis 14:1-24)


I suffer from an incurable fascination with sermon titles. I regret already having written the message for Genesis chapter 13 because I now have a new title for it. It should have been, ‘‘Abram had a Lot to Lose.” Chapter 14 could then be, “Abram had a Lot to Gain.” Perhaps chapter 15 would be, “Abram had a Lot to Learn.” So much for titles.

On our local Christian radio station there is a program which attempts to give ‘another view of the news.’ I appreciate this effort because the Christian should certainly see much more than the secular analysts do in the news of our time. For example, great catastrophes, such as the eruption of Mount St. Helen and the earthquakes in California, may foreshadow the signs of the end times (cf. Matthew 24:7). The rapid increase in crime and lawlessness may be viewed as fulfilling the moral conditions of the last days (cf. II Timothy 3:1-7). The outbreak of war, the threat of it elsewhere, and the alignment of nations all are of great significance to the alert Christian (cf. Ezekiel 38; Daniel 12; Matthew 24:6-8).

There is, of course, a secular side of the news. It deals mainly with the facts and figures, the details and descriptions of the events which have occurred. Explanations for these events are almost always humanistic and economic in nature.

For the Christian there should be another dimension—the spiritual side of history. If God is sovereign in history, as the Bible claims Him to be (cf. Psalm 2; Proverbs 21:1; Daniel 2:21; Acts 4:23-31), then His hand is to be seen as guiding history to achieve His purposes.

Such is the case in Genesis chapter 14. Here, for the first time in the Scriptures, patriarchal and secular history intersect.147 On the surface, this incident is merely an international power struggle to ensure economic supremacy by the control of a crucial trade route. The ‘other side of the news’ is that this event serves as a commentary on Genesis chapter 13 and as an opportunity for instruction, both for Lot and Abram. While Lot seems to have learned little, Abram’s faith is matured.

The Sacking of
Sodom and the Loss of Lot

The first 11 verses of chapter 14 might puzzle the 20th century reader for they are strangely secular. Worse yet, they seem remote, disinteresting, and dull. They contain an account of the power struggle between two opposing coalitions of kingdoms.

The first block of nations was that of the four Mesopotamian kings of the east (14:2). Chedorlaomer, king of Elam (modern Iran), seems to have been dominant.148 Shinar was the region of ancient Babylon (cf. Genesis 10:10). The second alliance was made up of five kings, including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (14:2).

After 12 years as vessels of the four eastern kings, the five southern kings attempted to throw off their shackles. The eastern kings could not allow such rebellion to go unpunished. This revolt did not go unnoticed by others in the same plight (cf. 14:5-7). The economic results of ignoring the insurrection were too devastating to contemplate. The five southern kings controlled the territory through which the ‘way of the kings’ passed. This was the land bridge through which commerce between Egypt and the four eastern kingdoms must pass. Whoever controlled this land bridge maintained a monopoly on international trade.

The route taken by the Mesopotamian kings has been the subject of considerable criticism.

It reveals a wide sweep to the east and south and then around to the southwest; then northeast to the western side of the Dead Sea, and lastly the troops swarm down upon their final objective, the cities in the Vale of Siddim.149

Two explanations seem to satisfy the objections which have been raised. I believe both of them together reveal the wisdom of Chedorlaomer’s strategy. First, the route of the conquest seems to be the ‘way of the kings,’ the trade route which the Mesopotamian kings sought to insure.150 The rebellion of the five southern kings may well have prompted similar acts from the other kingdoms. The four Mesopotamian kings thus sought to restore their sovereignty over the entire length of the trade route.

Secondly, the four kings sought to deal with the rebel kingdoms one at a time. By securing their position first with these other kingdoms the danger of attack from the rear was removed. The noose seems to be drawing tighter about these rebels as the account progresses.151 It may have been hoped that as victories continued to pile up for the four kings that a surrender would be preferable to defeat for the five southern kings.

The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, with their allies, must have decided it was more noble to suffer defeat in war than to have to back down by surrendering. The troops dug in for all-out battle in the valley of Siddim (14:8). The rebel kingdoms must have offered little resistance to the invasion. As they retreated from the enemy, some fell into the tar pits of the valley, others fled to the hills (14:10).

Sodom and Gomorrah were sacked. Everything and everyone that could be carried off was. That is the secular side of the news. But why is so much emphasis placed upon the details and description of this event?

The answer is only to be found in the ‘other side of the news,’ the spiritual dimension. Apart from the facts and figures, the strategies and the speculations of human reasoning, there was a spiritual purpose. This international incident is not to be understood only in terms of power struggle and economic forces. It was a part of the program of the sovereign God for the lives of two of His people, Lot and Abram.

The remark which, to the unenlightened eye, seems casual and incidental is foundational:

“And they also took Lot, Abram’s nephew, and his possessions and departed, for he was living in Sodom” (Genesis 14:12).

What a commentary on the decision of Lot in chapter 13. Lot had chosen to act on the basis of economic self-interest, and had thus disregarded the covenant God had made with Abram (12:1-3). What Lot should have learned is that “he who lives by the sword, also dies by it.” Economic self-interest was the motive of the kings of both alliances, both southern and Mesopotamian.

All that Lot seemed to have gained by taking advantage of Abram was lost in an instant, and seemingly by chance. He was caught in the middle of an international incident. Can you imagine the thoughts which went through Lot’s mind as he and his family and all their goods were being carted off to a distant land? He who had been so shrewd was now a slave, and all because of his selfish choice.

Also do you notice that Lot was said to have been living in Sodom (verse 12)? When we left him in chapter 13 he was first living in the valley of the Jordan, heading eastward (13:11). Then he moved his tents as far as Sodom (13:12). At last Lot is one of them, at least so far as the victors were concerned.

Lot Rescued By His Uncle Abram

One of those who escaped from Chedorlaomer found Abram and reported Lot’s fate to him.

Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram (Genesis 14:13).

Noteworthy is the designation of Abram as “the Hebrew.”152 It seems that he was beginning to become well-known by those who lived in that land. Abram was dwelling by the Oaks of Mamre. Mamre and his two brothers, Eshcol and Aner, had formed an alliance with Abram (verse 13).

Assembling his forces, and those of his allies,153 Abram hastily pursued the captors of Lot.

And when Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan (Genesis 14:14).

One cannot really be certain that it was Abram’s faith that prompted him to undertake such a risky venture while seemingly so greatly outnumbered. At least we must be careful of reading an act of faith into the text. Nowhere is Abram’s motive clearly stated.

There were a number of good reasons to ignore the report of the fugitive altogether. As Sarai no doubt suggested, the odds were not in Abram’s favor. Such a campaign could be suicide. Also, Lot got exactly what he had asked for. He chose to live in Sodom—let him learn his lesson in Elam or Babylon. He deliberately chose to take advantage of his uncle, Abram; now let him pay the price.

Whether it was a matter of faith or honor I cannot tell for sure. (Personally, I lean more toward family honor. I see Abram as a man something like Ben Cartwright on the TV series “Bonanza.”) We now see that the meekness of Abram revealed in his dealings with Lot was not weakness. For whatever reasons, Abram went after his nephew. Because of His promise to Abram (12:1-3), God protected and prospered him.

And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them, and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people (Genesis 14:15-16).

Abram, it would seem, had a great military mind. He employed a forced march and a surprise attack from various positions. As appearances would have it, Abram was the commander of his own men, as well as those of his allies. Pursuit was vigorous and extensive, until the victory was complete and the spoils entirely recovered. Everything was recovered: the possessions, the people, and the prodigal—Lot.

The King of Sodom
and the King of Salem

Perhaps no test a man faces is greater than that of success:

The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold, and a man is tested by the praise accorded him (Proverbs 27:21).

One can hardly fathom the temptation the triumphal return of Abram presented to him. His reception must have been the ancient counterpart to a ticker tape parade in New York City. If the king of Sodom came out to meet Abram, how much more those of the city, who hoped for the return of their loved ones.

Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley) (Genesis 14:17).

If the king of Sodom had some appropriate words for the occasion, he had to wait to say them for out of nowhere the king of Salem appeared with the words Abram most needed to hear:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all (Genesis 14:18-20).

I believe it was providential that Melchizedek’s appearance interrupted the meeting of Abram and the king of Sodom. When Melchizedek had finished his task he apparently departed and then the king of Sodom spoke.

Melchizedek is a crucial figure in this account because he put Abram’s victory in proper theological perspective.154 There was no back-slapping or politicking. Melchizedek was a king and a priest, not a king and a politician. His words were intended to remind Abram that the victory was God’s, and that his success was a result of God’s blessing. In effect, Melchizedek’s words were a reminder of the covenant God had made with Abram when he called him from Ur to Canaan:

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’ (Genesis 12:1-3).

Abram’s response was a testimony to his faith in the one God worshipped by he and Melchizedek. His tithe was tangible evidence that it was God Who deserved the glory.

Many have resorted to verse 20 as a proof-text for tithing: “… And he gave him a tenth of all.” We are told that this is the first instance of tithing, and that it occurred before the Law was given. Therefore, the practice of tithing goes beyond the Law and thus is binding on Christians today. I believe this to be fallacious thinking.

We are led to believe that Abram tithed to Melchizedek, giving him a tenth of all his possessions. But when Moses wrote, “… he gave him a tenth of all,” what did he mean by all—all what?

This may come as a shock to you, but Abram did not give a tithe of his possessions. First of all, Abram was not at home, with his possessions, but on his way back home, with the possessions of the king of Sodom and his allies. The writer to the Hebrews informs us of the content of Abram’s tithe:

Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils (Hebrews 7:4).

Imagine this scene. Abram is met by the king of Sodom, who, no doubt, heaps praises upon him. The king of Salem arrives who urges Abram to give the glory to God. And then the king of Sodom stands wide-eyed and open-mouthed as Abram gives a tenth of the best spoils of Sodom to Melchizedek. What a witness to the glory of God and the sinfulness of Sodom! That, my friend, is no example of biblical tithing.

The king of Sodom knew well that “to the victor belongs the spoils.” In addition, he had already witnessed a tenth of the goods being given to the king of Salem (Jerusalem). The best bargain this pagan could hope to strike was to get back the people and to surrender the possessions to Abram:

And the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself’ (Genesis 14:21).

How tempting this offer must have been to Abram. By all rights, and even by the request of the king of Sodom, the spoils were his. In a way it was poetic justice. Lot had chosen Sodom for its promise of material blessings. Lot had seemingly gotten the best of Abram, and now God was giving it back to Abram to whom it should have belonged in the first place.

Abram’s words must have been an even greater shock to the king of Sodom than his act of sharing the spoils with Melchizedek:

And Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, “I have made Abram rich”’ (Genesis 14:22-23)

Where would you suppose Abram found the words that he spoke to the king of Sodom? From the king of Salem—where else? Melchizedek referred to his God and Abram’s as “God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth.” This was an unusual designation for God (El Elyon—cf. the margin of verses 19, 20, NASV), and yet Abram used it—the same words as Melchizedek had spoken.

The arrival of the king of Salem, I believe, was a turning point for Abram because it brought his victory into perspective. While men may give glory to men, the saint must give the glory to God for any victory ultimately is His, not ours.

For this reason, Abram could not accept the offer of keeping the goods of Sodom. Abram, like Melchizedek, was now jealous for God’s glory to be His alone. To accept anything from a pagan king would be to give him the opportunity to suppose that his giving was responsible for Abram’s success. The price of such goods was too high and so Abram refused what was rightfully his.

This is a wonderful conviction to which Abram has come, but notice that he does not cram his convictions down the throats of his allies:

I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eschol, and Mamre; let them take their share (Genesis 14:24).

What the men have eaten of Sodom’s goods is not to be repaid. But also what the others are entitled to, who are not related to God by faith, should not be withheld.


Perhaps more than anything the event in Genesis 14 provides us with a divine commentary on the decisions made in chapter 13. Lot chose Sodom and self-interest, and nearly lost everything because of it. Abram chose to pursue peace and thereby was given a military victory. Lot relied on himself and became a slave. Abram trusted God and become a prominent figure among his brethren. How different our decisions appear in the light of history. History weighs the decisions of men.

This passage also reminds us of the sovereignty of God in the affairs of men. God is in control of history. The events which appear to be only secular often have a much deeper spiritual purpose and significance. What seems to be a tragic situation in which Lot is caught between two competing political systems is really the purpose of God being worked out for the benefit of two men (primarily), Lot and Abram. There is, my Christian friend, another side of the news.

I am reminded by the appearance of Melchizedek that there are no “Lone Rangers” in the Christian faith. There are times when we feel as though no one else is keeping the faith, but such impressions are self-deception (cf. I Kings 19:14,18). Here was a godly king/priest, Melchizedek, whom we have not seen before, nor after, but he is a true believer.

God works through men, my friend. While we may like to be self-sufficient, this is not God’s way. At a critical point in the life of Abram, God sent a man to set him straight and to keep him from taking success too seriously. Thank God for the men and women God uses in our lives, and for the fact that He uses us to minister to others at crucial times in life.

There is also the reminder that in the matter of giving and receiving, the most important issue is the glory of God. If we give to receive glory, our gifts are of no benefit (cf. Matthew 6:2-4). If we prosper at the hand of those who reject God and who take the glory themselves, God’s glory is veiled to men. Let us be most cautious in this matter of money and material things. Some may take money, even from the devil, but Abram would not.

Finally, this event provides us with a beautiful illustration of the salvation of God. Lot chose to go his own way, seeking his own interests over the promise of God to bless men through Abram. As a result of his self-seeking, Lot had to face the consequences of his sin. Rather than peace and prosperity he found shame and slavery.

At the point where Lot was able to do nothing to correct his errors or to free himself from bondage, Abram, at great personal risk, won the victory and won his release. Saving Lot was the sole reason for Abram’s daring rescue. In spite of Lot’s disregard for Abram, Abram rescued him from the consequences of his own sin.

All of us, the Bible says, have sinned.

… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

We have all gone our own way:

All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6a).

The good news of the gospel is that God sent His son, Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. The consequences and penalty for our sins were suffered by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried, Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).

Have you trusted in Him? Will you acknowledge your willfulness and waywardness and your need to be released from the bondage of sin? God’s rescue mission has succeeded, and its benefits are free for all who believe that salvation is in Christ alone.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (I John 5:10-12).

147 “For the first time, the biblical events are expressly co-ordinated with external history.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 118.

148 “Elamite and Babylonian domination of Palestine had been effective for twelve years. Chedorlaomer the Elamite was at the time in question sovereign also over Babylon, a fact with which historical records agree.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 450.

149 Ibid, p. 451.

150 “The route of the conquest has a continuous history from c. 2500 B.C. down to present times. Along it from end to end have been found tells, some quite large, indicating that the route indeed is actual and historical, giving ample incitation to the cupidity of the invaders. It came to be called in later times ‘The King’s Way!’ (Num. 20:17; 21:22).” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), D. 148.

151 “The simplest of all explanations is that the army coming from the east wanted to eliminate the possibility of an attack from the rear by unfriendly groups. These unfriendly groups were either unsubdued opponents or subjugated opponents known to be restive and inclined to side with other revolters. . . . It shows the line being drown closer and closer about Sodom and Gomorrah. We are made to sense the apprehension of the revolting cities; and they turn around from point to point as reports come pouring in about the defeat of the groups being attacked.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 401, p. 149.

152 “Abram is for the first time called “the Hebrew.” It has been considered by some that “Hebrew” is not equivalent to Habiru, though others, including Kenyon, find them possibly equivalent. One characteristic occupation of the Habiru was that of mercenary soldier, and Abram fits that picture in his rescue of Lot. The name “Hebrew” thus is a memorial epithet of this rescue, not indeed of disapprobation, but in the best sense. As indicated by the contents of the cuneiform documents, Abram again is found to fit into his age.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 149.

153 Verse 24 informs us that men from Eschol, Mamre, and Aner accompanied Abram on this military campaign, for they were to share in the spoils.

154 Some may puzzle at the fact that I have not delved into the typological significance of Melchizedek. The writer to the Hebrews does so (Hebrews 5,7) reflecting on the event in Genesis, combined with the prophecy of Psalm 110:4. The reason I have not dealt with the typological importance of Melchizedek is that, for Moses, Melchizedek’s typical significance was secondary, not primary. It was supplemental to, and not fundamental to, the literal, historical, grammatical meaning of the text. The typological meaning of any text is a fringe benefit, but it is not to supplant the literal interpretation of the text. The typical meaning may never have entered the mind of the writer (only the mind of God), but the literal meaning was the writer’s intended message.

16. The Focal Point of Abram’s Faith (Genesis 15:1-21)


In Genesis chapter 15 we come to one of the high-water marks of Old Testament revelation, summarized for us in verse 6: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Up to this point, Abram’s faith has been more general in its nature. It has rested primarily upon the call of God as recorded in chapter 12:

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 (Genesis 12:1-3).

God seldom allows our faith to remain general, however, and so we face crises points which bring our faith from the abstract to the concrete, and from the general to the specific. Such is the case with Abram in this chapter.

Abram’s Hope for an Heir

God’s words to Abram155 are far from what we would have expected in such circumstances: “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1).

Why would Abram possibly be afraid? He had just won a great victory over Chedorlaomer and the three other eastern kings (Genesis 14:14-15). Because of this, he had, no doubt, received considerable recognition, even from the pagan king of Sodom (14:17, 21-24). What fear could haunt Abram’s faith at such a time of victory?

It is possible that Abram feared future military reprisals from Chedorlaomer and his allies. He may have won the battle, but had he won the war? The word of God to Abram, “I am a shield to you,” could very well be aimed at subsiding this fear of future military conflict.

This cannot be Abram’s greatest concern, especially in view of the remaining verses. Abram’s victory was not so sweet in the light of one question which seemed to overshadow all else, “What good is success, without a successor?”

Abram’s response to God confirms this: “And Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Since Thou hast given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir’” (Genesis 15:2-3).

In the Ancient Near East there was a well-attested practice to ensure an heir, even if no son were born to the man.156 The childless couple would adopt one of the servants born into the household. This ‘son’ would care for them in their old age and would inherit their possessions and property at the time of their death. At this low point in Abram’s faith, it was the best for which he thought he could hope.

God had promised Abram far more than that which he could provide for himself. Eliezer was not the heir that He had promised. His descendants were to come from his own reproductive cells. He would have a son of his own.

Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir’ (Genesis 15:4).

To reassure Abram, God took him outside and drew his attention to the stars in the heavens. This is how numerous the offspring of Abram would be through his son that would surely come (verse 5).

Verse 6 describes Abram’s response to divine revelation: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

The translation of the NASV is somewhat unfortunate. The first word ‘then’ attempts to convey the idea that Abram responded to God’s promise of a son by belief. In this sense, it is a good translation. The difficulty which arises, is that ‘then’ may convey more than it should. Verse 6 is the first time the word ‘believe’ is used. It is also the first time that Abram is said to have been reckoned as righteous. It would be easy to conclude that Moses meant that this is the first time Abram had faith in God, and that he is here ‘saved’ (to use the New Testament word).

In the book of Hebrews we read: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).

Here the writer to the Hebrews intends us to understand that Abram ‘believed’ God before chapter 15, even as he left Ur to enter the land of Canaan.

The solution is not as difficult as it may seem. The grammar of verse 6 indicates that Abram’s faith did not begin here.157 Not only did he previously believe, he continued to believe. The ‘then’ of our translation may therefore be a little too strong.

But why did Moses wait until this point to tell us that Abram believed, and that he was justified by faith? Luther’s answer, I believe is most satisfactory. Abram’s faith is not mentioned until now in order to emphasize the fact that a saving faith is one that focuses upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.158 Here Abram’s faith is focused upon the promise of a son, through whom blessing will come to the whole world. While we may not fully determine how complete Abram’s understanding of all this was, we must not overlook the words of the Savior: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” ( John 8:56).

While Abram had believed in God, here his faith is more clearly defined and focused. Here his faith is in the promise of God to provide the blessing of a son, and blessings through Him. It is at this point that God chose to announce that Abram’s faith was a saving faith.

Notice three things about this faith of Abram:

(1) First of all, it was a personal faith. By this I mean that Abram believed in the Lord. He did not merely believe about God, but in Him. Herein is the distinction between many professing Christians and those who are possessing Christians—genuinely reborn by faith in the person of Christ.

(2) Second, Abram’s faith was a propositional faith. While Abram believed in the person of God, his faith was based upon the promises of God. Many believe in the god of their own definition. Abram believed in the God of revelation. The covenant God made here with Abram (verses 12ff) gave Abram specific propositions on which to base his faith and his practice.

(3) Abram’s faith was also a practical faith. By this I mean that Abram’s belief was one that necessitated action. Clearly, Abram’s works did not initiate his salvation, but they did demonstrate it (cf. James 2:14ff.). Also, Abram’s faith was related to a very practical and sensed need—the need for a son. God does not ask us to believe in the abstract, but in the everyday matters of life.

When Moses says that Abram’s faith was reckoned for righteousness it does not mean that Abram’s faith was, in some fashion, exchanged for righteousness. Abram’s faith, like ours today, was not something which he conjured up by mental or spiritual effort. Faith itself is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). His faith was in the coming child and in his offspring, one of whom would be the Messiah. It was because Abram looked to the One God would provide for righteousness that God declared him to be righteous. Technically speaking, salvation (and faith) are a gift, but righteousness comes through the legal process of imputation. Abram was legally declared righteous by God because he trusted in Him Who was righteous. The righteousness of Christ, imputed to Abram because of his God-given faith, saved him.

God’s way of saving men is not new. It has not changed from Old Testament times to New. Always, God has saved men by grace, through faith. There is no other way. While Abram was saved by faith in the One Who would come, we are saved by faith in this One Who has come. That is the only difference.

Reassurance Concerning
the Land Abram Would Possess

Having dealt with Abram’s greatest need for reassurance—namely that of an heir, God went on to strengthen Abram’s faith concerning the land he would possess: “And He said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it’” (Genesis 15:7).

Abram’s question does not seem to reflect disbelief, but wonder at how this will be accomplished: “And he said, ‘O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:8).

The tone seems similar to that of Mary when told she will be the mother of Messiah: “And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’” (Luke 1:34).

God did not rebuke Abram for his question, but confirmed His promise by a covenant.

So He said to him, ‘Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away ( Genesis 15:9-11).

In the ancient world of Abram, legal and binding agreements were not put on papers written by lawyers and signed by the parties involved. Instead, the two parties would arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement, and then they would formalize it in the form of a covenant.

The covenant was sealed by the dividing of an animal (or animals). In fact, the technical term literally means ‘go cut a covenant.’ The animal(s) was cut in half and the two parties would pass between the halves. It seems that in this oath, the men acknowledged that the fate of the animal should be theirs if they broke the terms of their agreement.

So we see that these verses do not describe the process of animal sacrifice, but the legal act of making a binding agreement. Verses 9-11 set the stage for the final ratification of this covenant.

Some time seems to have passed between the preparation of the animals and the final ratification (cf. verse 11). Toward the end of this delay, Abram fell into a deep, trance-like state: “Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12).

The “terror and darkness,” in my estimation, was more than that occasioned by an awareness of God’s presence. I believe it was the normal response to the horrors of the revelation of the treatment of Abram’s children in the next 400 years. Abram’s descendants would possess the land of Canaan, but not until after a considerable delay and many difficulties:

And God said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions’ (Genesis 15:13-14).

Very carefully, Egypt remains unnamed as the land where this bondage would occur. Not only did Abram not need to know this, but such knowledge could have been detrimental before this bondage came to pass. It was no problem for those who read these words of Moses to know the land of which he spoke. Indeed, they had just come forth from Egypt. What a strange thing it must have been for those Israelites who were brought out of Egypt to read this prophecy which so accurately described their experience.

There seems to be two reasons for the 400-year delay before the land of Canaan would be possessed. First, the children of Abraham would not yet be able (or numerous enough) to possess the land earlier. Also the people of the land were not yet wicked enough to thrust out: “Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16).

Here is an important principle, and one that governs the possession of the land of Canaan. God owns the land of Canaan (Leviticus 25:23), and He lets it out to those who will live according to righteousness. When Israel forgot their God and practiced the abominations of the Canaanites (cf. II Chronicles 28:3, 33:2), God put them out of the land also.

In the light of the present debate over who has legitimate claim in the land of Israel, let us remember this principle. It is God who owns the land, not the Jews, nor the Arabs. God will not allow the Jews to possess the land and live wickedly any more than He will the Gentiles.

Over the next 400 or more years from the time of this revelation, two programs were simultaneously at work. The Canaanites were growing more and more wicked, and their day of reckoning was steadily approaching. At the same time, the nation of Israel was about to be born, growing rapidly in number, and in spiritual maturity, preparing for the day of possession.

Is this not a picture of our own day as well? Has God not said that in the last days wickedness would intensify (cf. II Thessalonians 2:1-12; II Timothy 3:1-9; II Peter 3:3ff.)? At the same time, God is purifying and preparing us for His return (cf. Ephesians 5:26-27; Colossians 1:21-23; I Peter 1:6-7). The wicked will receive recompense for their sin, and the saints will be rewarded for righteousness.

When God had spoken of Abram’s peaceable death at a ripe old age and the fate of his offspring, He ratified the covenant concerning the land that would belong to Israel:

And it came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite’ (Genesis 15:17-21).

This covenant is distinctive because only God, in the appearance of a smoking oven and a flaming torch, passed between the divided carcasses of animals. This was done to signify that the covenant was unilateral and unconditional. No conditions were placed upon Abram for its fulfillment.

The geographical boundaries have been clearly defined, and even the peoples who were to be dispossessed were named. God committed Himself to a very specific course of action. What more reassurance could be asked?


The bottom line for Abram was that God’s promise was now much more specific. Abram would have a son of his own through whom blessings would be poured out. Abram’s offspring would be very numerous and, in time, would possess the land. But before this, they would go through a time of delay and great difficulty.

The essence of Abram’s faith was that while he waited for the promise of future blessings, he was content in the meantime with the presence of God. Abram did not come out on the short end of the stick. Abram’s great reward was God Himself: “I am a shield to you; your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1, NASV, marginal reading).

Our theology has been greatly distorted in recent days. We are invited to come to Christ as Savior because of all that He can and will do for us. We may have come to Him for His presents, rather than His presence.

Abram was neither cheated nor short-changed in the delay of God and in the difficulties he and his offspring faced. Abram was blessed, for if God is our portion, that is enough.

The day before I delivered this message I performed the funeral for one of the young women in our church. She was a lovely young woman, a model wife and mother. She was twenty-eight years old when she died in her sleep. We still do not know the medical explanation for her death.

For the funeral message, I chose Psalm 73 as the text. In it the psalmist confesses his perplexity at the fact that so often the righteous seem to suffer (verse 14) while the wicked prosper (verses 3-12). When the writer looks at the eternal destiny of man, he realizes that God ultimately sets matters straight. The requirements of justice are often not fully met until eternity is entered. Heaven and hell are thus required by righteousness. Without them, justice is not satisfied.

This leads the psalmist to the conclusion that the ultimate good in life is not freedom from pain of suffering or poverty, but knowing God:

Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.… But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:23-26, 28).

Here, then, is the key to understanding the blessing that is to be found in delay and difficulty: while prosperity often leads us away from God (cf. Psalm 73:7-12), affliction draws us closer (Psalm 73:25-26).

If nearness to God is the highest good, then suffering is good also, if it enhances our intimacy with Him. And prosperity is evil if it inclines us away from the good of knowing God.

That, I believe, is the key to Genesis chapter 15. Abram’s faith is strengthened by specific revelation concerning his son and the soil his offspring will inherit. But even beyond this, he is brought to the realization that faith cannot be separated from suffering, for God uses this to draw men into intimate fellowship with Himself.

Faith is seldom strengthened by success (cf. verse 1), but by believing God in the midst of delays and difficulties.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.’ It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (Hebrews 12:1-13).

155 The expression found in verse 1, “the word of the Lord came to . . . ” is first employed here in the Old Testament. It is commonly used to introduce a divine revelation given to one of God’s prophets (e.g., I Samuel 15:10). We should remember that Abram is later called a prophet (Genesis 20:7). This would seem to indicate that Moses understood this revelation to have come to Abram for his benefit and ours.

156 The discovery of a number of adoption tablets at Nuzi, has greatly aided our understanding of Abram’s words: “One ‘adoption tablet’ reads: ‘The tablet of adoption belonging to {Zike}, the son of Akkuya: he gave his son Shennima in adoption to Shuriha-ilu, and Shuriha-ilu, with reference to Shennima, (from) all the lands . . . (and) his earnings of every sort gave to Shennima one (portion) of his property. If Shuriha-ilu should have a son of his own, as the principal (son) he shall take a double share; Shennima shall then be next in order (and) take his proper share. As long as Shuriha-ilu is alive, Shannima shall revere him. When Shuriha-ilu {dies}, Shennima shall become the heir.’” Mesopotamian Legal Documents, translated by Theophile J. Meek, in Pritchard, ANET, p. 220., as quoted by John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), p. 185.

157 “The form is unusual, perfect with waw, not as one would expect, imperfect with waw conversive. Apparently, by this devise the author would indicate that the permanence of this attitude is to be stressed: not only: Abram believed just this once, but: Abram proved constant in his faith . . . ” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 477.

158 “We feel our answer must take the same form as Luther’s, who points out that justification by faith is first indicated in the Scriptures in a connection where the Savior is definitely involved, in order that none might venture to dissociate justification from Him.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 479.

Related Topics: Faith

17. When Women Wear the Pants (Genesis 16:1-16)


Several weeks ago Bill Gothard came to Dallas to speak to 2600 pastors. There he made a statement that was condemning to all of us. He said that, by far, the greatest complaint of pastors’ wives was that their husbands were failing to take the spiritual leadership in their homes.

Stories abound to authenticate this charge. The most common is the one in which the pastor is downstairs praying about the Lord’s leading in moving on to another church while his wife is upstairs packing his bags.

Not long ago, I read the account of how the pastor of one of the great churches in America was called. He had been asked to serve as a supply preacher by this large church. Fearing that accepting would indicate an intention to campaign for this coveted position, he declined. But his wife disagreed and accepted the invitation for him. Fulfilling this commitment, the man later accepted the call and became the pastor of this same church.

Not all such situations work out so well, as our text in Genesis 16 teaches. Abram, the man of faith, revealed that he had feet of clay even in his own home. The devastating results of his passivity in the face of pressure should serve to warn us all.

While here Abram is shown to have failed by listening to his wife, let me quickly say that many of us fail because we don’t listen to our wives when we should. Do not come to this text as a club to employ on your wife, men, for that is a serious error. Let us not come to this passage to prooftext our preconceived ideas and prejudices, but to enlighten our hearts and minds, and thus, to grow in faith.

Sarai’s Proposal

The first six verses are not merely a condemnation of Sarai’s attitudes and actions. In reality we find a concert of sins with Abram, Sarai, and Hagar all contributing to the discord which results. Nevertheless, it was Sarai who initiated this particular sequence of events, and thus we must begin with her.

Sarai, Abram’s wife, was prevented from having children. An heir was perhaps the one thing any ancient man would desire above all else. This was especially true of Abram, for he had been told that a great nation would originate with him:

“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” (Genesis 12:2).

Sarai felt personally responsible for the absence of this son. She assumed that since she had not given birth to a child, and her age seemed to prohibit it, something else must be done to enable Abram to have a child through another woman. She must have been thinking in this fashion: “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children” (Genesis 16:2).

Abram could thus father a child, although Sarai would not be the mother.

The culture of that day provided the means to accomplish Sarai’s intentions. Ancient documents reveal that when a woman could not provide her husband with a child, she could give her female slave as a wife and claim the child of this union as her own.159

The consequences of Sarai’s plan inform us that such a proposal was wrong. Several evidences of this sin can be demonstrated. First of all, Sarai seems to have considered it her responsibility to produce a son for Abram. No basis for this assumption can be seen in Scripture:

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’ (Genesis 12:1-3).

In the Abrahamic covenant here given, Abram was commanded to do one thing—leave Ur. God, on the other hand, had promised to guide Abram (verse 1), to make him a great nation (verse 2), and to bless the Earth through him (verse 3). Nowhere is either Abram or Sarai given the responsibility for producing the son. Implied, at least, is the assurance that God will provide a son.

Sarai’s words betray a reluctance to accept the fact that God sovereignly prevented her from having a son: “Now behold the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children through her” (Genesis 16:2).

Here is the sin of presumption. Failing to trust God to provide a son, she forced the situation by pressuring Abram into taking Hagar as his wife.

Strangely, the great commentator, Leupold, attempts to diminish Sarai’s guilt by stressing her faith in the promise of God160 and her self-sacrifice in giving Hagar to her husband.161 I do not agree with either explanation. Nowhere is there any expression of faith in the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It seems to me that she wanted to remove the social stigma of barrenness, and to strengthen their relationship by giving a son to Abram, even if it involved the sacrifice of principle.

While monogamy may not be clearly commanded, it was presented as that which was original and ideal (Genesis 2:18-25). The first mention of polygamy is far from complimentary (cf. Genesis 4:19ff.). Further on in the book more than one wife is always accompanied by conflict and competition (cf. Genesis 29:30ff.).

In my estimation Sarai did not act in faith, but in presumption. Her primary concern seems to be with the social stigma upon her barrenness. She may well have persisted in her proposal until Abram gave in. Faith never tries to force God to act, nor to act in God’s place, nor to accomplish what is supernatural in the power of the flesh.

We have been hard on Sarai. Some may think too hard. But while Sarai was the instigator of this fiasco, Abram was at fault, also. Indeed, in some ways this sin can be traced back to Abram’s unbelief, when he left Canaan and went down to Egypt (Genesis 12:10-13:4). Is it mere coincidence that Hagar was Egyptian?

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar (Genesis 16:1).

The probability is great that Hagar was a gift from Pharaoh to Abram, a part of the dowry for Sarai: “Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels” (Genesis 12:16).

The chickens always come home to roost. I believe that Hagar was one of the consequences of Abram’s failure of faith in chapter 12. While Sarai may have been the prodder in chapter 16, the proposal was only possible, thanks to Abram’s decision to sojourn in Egypt.

In chapter 16 Abram is more of a pushover than a patriarch. His wife never mentioned God or the covenant He had made with Abram. Faith did not seem to be a factor, nor was God’s will ever sought. What a time for Abram to stand firm, but instead he fizzled. Seemingly with little or no protest, he passively followed the instructions of his wife. She wanted an heir. She planned the honeymoon. Abram did as he was told.

‘Abram listened to his wife,’ we are told (16:2). Listen in the Old Testament is often a synonym for obedience. Abram’s failure was not in listening, but in heeding her instructions without weighing their implications. I doubt that Abram really did ‘listen’ in the sense of grasping what Sarai was trying to say. Was she asking for reassurance of Abram’s love, even if she could not provide him with a son? Was she asking for reassurance of God’s love and infinite power? Did she need to be reminded of God’s promise? Did she wish Abram to turn her down? Abram may have obeyed without really hearing what Sarai was trying to say.

Hagar was not without her own share of guilt. She was not wrong in going to bed with Abram, so far as I can tell. She was a slave, subject to the will of her mistress. She had little or no voice in this decision. But she was wrong in the false sense of pride and smugness she felt toward Sarai.

And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight (Genesis 16:4).

Hagar forgot that God had closed Sarai’s womb. She disregarded the fact that ‘children are a gift of the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3). She seemed to bask in the affection of Abram, especially when he knew she was to bear his child. She felt exalted above her mistress, and yet was still her slave. She gloried in that which was no cause for pride.

And so we have seen a sequence of sins, beginning in Egypt, and ending in the bedroom of an Egyptian slave. It is ironic how the tables have been turned. In chapter 12, Abram’s unbelief caused him to agonize while Sarai was in Pharaoh’s palace. Now, Sarai, due to her proposal, is left to ponder what is going on in Hagar’s bedroom.

Each of the three: Sarai, Abram, and Hagar, has been caught in the web of sin. Sarai acted in presumption; Abram lapsed into passivity; Hagar was the victim of pride. In yet another round of sin, each responds wrongly to the dilemma into which their sin has brought them.

Sarai found that her scheme had backfired. A child was born, but while loved by Abram (17:18,20; 21:11), Sarai despised him (21:10). Ishmael had driven a wedge between Abram and Sarai, rather than drawing them together. Even the once loyal Hagar now despised her mistress.

Abram had given Sarai what she had wanted, but now she insisted that he had failed her in doing so: “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms; but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the Lord judge between you and me’” (Genesis 16:5).

In spite of all the pious words Sarai spouted, they did not cover her blame for what had happened. While Sarai was angry with Abram, she must have known that it was she who had made Hagar’s bed. No confession or repentance of sin is found as yet on Sarai’s lips, but only bitter remorse.

Abram did not change his course either. He should have learned that his passivity was not piety. Letting Sarai have her way was relinquishing his leadership. He was the accomplice to sin by refusing to resist it or to rebuke Sarai. Sarai’s stinging rebuke served only to cause Abram to retreat further. He did not acknowledge his sin, nor did he confront Sarai with hers. Instead he persisted in allowing Sarai to have her own way.

But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.’ So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence (Genesis 16:6).

He had gone along with Sarai’s plan to produce an heir. Now he gave Sarai free reign in dealing with Hagar. Sarai seems to have been within the boundaries of legality,162 while stretching the standards of morality. Hagar, tired of facing Sarai’s tyranny, fled, heading back toward the land of Egypt.163

A Divine Intervention

Did you notice that God is strangely absent from the first 6 verses? It is true that God was given the credit (or the blame!) for preventing Sarai from having children. But no one had consulted God or sought His will. No one had called to remembrance His promise to provide a son.

More distressing is the fact that God has not yet spoken in our text. It would seem that since man had chosen to go his own way, God stepped aside to let him live with the consequences of disobedience. Only to Hagar did God speak. He sought her while she was running away. The reason for this divine intervention is to be found in verses 7-16.

We have said that Hagar was on her way back to Egypt when God found her. His words penetrate deeply into her actions and attitudes: “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8).

Running away does not change relationships, nor does it remove responsibility. Jonah, even in the belly of that fish, was still God’s prophet with a message for the Ninevites. Hagar continued to be Sarai’s maid, and it remained her duty to serve her mistress.

The question, “Where are you going?” seems intended to bring Hagar back to reality. Perhaps some blow-up had triggered her decision to run away. Little thought would have been taken until some distance was put between Hagar and her heavy-handed mistress. But now was the time to consider the future. Where would Hagar go? Back to Egypt? After ten years, and pregnant? Was this a reasonable thing to do?

Raising serious questions regarding Hagar’s decision, God went on to remind her of her duty. He commanded her to return to the one in authority over her: “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority” (Genesis 16:9).

We cannot read this command without recalling Peter’s instructions to Christian slaves in his first epistle:

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God (I Peter 2:18-20).

These are difficult words, my friend, but they will be ignored or rejected to our own hurt. A commitment to marriage today seems to be only so long as we get from the relationship what we had hoped for. This is not just outside the church, either: “According to Lucille Lavender … ‘Among the professions, the clergy rank third in the number of divorces granted each year.’”164

Here is a frightening statistic. We want to talk much more of pleasure and fulfillment these days, than of duty. But that is what God told Hagar to do—to tend to her duty, even if it was drudgery or downright unpleasant.

With the command came a promise. In fact, the command was the condition upon which the promise would be fulfilled:

Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they shall be too many to count.’ The angel said to her further, ‘Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. And he will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers’ (Genesis 16:10-12).

I believe Kidner is correct when he says that in the fulfillment of these promises Ishmael would be a parody of his father.165 Overtones of the Abrahamic Covenant can hardly be missed in these words of reassurance to Hagar.

Ishmael’s descendants, too, will be too numerous to count (16:10; cf. 13:16; 15:5). From him will come princes and rulers (17:20). That which might seem a curse was perhaps Hagar’s greatest comfort. Ishmael would live a free lifestyle, unrestricted, unfettered, and a thorn in the flesh of his brothers (16:12). To Hagar, the afflicted slave of Sarai, this was a source of hope and comfort. Even under the cruel hand of her mistress, one can almost hear Hagar mumbling under her breath, “Just wait, Sarai.”

The predominant theme of verses 7-16 is stated by Hagar in verse 13, “Thou art a God who sees.”

The name of Hagar’s child served to commemorate the compassion of God for the afflicted. Ishmael means literally, ‘God hears.’ Even when it is the chosen of God who are the source of affliction, God hears and cares for the down-trodden. This truth did much to carry Hagar through the difficult years that lay ahead.


Our text exposes a problem which frequently confronts those who are people of faith, namely, ‘When do I work and when do I wait?’ Saul was wrong to go ahead and offer the sacrifice, even though circumstances seemed to demand it (I Samuel 13), for Saul had been commanded to wait (I Samuel 10:8). Working was wrong because God had forbidden Saul to do Samuel’s task. In Acts chapter 12 it was wrong to wait, when the Christians gathered should have worked. Peter was in prison, condemned to death (12:1-3). The saints had gathered to pray for Peter (verse 5). Many may have prayed for a quick and painless death. Some may have dared to pray for deliverance. But when Peter was standing at the door knocking, continued prayer was an act of unbelief. Then it was time to work (to open the door), not to wait (in prayer).

But how do we learn the difference between the times we should work and the times we should wait? I believe that God has supplied us with a number of principles in Genesis 16 to help us discern the difference between the two courses of action. Let me suggest some of these principles.

(1) We are to work when God has clearly given us the responsibility and the authority to do so. God had never placed the responsibility for producing a child on Sarai, or Abram. God had promised to provide the child (cf. Genesis 12:1-3; 17:6,16, 19). Just as God had prevented Sarai from conceiving (16:2), so He would provide an heir. In my estimation, we are treading on dangerous soil when we ‘step out in faith’ in an area where we have no promise of God’s presence or blessing, or where we have no principle or imperative on which to base our activity.

Furthermore, we cannot hope to succeed in any activity for which God has not given us the power to produce spiritual fruit. As Paul has shown (Galatians 4:21ff.) Ishmael was a result of the work of the flesh, not the spirit. Isaac was the result of divine activity in Abram and Sarai. No work of faith is the work of the flesh. God’s work is that accomplished through His enabling Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:16-26).

(2) We should move ahead only when our motivation to do so is that of faith. Sarai seems to have felt compelled to act because God had prevented her from having children (cf. 16:2). Despite the efforts of a number of commentators to prove otherwise, Sarai’s actions (and Abram’s) betray a motive of fear, not faith. Paul has spoken clearly when he wrote, “… whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

Several conditions should provoke us to wait, or at least to take some precautionary measures. Let me suggest some factors which may suggest that we should wait rather than work.

(1) We should be reluctant to ‘work’ when it appears that God has been preventing what we have been seeking. Here is a difficult matter, for sometimes God wishes to strengthen our faith by allowing us to overcome obstacles (cf. Exodus 14:10ff; Nehemiah, e.g. 6:1-9). At other times barriers are put up to change our direction (cf. Acts 16:6,7). Knowing the difference between problems and prohibitions requires the wisdom which God freely gives as we ask for it in faith (James 1:5-6).

(2) We should be very cautious about undertaking a work that appeals to fleshly appetites. Stop and think of the inclination Abram could have had to follow Sarai’s instructions. Remember, Sarai was essentially encouraging Abram to go to bed with her servant (cf. 16:2,3,4,5). Undoubtedly she was both young and attractive. Do you think Pharaoh would have given Abram a slave girl as part of a dowry if she were unappealing to look upon? Seemingly noble acts can have very carnal motives. I suggest that we question any work that appeals to our carnal appetites.

(3) We should hesitate to undertake any work when our primary reason for doing so is to relieve pressure, rather than to practice some principle. So far as I can tell the only reason Abram took Hagar was to appease, and perhaps silence his wife. Pressure from others is usually a poor reason for taking on any task.

(4) We should never work when our methods are inappropriate to our goals and to our God. While the goal of Abram and Sarai’s efforts was the birth of a son, an heir, the means were not such as to bring glory to God. We must grant that these means were legal and culturally acceptable. But they appear to fall short of the divine ideal. Union with Hagar attempts to accomplish God’s work with the world’s methodology.

Abram, as a result of this failure of faith, learned the painful consequences of trying to help God. In this sense, God does not need and cannot use our help. God wants to work through us. God purposed to give Abram and Sarai a child. Their efforts at producing a child on their own has resulted in the conflict between the Jews and the Arabs through the centuries.

Speaking of waiting, that is something many of us find difficult to do also. We have a little piece of plastic that frequently tempts us to work rather than to wait on God to provide. It is called the credit card. Why pray about that meal? Go out for dinner and charge it to Master Charge. There is nothing intrinsically evil about credit cards, but they surely do tempt us to act presumptuously, rather than to wait for God’s timing.

Faith, I believe we can see, is trusting in the promises of God despite the problems, and knowing that with God all things are possible. Unbelief focuses upon the problems and supposes that if God does not act within our time frame and within our expectations, we must give Him a hand. Faith believes not only that God will give us what He has promised, but that He will provide us the means to do so, and if not, that He alone will do it.

Let me mention one further observation. God spoke to Hagar in this chapter, but not to Abram or Sarai. In fact Moses tells us that (at least so far as recorded history is concerned) God did not speak to Abram for 13 years (cf. 17:1). When we choose to act upon circumstances, God may speak to us only through circumstances—loudly and clearly and painfully.

It would seem that Abram chose to get his leading from God through his wife for he never questioned her thinking or sought divine guidance (in our passage at least). Isn’t it interesting that the only way Abram knew what to name his son was by what God told Hagar (16:11; cf. verse 15)? When we choose to be led by others rather than by God, God may let us have our way, for a time. But, oh, how lonely those times will be! What fellowship and intimacy we miss.

Dress it up all you can, this text reveals that Abram’s home was beset by the same difficulties we face today. May God help us not to be presumptuous. May God help wives not to pressure their husbands into doing what seems right. May God help those of us who are husbands not to relinquish our responsibility, but to lead in our homes.

Passivity is not piety, and neither is presumption. May God enable us to walk that fine line between both.

One final note. Many people want to help God save themselves. They want a system of salvation that allows them to participate in the process of salvation. My friend, there is nothing you can contribute to your salvation. As the Scriptures teach,

There is none righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10).

… all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment (Isaiah 64:6).

Just as Abram could not help God produce a son through human effort, so you cannot help God save your soul. Salvation is a gift of God, through faith in what Jesus Christ has done for lost sinners.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

By acknowledging that you are powerless to please God, and that Jesus Christ has paid for your sins and provided your righteousness, you can be saved.

159 “The Code of Hammurabi allowed a priestess of the naditum rank, who was free to marry but not have children, to give to her husband a female slave by whom he could have children: ‘When a seignior married a hierodule and she gave a female slave to her husband and she has then borne children, if later that female slave has claimed equality with her mistress because she bore children, her mistress may not sell her; she may mark her with the slave-mark and count her among the slaves.’a While this provision illustrates the general practice, it is less pertinent than a custom at Nusi. One text reads: ‘If Gilimninu fails to bear children, Gilimninu shall get for Shennima a woman from the Lullu country (i.e. a slave girl) as concubine. In that case, Gilimninu herself shall have authority over the offspring. . . .’b” John Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), p. 188. Davis here quotes from (a) Pritchard, ANET, p. 172 (paragraph 149), and (b) Speiser, Genesis, p. 120.

160 “Calvin’s summary of the case is quite commendable: ‘The faith of both was defective; not, indeed, with regard to the substance of the promise, but with regard to the method in which they proceeded.’” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, pp. 493-4.

161 “When Abram ‘hearkens’ (shama’) to his wife’s ‘voice’ (qol), he ‘approves of Sarai’s suggestion.’ No doubt, the patriarch was impressed by Sarai’s utter selflessness.” Ibid, p. 496.

162 “The Code of Hammurabi law l46, forbids the concubine to assert equality with the wife on pain of demotion to the former slave status. Sarai’s complaint to Abram reflects knowledge of both these social documents. Sarai demands that Abram do something about Hagar’s contempt! Abram refers Hagar’s discipline to Sarai.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 161.

163 “‘Shur’ is regarded by many as meaning “wall,” a meaning quite possible according to the Aramaic. In that event it may be the name of a line of fortresses erected by the Egyptian king, perhaps at the Isthmus of Suez, to keep out Asiotic invaders. In that case Hagar quite naturally was on the way back to her home country, Egypt.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 500.

164 Mary LaGrand Bouma, Minister’s Wives: The Walking Wounded, Leadership, Winter, 1980, vol. 1., p. 63.

165 “To some degree this son of Abram would be a shadow, almost a parody, of his father, his twelve princes notable in their time (17:20; 25:13) but not in the history of salvation; his restless existence no pilgrimage but an end in itself; his nonconformism a habit of mind, not a light to the nations.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, (Chicago Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 127.

Related Topics: Christian Home

18. Grasping the Great Truth of God (Genesis 17:1-27)


One of the greatest temptations I face in preaching week after week is the compulsion to find something new to proclaim from the pulpit. When this happens, I must force myself to recognize that such an urge is most often not from God. It was the pagan Athenians who were eager to hear something new and novel (Acts 17:19). The apostles, on the other hand, set themselves to reminding Christians of the truths they had already heard (cf. I Corinthians 4:7; I Timothy 4:6; II Timothy 2:14; II Peter 1:12,13; 3:1).

Novelty may be entertaining, but it is not often edifying. Listen to these words of wisdom from the pen of C. S. Lewis. While the context is not precisely ours, the principle remains the same:

To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain—many give up churchgoing altogether—merely endure.…

But every novelty presents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself, and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was ‘for what does it serve?’ ‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’

A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service, but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.166

While little that we find in Genesis 17 may be new to us, we must remember that we have ‘read the last chapter of the book.’ What we read as ancient history, Abram learned over a period of years, piece by piece. Much of what is said in chapter 17 was new and exciting to Abraham. We cannot experience the excitement and expectation of Abraham until we have ‘walked in his shoes’ through this text.

As we approach the passage, let us think of ourselves as Abram did. He was 99 years old at the time. Twenty-four years ago Abram had left Haran, in obedience to the divine call of Genesis 12:1-3. After Abram and Lot separated and Abram had defeated the eastern alliance of kings (chapters 13 and 14), God formally made a covenant with Abram, specifying that his heir would come from his own body (15:4), and giving a more exact description of the land that he would possess (15:18-21). In addition, he was told the fate of his offspring for the next several generations (15:12-16).

Thirteen years previous to where we stand in chapter 17, Abram had taken a wrong turn. Following the advice of his wife, Abram attempted to produce the heir God had promised by following an established practice of his day, taking Sarai’s maid, Hagar, as his wife. This led only to disunity and heartbreak for all involved. So far as we can tell, God has not spoken since He encountered Hagar on her way to Egypt.

These thirteen years were not wasted. They served to illustrate the consequences of serving God in the power of the flesh, and of acting presumptuously . They served, as well, to intensify the impossibility of Abram and Sarai ever having a child between them. In this way, if a child was born at this time it would surely be a work of God, and not of man. It appears that, in the light of this difficulty, Abram had come to believe that Ishmael was his only hope for an heir.

God’s Promise

God’s words in chapter 17 break the silence of 13 years:

Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly’ (Genesis 17:1-2).

After thirteen years of silence, Abram must have been greatly encouraged by this encounter with God. In times past, God had only been said to have spoken to Abram (cf. 12:1) or come in a vision (15:12-17). Here, after 24 years, God revealed Himself; He appeared to Abram. Abram had seen God for the first time.

God had disclosed Himself to Abram in a more intimate fashion. Also, He manifested Himself more fully in terms of His character and attributes. God referred to Himself as ‘God Almighty,’ E1 Shaddai. This is the first time God has been called by this name. It is a designation which emphasizes His infinite power.167 What God had long before determined, and what would now be more precisely defined, would depend upon a God of infinite power to accomplish.

Previously, God had required little of Abram other than to leave (Ur) and believe (15:6) in His promise. Now that the covenant was about to be implemented,168 Abram would be required to behave in a way that God prescribed. He must walk before his God blamelessly, not in perfection,169 but in purity (15:1). It is probably not without significance that God withheld specific duties until long after Abram’s belief was evident, so that works are not the basis of the covenant but a by-product of it.

Just as Abram had heard God refer to Himself by a new name, so Abram is renamed, a token of his destiny:

As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4-5).

The name Abram meant ‘high father’ or ‘exalted father.’ This alone may have proved to be an embarrassment to Abram who had only one child and that by a slave. But now his name was changed to ‘father of a multitude.’ How could Abraham ever live this name down? By the grace of God, he would soon live up to his new name.

Most of us have had the unhappy experience of making an agreement only to find that it profited us far less than we had hoped for and been led to expect. Just the opposite is true with God’s promises. The more we learn of them, the richer the blessings they contain. Abram had been told that he would become a great nation (12:2); now he is told that in fact he will become the ‘father of a multitude of nations’ (17:4). Beyond this, he will be the father of kings (17:6). El Shaddai promised to be a God to Abram and to his descendants (17:7), among whom we must include Abram’s spiritual seed (cf. Galatians 3:16). The covenant was not only between Abraham and God, but between God and Abraham’s seed, forever.

Stipulations of the Covenant

There is a clearly defined outline of the obligations of this covenant described in chapter 17. In verse 4 God said, ‘As for Me.’ In verse 9 He said, ‘As for you.’ In verse 15 we read, ‘As for Sarai.’ Finally, in verse 20, we find, ‘As for Ishmael,’ God’s covenant is eternal and sure. The enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant is conditional. Only by keeping these conditions can man enjoy the blessings of God as guaranteed in the covenant.

The obligation upon Abraham and his descendants was that they be circumcised:

This is My covenent, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:10).

In one way, circumcision seems too simple. How can God require only this one act? Let us remember that God had already said to Abraham, “Walk before Me, and be blameless” (verse 1). Circumcision was not all that Abraham was required to do—rather, it was the symbol of his relationship to God and signified what his moral conduct should be. Circumcision, for Abraham, meant that he had bound himself to God in this covenant. He looked forward to its blessings, and he also submitted to its stipulations.

Circumcision is the only act of surgery of its kind that is beneficial to mankind. More than its physical benefits, it signifies spiritual requirements as well. Symbolically, the flesh is put away. Abram had acquired a son by the use of his reproductive organ. Now he submitted it to God. No Israelite could ever engage in the sex act without being reminded of the fact that he belonged to God. Children that were begotten were to be brought up according to God’s Word. Circumcision of infant sons did not save them but evidenced the faith of the father and mother in the God of Abraham. As that young child grew up, his circumcision was a sign to him that he was different from other boys—he belonged to God. It was not the circumcision that saved the boy, but the sign which would forever remind him of what God required to enjoy the benefits of His covenant. Circumcision of the male only may have signified the special responsibility which God had assigned to the father. (This may have had particular significance to Abraham after the incident with Hagar.) Some have emphasized the similarities between baptism and circumcision and surely there are some (cf. Colossians 2:10-12). Both signify a union with God that has already occurred. Both necessitate the putting away of former things and living a life pleasing to God (cf. Romans 6:1ff; Colossians 3:1-11) .

But there are rather obvious differences which must be kept in mind. Baptism is for believing adults, as an indication of their faith in God (Acts 16:33; 19:1-7).170 Circumcision was performed on infants eight days old and evidenced the faith of the parents. Baptism was a public sign, circumcision was a private sign. Baptism is for all believers, male and female, circumcision was only for the males. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant with Abraham; baptism is not the sign of the New Covenant but the Lord’s supper (cf. Luke 22:20).

A Promise for Sarah

Up to this time, God had promised Abraham a son but had not specifically identified the mother of this child. Abraham had been convinced by Sarai and circumstances that it must be Hagar. It seems as though Abraham still considered this to be the case. What a shock God’s words must have been, and what a commentary on chapter 16:

As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her (Genesis 17:15-16).

What Abraham must have originally assumed, what experience seemed to deny, was that Sarah would be the mother of his son and heir. The promise of an heir is now narrowed to Abraham and Sarai.

Abraham’s response is puzzling:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ (Genesis 17:17).

Before we attempt to determine whether Abraham’s response was consistent with his faith, let me point out that what is recorded is not spoken to God. This was Abraham’s inner and immediate response to God’s proclamation. Personally, I do not view this as the laugh of delight, but of disbelief. The impossibility of such a thing taking place was the cause of Abraham’s outburst. Lest we be too pious about this matter, I suspect Abraham’s response is just about what we would have done. At the same time, I do not want to suggest total unbelief on Abraham’s part. The promise was an incredible one—too much to take in one dose. Laughter is often the response to things which catch us off guard.

Abraham’s words to God also reflect a failure to fully grasp what has just been promised: “Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!” (Genesis 17:18).

If Abraham could not believe that Sarah would bear a son to him, then his request is easily explained. He informed God that so far as he was concerned, Ishmael was satisfactory as his heir. No such wonder as another son through Sarah was necessary since a son was already in the family. In addition, the love of Abrabam for this boy is again evidenced. Why should another child be born, especially when conflict would be inevitable? Couldn’t God choose to bless Ishmael rather than to provide another child?

God’s plans would not be changed. God had purposed to give Abraham and Sarah a child and through this child to bring about His promises. No substitute son was satisfactory, especially when he was the result of self effort. Indeed, Sarah would bear a son and the spiritual blessings could only come about through him:

‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him’ (Genesis 17:19).

A Promise for Ishmael

While the spiritual blessings must come through Isaac, God will not overlook the love of Abraham for his son nor of His own promise to Hagar (cf. 16:10ff.). Ishmael would become a great nation, and of him would come 12 princes, but the spiritual blessings could only come through Isaac. The doctrine of divine election is to be seen in this promise.

Abraham’s Obedience

Verses 22-27 stress the important role of obedience in our Christian lives. It is precious to God. Because of this, He recorded the circumcision of Abraham, Ishmael, and all of Abraham’s household. The response of faith to divine commands is always obedience.

While there was a time lapse of 13 years from the birth of Ishmael to this appearance of God, there was only about three months from the circumcision of Abraham to the birth of Isaac.


There is little in this passage which is new to anyone who has read their Bible. Let us not forget, however, that a good deal of what was said was new to Abraham.

New revelation was simply clarification of the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It suddenly occurred to me in my study of this passage that all of Abraham’s life was primarily focused upon the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It took him a lifetime to begin to grasp the promise which initially took only three verses to record. The pinnacle of Abraham’s growth in faith is seen in his willingness to sacrifice his son (chapter 22). This act was the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to bless him through his descendants.

If it took Abraham a lifetime to grasp three verses of Scripture, how long will it take us to fathom the depth of the riches of His grace (cf. Romans 11:33-36)?

This passage helps me come to grips with the desire to learn ‘new’ truths for my own life and for my preaching. God is not so interested in us knowing new truth as He is in us grasping the few great truths of His word. How easy it is to think that we have learned some truth, only to pass on to another. In Abraham’s life, God revealed a truth, then continued to return to it, testing him, and then revealing more of that truth than he had known before. Which one of us can say that we have come to fathom the doctrine of the grace of God or of the atonement? Who would be willing to claim that he had seen all of its implications? I believe that, like Abraham, we can expect God to be at work in our lives, expanding and expounding upon the few great and central truths of Christianity.

The more I study the life of Abraham, the more I see that his was a relationship of growth. He came to learn more and more about the God Who called him. He came to a deeper and deeper understanding of the meaning of God’s Word. As he did so, he invariably drew nearer and nearer to God. There was not only a growth in Abraham’s knowledge, but in his intimacy. At first, God only spoke to Abraham (12:1). Twenty-four years later He revealed Himself to Abraham and spoke with him. Abraham, for the first time, communed with God and interacted with Him. Later, he would be called the friend of God.

You and I cannot have a static relationship with God. Not if we are truly born again. God will not allow this to happen. He may allow us to fail such as Abraham often did. He may leave us to ourselves for a time, as Abram found God silent for 13 years. But sooner or later God will break into our lethargic lives and draw us closer to Himself. That is what the Christian life is all about.

166 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964 , pp. 4-5.

167 “This was a new title of God (Hebrew: El Shaddai). The root idea seems to be that of power and ability, and is best rendered by the phrase ‘the Mighty God,’ the addition of ‘All’ being no necessary part of the word. This special emphasis upon God’s power was very appropriate to the new message about to be given.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis : A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1946), pp. 153-154.

168 The covenant had been formally made in chapter 15. Here in chapter 17, the implementation of the covenant is referred to in verse 2. Thus the translators of the NASV render the word (literally ‘give’) ‘establish.’

169 The word perfect, or blameless, in verse one need not imply perfection, but integrity, cf. the marginal note in the NASV.

170 Some would use the Acts 16 passage to proof-text infant baptism, but this cannot be done. All who were of the jailor’s household heard the gospel (16:32); all believed (16:34); all were baptized (16:33), all rejoiced (16:34). All who were baptized were themselves believers, just as was the jailor.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Theology Proper (God)

19. Marks of Maturity (Genesis 18:1-33)


I grew up in deer country and, as a young lad, I liked to hunt. We country people were always disturbed by those city folks who would come out to shoot our deer, the ones that had been eating in our orchards and nibbling in our vegetable gardens all year long. I heard of one city slicker who knew so little about hunting that he stopped at a local store to ask what one looked like. If you cannot believe this, I heard of a farmer who was so concerned about his cattle being shot during hunting season that he actually painted, in large letters, COW on his cattle.

The loss of a cow to a city dude is pathetic but not earth shaking. Many Christians, however, are pursuing the goal of maturity who fail to comprehend the marks of maturity. Some believe it is in knowledge while others equate it with a particular experience, or by the following of some kind of rules, or of the application of formulas. While such things as knowledge and experience are important, these alone are not the mark for which we are to strive.

In our study of the life of Abraham, we found him at a very low ebb in chapter 16. There, pressured by his wife, Abram’s faith failed momentarily and he attempted to produce what God had promised through human effort. A child was gotten through Hagar, but not the child of promise. Only heartache resulted for Abram, Sarai, and Hagar, because of their sin. So far as the Bible informs us, it was thirteen years until God once again spoke to Abram. Then, in Genesis chapter 17, God broke this silence and reiterated His covenant with Abraham and promised the birth of the child through Sarah in a year.

In contrast to chapter 16, chapter 18 is one of the high water marks of Abraham’s life. While his faith was not flawless, it had grown. His attitudes and actions serve as an example of maturing faith. The description of Abraham’s faith which we find in chapter 18 provides a backdrop for the failure of Lot in chapter 19, the seeds of which were sown in chapter 13. That story we save for our next lesson, but the contrast between the two men in these two chapters is clearly seen.

Let us look more closely, then, to Abraham and the marks of his maturity as they are seen in Genesis 18.

The Heavenly Trio
and Abraham’s Hospitality

While this is not the first appearance of our Lord to Abraham, it is certainly unique. Previously, God had spoken directly (12:1-3; 13:14-17), through a spokesman (14:19-20), by a vision (15:1ff), and in an appearance, one which may have been accompanied with glory and splendor (17:1ff). Now, God comes to Abraham appearing as an ordinary man, accompanied by two others who eventually are identified as angelic beings (compare 18:2,22; 19:1). We are told nothing which would distinguish these three ‘travelers’ from any others:

Now the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; … (Genesis 18:1-2a).

Abraham, in typical eastern fashion, sat by the door of his tent in the heat of the day. Those of us in Dallas, after 40 days of 100 degree or higher temperatures, know the wilting effect of the sun at noontime. The time of day made the need for hospitality even greater, for these guests would be thirsty and weary from the heat. Abraham’s hospitality would be put to the test, for his ‘siesta’ must come to a halt in order to serve his guests.

While such hospitality is still a part of the culture of the east, Abraham’s zeal for his task is obvious:

… and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.’ And they said, ‘So do, as you have said.’ So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes.’ Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant; and he hurried to prepare it. And he took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate ( Genesis 18:2b-8).

Abraham’s duty was performed in no perfunctory or haphazard way. He minimized the provisions and the trouble it would take to prepare them—a little water, a piece of bread, a short rest, and a moment to wash their feet. But what was provided was a sumptuous meal. A large quantity of bread was freshly baked;171 a choice calf was butchered and prepared, curds and milk were served. No simple meal was this! And Abraham refused to sit with his guests, but stood by to serve them.172

Any of us would gladly have prepared such a feast if we had known the identity of the guests, but it would seem quite certain that Abraham was, as yet, in the dark. No doubt the writer to the Hebrews spoke of this when he wrote:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).

What a scene this must have been! Abraham, standing by and serving his heavenly visitors, unaware of their identity. At the same time, beyond and below were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with riot and revelry, enjoying their last day of the season of sin, and Lot somewhere therein, as yet unaware of what this day would bring forth.

God’s Promise
Confirmed, Yet Questioned

Nowhere are we told the precise moment it occurred to Abraham his visitors were not of this world, but we do know that by verse 27 this fact was known.

I believe that the promise reiterated in verses 9-15 identified these guests by linking them with the revelation in chapter 17.

Then they said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ And he said, ‘Behold, in the tent.’ And he said, ‘I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh saying, “Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?” Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.’ Sarah denied it however, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. And He said, ‘No, but you did laugh’ (Genesis 18:9-15).

It was customary in those days, as in some cultures today, for the women to be neither seen nor heard while male guests were entertained. Sarah thus prepared the bread out of the sight of the men (cf. verse 6), and now she remained inside the tent as they ate. While she carefully kept out of sight, her curiosity got the best of her. She may have peeped through the folds of the tent, though this is nowhere stated. Nevertheless she did have her ear to the door, anxious to hear the conversation outside. I doubt that any of us could have avoided such temptation either.

When asked where Sarah was, Abraham replied that she was inside the tent. The Lord then assured Abraham that Sarah would have a son next year. The substance of this promise differed little from that revealed previously as recorded in chapter 17 (verses 19,21). For Abraham, this must have clinched the identity of his guests.

It seems as though Abraham either failed to mention this previous promise to Sarah, or he failed to convince her of its certainty. I believe the words of our Lord were intended more for Sarah’s benefit than Abraham’s. It was vital that she, too, have faith in God’s promise.

Sarah’s response differed very little from her husband’s,

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ (Genesis 17:17).

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ (Genesis 18:12).

Humanly speaking, a child was out of the question, for either Abraham or Sarah. Their laughter, I believe, was a combination of surprise, shock, sheer joy, and unbelief. How could such a thing be? Nevertheless even in such an absurd moment, Sarah thought of her husband with respect.173 One wonders if Sarah’s laughter was not heard outside the tent. Omniscience would have known of it, but such may not have been necessary.

Notice that a gentle rebuke is directed, at first, toward Abraham, not Sarah. “And the Lord said to Ahraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh … ’” (Genesis 18:13).

Had Abraham deliberately kept God’s promise from her? Was his faith so weak that he could not convince his wife? Somehow he must give account for his wife’s response. I find it most interesting that Sarah’s response mirrored Abraham’s. He had provided the example for her.

The words of our Lord speak as loudly to Christians today as they did to Abraham, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14a).

Here is the bedrock issue. The only reason for such unbelief is a failure to comprehend the extent of God’s ability to work in and through us.

The other side of the coin is this: were the matter of having a son not impossible, the glory for such a miracle would not have been given to God. The delay in the birth of Isaac was intended both to necessitate and to nurture the faith of Abraham and Sarah.

In addition to reassuring Abraham and (perhaps) informing Sarah of the promised child’s birth, the words of the Lord in verses 10 and 14 served to confirm the identity of the third guest as the Lord Himself. In chapter 17 the Lord had promised Abraham a child through Sarah in the first person (17:15-16,19,21). In chapter 18 the promise is again stated in the first person (verses 10, 14). In addition, this “visitor” was able to know the inner thoughts of Sarah as she laughed to herself in the tent (verse 13). No question now remained concerning the identity of the One and His two fellow travelers.

Sarah seems to have come out of the tent when Abraham was questioned concerning her unbelief. In her fear, she denied laughing. Interestingly, she did not deny her thoughts as reported by the Lord. Her denial was quickly brushed aside as untrue.

God’s Purpose
Confided in Abraham

Abraham’s hospitality was a magnificent act of Christian generosity, but it is not (in my estimation) the highest expression of Christian service in this chapter. The high point of Abraham’s spiritual life is seen in his intercession with the Lord for the sparing of the righteous in Sodom.

Some might conclude that the sparing of the righteous was the result of Abraham’s fervent petition. I do not think so, as noble as his efforts were. I believe that God purposely revealed his intention to judge these cities in order to prompt Abraham to intercessory prayer. The account, I believe, will bear this out.

The Lord and the two angels made their way down toward Sodom, escorted part way by Abraham. It would seem that the Lord turned to the two angels as He asked, almost rhetorically,

… Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:17b-19) .

The intimacy of the relationship between God and Abraham served as the motivation for God’s disclosure of His purposes for Sodom. Further, the Abrahamic Covenant provided the foundation on which that relationship was based. In verse 19 the necessity for Abraham’s faith to be communicated and continued by his offspring is stressed.174 While God’s purposes will be realized, His people are responsible to keep His commands.

In contrast to the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants is the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18:20-21).

Verses 20 and 21 dramatically portray the sin of Sodom and the righteous response of a holy God to it. The sin of the city is so great that it virtually cries out to heaven for retribution (verse 20). God’s personal interest and focused attention is depicted as ‘going down’175 to deal with it. The text does not mean to undermine the omniscience of God, for God does know all. God is not ‘going down’ to learn the facts, but to take personal interest in them and to rectify the matter. So it is that Abraham discerned that God was about to destroy the city, although it was not stated specifically.

Abraham Intercedes with God for Sodom

The two angels went on toward Sodom, leaving our Lord and Abraham alone, overlooking the city (cf. 19:27,28). While speaking reverently, Abraham manifested a boldness with God never seen before.

And Abraham came near and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?’ (Genesis 18:23-25).

Undoubtedly Abraham’s primary concern was for Lot and his family. While this is not stated, it is implied (19:27-29). His appeal is based upon the justice of God. Justice would not allow the righteous to suffer the punishment due the wicked (verse 25). Abraham appealed for the sparing of Sodom in order to spare Lot,176 not so much out of concern to save the city or the wicked. Nevertheless it is possible Abraham might have hoped that with Lot spared along with the wicked, that they might come to faith in God in time.

We must admit Abraham stated his case forcefully, but I do not believe this is why God assured him that his petition would be honored.

The approach Abraham took with God was that surely, in justice, He could not treat the righteous and the wicked alike. The righteous did not deserve to perish with the wicked. So an appeal was made to spare the wicked and the righteous if a sufficient number of the righteous were to be found. Once granted, the bargaining began over how many righteous it would take to save the city.

God agreed to spare the city if 50 righteous could be found (verse 26). Abraham must have doubted that such a number could be found, and so he began to plead for a lower figure.

And Abraham answered and said, ‘Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there’ (Genesis 18:27-28).

Abraham waxed eloquent in these verses. A promise had been given concerning 50 righteous. The question now was whether or not this figure was firm. Abraham tested this by reducing it by five. Notice that he worded his case such that destruction brought on the city of Sodom with 45 righteous condemned the 45 because of the absence of five righteous citizens. For the lack of five the 45 would be destroyed. God granted this request, but not because of Abraham’s oratorical skillfulness.

From here, Abraham was encouraged to attempt to further reduce the minimum number of righteous required to spare Sodom. First it was 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10. We almost sigh with relief here, for one might fear that God would lose His patience with Abraham. Personally, I believe the heart of God was warmed by Abraham’s compassion and zeal. This was no selfish petition, but intercession for others.

Why, then, did Abraham stop with ten? Why would he not have gone on to five or even one? Some may think that he did not dare to press God farther. Perhaps so, but I do not believe that Abraham would have ceased until he were confident that Lot and his family were safe from the wrath of God.

The number ten should have provided the protection of Lot with a margin of safety. After all, it would seem that Lot’s family alone was large enough to meet this number. With Lot and his wife, his two unmarried daughters, his married daughters and sons-in-law, and perhaps sons also (cf. Genesis 19:12), ten righteous surely could be found. Abraham seemed satisfied, and perhaps, too, others had come to trust in God through Lot’s witness.

As we know from chapter 19 Abraham’s hopes exceeded reality. This would have resulted in tragedy were it not for a great divine truth: God’s grace always exceeds our expectations. In the final analysis there were only three righteous in Sodom, Lot and his two daughters. Some might well question the righteousness of the daughters from their actions in the next chapter. Regardless, God did remember Abraham’s petition. While He did not spare the city of Sodom, He did spare the righteous. He is able and willing to do far beyond what we ask or think, as the Scriptures elsewhere teach (cf. Ephesians 3:20).


This passage gives us much insight into the matter of Christian maturity. As we look once more through these verses, several marks of maturity seem to emerge.

(1) The mature Christian becomes less dependent upon spectacular manifestations of God and more involved in intimate day-to-day fellowship. Previously, God had disclosed Himself to Abraham in more splendor and glory. This time God would not have been known, except through previous knowledge of Him and the eyes of faith. God was known by His promises, His word, rather than through a spectacular presence or splendor.

What more intimate fellowship can there be than the sharing of a meal with God?

And when the hour had come He reclined at table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:14-15).

And it come about that when He had reclined at table with them, he took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight (Luke 24:30-31).

Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any one hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me (Revelation 3:20).

Is it any wonder that one of the highlights of the Christian’s week to have fellowship with His Lord at His table (I Corinthians 11:23-26)? We should not always seek to find God in the spectacular, but in the more routine affairs of life (I Kings 19:11-14). Such is a sign of maturity.

I think we see this illustrated in marriage. When we first find ‘the woman of our dreams’ we want to take her to the finest restaurant or do something exciting. Sooner or later we find that we have just as much pleasure in walking in the park or sitting on the porch. The thrill is not in the place or the activity, but in the intimacy shared between two in love in whatever we do. So it is with Christian maturity.

(2) Christian maturity shifts our attention from self to others. Lot was one who continually thought of himself. Abraham’s finest hour in this chapter was devoted to serving others, first of all in the hospitality given to these ‘strangers,’ and then in the intercession he made for Sodom. Love of God must reflect itself in a concern for others (cf. Matthew 23:37-39).

(3) Christian maturity balances activity and passivity. Before in this study of Genesis we have talked about the problem of when to work and when to wait. There are times to be active and times to be passive. Abraham should not have gone into Egypt when the famine came to Canaan. Abraham should not have devised the scheme to protect his life by lying. Abraham was passive in following Sarah’s plan to produce a son.

In verses 1-8 Abraham was active in offering hospitality to the three strangers, and rightly so. This was something he could and should do. In the matter of Sodom, some might have tended to be passive. God had spoken; the city was to be destroyed; what could Abraham possibly do? He could do what you and I can do when we can do nothing else—pray. Nothing is ever beyond God’s ability to perform (18:14). If Abraham appealed according to the will of God and His character, nothing would be impossible. When any situation is beyond our control, it is not beyond God’s. Mature Christians are those who do not fail to petition God when circumstances look dark.

This, of course, does not imply that we should pray only in impossible situations. We should pray always. But mature Christians pray with the confidence that God will act according to His character, and with infinite power, and in response to our petitions. When we are helpless, we are not hopeless, for the prayers of the righteous accomplish much (cf. James 5:16).

(4) Mature Christians view prophecy as an incentive to diligent prayer and service, not a matter of mere intellectual curiosity. All too often today Christians are fascinated by prophecy as though it were a matter only to tickle our intellect rather than to touch our hearts. God’s prophetic purposes are given to incite men to action. This is the response of the mature Christian (cf. Daniel 9; II Peter 3:11-12).

(5) Mature Christians have a clear grasp of two eternal truths: the greatness of God, and the goodness of God. These truths undergird the 18th chapter of Genesis. The first is found in the question of our Lord in verse 14, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The second is the basis for Abraham’s intercession in verse 25, “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth deal justly?”

The first truth rebukes all worry and lack of prayer, for “with God, nothing is impossible” (Luke 1:37). Every time we worry about the future we reject the truth that God is all-powerful.

The second truth provides an answer for life’s most distressing and perplexing problems. The God who is all-powerful is also loving, kind, just, merciful, and so on. Infinite power is joined with infinite purity.

Our first child and only son died when he was 3 1/2 months old. Several years later, while I was in seminary, the question of what happens to infants who die came up in class. Several passages were suggested, but some did not find them sufficient. Finally I shared the assurance that we found when we lost our son. While it was comforting to have scriptures to comfort us, we did not need a text to answer our every question. God is far greater than all that is revealed about Him in Scripture. The Judge of all the earth will deal justly. That was our confidence. Have you lost a loved one about whose salvation you are doubtful? Are there problems and circumstances you cannot understand? Then rest in this: our God is all powerful; nothing is impossible with Him. And furthermore, this power is always employed in justice, truth, mercy, and love. What a comfort! What an encouragement to pray!

(6) Finally, Christian maturity is evidenced when our thoughts are like God’s. Abraham did not change the mind of God; he demonstrated it. God did not suddenly alter His purposes; He informed Abraham of His purposes so that he could evidence His mercy and justice and compassion. The revelation of God’s activities in Sodom and Gomorrah was given so that Abraham’s faith could be manifested in the magnificent act of intercession. Because Abraham knew God so well, he knew that He could not destroy the wicked and the righteous together. Maturity is that point where our thoughts and actions become more like God’s.

… until we attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

Lest we begin to feel guilty at the realization that we do not measure up to Abraham, let alone our Lord, we must remember that this maturing process took many years. Let us also keep in mind that Abraham is soon to make another serious mistake (chapter 20). Nevertheless, let us press on, in God’s strength, toward maturity.

171 “In the Orient bread is never prepared at any other time than immediately before it is eaten. So bread must be prepared by Sarah for these guests. Though the guests number only three, the simple food offered will be presented in lavish abundance. “Three measures” have been computed to make four-and-a-half pecks (Skinner). What is left over can be disposed of with ease by the servants of so large an establishment as the one Abraham had.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 538.

172 “The idiom ‘stand by,’ (‘madh ‘al), implies to stand by to be of service, and could even be rendered ‘and he served them.’ Cf. I Sam. l6:22; I Kings l:2; I Kings l7:l, in the expression ‘stand before.’” Ibid, p. 539.

173 Cf. I Peter 3:6.

174 Cf. Psalm 132:11,12.

175 We should first realize that Abraham’s tent was pitched on a high place which overlooked the valley in which Sodom and Gomorrah were located (cf. 19:27,28). In this sense the two angels ‘went down’ to Sodom and Gomorrah. I do not believe that this is the primary meaning of our Lord’s words here, “I will go down now and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:21). First of all, only the two angels actually entered Sodom, not our Lord (cf. l9:1ff). Also, there was no need for God to inspect Sodom in order to learn the facts. God’s omniscience has no limits created by distance. The solution to this problem is found (to my satisfaction) in the other uses of the expression ‘to go down.’ In Genesis 11:5,7 it is used of God’s involvement with Babel and the confusion of languages. In Exodus 3:8 it spoke of God’s intervention in Egypt to deliver His people. In all these instances ‘to go down’ conveys the idea of ‘becoming personally involved’ or of ‘personal intervention.’ This God did, without physically entering Sodom, Babel, or Egypt.

176 Initially all the cities of the valley were to be destroyed (cf. 19:17, 20-21,25). God spoke to Abraham of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20). But Abraham appealed only for Sodom, ‘the city’ (18:24,26,28).

Related Topics: Spiritual Life

20. From City Councilman to Caveman: “What a Difference a Day Makes” (Genesis 19:1-38)


Several weeks ago I was in Washington State visiting with a friend of ours who was also from Texas. We were standing by the lake on which my parents live, looking out over the lush vegetation, the magnificent fir trees, and enjoying the cool temperature. Thoughtfully my friend turned to me and asked, “Tell me again why it is that you want to go back to Dallas?”

I suppose that most of us give considerable thought to getting out of the city, away from high crime rates, people and pollution, unseemly sights, sounds and smells, crowds and congestion. There seems to be a trend of ‘back to the country’ thinking recently. Some would even feel that leaving the city is biblical.

Thus far in the book of Genesis, the city has not been viewed in the best light. Cain built the first city, naming it after his first son, Enoch, and this after he was told that he would be a vagabond and a wanderer (Genesis 4:12,17). In spite of the fact that man had been commanded to populate the earth (9:7), fallen mankind huddled together and began to build the city of Babel with its tower (11:4). Abraham was called to leave urban life to live the life of a sojourner (12:1-3).

And now Lot, who chose to live in Sodom, is about to lose everything: his wife and family, his honor, and all he has worked for. Abraham, living far from the cities of the plain, watches with grief as this destruction is wrought (19:27-29). Does this not indicate that separation involves fleeing from the city? Some think so. But Lot’s downfall did not occur in the sick and secular society of Sodom, but in a secluded cave. The problem was ultimately not with a city, but with a soul. Genesis 19 enables us to put the matter of separation into its proper perspective.

The 19th chapter of Genesis is perhaps the most tragic portion of this book for it describes the destruction of a city. Far worse, it depicts the downfall of a saint. Had it not been for these words of the Apostle Peter, we may never have known with certainty that the pathetic personality known as Lot was a true believer:

And if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds), … (II Peter 2:7-8).

If we are candid with each other, we must admit that in the church of Jesus Christ the ‘Lots’ far outnumber the ‘Abrahams.’ If we are truthful we would have to say that in our own lives there is much more of Lot evident in us than of the friend of God, Abraham. If this is true, then the description of the destruction of Lot contains a warning for every true Christian. We must approach this passage carefully and prayerfully if we are to learn Lot’s lessons from literature rather than from life.

Hospitality Versus Homosexuality

“Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. And he said, ‘Now behold, my lords, please turn aside into your servant’s house, and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way.’ They said however, ‘No, but we shall spend the night in the square.’ Yet he urged them strongly, so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he prepared a feast for them, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate” (Genesis 19:1-3).

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening. Lot, who was sitting at the city gate, identified them as mortal men and as strangers, but not as messengers of destruction. Since the elders of the city sat as judges at the gates of the city (cf. Job 29:7-12), it is not unlikely that Lot, over a period of time, had gained prominence and power. Personally, it seems to be the same kind as acquired by Billy Carter. You will remember that shortly after Lot moved to Sodom the city was sacked and carried off, only to be rescued by the heroic efforts of Abram (Genesis 14:1-16). Lot’s popularity and power may well have been derived from his relationship to Abraham.

This should in no way detract from the genuine hospitality offered the two strangers. The parallel with Abraham’s hospitality in the previous chapter can hardly be accidental. This act, more than any other, evidenced the righteousness of Lot as indicated by Peter in his epistle. The apparent reluctance of the angels to accept until gently pressed by Lot is more a matter of culture and custom than anything else (cf. Luke 24:28-29).

While we are not told in concrete terms, it would seem that Lot’s persistence is motivated as much by fear for the safety of the strangers as by his generosity. Well did he know the fate of those who did not have a haven for the night. In any other city, sleeping in the city square would not have been unusual or unwise. The depravity of Sodom caused Lot to courteously compel his guests to stay with him and to share his table with them. I am inclined to believe that Lot’s meal was neither as serene nor as sumptuous as that shared at Abraham’s table.177

If Lot had hoped his guests had entered his home unnoticed, he was in for a great disappointment. Sick as it may seem, the men of the city may have had a keener eye for strangers than Lot. Their motives were corrupt and their intentions unspeakable. In a short time the entire city had gathered about Lot’s house seeking sex with the strangers. This was not the ‘broad-minded’ tolerance of a city whose laws permitted such conduct between consenting adults in private. It was not even the shameless solicitation to sin. Rather, it was rape, and that of the worst form. Imagine it, a whole city, young and old. Surely judgment was due.

Lot’s response is typical of his spiritual state; it is a strange blend of courage and compromise, of strength of character and situationalism. The crowd demanded that Lot turn over his guests, an unthinkable violation of the protection guaranteed one who comes under the roof of your house. Lot stepped outside, closing the door behind him, hoping to defuse the situation. He pleaded with them not to act wickedly, and, just as we are about to applaud his courage, he offers to surrender his two daughters to the appetites of these depraved degenerates. How unthinkable! Lot’s virtue (his concern for his guests) has become a vice (a willingness to substitute his own daughters for strangers). We may breathe a sigh of relief that the crowd refused Lot’s offer, but I must tell you that the consequences for this compromise are yet to be seen.

For twenty years Lot had lived in Sodom, yet he was still an alien to the men of the city. I suspect that the reason Lot had been left alone was that these people still remembered the military might of uncle Abraham. Had Lot been attacked they would have Abraham to deal with.

For years Lot had seemingly been content to stand aloof from the sin of this city, but not to rebuke it. Now he would play the part of the judge by speaking out against their wickedness. This was too much for the mob. Finally forced to protest their perversion, he has angered the mob. They will first deal with Lot, then with the other two.

Lot, who supposed it was his duty to save the strangers, is rescued by them. By the words they spoke, their identity and their task were revealed to Lot. Their sight either removed completely or dazzled and distorted, the men of the city groped for the door, but wore themselves out trying to find it (cf. II Kings 6:18).

Lot’s Last Stand

In those twilight hours before sunrise, Sodom saw more missionary activity from Lot than in all the previous years. His efforts were not trained upon the men of the city, however, but were a frantic and futile effort to save his own family, whom he had neglected to win.

Then the men said to Lot, ‘Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it’ (Genesis 19:12,13).

His sons-in-law178 were awakened and warned in what must have been a wild-eyed fashion. It was like trying to give the gospel to a rapidly dying man. No doubt Lot’s demeanor did suggest something very bizarre. They took it all for some kind of joke:

And Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-low, who were to marry his daughters, and said, ‘Up, get out of this place, for the Lord will destroy the city.’ But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting (Genesis 19:14).

Why? Why would they not take Lot seriously? Notice that we are not told that they refused to believe Lot so much as they did not even take him seriously. There seems to be only one possible explanation: Lot had never mentioned his faith before. His words were not a repetition of his life-long warnings of sin and Judgment—they are something totally new and novel. What a rebuke to the witness of Lot. It is one thing to warn men and have them reject our message. It is far worse for them not even to consider our words as spoken seriously.179

Morning came without one new convert, let alone one righteous soul who would flee the wrath of God. Time was up. The angels ordered Lot to take his wife and his two daughters and get out of the city before judgment fell.

The unbelief of the citizens of Sodom is to some degree predictable, but the reluctance of Lot is incredible. Never before has anyone ever tried so hard to keep from being saved. There are several reasons why Lot may have been so hesitant and foot-dragging throughout the entire rescue. First, Lot in his carnal state may not have been fully convinced of the certainty and severity of the judgment. Second, he may have hoped by his delay, to stall for time, in order to preserve friends and family knowing that judgment could not come until he had departed (cf. verse 22). Third, Lot was so attached to this ‘present world’ of friends, family, and things that he just could not bear the thought of leaving it. In the final analysis Lot was literally dragged from the city by the angel.

And when morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Up, take your wife and your two daughters, who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.’ But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hands of his daughters, for the compassion of the Lord was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city (Genesis 19:15-16).

When given specific instruction to flee to the mountains as far from Sodom as possible (verse 17), Lot again resisted and plead for a less painful program:

But Lot said to them, ‘Oh no, my lords! Now behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have magnified your lovingkindness, which you have shown me by saving my life; but I cannot escape to the mountains, lest the disaster overtake me and I die; now behold, this town is near enough to flee to, and it is small. Please, let me escape there (is it not small?) that my life may be saved’ (Genesis 19:18-20).

What a difference between the intercession of Abraham and the prayer (or plea) of Lot. Abraham prayed for the preservation of the cities for the sake of the righteous, particularly Lot and his family. Abraham had no selfish interest at stake. To the contrary, removing the peoples of the cities might have appeared to have left the land open for Abraham to possess.180 Lot plead for the city of Zoar (previously Bela, Genesis 14:2), not for the sake of those who lived there, but for his own convenience. If judgment must fall, could God not make it easy on Lot? After all, wasn’t it just a little city? And so the city was spared (verse 21).

Fire and Brimstone

Sunrise came just as Lot, with his wife and daughters, approached Zoar (verse 23). Safely out of reach of the devastation, the Lord rained down fire and brimstone from heaven upon the cities of the valley. Many suggestions have been made as to the mechanics employed to bring about this destruction.181 While I believe that natural elements such as lightening, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions, probably were involved, this makes it no less a miracle. This was judgment from the Lord (19:13- 4; 24-25), and He was in full control of its extent and timing (verses 22,24-25). The devastation included the four towns and even the soil on which they were built. It was a picture of complete devastation:

‘All its land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows on it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in His anger and in His wrath’ (Deuteronomy 29:23).

The death of Lot’s wife is tragic indeed. She died, it seems, within steps of safety. They had virtually arrived at the city of Zoar. While Lot hastened on, Mrs. Lot lingered. Perhaps her mother’s heart was touched by the death of her sons and daughters, or it may have been the women’s club or their new townhouse, or even the Ethan Allen furnishings they had just paid off. One thing is certain, her looking back differed from Lot’s actions only in degree, not in kind. Her heart, like Lot’s, was in Sodom. She lingered behind, then looked back for only a moment, but it was too late.182 The destruction meant for Sodom struck her as well, and only steps from safety and those she loved. Regardless of her motive, she directly disobeyed a clear command of the angelic messenger (cf. 19:17).

God Answers Abraham

Verses 27-29 serve several purposes. First, they reveal the heart of Abraham in contrast to the self-interest of Lot. Abraham, like God, did not delight in wickedness nor in the destruction of sinners. Both had compassion on the righteous. Abraham had made his appeal to God. I do not think that he went to that same spot as the day before in order to pray, but to watch God answer his prayers. There was no casual ‘what will be, will be’ attitude, but genuine concern over the outcome.

Secondly, these verses underscore the real reason Lot was spared. While a just God would not destroy the righteous with the wicked (18:25), the stress here is that ‘the prayers of a righteous man availeth much’ (James 5:16). It was Abraham’s faithfulness and not Lot’s which resulted in Lot’s deliverance. Humanly speaking, there was little reason for sparing Lot other than the character of God and the concern of Abraham over his fate.

You Can Take Lot Out of Sodom …

While Lot plead with the angels to spare Zoar, he soon left that city in fear. Fear of what? Some have suggested it was a fear of the people of Zoar due to the possibility of retaliation. It may have been a fear of future judgment falling on that city which likely was as wicked as the others.

I am inclined to look at it a little differently. After a period of reflection, Lot may have come to the realization that his having settled in Sodom was the cause of all his troubles. It had cost him his wealth, his wife and most of his family. To stay in Zoar or in any wicked city might result in even more destruction and judgment. And hadn’t God commanded him to flee to the mountains? And so Lot determined to ‘get away from it all.’ Away from the city and its wickedness. Away from the world. Lot sought safety in a cave rather than a city.

One nagging question haunts me. Why didn’t Lot go to be with Abraham? There was surely no problem of too much prosperity now. And didn’t Abraham live in the mountains far from the city? Lot was free to choose where he settled, provided he did not stay in one of the condemned cities when judgment came. I believe that Lot was not up to facing his uncle and fessing up to his folly. With Abraham there could have been fellowship, encouragement, and perhaps the possibility of some God-fearing husbands for his daughters from among Abraham’s entourage.

The remaining verses depict the final state of Lot, the carnal Christian. He is passive and pathetic. In a drunken stupor he became the father of two nations, both of which were to be a plague to Israel. Lot, and those who came from him, were a pain to Abraham and his descendants.

In Lot’s shoes we might have concurred with his decision to forsake the city for a cave. Lot was finally ready to deal with worldliness. He did so by departing from the world. The only problem with this was that while Lot was out of Sodom, Sodom was not out of Lot. Monasticism has never been the solution to materialism; seclusion is no substitute for sanctification. The world without is not nearly so plaguing as the world within (cf. Romans 7).

To Lot’s daughters, the cave was no temporary dwelling place, a place of shelter in the time of storm. It became evident that for Lot it was a permanent dwelling place, home. His daughters also began to conclude that their father was not trying to protect himself so much as them. He would lose no more daughters to wicked men. And so it seemed that Lot would perish without a seed unless the girls did something about it themselves. They concluded, “… there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of the earth” (Genesis 19:31).

Surely this bleak picture was exaggerated. They saw no normal means for them to marry and bear children. While their perception was undoubtedly wrong, it brought them to the added error of deducing that they would have to resort to unusual (perhaps it would be more accurate to say immoral, since incest was probably not unusual in Sodom) means to preserve the line of their father. This reasoning resulted in a sinful plot.

At Lot’s age, action would have to be taken quickly. Evidently the daughters determined that Lot would never knowingly submit to such a scheme, so they never mentioned it to him. Something had to be done to weaken his resistance; wine would adequately perform this task, While Lot was in a drunken stupor the first daughter, and then the second, went in to him and became pregnant. At best, Lot was only partially aware of what had taken place until it was too late.

Two nations were born of this incestuous relationship, Moab and Ammon. While God dealt kindly with these nations because of their relationship to Abraham (cf. Deuteronomy 2:19), they were a continual hindrance to the godly conduct of the Israelites. Kidner says of these two nations:

Moab and Ammon (37f), was destined to provide the worst carnal seduction in the history of Israel (that of Baal-Peor, Nu. 25) and the cruelest religious perversion (that of Molech, Lv. 18:21)183

Eventually, they would suffer the judgment of God as did Sodom and Gomorrah:

‘Therefore, as I live,’ declares the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Surely Moab will be like Sodom, and the sons of Ammon like Gomorrah—a place possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a perpetual desolation. The remnant of My people will plunder them, and the remainder of My nation will inherit them’ (Zephaniah 2:9).


Several features of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah make it a most disturbing and challenging passage. Let us consider these carefully.

(1) Similarity. The similarities between Sodom and our society today are distressing. Immorality was rampant and perversion had become the norm. Homosexuality is always considered sin in the Bible (cf. Romans 1:24ff), but here it is a symptom of a society so sick with sin that it must be judged. Like a raging cancer, it must be cut out before it spreads further.

I would like to suggest that Sodom has nothing over our society. Homosexuality, while only one symptom of sin, is not only tolerated but is proudly proclaimed and openly advocated as an alternate lifestyle. Movies and other media glamorize sin, and profiteers make their fortunes on it. Now, by means of cable television, the filth of Sodom is being piped into our own living rooms. What remains to be seen in our society which was not in Sodom? I know of nothing.

Sodom stands in Scripture as a symbol of evil and depravity. It also stands as a warning of future judgment (Deuteronomy 29:23; 32:32; Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:9; Jeremiah 49:18). Great as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was, it will not compare to the destruction of those who have had greater light through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ:

Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city (Matthew 10:15).

The similarity of our society to that of Sodom warns us that judgment is near. The eternal wrath of God has already been meted out on the cross of Christ on Calvary. Jesus Christ became sin for us; He bore our punishment on the cross.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).

And He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (II Corinthians 5:21).

By faith in Christ’s death in our place, we will not face the wrath of God:

For God has not destined us (true believers in Christ Jesus) for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us … (I Thessalonians 5:9,10a).

But those who refuse the free gift of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ must bear the penalty of their sins, eternal separation from God:

… dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, … ( II Thessalonians 1:8-9).

Then, too, the similarity between Lot and many professing Christians cannot be overlooked. Lot was, at best, a half-hearted Christian. In New Testament terminology he may have been a believer, but not a disciple (cf. Luke 9:57-62). Lot tried unsuccessfully to keep one foot in the world and the other in the company of the faithful. He was caught up with materialism, concerned more with his own interests than with Abraham’s (cf. Genesis 13 with Philippians 2:1-9). He chose the best land for himself and left the rest to Abraham. He chose the settled life of the city, while Abraham chose the life of a sojourner. Lot jeopardized his family for the chance of financial gain. Lot was a man who was worldly, lukewarm and weak in his convictions.

Is there really any difference between Lot and most of us? I must confess that there seems to be more of Lot in my life than of Abraham.

What is the answer to our dilemma? How can we effectively deal with our own complacency? The solution, I believe must be found in the differences between Lot and Abraham. Lot, at best, was halfhearted in his relationship with God. Abraham had a growing intimacy, evidenced by his intercession for Lot. Lot cared mostly for himself, even to the point of sacrificing his daughters. Abraham cared more for others, evidenced by his generosity in giving Lot the choice of the land and in interceding with God for Lot’s deliverance. Lot was a man who failed to learn from divine discipline. When he moved to Sodom and then was kidnapped, he returned to the same place without any apparent change in action or attitude. Abraham made many mistakes (sins), but he learned from them. Lot was a man who lived only for the present, while Abraham was a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth. He chose to do without many earthly pleasures for the joys of greater and more lasting blessings from God.

(2) Security. Having stressed the failures of Lot we must not lose sight of the fact that he was a saved man (II Peter 2:7-8). Even in the midst of his failures, God spared him from judgment, albeit kicking and screaming all the way. What a picture of the security of the saint, even the most carnal.

The reason for Lot’s security, as ours, is not that he was faithful, for he was not. Lot’s salvation was clearly in spite of himself, not because of his works. What, then, was the basis of his security? So far as our text is concerned, the answer is simple. Lot was saved, not for his own sake, but for Abraham’s. It was not Lot’s faithfulness, but Abraham’s which delivered him from destruction:

Thus it came about, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived (Genesis 19:29).

The same principle holds true for Christians today. We are saved, not on account of our faithfulness, but because of the One Who intercedes for us, Jesus Christ, our great high priest:

… who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us (Romans 8:34).

Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).

What a wonderful assurance. We will be saved, not because of our worthiness, but His, Who not only died to save us, but Who continually intercedes for us before the Father:

My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; … (I John 2:1).

Is our security to become a source of slothfulness, or an incentive to sin? Far from it (cf. Romans 6:1ff; I Peter 2:16). While Genesis 19 informs us that Lot was delivered from God’s judgment, he was not kept from the painful consequences of his sins. He lost all his possessions, most of his family, and his honor. Sin never pays! Christians may go their own willful way, but they cannot enjoy it for long.

(3) Separation. Lot’s life serves as a powerful exposition on the doctrine of separation. As I see it, there are two phases of Lot’s life, each tending toward a particular extreme.

The first phase of Lot’s life evidenced a period of identification with the sinner. Separation here manifested itself in not practicing the sins which were generally accepted and acted out. Our Lord, too, identified with sinners, and was criticized for it:

And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, ‘Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?’ And hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:16,17).

While both our Lord and Lot lived in close proximity to sinners without participating in their sins, the difference between the two was that our Lord spoke clearly of sin and of salvation while Lot remained silent. Christians are to be salt in a wicked society. The essence of salt is that it is distinctive. Lot lost his saltiness in the society about him. I suppose the truth is he simply lost his nerve. There was seemingly no sense of danger or urgency for him. Our Lord clearly came to save sinners.

By living in Sodom without being salty, Lot not only failed to save others but he lost his own family. Here is the great tragedy of Lot’s life in Sodom—his children (save two) and his wife, were lost there. If we do not seek to save others, we may even lose our own families. Many, in the process of trying to minister to others, have lost their own families to the world.

The sin of Lot was not being in Sodom, but his motivation for being there. Living in the world is not wrong, but being of the world (John 17:15-16). Living in a crooked and perverse generation is not wrong, but failing to proclaim the message of sin, righteousness and judgment is. Lot’s problem was not so much his living in Sodom, but his lack of salt.184

The later chapter in the life of Lot was lived out in a cave. Here Lot seems to have tried to deal with the world by seclusion. Monasticism has always been a tempting alternative to mingling with sinners. Let me remind you that Lot did not fail in the city as badly as he did in that cave. It was there that drunkenness numbed his senses enough for him to be lured into incest with his daughters.

Lot’s failure in that cave was far more of his own making than most of us would like to admit. It was not just that his daughters had learned so much sin in Sodom—they were still virgins you will recall (19:8). The real problem was not with Sodom, but with Lot. His daughters simply carried out that which they had learned from their own father. These same two girls stood inside the door as they overheard those words from their father,

Now, behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof (Genesis 19:8).

From Lot, his two daughters learned that morality must sometimes be sacrificed to practicality. Lot was willing to turn over his own daughters (who were as yet sexually pure, not corrupted by the sins of Sodom) to the Sodomites instead of two strangers. They learned from Lot that morality must sometimes be set aside in emergencies. Once they saw their father’s plight (and their own) as an emergency, incest was no longer a moral problem, for morality must yield to practicality in emergencies.

Many of us, as fathers, are greatly concerned about the world in which our children live. The temptations are infinitely greater. But in our concern for what is happening in the cities, let us not think we can save our children by restricting them to a cave. For in the cave, they are still being influenced by us. Let us be mindful from the tragedy which occurred in Lot’s family that many of the sins of our children are not learned from the world, but from the fathers.

You see, the Christian doctrine of separation must evidence a delicate balance between two equally dangerous extremes. One extreme is to overly stress identification with the world—but without a clear proclamation of the gospel. The other is to seek security in seclusion from the world. This is not the Christian’s solution to sin either:

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one (I Corinthians 5:9-11).

Lot attempted to live his life in a city and then in a cave. We cannot become one with the world, but neither are we to flee from it. The proper balance between the city of Sodom and the cave is the tent of Abraham. We are to live in the world, but without becoming attached to it or conformed to it. We are to be strangers and pilgrims. As Peter expressed this under inspiration,

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation (I Peter 2:11-12).

May God help us to live in the world without becoming a part of it, or it a part of us. As the writer in the Proverbs expressed it:

The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish ( Proverbs 14:11).

177 While this is by no means a critical issue, several considerations incline me to this conclusion. First, it was unleavened bread that was served by Lot, but not (seemingly) by Abraham. Unleavened bread was prepared by the Israelites in haste before their exodus from Egypt. Perhaps it was late in the evening and there was no time for leavened bread to rise. But perhaps Lot, knowing the men of the city, did not feel a leisurely meal to be appropriate. When he spoke of them getting up and starting early in the morning (verse 2), was he anxious to send them off before others were awake? In such a case, Lot would be eager to serve a quick meal and get them bedded down for the night. Then, too, the Hebrew word translated ‘feast’ can also mean ‘drink.’ In most instances, this would describe an elaborate feast at which one would drink; sometimes it could even degenerate to a drinking bout. Often, it was a wedding feast. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) renders the passage so that it suggests Lot prepared his guests something to drink and unleavened bread. The NIV does not go this far, but does not choose to portray a feast either: “He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, . . . ” The Amplified Old Testament attempts to convey the literal sense by rendering it, “And he made them a dinner (with drinking), and had unleavened bread which he baked; and they ate.” All of this at least leaves room for the suggestion that Lot’s hospitality was hastier and, perhaps, not as sumptuous as that of Abraham’s table.

178 ‘Sons-in-law,’ verse, 14, is understood either as those who were married to Lot’s daughters, or those who were engaged (‘were taking’) to them. If the latter were correct, the daughters would not be those two who were still at home, who ‘have not had relations with man’ (verse 8). These two ‘engaged’ daughters would have gone with their parents to Zoar and then with Lot to the cave. One can see how they would reason that marriage was no longer an option. If the former were the case, these ‘sons-in-law’ had married other daughters of Lot and both the sons-in-law and the daughters were destroyed in the judgment of Sodom. Thus, Lot’s failure would be of even greater magnitude. Verse 15 seems to support the view that Lot had two unmarried daughters and others who had married, when it says, “Up, take your wife and your two daughters, who are here, . . . ” It would thus imply that there were others not present with Lot, but rather with their husbands.

179 Ironically the Hebrew word kematzehak, which is literally translated “like one who was jesting” (margin, NASV) is the same root from which the name Isaac is derived, meaning ‘laughter.’

180 The question may be raised, “Why did God render the land unusable by the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah?” One might suppose that God would have, by this, removed the inhabitants of the valley and given the land to Abraham. God’s purpose, however, had been revealed to Abraham in chapter 15 (verses 13-16). Abraham was not to possess the land in his lifetime, but to be a ‘stranger and pilgrim’ on the earth. In this, his faith was tested and strengthened. Not until the fourth generation would Abraham’s descendants possess the land. Perhaps it was due to the wide-spread devastation of the land that Abraham moved on toward the Negev (20:1).

181 Bush has an extensive discourse on the destruction of Sodom (I, pp. 314-325), at the end of which he concludes, “The catastrophe, therefore, if our interpretation be admitted, was marked with the united horrors of earthquake, and volcano, the latter described as a conflagration from heaven, forming altogether such a scene as baffles conception, and such as the eye of man never witnessed before.” George Bush, Notes on Genesis, Reprint, (Minneapolis: James and Klock Publishing Co., 1976), I, p. 325.

182 “. . . she may well have been overtaken by the poisonous fumes and the fiery destruction raining down from heaven. . . . But once overcome, there she lay, apparently not reached by the fire but salt-encrusted by the vapors of the Salt Sea. Lot and his daughters could not have seen this at the time, for to look back would have involved them in the same destruction. Their love for the one lost will, no doubt, have driven them after the havoc of the overthrow had subsided to visit the spot, and there they will have found the ‘pillar of salt.’ For the words watteh (‘and she become’) in no wise in themselves demand an instantaneous conversion into such a pillar.” H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, pp. 571-572.

183 Derek Kidner, Genesis An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 136.

184 A word of caution should be given here. In the history of Israel, God raised up prophets to speak to wicked cities and to warn them of the wrath to come (e.g. Jonah). To my knowledge, however, few, if any, who had such ministries had families which they exposed to the sins which they condemned. There may well be cases where singleness is not only advisable, but imperative. Let us be careful that our ministries are not at the expense of our families.

21. Don’t Ever Say Never (Genesis 20:1-18)


Many Christians are concerned about their “testimony” before the world, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. While it is important for Christians to live a life which is consistent with the will and the Word of God (cf. Romans 6:1ff; Ephesians 4:1ff; Colossians 3:1ff, I Peter 1:13ff), we sometimes misapply this truth so as to avoid our responsibilities. For example, I know that others, like myself, are inclined to keep silent about our faith in Jesus Christ because we fear that our testimony has been so poor others will not want to trust in Christ. Since the message of our life fails to conform to that of our lips, we keep silent about our faith in Christ.

While we should strive to live in such a way as to create an interest in that which makes us unique as Christians (Matthew 5:13-16; Colossians 4:5-6; I Peter 3:13ff), our failures do not necessarily prevent others from being drawn to Jesus Christ as their Savior. I know of a man in our church who was saved through the testimony of a drunken sailor. My friend, then an unbeliever, rebuked a drunken Christian for his conduct. The drunk protested that even though a discredit to his Lord, he was nonetheless eternally saved and secure. My friend could not imagine how such a thing could be so. Because of the certainty of this drunken Christian about his spiritual security, my friend studied the Scriptures for himself to see if this could be true. As a result, he was saved as well, to some degree through the “testimony” of the drunken sailor.

While this kind of conduct as a Christian is in no way recommended or smiled upon, the Bible indicates that even at very low points in our Christian experience God can use His saints to draw others to Himself. Such was the case in the life of Abraham as described in Genesis 20.

God had disclosed to Abraham that he would be the father of a son born through Sarah (17:15-19; 18:10). Abraham, upon hearing of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, interceded for the cities on behalf of the righteous who dwelt in them (18:22ff). God assured him that if only ten righteous could be found, the cities would be spared (18:32). While the righteous were not to be found and the cities were not spared, Lot and his daughters were delivered from destruction (chapter 19). The devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah took place under the watchful eye of Abraham, looking on from afar (19:27-29).

Chapters 17-19 of Genesis have depicted a high point in the life of the patriarch. Here is the man of faith and intercession we expect to find in the pages of holy writ. The man in chapter 20 is a far cry from our expectations for a patriarch and a prophet. He is a man compared to whom Abimelech looks saintly. In spite of this sad state of affairs, the grace of God is seen for the marvel it is, not so much in spite of Abraham’s failure of faith as because of it. Abraham is an unwilling witness to the wonderful grace of God Who saves and sanctifies men and women in spite of themselves.

Abimelech Is Restrained

For an unspecified reason185 Abraham left Mamre, wandering southward near Kadesh and then northwest to Gerar, not far from the Mediterranean Sea in the land of the Philistines.186 At Gerar, Abraham repeated a sin committed very early in his life as a follower of God (cf. 12:10ff). Once again, he passed off his wife Sarah as his sister, which resulted in her being taken into the harem of Abimelech,187 king of Gerar.188

Liberal critics hasten to classify chapters 12, 20, and 26 as three different accounts of the same event. Such a position cannot be taken seriously : the text is considered reliable. The similarities are striking and purposely underscored. Nevertheless, the differences between chapters 12 and 20 are significant. Some of these are:

Chapter 12

Chapter 20

Place: Egypt

Place: Gerar

Time: Early in Christian Life

Time: Late in Christian Life

King: Pharaoh

King: Abimelech

Abraham’s response to rebuke: Silence

Abraham’s response to rebuke: Excuses

Result: Abraham left Egypt

Result: Abraham stayed in Gerar

We have every reason to conclude that there are three events, similar in some details but decidedly different in many particulars. The similarities are intended to be instructive. Even mature saints are plagued with the sins of younger days (chapter 20), and “the sins of the fathers” surely are visited on the sons (as in chapter 26).

The situation here is far more critical than in chapter 12. First, God has clearly revealed to Abraham and Sarah that together they will bear a son through whom the covenant promises will be realized. More than this, the conception of the child must be near at hand, for he was said to have been born within the space of a year (17:21; 18:10). Human reasoning would have considered the dangers in chapter 20 to be minimal since Sarah was long past the childbearing age (17:17; 18:11,13). But the eye of faith would have seen the matter in an entirely different light. Was Abraham’s faith at a low ebb? It must be so.

Abimelech was restrained by God in a two-fold fashion. First, God warned him in the strongest terms: “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married” (Genesis 20:3).

It becomes clear that death will only follow if Abimelech’s actions are not reversed and Sarah returned, untouched, to Abraham. God told Abimelech he was as good as dead if he did not act decisively and according to God’s directions.

Secondly, Abimelech and all of his household were physically restrained from sinning against Sarah, even if they had wished to:

Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet and he will pray for you, and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.… And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20:6-7, 17-18).

By means of some undisclosed physical malady, no one in the royal household was able to conceive. Further, it seems that sexual activity was prohibited altogether. This would ensure Sarah’s purity, as well as prevent the birth of a child by Abimelech. The revelation Abimelech received in the dream thus explained the reason for the plague which had fallen upon his household. This also sheds light on the great fear of the male servants in Abimelech’s household. They, too, suffered from this affliction which prohibited normal sexual activity. In a culture that placed a high value on many offspring and virility, the situation would have been taken as critical. And so it was.

While the imminent danger for Abimelech and his household is emphasized, so also is his innocence:

Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, ‘Lord, wilt Thou slay a nation, even though blameless? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this’ (Genesis 20:4-5).

Abimelech, unlike Abraham, was guiltless in this matter. His actions were based upon purity of motive and upon the untrue statements of Abraham and Sarah.189 God acknowledged the innocence of the king but made it clear that apart from divine intervention he would have committed a grave offense. The way Abimelech handled this matter now would determine his destiny. To delay or disobey meant certain death.

Strange as it may seem, Abimelech stood head and shoulders above Abraham in this passage. We must admit that there is no sin into which the Christian cannot fall in times of disobedience and unbelief. At such times, unbelievers may put the Christian to shame by their integrity and morality (cf. I Corinthians 5:1ff).

The wonder of this passage is not the fact that Abraham could regress so far in his Christian growth and maturity. From my own experience I am ashamed to admit that this is entirely believable. While the faithlessness of Abraham comes as no surprise, the faithfulness of God to Abraham at this time of failure is amazing.

Had I been God, the last thing I would have considered would be to reveal my relationship to Abraham. Even if my own character demanded that I remain faithful to my promises, I would not have disclosed to Abimelech that Abraham was a believer, albeit a carnal one. And yet God disclosed the fact that Abraham was the object of His special care. More than this, Abraham was identified as a prophet (verse 7).190 He was God’s representative and the intermediary through whom Abimelech must be healed.

This must have left Abimelech shaking his head. How could Abraham be a man of God at the same time he was a liar? Abimelech, however, was not given any opportunity to take punitive action in spite of the problems Abraham’s disobedience had brought upon the king’s household. Abraham was the source of Abimelech’s suffering, it was true, but he was also the solution. Abimelech and Abraham both found themselves in a very awkward position.

Abraham Is Rebuked

Abimelech wasted no time making matters right before God. He arose early in the morning and reported the substance of his dream to those of his household. Because they were affected along with Abimelech, they greatly feared (verse 8). They would see to it that the king’s orders were followed to the letter.

After informing his servants, Abimelech summoned Abraham. It was not a pleasant situation, and Abraham was sternly rebuked for his deception:

What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done (Genesis 20:9).

Abimelech had been wronged by Abraham. He had not only done what was wrong in the eyes of God, but also in the eyes of pagans. Abraham, who was to be a source of blessing (12:2,3), had become a proverbial pain in the neck to those in whose land he sojourned.

Twenty-five years before this, Abraham had committed a nearly identical sin. In that case, we do not know how Pharaoh learned the truth, nor are any of Abraham’s excuses recorded. Pharaoh seemed interested only in getting Abraham as far from his presence as possible. Abimelech did not ask Abraham to leave, perhaps out of fear of what God might do for such lack of hospitality. Abraham’s excuses, weak as they are, are reported to us:

And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife; and it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother”’” (Genesis 20:11-13).

Three reasons are stated for Abraham’s deception, but none of them satisfactorily explain his actions in Gerar. First, Abraham acted out of fear. He feared that because of Sarah’s beauty he would be killed, and she would be taken as a wife by violence. This fear was based upon a faulty theological premise: God is only able to act when men are willing to obey. God could save Abraham only in a place where He was known and feared by men. The inference is that where ungodly men are, God’s hand is shortened and unable to save.

Such theology was due more to unbelief than to ignorance. It was the same fear Abraham had twenty-five years before. According to Abraham’s theology, God could not save him from the hand of Pharaoh either, but He did! Abraham failed because of unbelief, not because he was uninformed.

Incidentally, this unbelief had to disregard specific revelation, for shortly before this incident God had twice told Abraham that Sarah would become pregnant and bear a child within the year (17:19,21; 18:10). Could Abraham willingly encourage Sarah to go to bed with Abimelech, believing that she soon was to become pregnant and have a child? I think not. If Sarah was thought to be “over the hill” and unable to have children, her becoming a part of the king’s harem might not be taken so seriously. Abraham might have thought the laugh would be on Abimelech for taking as his wife a woman who was old enough to be his mother.

One more observation must be made concerning Abraham’s fears for his own safety. His conduct differs little from that of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot, by inviting the two strangers under his roof, assured them of protection. Rather than break this commitment, he was willing to sacrifice the purity of his two virgin daughters and give them over to the men outside his door. Abraham, fearing for his own safety, was willing to give over his wife to the king (or any other citizen of Gerar) to protect himself from harm.

The second reason for Abraham’s deception is even less satisfactory. His statement, though a lie, was technically factual. Sarah was, indeed, his sister, the daughter of his father, but not his mother (verse 12). Facts can be and often are used in such a way as to convey falsehood. Statistics are sometimes employed in this way: You have your head in the freezer and your feet in the oven, but, on the average, you are comfortable. His sister, indeed. She was his wife. Abraham tried to defend himself by technicalities but not by truthfulness.

The third reason I have labeled “tradition.” When all else fails to justify the way we have acted, we can always fall back on these well worn words: “But we’ve always done it that way before.” That’s what Abraham was saying in substance. His actions before Abimelech were not to be taken personally—they were merely company policy. This policy had been established many years ago. Why should it be set aside after so many years?

Having looked at each of the three lines of Abraham’s defense, let us consider his arguments as a whole. There is absolutely no indication of acceptance of responsibility for sin, nor of sorrow or repentance. While his arguments fail to satisfy us, as they did not impress Abimelech, they did seem to satisfy Abraham.

This observation did not come to me immediately. In fact, one of my friends suggested it to me after I delivered this message in the first service. But he is absolutely right. Abraham here is like one of our children who is caught dead to rights. They are sorry they are caught but not repentant for the wrong they have done.

It also explains the repetition of this sin by Abraham and, later, by his son Isaac. Abraham never said to himself, “I’ll never do that again,” either in Egypt or in Gerar. In both cases Abraham escaped with his wife’s purity and with a sizeable profit to boot. So far as I can tell, Abraham never saw his deceptiveness as a sin. Consequently, it kept cropping up in later generations.

I do not think that Abimelech was impressed with Abraham’s explanation. Nevertheless, God had severely cautioned him, and he knew that Abraham was the only one who could intercede for him to remove the plague which prohibited the bearing of children. Because of this, restitution was made.

First, Sarah was given back to her husband Abraham along with sheep, oxen, and servants (verse 14). Then, to Abraham the invitation was extended for him to settle in the land wherever he chose (verse 15). Finally, a thousand pieces of silver were given to Abraham as a symbol of Sarah’s vindication (verse 16). Her return to Abraham, therefore, was not because she was found to be unacceptable or undesirable.191

Abimelech Is Restored

What a humbling experience it must have been for Abraham to intercede on behalf of Abimelech. A deep sense of unworthiness must have (or at least should have) come over him. It was surely not his righteousness which was the basis for divine healing. As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I must confess to you that I frequently experience feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. Prophets, my friends, are not necessarily more pious, and neither are preachers! The greatest danger that those in positions of prominence or power face is that they begin to believe that their usefulness is based upon their faithfulness and deeper spirituality. Any time that we are used of God, it is solely because of the grace of God.

While this was a tragic time in the life of God’s chosen, it was necessary, for it prepared the way for the following chapter in which the promised child is given. God’s promise to Abraham was kept because God is faithful, not because Abraham was faithful. “Every good and perfect gift,” in the words of Scripture, “cometh from above” (James 1:17). Such was the case with Isaac.

When Abraham prayed, the wombs of Abimelech’s household were opened so that they once again bore children. So Sarah’s womb was to be opened as well. The promised son was soon to be born.


Abraham’s failure, to be sure, occurred in a culture and time that is foreign to Christians today. In spite of this, his problems were no different than ours (cf. James 5:17), and the principles found in Genesis 20 are as true today as they were centuries ago. God has not changed, and neither have men. Take a few moments to consider the lessons we can learn from this incident in the life of Abraham.

(1) The fallibility of the saints. I know there are those who teach sinless perfectionism, but I cannot fathom why. The old man, while positionally dead, is very much alive and well for the time being. While we should be living out the victorious life of Romans 8, most of us find ourselves continually in chapter 7. Such was true of Abraham, the friend of God, also.

Privileged position does not preclude failure. Abraham was God’s elect, God’s chosen, but he still floundered and failed. Abraham was God’s prophet, but that did not make him more pious than others. Abraham prospered both in Egypt and in Gerar, but it was not because he attained a higher level of spirituality. The most dangerous doctrine for the Christian is that which suggests that Christians can be above temptation and failure in their Christian lives, even after years of service or in a privileged position.

(2) Our disobedience is often camouflaged by excuses transparent to all but ourselves. Abraham’s three excuses are easily seen to be a sham, and yet variations on these three themes serve as justification for much wrong that we do.

The first is situational ethics, which is a system of ethics based upon the denial of either the existence of God or His ability to act in man’s behalf. Situationalism always posits a dilemma in which there is no alternative other than a sinful act. In such cases we are forced to decide on the basis of the lesser of two evils.

First Corinthians 10:13 dogmatically asserts that the premise on which situationalism is based is wrong. It teaches that God never places the Christian in a circumstance where he or she must sin. The outcome which we dread is always a figment of our fearful imagination, and not of reality. Abraham feared that someone would kill him to take away his wife. It never happened, nor was there any reported situation where this was even a remote possibility. Faith in a God Who is sovereign in every situation keeps us from flirting with sinful acts which allegedly will deliver us from emergency situations—ones in which godliness must be put on the shelf.

The second is dealing in technicalities rather than truth. The information Abraham gave to Abimelech was totally factual (verse 12). Sarah was his sister. But what Abraham failed to report made it all a lie. She was his wife, as well as his sister.

How often we allow people to draw the wrong conclusions or impressions by withholding evidence. We want to give the impression we are spiritual when we are not. We try to appear happy when our heart is breaking. We try to look sophisticated when we are desperate and despondent. Faith is facing up to reality and dealing openly with others, even when the truth may appear to put us in jeopardy or may make us vulnerable.

The third, and very common, excuse is that of tradition. “We’ve always done it that way.” That was Abraham’s excuse. All that it indicates is our persistence in sin. As my uncle used to say of someone who always had a good word for everyone, “She would say of the Devil, ‘He’s persistent.’” Tradition is not wrong, but neither does it make any practice right.

(3) Our failures will not keep a person from coming to faith in our Lord. While Abraham was not eager to talk about his faith to Abimelech, God was not reluctant to own Abraham as a person and a prophet. Why didn’t God keep His relationship to Abraham quiet? Wouldn’t the poor testimony of Abraham drive Abimelech away from God?

We would have expected Abimelech to respond to Abraham’s sin as many do today: “The church is full of hypocrites. If that’s what Christianity is, I don’t want any part of it.” Such excuses are no better than Abraham’s.

Abraham’s failure provided Abimelech with the best reason in the world to be a believer in his God: the God of Abraham was a God of grace, not of works. Abraham’s God not only saved him apart from works (cf. Genesis 15:6; Romans 4) but kept him apart from works. Abraham’s faith was in a God Whose gifts and blessings are not based upon our faithfulness but His. Men and women are not looking for a fair-weather religion but one that assures them of salvation regardless of their spiritual condition at the moment. The kind of faith Abraham had is the kind which men desire, one that works even when we don’t.

(4) The grace of God and the eternal security of the believer. That brings us to our final point: the Christian is eternally secure regardless of failures in faith. Backsliding is never encouraged, never winked at, and never without painful consequences according to Scripture. Nevertheless, backsliding will never cost the Christian his salvation. The salvation which God offers to men is eternal. If anyone should have lost his salvation, it was Abraham, but he remained a child of God.

What a background chapter 20 sets for chapter 21. We would have expected Isaac to have been conceived at a high point in Abraham and Sarah’s lives, but it was not so. We would at least have expected Abraham’s unbelief to have been exposed and finally conquered in chapter 20, but it did not happen. In fact, Abraham never even acknowledged the sinfulness of his actions.

God blessed Abraham, He gave him wealth (Genesis 12:16,20; 13:1-2, 20:14-16) and the son He had promised (Genesis 21:1ff). He also gave him a privileged position (Genesis 20:7, 17-18). All those blessings were gifts of God’s grace, not rewards for Abraham’s good works. By the end of Genesis 20 we must conclude, in the words of Kidner:

After his spiritual exertions Abraham’s relapse into faithless scheming, as at other moments of anticlimax (see on 12:10ff and on chapter 16), carries its own warning. But the episode is chiefly one of suspense: on the brink of Isaac’s birth-story here is the very Promise put in jeopardy, traded away for personal safety. If it is ever to be fulfilled, it will have to be achieved by the grace of God.192

185 While no reasons for Abraham’s moves are given, I would think that chapter 19 supplies us with a strong suggestion for Abraham’s departure from Mamre. Somehow the devastation of the cities of the valley must have had some effect on Abraham’s ability to raise his great herds of cattle. It is likely that the availability of both grass and water may have affected his other moves as well.

186 The critics have pounced upon the mention of the Philistines in 21:32. This is impossible and thus in error because the Philistines were not in the land until after Moses, their dominion of Palestine being around 1175 B.C. It would appear that the problem is best explained by viewing these early Philistines as those of an early wave of migrants who paved the way for the later, more hostile immigrants identified biblically as Philistines. For a lengthy discussion of this problem, cf. Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 181-182. Kidner concisely summarizes:

“The Philistines arrived in Palestine in force in the early twelfth century; Abimelech’s group will have been early forerunners, perhaps in the course of trade.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 142.

187 Abimelech is thought to be a title of office, like Pharaoh, and not the given name of a person. It is difficult to know for certain whether Abimelech is a moral pagan or a true believer in the God of Abraham.

188 Some marvel at the fact that Sarah could still be so attractive at the age of 90 that she would be desirable as a wife (or concubine). We must remember that the life span of men and women was longer then than now. Abraham lived to the age of 175 (25:7), Sarah to 127 (23:1). Also, in order to bear the child the normal aging process must have been retarded. The text leaves the impression that Abraham feared for his safety because of Sarah’s beauty. I believe we should be willing to accept this at face value. This does not mean that other reasons for taking Sarah could not have been present. Abraham was a man of wealth and power. Alliances were made by means of marriages, and thus Abimelech’s reasons for marrying Sarah may have been numerous.

189 Some have suggested that Sarah had no guilt in affirming Abraham’s lies as the truth. It is said that Sarah was merely being submissive and that Abraham bore his guilt and Sarah’s also. I see no biblical evidence for such claims. Sarah was commended in Scripture for her submissive obedience. The reference of Peter to Sarah, however, is not to her lie in Genesis 20 but to her reverence toward her husband in chapter 18 (verse 12). Here, late in life and at a time when the promise of a child seemed incredible, she still referred to Abraham with deep respect, evidenced by the word ‘lord’: “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’” (Genesis 18:12). Furthermore, Peter, while commending Sarah’s obedience, carefully defined the kind of obedience which is acceptable and pleasing to God: “Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” Abraham’s lie and Sarah’s participation in it was based upon fear, and Moses made it clear that it was not right, even in the eyes of a pagan. While Sarah’s obedient spirit may be commended, her lie is not. We must always obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Submission is the obedience we give when, in our judgment, the action is unwise; it is not participating in what we know from God’s Word to be wrong. In the biblical chain-of-command God’s revealed will is supreme, and it overrules all other levels of authority if they are in direct conflict.

190 While Abraham does not fit the usual conception of a biblical prophet, it is a fitting designation. He did, consistent with the Hebrew word, nabhi, serve as a speaker or spokesman for God (cf. Exodus 4:16, 7:1). Furthermore, a prophet often interceded for others (cf. Deuteronomy 9:20; I Samuel 7:5). In both of these senses Abraham was a prophet, although he did not foretell the future.

191 Stigers suggests that the 1000 pieces of silver was actually the value of the cattle given:

“Herein are described the results of the incident presented in vv. 1-7. In v. 16 there is the peculiar circumstance of the money, which may be a value paraphrase of the value of the animals and slaves given to Abraham, stated in a judicial manner. The giving of the animals is, in effect, a pecuniary settlement to guarantee that no legal recourse may be had by Abraham against Abimelech at any future time.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 180. In his usual concise style Kidner summarizes: “In offering the compensation Abimelech owned his error (though the term ‘thy brother’ re-emphasized his innocence), and in accepting it Abraham acknowledged the matter settled.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 139.

192 Ibid., p. 137.

22. What Happens When Christians Mess Up? (Genesis 21:1-34)


In one of her movies Julie Andrews sings a beautiful song, one of my favorites, but its theology is abominable. The lyrics go something like this: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” Many Christians seem to have the same kind of theology. They believe that the good things which happen in life are the result of some good thing they have done. So also, like Job’s friends, they think that everything unpleasant is the result of some evil they have done.

I do not wish to challenge the fact that obedience brings blessing, for ultimately it always does. However, God often brings tribulation into the life of a faithful Christian in order to bring about growth and maturity. So also, God brings blessing into the life of the Christian in spite of what he has done more than because of anything good he has done. That’s grace—unmerited favor. Genesis 21 is proof of this kind of blessing in the life of the Christian.

The background to Genesis 21 is one that Abraham would have preferred Moses not bother to record in holy writ. While sojourning in Gerar, Abraham once again passed off his wife Sarah as his sister. The results were not very pleasant, for Abraham was rebuked by a pagan king. The real tragedy is that there seemed to be no genuine sorrow or repentance for the sin that was committed. So far as we can tell, Abraham was not at a very high point in his spiritual life when the “child of promise,” Isaac, was born to Sarah. It was at this low ebb in Abraham’s spirituality that God brought one of the promised blessings to pass in his life.

The Birth of the Promised Son

The events of verses 1 through 7 can be seen in three different dimensions. In verses 1 and 2 we see the divine dimension in the birth of the son as a gift from God. Verses 3 through 5 record the response of Abraham to the birth of this son. Finally, in verses 6 and 7 we have the jubilance of Sarah over the arrival of the long-awaited child, who is the joy of her life.

An Act of God (vss. 1-2)

I have a friend who is an insurance agent, and he would be quick to tell me that an “act of God” in his line of work is a disaster over which man has no control. Isaac was an “act of God” in a very different sense. He was the result of divine intervention in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, both of whom were too old to bear children. It was the fulfillment of a promise made long before the birth of the child and often reiterated to Abraham (cf. Genesis 12:2; 15:4; 17:15-16; 18:10):

Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him (Genesis 21:1-2).

Several things are striking about this passage. First, we cannot miss the note of calm assurance. There has been no suspense. The event comes without surprise, reported as though nothing else could have happened than what did. And, of course, this is precisely right.

Second, there is a distinct emphasis on the aspect of fulfillment. The birth of Isaac came without surprise simply because that was what God had promised would happen. Four times in these two short verses the element of fulfillment is stressed (“as He had said,” “as He had promised,” verse 1; “at the appointed time,” “which God had spoken,” verse 2). It was God who promised the child; it was God who accomplished His word. And this was done right on schedule. God’s purposes are never delayed, nor are they ever defeated by man’s sin. God’s purposes are certain. What God has promised, He will accomplish.

Third, the son seems to be given almost more for Sarah’s benefit here than for Abraham’s. “The Lord,” Moses wrote, “took note of Sarah … and … did for Sarah” (verse 1). I do not think it too far afield to suggest that Sarah wanted that son more than Abraham did. You will remember that Abraham besought God on behalf of Ishmael, seemingly to accept him as the son of promise (cf. 17:18). Neither did Abraham seem to take the promise of a son too seriously when he was willing to subject Sarah to the dangers of Abimelech’s harem at the very time she was about to conceive the promised son (cf. 17:21; 18:14). And so, even though Abraham may not have had the desire for this child as much as his wife, God kept His promise.

Aloof Acceptance (vss. 3-5)

The next verses seem to confirm my suspicion that Abraham was not ecstatic about Isaac, at least not nearly as much as his wife:

And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him (Genesis 21:3-5).

His response to the birth of Isaac might be described as “dutiful.” In obedience to the instructions given him in Genesis 17, Abraham named the baby Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day. Abraham thus followed God’s instructions out to the letter, but perhaps without the joy that could have been experienced.

We are reminded that Abraham was now 100 years old. In a way, Abraham and Sarah were more like grandparents to Isaac than parents. Who of us would have been overjoyed at the birth of a child at this age? When Abraham could have been drawing Social Security payments for 35 years, he became a parent. And at the age of 113 he would enter into the teenage years with his son.

Sarah’s Ecstasy (vss. 6-7)

If Abraham’s response to the birth of this child is merely dutiful, Sarah’s is delirious:

And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:6-7).

The name Isaac meant “laughter.” Both Abraham and Sarah, when they were told of the son who was to be born to them, laughed (cf. 17:17; 18:12). More than anything, their laughter was prompted by the absurdity of the thought of having a child so late in life. But now the name Isaac took on a new significance, for he was a delight to his mother, who experienced the pleasures of motherhood so late in her life.

Ishmael Is Put Away

Abraham’s lack of enthusiasm about his son Isaac may seem very conjectural, and we must admit this candidly, but the events of verses 8-21 certainly seem to strengthen this impression about Abraham and his attitude toward his son.

On the day Isaac was weaned, Abraham prepared a great feast. This seems to have provided the occasion for celebration in those days. We should bear in mind that the weaning of a child often occurred much later than it would today. Isaac could easily have been three or four years old, or even older.

The sight of Hagar’s son at the feast robbed Sarah of all of the joy she should have had. By this time Ishmael would have entered his teens and would likely have reflected his mother’s disregard for Sarah and her son. Whether Ishmael was actually mocking Isaac or merely playing and having a good time is hard to determine in the context since the word employed in verse 9 could mean either. However, Paul’s commentary in Galatians 4:29 informs us that mockery was the meaning Moses intended to convey.193 Sarah determined that something was going to be done once and for all. Forcefully she gave Abraham an ultimatum:

Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of the maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac (Genesis 21:10).

How out of character Sarah seems at this moment. How different the description of her in Peter’s epistle is from that described by Moses:

And let not your adornment be external only—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, and putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (I Peter 3:3-6).

Sarah is obviously not at her best in chapter 21, but then neither is Abraham. Some have tried to applaud Sarah for her depth of spiritual insight concerning the fact that Isaac would be the heir, not Ishmael. Personally, I think that her primary motive was that of jealousy and a protective instinct to see to it that her son got what was coming to him.

Sarah, like every Christian I have ever known, had moments she would just as soon forget entirely. This is surely one of those times for her. Peter’s use of Sarah as an example of humility and submissiveness overlooks this event as an exception to the normal rule. In a similar fashion the writer to the Hebrews spoke of Abraham and Sarah as those whose faith we should imitate. Their mistakes and sins were not mentioned because they were dealt with once and for all under the blood of Christ. Furthermore, their sins are not the point of the author’s purpose in Hebrews, but rather their faith. Men’s sins are recorded in Scripture in order to remind us that the men and women of old were no different than we are and to serve as a warning and instruction to us not to repeat their mistakes (cf. I Corinthians 10:11).

Abraham was deeply grieved by the decision that was being forced upon him (Genesis 21:11). From chapter 17 we know that he was very attached to his son Ishmael and that he would have been content for this child to be the heir through whom God’s promises were to be fulfilled. This, however, was impossible because Ishmael was the result of human effort, devoid of faith (cf. Galatians 4:21ff).

The attachment of Abraham to this son, Ishmael, was so great that a crisis had to be reached before he would come to grips with the situation. While we cannot justify the motivation of Sarah for her ultimatum, I personally believe that such a move had to occur in order to force Abraham’s hand in setting aside his aspirations for this son.

God reassured Abraham that as painful and unpleasant as the situation might be, putting Ishmael away was the right thing to do. In this instance he should listen to his wife:

Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named (Genesis 21:12).

We should notice that it is both Hagar and the boy who are close to Abraham’s heart. Heretofore Hagar has been referred to as Sarah’s maid, but here she is called “your maid” by God. Sarah, we recall, was intensely jealous of Hagar and of her son (cf. Genesis 16:5). It is impossible for a man to enter into an intimate relationship such as the one Abraham had with Hagar and then to simply walk away. Sarah knew this, and so did God. In more than just a physical way Abraham had become one with Hagar, and Ishmael was the evidence of this union.

In chapter 17 God had refused to accept Ishmael as the heir of Abraham. Isaac, He had insisted, would be the heir of promise (17:19). It was therefore necessary for Ishmael to be sent away and forever eliminated from the status of an heir. For this reason Sarah’s demands were to be met, and Ishmael was to be sent away. Yet the promises God had made to Hagar (16:10-12) and to Abraham (17:20) concerning Ishmael would be honored: “And of the son of the maid I will make a nation also, because he is your descendant” (Genesis 21:13).

The sending away of the son of a concubine was not without precedent in that day. In the Code of Hammurabi, Law 146, the children of slaves who were not made heirs must be set free as compensation for this.194 Abraham’s sending away of Ishmael fits very nicely into this practice. By giving him his freedom, he indicated that Ishmael had no part in his inheritance, which was kept exclusively for Isaac.

Abraham arose early to send off Hagar and Ishmael. This may evidence his resolve to carry out an unpleasant task, as Kidner suggests.195 While it sounds far less spiritual, I wonder if Abraham did not do so for other reasons. Surely an early start would be wise in the desert, since travel should be done in the cool of the day. Also, an early departure would make it easier to say their good-byes without the interference of Sarah. I think that Abraham wanted to express his deep-rooted love for both Hagar and Ishmael without a hostile audience.

Some have suggested that Hagar lost her way in the desert and that this explains why she “wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba” (verse 14). Why did she not return to Egypt, as she seemed to be heading there when she first escaped from Sarai (16:7ff)? Later, she would take a wife for Ishmael from Egypt (verse 21). I believe that Hagar did not return to Egypt because she believed that God would fulfill His promises concerning Ishmael in the place where she chose to wander. In that sense she sojourned in the wilderness, much like Abraham, trusting God to bless them there.

Eventually the provisions Abraham gave them ran out and death appeared to be at hand. The boy was no infant here, as we might suppose, but a teenager, for he was nearly fourteen years older than Isaac (cf. 17:25). Not wanting to see him die, Hagar left Ishmael some distance from her under what little shade the bushes would afford. She then lifted up her voice and wept.

It was not Hagar’s cries that arrested God’s attention, but the boy’s.196 As a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael was the object of God’s special care. His cries brought divine intervention:

And God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand; for I will make a great nation of him” (Genesis 21:17-18).

The solution to Hagar’s problem was already present. Through her tears she could not see the well close by. More than likely, it was not a distinct structure but simply a small source of water hidden among the bushes. God thus enabled her to see things as they really were, and she and the boy were refreshed and revived.

God’s working in Hagar’s life may seem harsh to us, but I understand His dealings to be such that His promises were accomplished. You remember that Ishmael was to be a “wild ass” of a man, hostile toward his brothers, and a free spirit. This kind of man could not be raised in the city with all of its conveniences and advantages. Learning to survive in the desert, to prevail over hostile elements was just what it took to make such a man out of Ishmael. As boot camp makes a good Marine, so desert survival made a man of Ishmael.

Abimelech Makes a Treaty with Abraham

Verses 22 through 34 describe a particular incident in the life of Abraham. The agreement which was made between Abraham and Abimelech is significant for both Abraham and for us. By implication it says a great deal about the fears and the faith of Abraham.

The meeting between these three figures was one of great import. Abraham was recognized as a man of influence and power. More than this, he was known to be the object of divine love and protection. Abimelech and Phicol came to Abraham; they did not invite him to the palace. They came to make a treaty:

Now it come about at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned” (Genesis 21:22-23).

It is difficult to fathom the intense embarrassment this request should have brought Abraham. Here was the king of the land where Abraham lived and his prime minister coming to him seeking a treaty. They acknowledged that their motivation was based largely upon the fact that Abraham was one loved by God. In essence, these men were aware by their own experience of the Abrahamic covenant:

“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” (Genesis 12:2-3).

Abimelech sought a treaty with Abraham because he did not ever wish to go to battle against him. To fight Abraham was to attack Abraham’s God and to have to contend with Him. On the other hand, to have an alliance with Abraham was to have God on his side. No wonder Abimelech was so anxious to negotiate such a treaty.

But do you see the lesson this should have taught Abraham? Abraham had lied to Abimelech about Sarah because he thought that there would be no fear of God, and thus no protection of himself, in a land of pagans (cf. 20:11). God rebuked the unbelief of Abraham by this testimony from the lips of Abimelech.

Furthermore, Abraham’s deception was rebuked. How would you feel if a king and his prime minister flattered you by acknowledging that God was with you in a very special way and then made you promise that you wouldn’t lie to him any more? Abimelech respected Abraham’s God, but he was not so sure about Abraham’s credibility. By putting Abraham on oath Abimelech sought to remedy the problem of deception. Once before he had nearly lost his life because of Abraham’s deception (20:3); he did not ever want that to happen again.

Once the treaty was made, Abraham brought up a specific grievance which could be settled under the terms just reached. Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well that his servants had dug, only to have it confiscated by servants of Abimelech (verse 25). Abimelech not only denied knowledge of the incident but seemed to mildly reproach Abraham for not bringing the matter to his personal attention (verse 26). A specific covenant was then made concerning this well, seven ewe lambs being a token of the agreement (verses 28-31). Abimelech and Phicol went their way, and Abraham commemorated his worship of the Lord in thanksgiving for this treaty by planting a tamarisk tree. And so Abraham stayed on in the land of the Philistines for some time.

The lesson that Abraham learned from this was striking. He had feared for his life and for his wife among these “pagans” (20:11). God showed him that Abimelech recognized his favored status with his God and that Abimelech would not have done him bodily harm on account of this. Not only would Abimelech not take a wife that was not his, he would not even take a well that did not belong to him. How foolish the fears of Abraham seem after this incident!


Several lessons emerge from this page of history from the life of Abraham. First, we must conclude that God’s blessings continue to come into the lives of His people, even at the times when their faith is at its lowest ebb. Neither Abraham nor Sarah were seen at their best in this chapter; and yet God gave them the promised son, He preserved the life of Hagar and Ishmael, and He brought about an alliance with a pagan king which gave Abraham a favored position.

Lest we should conclude that holiness is therefore unimportant, it must also be said that disobedience has its painful consequences. While it was years after the union of Abraham and Hagar, a union which denied the power of God to fulfill His covenant promises, Abraham had to face up to his wrong and send his beloved son away. Sooner or later the consequences for sin will be reaped by the sinner. So, here, the ugliness of Sarah, the tearful parting from Abraham, and the brush with death in the wilderness resulted from Abraham’s impetuous act with Hagar.

Second, we should be reminded that the right things sometimes happen for the wrong reasons. I do not believe that Sarah was shown in the best light in this chapter. I do not see a quiet and submissive spirit in her confrontation with Abraham. Nevertheless, we must conclude from God’s instructions to Abraham to obey his wife that the right thing to do was to put Ishmael away, once and for all. This prepared the way for the “sacrifice of Isaac” in the next chapter, for only now could God say to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there … ” (Genesis 22:2).

Throughout the Bible we see that the right things are often the result of the wrong reasons. For example, Joseph was sent to Egypt to prepare the way for the salvation of the nation Israel, but he got there through the treachery of his brothers, who thought they were getting rid of him by selling him into slavery. Satan afflicted Job in order to demonstrate that believers only trust in God because of the profit motive. God, however, allowed Job to be tested in order to teach Satan (and us) a lesson in faith.

Are you in a difficult or painful situation? Perhaps you got there because of the deceit or maliciousness of someone else. That doesn’t really matter, so far as you are concerned. If you believe in a God who is truly sovereign, really in control, then you must accept the fact that God has brought you to the right place for the wrong reason. The reasons may not be praiseworthy, but you can be assured that God has you in that place for a good reason.

Third, we learn that the greatest portion of our fears are totally unfounded. Abraham feared for his life and for his wife. Abraham believed that God would be obeyed and His people protected only where He was known and feared. Abraham was to learn through this treaty with Abimelech that God cares for His own. If Abimelech would not dare to take a well, he would not take a wife or a life. All of Abraham’s schemes were for naught. Faith can rest upon the covenant promises of God; fear has no basis at all.

Finally, God’s answer to our problem is often the solution which has been there all along, but our anxiety has kept us from seeing it. I love the fact that Hagar saw the well that had been there all along. Only her tears and her fears kept her from seeing it. The cries of those who belong to God will reach Him, but the answers need not be spectacular or miraculous, as we sometimes expect or demand. Many times the answer will be that which, in time, is obvious.

Do you belong to Him, my friend? If you have come to trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, then you do. And if you do, God cares for you. Those who belong to God need not fear, for He is with them; indeed, He is in them. And, wonder of all, He deals with us in grace. Even at our darkest hours, He remains faithful and His promises true.

193 RSV’s ‘playing’ (implying that Sarah was insanely jealous) is unfair: it should be translated ‘mocking’ (AV, PV). This is the intensive form of Isaac’s name-verb ‘to laugh,’ its malicious sense here demanded by the context and by Galatians 4:29 (‘persecuted’)! Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 140.

194 The Code of Hammurabi declares that children of slaves not legitimized, though not sharing in the estate, must be set free [Law 171]. Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 185.

195 Kidner, Genesis, p. 140.

196 It is no coincidence that the name “Ishmael” means “God hears” (cf. Genesis 16:11)

23. Final Exams (Genesis 22:1-24)


Fourteen years ago I applied for admission to Dallas Theological Seminary. As I was filling out my application, there were some questions which I had to answer. One concerned an area of biblical interpretation over which many Christians disagree. I well remember saying on my application that while I personally agreed with the seminary’s position, I did not see it proven by the passage cited in its support. Nothing was said about this matter for over three years. So far as I was concerned, it was all forgotten.

Just before my final year in seminary I was called into the dean’s office for a little discussion. To my amazement the matter of the difference between my position and the school’s was brought up. You might be interested to know that my position changed little, even through years of study and after learning a little about the original languages of the Bible. Somewhat reassured by my answers, the seminary allowed me to continue my educational program and graduate the next year.

The point of my illustration is that while this difference of interpretation was allowed to persist, there was a time when it would become an important issue. I find that God often does this same thing. He may allow a particular problem to continue for some time, but sooner or later the problem will become an issue of import and one that must be resolved.

Such was the case with Abraham. At the very outset of his relationship with God he was given a clear command concerning his family:

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” (Genesis 12:1; emphasis added).

We know, however, that it took years for Abram to be separated from his father; and when it did occur, it was the result of death rather than of deliberate obedience. Next it was Lot from whom Abram was reluctant to separate. In chapter 21 there was the painful act of sending away Ishmael, a son deeply loved by Abraham. In chapter 22 Abraham has come to his ultimate test. Abraham was an elderly man, and Sarah was soon to die. Abraham’s love was now focused upon Isaac, who after chapter 21 is his only son (22:2). God has brought Abraham to the point where he must give priority to either his faith or his family. The greatest test of his faith now confronts Abraham in Genesis 22.

The Command

We are not told the exact time of the ultimate test in Abraham’s life, only that it came after the events of chapter 21. Personally, I believe that it was at least ten years later, which would make Isaac a young man of at least the age of Ishmael when he was sent away. This would give ample time for the affections of Abraham for his first son to have been transferred to his second, Isaac. Isaac is thus accurately called his “only son” and the son whom Abraham loved (verse 2).

Contrary to the connotation of the term “tempted” employed by the King James translators in verse 2, God tested Abraham to demonstrate his faith in tangible terms. We know from Scripture that while God tests men to prove their godly character as saints, He never solicits them to sin (cf. James 1:12-18). Thus, in James 2 the apostle can point to this event in Abraham’s life as an evidence of a living faith:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? (James 2:21)197

God’s command to Abraham must have caught him totally unprepared:

And He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Genesis 22:2).

The greatest difficulty I find in this chapter is not the conduct of Abraham but the command of God. How can a God of wisdom, mercy, justice, and love command Abraham to offer up his only son as a sacrifice? Infant sacrifice was practiced by the Canaanites, but it was condemned by God (cf. Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31). Furthermore, such a sacrifice would have had no real value:

Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7)

To point out that God stopped Abraham short of carrying out the command does not solve the problem. How could God have given the order in the first place if it were immoral? To hold that God could ever command His children to do wrong, even as a test, is to open the door to all kinds of difficulties.

Several factors must be considered to understand this test in a proper light. First of all, we must admit a strong bias in the matter. We who are parents are repulsed by the thought of sacrificing our children upon an altar. We thus project our abhorrence upon God and suppose that He could never consider such a thing either. Secondly, we view this command from the vantage point of the culture of the day, which did practice child sacrifice. If the pagans did it and God condemned their practice, it must be wrong in any context.

We are forced to the conclusion that the sacrifice of Isaac could not have been wrong, whether only attempted or accomplished, because God is incapable of evil (James 1:13ff; I John 1:5). Much more than this, it could not be wrong to sacrifice an only son because God actually did sacrifice His only begotten Son:

All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand (Isaiah 53:6,10).

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16; cf. Matthew 26:39,42; Luke 22:22; John 3:17; Acts 2:23; II Corinthians 5:21; Revelation 13:8).

In this sense, God did not require Abraham to do anything that He Himself would not do. Indeed, the command to Abraham was intended to foreshadow what He would do centuries later on the cross of Calvary.

Only by understanding the typological significance of the “sacrifice of Isaac” can we grasp the fact that God’s command was holy and just and pure. Abraham’s willingness to give up his only son humanly illustrated the love of God for man, which caused Him to give His only begotten Son. The agony of heart experienced by Abraham reflected the heart of the Father at the suffering of His Son. The obedience of Isaac typified the submission of the Son to the will of the Father (cf. Matthew 26:39,42).

God halted the sacrifice of Isaac for two reasons. First, such a sacrifice would have no benefit for others. The lamb must be “without blemish,” without sin, innocent (cf. Isaiah 53:9). This is the truth which Micah implied (6:7). Second, Abraham’s faith was amply evidenced by the fact that he was fully intending to carry out the will of God. We have no question in our mind that had God not intervened, Isaac would have been sacrificed. In attitude Isaac had already been sacrificed, so the act was unnecessary.

A second difficulty pertains to the silence of Abraham. One of my friends put it well: “How come Abraham interceded with God for Sodom, but not for his son Isaac?” We must remember that the Scriptures are selective in what they report, choosing to omit what is not essential to the development of the argument of the passage (cf. John 20:30-31; 21:25). In this chapter of Genesis, for example, we know that God was to indicate the particular place to “sacrifice” Isaac (verse 2) and that Abraham went to this spot (verse 9), but we are not told when God revealed this to him.

I believe that Moses, under the superintending guidance of the Holy Spirit, omitted Abraham’s initial reaction to God’s command in order to highlight his ultimate response—obedience. Personally (although there is no Scripture to support my conjecture), I believe that Abraham argued and pled with God for the life of his son, but God chose not to record this point in Abraham’s life because it would have had little to inspire us. I know that many of us would not want God to report our first reactions to unpleasant situations either; it is our final response that matters (cf. Matthew 21:28-31).

This helps me as I read the evaluation of Old Testament saints in the New Testament. Except for the words of Peter I would never have considered Lot to be a righteous man (II Peter 2:7-8). In Hebrews 11 and Romans 4 Abraham is portrayed as a man without failure or fault, yet the book of Genesis clearly reports these weaknesses. The reason, I believe, is that the New Testament writers are viewing these saints as God does. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, the sins of the saints are not only forgiven but also forgotten. The wood, hay, and stubble of sin is consumed, leaving only the gold, silver, and precious stones (I Corinthians 3:10-15). The sins of the saints are not glossed over; they are covered by the blood of Christ. When these sins are recorded, it is only for our admonition and instruction (I Corinthians 10:1ff, especially verse 11).

Abraham’s Obedience

Regardless of the struggles which are not reported, Abraham arose early to begin the longest journey of his life:

So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him (Genesis 22:3).

I have said previously that while the early hour may reflect the resolve of Abraham to do God’s will, it may contain some human factors also. First, I would imagine that sleep completely evaded Abraham on that night, especially after God had clearly commanded the sacrifice of Isaac. Some people rise early because all hope of sleep is gone. Then, too, I would not have wanted to face Sarah with my plans for the coming days. While Abraham was resigned to do God’s will, Sarah is not informed of this test (at least so far as the Scriptures record).

After a heart-breaking three-day journey the mountain of sacrifice was in view. At this point Abraham left his servants behind and went on alone with Isaac:

And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together (Genesis 22:5-6).

In the midst of great anguish of soul there is a beautiful expression of hope and faith in verse 5:

“Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (NIV; emphasis added).

I do not believe these words were idly spoken but that they reflected a deep inner trust in God and His promises. The God Who had commanded the sacrifice of Isaac had also promised to produce a nation through him (17:15-19; 21:12).

As the two went on alone climbing the mountain to the place of sacrifice, Isaac put a question to his father which must have broken his heart: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (verse 7)

The answer was painfully evident to Abraham, and yet there is in his answer not only a deliberate vagueness but also an element of hope: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (verse 8).

At every step Abraham must have hoped for some change of plans, some alternative course of action. The place was reached, the altar built, and the wood arranged. At last there was nothing left but to bind Isaac and place him upon the wood and plunge the knife into his heart.

God’s Provision

Only when the knife was lifted high, glistening in the sun, did God restrain Abraham from offering up his son:

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (Genesis 22:11-12).

At the point of death it was evident that Abraham was willing to forsake all, even his son, his only son, for God. While God knew the heart of Abraham, Abraham’s reverence was now evident from experiential knowledge.

Also at the point of total obedience came the provision of God. God did not halt the act of sacrifice; He provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac:

Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son (verse 13).

From this experience it was seen that Abraham’s faith that God would provide a sacrificial offering (verse 8) was honored and that God does indeed provide:

And Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided” (verse 14).

God’s Promise

In addition to God’s intervention to prevent Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, there was the confirmation of God’s promises to Abraham through his son:

“… By Myself I have sworn,” declares the Lord, “because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:16-18).

There is little in this divine confirmation that is new,198 although there is one striking change. In previous instances these promises were made unconditionally (cf. 12:1-3; 15:13-16, 18-21). Now the blessings are promised Abraham because he had obeyed God in this test (22:16,18).

The change is not as dramatic as it might first appear, however. In chapter 17 God reaffirmed His promises, beginning with these words: “I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless. And I will establish My covenant … ” (verses 1-2).

Furthermore, Abraham was instructed to “keep My covenant” (17:9,10,11). Then in chapter 18 we read:

… Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him (18:18-19).

We must realize that God’s choice of Abraham included not only the end God purposed (blessings) but also the means (faith and obedience). After his ultimate test on Mount Moriah God can say that the blessings are a result of the obedience which stems from faith. This same sequence is evident in the New Testament:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

The work of God begins with a promise which must be accepted by faith. Ultimately this faith, if it is genuine, will be demonstrated by good works (cf. James 2). The promises of God are sure to every believer because God is sovereign at every step—from faith to obedience to blessing.


This incident in Abraham’s life had several results for the patriarch.

(1) It dealt with a problem that had plagued him all of his life—unhealthy attachment to family. It was here that Abraham had to choose between Isaac and God for his first loyalty. His obedience finally put this problem to rest.

(2) His obedience to the revealed will of God justified his profession of faith:

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God (James 2:17-23).

James is not disagreeing with Paul here. He would agree that a man is saved by faith, apart from works (cf. Romans 4), but James insists that a saving faith is a working faith. A faith which is professed but not practiced is a dead faith. While Abraham was justified before God by believing the promise of God (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3), he was justified before men by his obedience (Genesis 22, James 2). God could look on Abraham’s heart and know that his faith was genuine; we must look at his obedience to see that his profession was genuine.

(3) Abraham’s obedience resulted in spiritual growth and deeper insight into the person and promises of God. No experience in Abraham’s life made the person and work of Christ more evident. This is why our Lord could say to the Jews of His day: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). Times of testing are also times of growth in the lives of believers today.

(4) Abraham’s trial on Mount Moriah prepared him for the future. It is no surprise that the next chapter (23) deals with the death of Sarah. What we need to fathom is the fact that God used the offering of Isaac to prepare Abraham for the death of his wife. We know from Abraham’s words (22:5) and from their interpretation by the writer to the Hebrews (11:19) that Abraham’s faith evidenced on Mount Moriah was a faith in the God Who could raise men and women from the dead (cf. also Romans 4:19). While he did not face death until chapter 23, he dealt with it in chapter 22. God’s tests are often preparatory for greater things ahead (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).

Besides dealing with Abraham, God used this incident on Mount Moriah to instruct the nation Israel, who received this book and the other four books of the Law from the pen of Moses. For those who had just received the Law with its complex sacrificial system, this event in the life of Abraham gave a much deeper understanding of the significance of sacrifice. They should perceive that sacrifice was substitutionary. The animal died in place of man just as the ram was provided in Isaac’s stead. But they should also perceive that ultimately a Son, an only Son, must come to pay the price for sin, which no animal can possibly do. Against the backdrop of the sacrifice on Mount Moriah the whole sacrificial system of the Law was seen to have a deeper, fuller significance.

This incident in the life of Abraham was also intended for our edification and instruction (I Corinthians 10:6,11). Let me suggest several ways that we should learn from the life of Abraham as it is depicted in Genesis 22.

(1) This event is a beautiful foreshadow, a type, of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Abraham represents God the Father, Who, out of love for mankind, gave His only Son as a sacrifice for sinners (John 3:16). Isaac is a type of Christ, Who submits to the will of His Father. Isaac bore the wood as our Lord bore His cross (Genesis 22:6; John 19:17). It was three days from the time Abraham left to sacrifice his son until they returned together. After three days Abraham received his son back (Hebrews 11:19). After three days our Lord arose from the dead (John 20; I Corinthians 15:4).

Even beyond all this, Isaac was “sacrificed” at the place where our Lord would give His life centuries later, on Mount Moriah outside Jerusalem. We know from II Chronicles 3:1 that this was the place where the Lord appeared to David and where Solomon built the temple. And so it was that Abraham took his son to a mount near Jerusalem to offer his son, even the same place (or nearly so) where our Lord was to die in years to come. What a beautiful illustration of the infinite wisdom of God and of the inspiration of God’s holy Scriptures.

(2) This passage also reminds us of the importance of obedience for the Christian. It was because Abraham obeyed God that the promised blessings were confirmed once again at the climax of our passage (verses 15-18). While man’s works never save him, saving faith must inevitably be manifested in good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Trust and obey is the way of the Christian.

(3) We see also that the Christian life is paradoxical. It would seem that it is self-contradictory. Abraham gained his son by giving him up to God. We get ahead in God’s eyes by putting ourselves behind others (Matthew 23:11; Philippians 2:5ff). We lead by serving; we save our lives by losing them (Matthew 16:25). God’s ways are not man’s ways.

(4) The Christian life is not lived without reason or rationality. I greatly fear that many have read this account in Abraham’s life and concluded that God tests us by directing us to do that which is totally unreasonable.

The danger is that we will tend to assume that whatever does not make sense is likely to be the will of God. Many critics have suggested that Christians are those who take their hats and their heads off when they enter the church. This is not so.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that what Abraham was commanded to do seemed to be unreasonable. Through Isaac Abraham was to be the father of multitudes. How could this be so if Isaac were dead? Putting a son to death must have seemed totally beyond the character of God. Was God not asking Abraham to act on faith without reason? Notice what the writer to the Hebrews says:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “IN ISAAC YOUR SEED SHALL BE CALLED.” He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type (Hebrews 11:17-19; emphasis added).

The Greek word here, logizomai, clearly expresses the fact that Abraham acted upon reason.199 This was no blind “leap of faith,” as it is sometimes represented. Faith always acts upon facts and reason.

My point is simply this. The world likes to believe that they act upon reason while Christians act without thinking. That is wholly false. The truth is there are two kinds of reasoning: worldly reasoning and godly reasoning. Peter, when he rebuked our Lord for talking of His sacrificial death, was thinking humanly:

But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matthew 16:23).

There are two mind sets: the godly mind and the worldly mind:

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so (Romans 8:5-7).

The appeal of Paul in Romans 12 is addressed to both our emotions and our minds:

I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith (Romans 12:1-3).

The sacrifice we are called to give to God is that of our living bodies, and it is our logical or rational (Greek, logicos) act of worship. This is accomplished by the renewing of our minds (verse 2). Man’s whole being has been affected by the fall: emotions, intellect, and will. All of these must therefore undergo a radical transformation for us to be conformed to the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Romans 12:3 we are told to think, think, think. This is the use of our new minds. Christianity is rational, but of a vastly different kind than that of the world.

Christian reasoning is based upon the presuppositional belief that there is a God, Who is both our creator and redeemer (Hebrews 11:1ff). Christian reasoning is based upon the belief that God’s Word is absolutely true and reliable. God had promised a son through Sarah through whom the blessings were to be given. Abraham believed God in this (Genesis 15:6). God also commanded Abraham to sacrifice this son. Abraham believed God and obeyed Him even though human reasoning would question the wisdom of it.

Abraham’s reasoning was also based upon his experience with God over the years. God had continually proven to be his provider and protector. God’s sovereign power had repeatedly been demonstrated, even among the heathen such as Pharaoh and Abimelech. While Abraham and Sarah were “as good as dead” so far as bearing children were concerned, God gave them the promised child (Romans 4:19-21).

Abraham did not understand why he was told to sacrifice his son nor how God would accomplish His promises if Abraham obeyed, but he did know Who had commanded it. He did know that God was holy, just, and pure. He did know that God was able to raise the dead. On the basis of these certainties Abraham obeyed God, contrary to human wisdom, but squarely based upon godly reason. Godly reason has reasons. We may not know how or why, but we do know Who and what. That is enough!

(5) There is a beautiful principle taught in our text: “… In the mount of the Lord it will be provided” (verse 14).

In verse 8 Abraham assured his son that God would provide a lamb, and so He did (verse 13). The principle is not that God will provide at a certain place, but under a certain condition. At the point of faith and obedience, at the point of helplessness and dependence, God will provide. Often, I believe, we do not see God’s provision because we are not at a point of despair.

I remember the story of two sailors who alone survived a shipwreck. They were adrift at sea on a makeshift raft. After all hope of rescue was lost, one asked the other if they should pray. Both agreed, and one had just begun to cry to God for help when the other interrupted, “Hold it, don’t commit yourself, I think I see a sail.”

God sometimes must bring us to the point where we find Abraham on Mount Moriah—totally depending upon God for deliverance. It is there that we must acknowledge that God has provided. This is the point men and women must come to in order to be saved. They must see themselves as lost sinners, deserving of God’s eternal wrath. They must forsake any faith in themselves and any work they might do to win God’s favor. They must look only to God to provide the forgiveness of sins and righteousness required for salvation. God’s provision has been made by the death of His sinless Son, Jesus Christ, on Calvary 2000 years ago. If you have reached the point of despair, my friend, I want you to know it is also the point of help and salvation. Cast all your hope upon the Christ of Calvary, and you will surely find salvation.

(6) Finally, this passage has been used for a tragic evil, the sacrifice of our sons and daughters on the pretext of obeying a divine command. God has never instructed His saints to sacrifice their families for any ministry or any calling. We must put God first, this is true (Matthew 10:37), but obedience to God necessitates provision and instruction of our families (cf. I Timothy 5:8; Ephesians 6:4; I Timothy 3:4-5, 12).

Many parents, like Abraham, view their future as wrapped up in their children. They wish to manipulate their lives so as to live out their hopes and dreams in them. We must give our children to the Lord and submit them, as ourselves, to His keeping and care. Then will we, and they, find God’s blessing.

I must sadly admit that the problem of Abraham is surely foreign to our world today. How little we must worry about undue attachment to our children in this day when abortion is rampant, and mothers and fathers are forsaking their families for a freer lifestyle. In this we see the prophecy of conditions for the end times being fulfilled in our midst:

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these (II Timothy 3:1-5).

In verse 3 the first word, “unloving,” means literally “without love of kindred.” These are days when the natural paternal affections are becoming rare. Surely the Lord’s return is near. May God enable us to love our children so much that we commit them to God’s will for their lives.

197 In this chapter James is not debating Paul’s theology but is stressing a complementary truth: While works cannot save, only a faith that works does save. The justification of which James speaks in chapter 2 is not before God but before men. The faith a man has in his heart justifies him before God, but the faith a man demonstrates by his life justifies his claim to be saved before men.

198 Stigers’ remarks, however, are worthy of repetition: “The phrase ‘gates of their enemies’ (v. 17) is of far-reaching significance as to the future of God’s redemptive program. The other elements of the oath-promise, the innumerable descendants and the blessing to come upon the nations, are the same as those found in 12:1-3; however, the phrase ‘a land I will shew/give thee’ is now replaced by ‘possess the gate of their enemies.’ This enlarges the meaning of the promise of the land: that of assuming the place and power of the previous peoples. But the promise is not localized in any way; any enemy of any time is designated, unless Israel shall deny her God (cf. Ps. 89:30-33). The phrase connotes the ultimate victory of holiness over all things, shared in by God’s people.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 190-191.

199 “Hence, logizomai means: (a) reckon, credit, rank with, calculate; (b) consider, deliberate, grasp, draw a logical conclusion, decide.” J. Eichler, “Logizomai,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), III, pp. 822-823.