6. Abraham's Finest Hour (Genesis 18:1-26:35)
I received a letter from my friend, Frank, this past week, which he had written while he and his wife, Donna, were waiting for their plane at the airport. She was spending her time working on a Bible crossword puzzle. When Donna got up to purchase a snack, Frank decided to play a practical joke on her. He snatched up her crossword puzzle, found a place with five spaces, and wrote in his name, FRANK. When she returned, Frank tried hard to conceal his amusement. It took Donna a couple of minutes to see Frank’s work, and she giggled. Then, on second look, she began to laugh much harder, saying, “Yes … yes, that’s PERFECT, so PERFECT!!” She kept on laughing. Frank couldn’t stand it any longer and finally asked what was so funny. She handed Frank the crossword puzzle, telling him to look at number 46 across. Number 46 read: “GET THEE BEHIND ME _ _ _ _ _.”
Frank did not expect his name to be found where Satan’s name belonged. Let’s suppose there was a number 47 across, with 7 blanks, and it read, “THE FATHER OF THE FAITH.” I think Abraham would have been even more surprised to see his name written in those blanks. He was a great man of faith, in the end, but this would not be as readily apparent to us earlier in Abraham’s life. The title of this lesson is “Abraham’s Finest Hour.” There are some wonderful evidences of faith in chapters 18-25, but not all are examples of faith, as we shall see. Before we begin our study at chapter 18, let’s briefly review the events leading up to this point in Abraham’s life.
According to Stephen, Abram’s original call came to him while he was still in Ur (Acts 7:2-3). It is in Ur that Haran, the father of Lot, dies (Genesis 11:28). Abram does not immediately leave his family and go directly to Canaan; instead, it is his father, Terah, who leads Abram and others to Haran, where they settle down (11:31). There in Haran, Terah dies (11:32). It is only then that Abram goes on to Canaan, in obedience to God’s call. There, God announced His covenant with Abram and his descendants, whereby He would give Abram the land of Canaan. Here, He would make Abram a great nation, and He would bless the whole world through his seed (12:1-3). Abram went through the land, building altars and calling on the name of the Lord. When Abram was in the Negev, the southern end of Canaan, a severe drought occurred. Abram went to Egypt, intending to sojourn there until the drought ended. It is very doubtful that Abram should have gone to Egypt in the first place (see Genesis 26:1-5), but his deception was certainly not an act of faith. He and Sarai agreed to tell these Egyptians that Sarah was his sister, thus making her eligible for marriage, and thus (so they reasoned) saving Abram from death. It did not take Pharaoh long to hear about Sarah and to bring her into his harem. The dowry gifts began to pour in. It was the plagues God sent upon Egypt that caused Pharaoh to inquire more carefully about Sarai. Abram confessed to their deception, and soon they were on their way home, escorted by Pharaoh’s men, but not without many spoils from the land of Egypt. Pharaoh was of no mind to take on Abram’s God, who had brought such plagues upon him and his nation.
When Abram and Lot both prospered, the land could not support both of them and also the Canaanites who were dwelling in the land. Abram gave Lot his choice of where he would settle, and Lot chose what appeared to be the best land. Lot’s choice placed him in the city of Sodom, which brought with it many adverse consequences (13:1-13; 14:1ff.). God promised Abram that He would give him the land and instructed him to walk about the land (13:14-18). Before long, Lot is caught in the middle of a power struggle, and is taken captive by the kings who opposed and defeated the king of Sodom and four others (14:1-12). Abram and his allies rescue Lot, but before the king of Sodom greets Abram as the victor, Melchizedek meets him on the way, reminding him that it was God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who gave him the victory (14:17-24). God reaffirms His covenant with Abram in chapter 15, adding the detail that the promised son will be Abram’s child; he will come from Abram’s body (15:4). In the process of executing the covenant, God reveals to Abram that his descendants will suffer slavery for 400 years before they possess Canaan (15:12-21).
In chapter 16, Sarai confronts Abram with a test, a test that he seems to fail. Since God has withheld children from her, she proposes that Abram take Hagar, her handmaid, and produce a son through her. Abram consents, but when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai becomes bitter and angry. Sarai is so cruel to Hagar that she runs away, but the Lord seeks her out and convinces her to return and to submit to Sarai, assuring Hagar that He will bless her child.
By the time we reach chapter 17, we find Abram is 99 years old and still without an heir. God assured Abram that he and Sarai would have a son and told him the boy’s name would be Isaac. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (“father of a multitude”) and Sarai’s name to Sarah (“princess”). He instituted the rite of circumcision as a sign of His covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
Abraham and Sarah lived in the mountains, overlooking the valley below where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located some distance away. At noon, when the sun was its hottest, Abraham was having his “siesta” at the front door of his tent. As he looked up, he saw three “men” in the distance. Abraham got up and ran out to meet them and to urge them to come to his home and have a little refreshment. The men accepted this kind offer, and Abraham then saw to it that they had a fine meal of fresh-made bread, veal, curds and milk. In the course of the meal, the men asked Abraham where his wife Sarah was. (I would expect that Abraham’s mind was racing, wondering how they knew his wife’s name.) One of them (I believe it was the LORD) then informed Abraham that she would have a son at the same season the following year (verse 10).
Sarah was in the tent behind Abraham, listening to this conversation with great interest. When she heard the announcement that she would have a child, she laughed to herself, amused at the thought of her and Abraham65 having a child in their old age. This need not have been the scorning laughter of unbelief; I think hers was the laughter of total shock, something like my response to receiving the title, “best dressed man in Dallas.” There is a joyful laughter of surprise:
1 When the LORD restored the well-being of Zion,
we thought we were dreaming.
2 At that time we laughed loudly
and shouted for joy.
At that time the nations said,
“The LORD has accomplished great things for these people” (Psalm 126:1-2).
It was absolutely an incredible thing – a child at the age of 90, with a husband who would then be 100. The Lord knew exactly what Sarah’s silent response was for He could read her thoughts. He – not one of the angels66 – challenged Abraham concerning Sarah’s response. Sarah attempted to deny it, but the Lord knew better.
Abraham’s hospitality is impressive, but the high point of chapter 18 comes at the end of the chapter and not the beginning. There is a strong sense of intimacy between God and Abraham, beginning at verse 16. Abraham, in typical eastern hospitality, walked some distance with his departing guests. God then disclosed (to the angels?) that He would not withhold from Abraham what He was about to do. Other passages refer to Abraham as the “friend of God,”67 and I am inclined to believe that this “friendship”68 is evident here.
When God reveals that He is about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham intercedes, not on behalf of the wicked, but for the righteous who might be dwelling in these cities. It may well be that Abraham’s primary concern is for his nephew Lot and his family, but his appeal is broader than that. His argument is that justice requires one to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. Here is where Jonah missed the mark. His thinking was not like God’s. Jonah wanted to see the entire city of Nineveh incinerated, including the children and cattle. God would not punish the innocent along with the guilty (see Jonah 4).
Once there was agreement in principle, the only issue was: How many righteous folks would be required for God to withhold judgment from Sodom and Gomorrah? The negotiations started at 50 righteous and finally ended at 10. Either Abraham assumed that this number could be found, or he was fearful of seeking to reduce the number any farther. Abraham went his way. He was thinking like God, and surely God took pleasure in his intercession.69
It would seem that the Lord was interested only in dealing with Abraham face to face, since only the two angels arrived at the city gates of Sodom. Lot was on the spot to greet them, not knowing who they were or for what purpose they had come. He knew that strangers were not safe in this wicked city, as time will certainly show. He urged the men not to sleep in the city square and to stay in his home. He, too, fixed a feast for these men to eat. (I can just see the one angel saying to the other, “How do these humans manage to eat so much? I’m stuffed. A huge lunch at Abraham’s place, and now a feast for dinner. I can’t wait to get back to heaven.”)
They had not yet settled down for the evening when there was a loud pounding at the door. It was not just a handful of folks, not a small gang of bad boys; this was a very large segment of the male population of Sodom. The mob included young and old and men from every part of the city, so many in number that they surrounded Lot’s house (19:5). They were far from subtle in letting their intentions be known. They wanted to sexually abuse Lot’s guests.
Lot was deeply committed to the safety of his guests, and so he stepped outside the door to reason with the mob. He urged the men of the city to take his daughters instead and to do to them what they wished. As we read of Lot’s offer of his daughters, we are horrified, and rightly so. Attempts have been made to explain Lot’s actions: (1) This was the custom of the day; it was expected that once Lot took these men into his house, he had to protect them. (2) Because of the perversion of that city, Lot didn’t expect these men to be interested in his daughters. While I agree that the custom was to offer protection to those under your roof (or at your table), I would approach this matter differently. I think that there is no excuse for Lot’s actions. As my friend Don Grimm pointed out, this was a case of situational ethics. Lot would never have offered his virgin daughters to the men of the city under normal circumstances. But this was a crisis. Giving his daughters to the men of the city was the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being that his guests would have been maltreated. It was, in his mind, an emergency. He reasoned that desperate straits require desperate measures.
Now, lest we harshly condemn Lot alone, let me remind you that what Abraham did was no different, and perhaps even worse. Sarah was the woman through whom the promised seed would come (whether he knew this in chapter 12 may be debatable, but there is no question by the time we come to chapter 20). Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and yet in order to save his own life, he was willing to hand her off in marriage to another man. In both cases (Pharaoh in chapter 12 and Abimelech in chapter 20), it was not Abraham who stopped the wedding; it was God. One must therefore conclude that Abraham would have sat passively by as his wife became the wife of another man. In Abraham’s mind, there was no other solution, and it was better to lose his wife than to lose his life. This certainly falls short of God’s ideal for marriage as spelled out in Ephesians 5:22-33. 70
We know that Lot’s wife turned to salt, because she looked back, contrary to the angels’ warnings. It is my opinion that Mrs. Lot may well have grown up in Sodom. When Lot first came back to Canaan from Egypt, he split up with Abraham, going east to Sodom (chapter 13). We know that Abraham lived in the land of Canaan for almost 11 years before having Ishmael (see 16:3). Abraham was 75 when he left Haran (12:4). He was 86 when Ishmael was born (16:16). Abraham was 99 at the time that God announced the birth of Isaac the same season of the next year (17:15-16, 19, 21). This means that Lot would have been living in the land of Canaan for more than 20 years. While Moses is careful to tell us all who left Ur for Haran, and all who left Haran for Canaan (11:24-32), there is no mention of Lot’s wife there. His wife is not mentioned anywhere in the text until the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 19. We don’t read of Mrs. Lot helping to prepare the angels’ meal, as Sarah did. One is inclined to suspect that Mrs. Lot was a Sodomite girl, and that because of this, she was not really eager to leave Sodom at all. No wonder she looked back if her parents, friends, and family were all there in Sodom. But having said all of this, Lot was not excited about leaving Sodom, either. The angels had to grab him, his daughters, and (for a time) his wife, and literally drag him out of Sodom. Lot was half-hearted about leaving Sodom.
Initially, Lot succeeded in convincing God that he needed to stay in nearby Zoar. But something caused Lot to change his mind and to flee to the mountains, but not to the mountains where Abraham lived. The effect of this was that there was no one to marry Lot’s daughters, so that they could carry on his name. Lot’s two daughters decided to produce offspring for their father through their father. The story is a sordid one that we need not go into, except to point out one thing that was and is very important: Lot’s daughters were only doing what they had learned from their father, to employ situational ethics in an “emergency” situation, and thus to compromise God’s marital and sexual standards. Their father was ready and willing to hand them over to the mob at Sodom; why should they not be willing to compromise themselves to keep their father’s line going? The result was that both daughters became pregnant through their father, and this was the origin (the genesis) of the Moabites and the Ammonites (19:37-38).
From what we read about Lot in Genesis 12-19, we would not be very inclined to think highly of him. We must therefore continually remind ourselves of Peter’s assessment of Lot’s spiritual condition:
7 And if he rescued Lot, a righteous man in anguish over the debauched lifestyle of lawless men, 8 (for while he lived among them day after day, that righteous man was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) 9 —if so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to reserve the unrighteous for punishment at the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:7-9, emphasis mine).
Being righteous is not the same as being perfect. Lot may have been righteous, but he failed in many ways.
In Genesis 20, Moses leaves Lot and returns to the centerpiece of our text – Abraham – who makes his way to Gerar. Abraham has just recently been informed that the promised child will be his and Sarah’s child. He has been told that the child would be born the same time the following year. That means that Sarah will become pregnant within three months of the promise. And what does Abraham do but leave Haran and go to Gerar in the land of the Philistines (26:1). And there Abraham and Sarah repeat the same sin they had committed in Egypt, years before. One would think that they had learned their lesson. One would hope that their faith was now great enough to trust God to care for them. And yet the Egypt scenario is replayed. Abimelech, king of Gerar, took Sarah as his wife. If I were one of the angels, looking down on this event, I would have been asking for some aspirin. How could Abraham be so foolish? How could he endanger Sarah and put at risk (humanly speaking) the promise of God?
If we think that God’s covenant purposes and promises are dependent upon our faithfulness, we are mistaken. It is not Abraham’s faithfulness that saves the day, but God’s. Moses is a prophet of God, as we are told in this very text (verse 7), and yet he is not speaking to Abimelech for God. It is God who speaks to Abimelech, and in a way that certainly got his attention:
But God appeared to Abimelech in a dream at night and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is someone else’s wife” (Genesis 20:3).
Abimelech was “all ears.” He insisted that he had taken Sarah innocently, and that it was Abraham and Sarah who had been deceptive. God told Abimelech that He had kept the king from sinning, and thus from death. He was now to restore Sarah to her husband. He further indicated that Abraham was a prophet and that he would pray for the king and his people, so that they would be healed and not die. In verses 17 and 18, we are told that Abraham’s prayer for the king and his household enabled them to have children, because God had closed the wombs of every women in the king’s household. There was no chance of Sarah getting pregnant in that household, because there was no chance of anyone getting pregnant there, until Abraham prayed for healing on their behalf. God was making sure that His promise to Abraham would be fulfilled, in spite of Abraham’s sin.
The thing that catches my attention in chapter 20 is that God speaks to Abraham through Abimelech, and not the reverse, even though Abraham is a prophet. It is Abimelech, a pagan king, who rebukes Abraham, a prophet of God. What a contrast to chapter 18, where Abraham walks with God, and where God reveals His purposes to Abraham as a friend. What Abraham discloses to Abimelech is most disturbing. He confesses that he lied out of fear. He reveals that his view of God is inadequate, for he supposes that where there is no “fear of God,” God cannot protect him (verse 11). Even though God had promised to make a great nation of Abraham, he believed that the men of Gerar would kill him (verse 11). And perhaps most disturbing of all, Abraham admits that this is an established policy that he and Sarah had practiced for years, everywhere they went (verses 12-13). That leaves us to wonder whether these two instances of this sin that are recorded in Genesis 12 and 20 are the only times they did this, or whether these are merely two examples among others. Abraham got the message, but not in the way he would prefer, and this because of his sin.
The fears of Abraham were unfounded, and the faithfulness of God is undeniable. Twice in verse 1, we are told that God gave Sarah and Abraham a son “just as He said.” The child was born, and as instructed (17:19), they named him Isaac (verse 3). Can you imagine this? At a time when Abraham and Sarah should have been buying Geritol (a supplement for older folks), they were buying (so to speak) diapers and baby food. Abraham was 100 years old (verse 5), and Sarah was 90 (17:17). In obedience to God’s instruction, Abraham circumcised Isaac when he was eight days old.
When Isaac was weaned, they had a special celebration, at which the teenage Ishmael was mocking Isaac. For Sarah, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She exploded, demanding that Abraham send the lad and his mother away (verse 10). Abraham was greatly distressed by Sarah’s demand (verse 11). For nearly 13 years, Abraham had lived with the assumption that Ishmael would be his only son, and thus the heir to his covenant blessings. Beyond this, I believe that Abraham had come to love this lad. It would break his heart to send Hagar and Ishmael away. I believe that while Sarah was right in thinking the boy must go, she was wrong in her motivation. I fear that she wanted the right thing for the wrong reasons.
All of this was a part of God’s plan for Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac. He was preparing for Abraham’s great test of faith in chapter 22. There, God would say to Abraham,
“Take your son – your only son, whom you love, Isaac – and go to the land of Moriah! Offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will indicate to you” (Genesis 22:1b-2, emphasis mine).
If Ishmael were still living with Abraham, this statement could not have been made. The test was much more difficult after Abraham had sent Ishmael away, permanently.
God told Abraham to listen to his wife and to do as she said.71 He reiterated once again72 that Abraham’s descendants would be counted through Isaac, and not through Ishmael. In a different way than in chapter 22, Abraham was required to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. God promised that He would bless Ishmael, but not as Abraham’s promised seed. And so, “early in the morning,”73 Abraham gave provisions to Hagar, and sent her on her way. In the wilderness of Beersheba, God provided for Hagar and her son and promised to make a great nation of Ishmael. The lad grew up to be a great archer, and we are told that Hagar obtained a wife for him from Egypt, her native land (16:3). This may be indicated as a contrast to Abraham’s diligent efforts to obtain a wife for Isaac from Paddan Aram (see chapter 24).
The remainder of chapter 21 has to do with Abimelech. God had terrified Abimelech, so that he would not dare to harm Abraham, and so that he would return Sarah to her husband. But relations were not what they should have been between Abimelech and Abraham. Abimelech and his commander came to visit Abraham, acknowledging that God was surely with him. He wanted Abraham to swear to him that he would not deceive him again. What an interesting thing for a pagan to say to a prophet. Abraham would enter into a treaty with Abimelech, but not until after they had resolved a conflict over a certain well that Abimelech’s men claimed for themselves. Having settled these matters, Abimelech and Phicol, his commander, returned to, the land of the Philistines.74
It has been a long and difficult road for Abraham, but he is now to receive the ultimate test of his faith. He has been prepared by many tests over the years. Some tests he has handled well. He believed God and left Haran to come to the land of Canaan. He believed God’s promise that he would have a son, even in his old age (Genesis 15:6). He gave Lot his choice of the land (chapter 13), and he interceded for the righteous when God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (chapter 18). Others he has not handled as well. During a famine, he left the promised land of Canaan and went to sojourn in Egypt (Genesis 12). On at least two occasions, he has feared for his life and lied about the identity of Sarah, his wife (Genesis 12, 20). He listened to his wife, Sarai, and took Hagar as his concubine, bearing Ishmael through her (Genesis 16). In most (if not all) of these tests, the issues were matters of life and death. Would God provide for Abram during a time of famine, and thus spare his life? Would God protect Abraham and Sarah, so that he would not have to lie about their relationship? Could Abraham and Sarah, though as good as dead so far as childbearing was concerned, still have a child in their old age?
In chapter 22, God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountain He will designate and to sacrifice him there. One can only imagine Abraham’s initial response. The reader is spared any insight into the private struggle that took place within the heart of Abraham. I am confident that there was a struggle, but equally assured that knowing his private agonies would not prove edifying to the reader. And so Moses simply tells us that Abraham did what God commanded.
Early in the morning,75 he saddled his donkey, two servants, firewood, fire, the knife and his beloved son, and set out for the place of sacrifice. How it must have pained Abraham to hear as his son began to grasp the uniqueness of this trip:
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?” “What is it, my son?” he replied. “Here is the fire and the wood,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 “God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham replied. The two of them continued on together (Genesis 22:7b-8).
On the one hand Abraham’s answer was evasive; on the other hand, it seems to express faith in God, for when Abraham left his servants behind he told them, “You two stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go up there. We will worship and then return to you” (22:5b, emphasis mine).
We know much more about what went on in Abraham’s mind from the writers of Romans and Hebrews:
18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” 19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do. 22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness (Romans 4:18-22).
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. 18 God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” 19 and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there (Hebrews 11:17-19, emphasis mine).
In both these texts, we are told that Abraham reasoned by faith. If I could paraphrase the sense of both these texts, Abraham’s reasoning went something like this:
“God promised me that I would have a son. Eventually, He made it clear that this son would be born of both Sarah and myself. God waited to give us this son until it seemed impossible, and humanly speaking, it was. Nevertheless, I have come to trust in God, no matter what He says, and He did it! We were as good as dead, so far as having children were concerned, and yet God gave us a new life – our precious son. God produced life out of death! Now, God has commanded me to take the life of my son. I know that this is the son through whom God’s covenant promises are to be fulfilled. And, I know that God can bring life out of death, because He has already done so in the birth of Isaac. Therefore, I must conclude that if I put my son to death, God will raise him from the dead.”
And so we read that Abraham bound his son, placed him on the altar, and prepared to plunge the knife into his chest. It was only then that God called out from heaven for Abraham to stop. By his actions, Abraham had demonstrated his faith and his willingness to obey God in the most costly of ways. It was only then that Abraham saw a ram, whose horns were caught in the bushes nearby. As Abraham had hoped (verse 8), God did provide the sacrifice (verse 13). And so Abraham offered the sacrifice, not with his son, but with the ram God provided. It is no wonder that Abraham named that place “The Lord provides.”
And now, for the last time76 in Abraham’s life (so far as the Scriptures record), the Abrahamic Covenant is reaffirmed:
15 The Lord’s angel called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “‘I solemnly swear by my own name,’ decrees the Lord, ‘that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the strongholds of their enemies. 18 Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants’” (Genesis 22:15-18).
What a joyful return trip that must have been for Abraham and Isaac. I wonder what they talked about as they made their way home. I wonder whether Abraham told his servants – and especially Sarah – what took place on the mountain that day. In the New Testament we read,
“Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).
I’m not really sure when this happened, but I am inclined to think that this event on Mount Moriah (the very place where the Temple would be built – 2 Chronicles 3:1) must have been one of those times when Abraham had a glimpse of Christ’s day.
The last verses of chapter 22 seem somewhat parenthetical, and they may be, but they are important for they tell us that Abraham learned that his brother Nahor’s wife had borne him children, one of which was Bethuel, who became the father of Rebekah. As we shall soon see (chapter 24), Abraham would send his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, and that woman would be Rebekah.
Sarah lived to be 127 years old, and then she died in Hebron. This presented Abraham with yet another test. He must decide where home really was. Often, when people die in a distant place, we bring the body “home” for burial. With the death of Sarah came the decision as to where “home” was. He could have taken her body back to Haran, where Terah had died and (presumably) was buried (11:32). Abraham must bury his wife, and yet he did not own any land in Canaan. His descendants would possess the land, more than 400 years later (15:7-21). And so Abraham was forced to buy a burial place from Ephron the Hethite (23:3-18).
One must wonder why so much emphasis was spent describing this transaction. It is surely interesting to those of us living in the West, many centuries later. The story is not written merely to enrich us culturally; it is recorded to dramatically demonstrate that Abraham’s entire life was lived out by faith, without seeing the fulfillment of this promise of God (the promise of possessing the land of Canaan):
13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
We must remember that Abraham was a bit of a nomad. He was constantly moving about the land in order to find grazing land for his cattle and food. Buying this burial place was something like dropping anchor for Abraham. Buying this parcel of land and burying the body of his beloved wife was a great act of faith, and a declaration that this was home.
Chapter 24 records the last important matter of business that Abraham deals with before his death. Indeed, his great sense of urgency in this matter is due to the fact that he knows his death is near. Nowhere that I can see does God give Abraham instructions concerning a wife for his son. We do know that Abraham was very specific in the instructions he gave to his servant:
1 Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed him in everything. 2 Abraham said to his servant, the senior one in his household, who was in charge of everything he had, “Put you hand under my thigh, 3 so that I may make you solemnly promise by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth: You must not acquire a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living. 4 You must go instead to my country and to my relatives to find a wife for my son Isaac.” 5 The servant asked him, “What if the woman is not willing to come back with me to this land? Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” 6 “ Be careful never to take my son back there!” Abraham told him. 7 “The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and the land of my relatives, promised me with a solemn oath, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’ He will send his angel before you so that you may find a wife for my son from there. 8 But if the woman is not willing to come back with you, you will be free from this oath of mine. But you must not take my son back there!” 9 So the servant placed his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and gave his solemn promise he would carry out his wishes” (Genesis 24:1-9, emphasis mine).
Three things are apparent: (1) Abraham wants to obtain a wife for Isaac before he dies. Isaac needs to have a wife, so that he can continue the line of Abraham, and so that the Covenant will pass through his descendants. (2) This wife cannot be a Canaanite woman, but must be from one of Abraham’s relatives. (3) Under no circumstances is Isaac to return to the land from which Abraham came.
Nowhere that I can find does God give Abraham specific instructions regarding a wife for Isaac. While it is possible that God did instruct Abraham concerning this, and that Moses simply does not record it for us, I am inclined to think that Abraham came to this conclusion by the reasoning of faith, much the same way that he reasoned God would raise his son from the dead if he sacrificed him to the Lord (see above). Abraham knew that the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to him would be fulfilled through Isaac and his descendants (17:19). Isaac would need a wife in order to carry on the line. Abraham also knew that God had called him to settle in Canaan and to leave his home and his family in Paddan Aram. He knew that he could not go back, and this meant that his son must not return either. God had promised to bless Abraham’s descendants in the land of Canaan.
The other piece of reasoning had to do with the necessity of getting a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s relatives in Paddan Aram. His servant was to get a wife for Isaac there in Paddan Aram, from one of his master’s relatives, but he was not to let Isaac go there. How did Abraham come to this conclusion? There are at least a couple of factors I can think of which may have contributed to Abraham’s strong convictions. First, Abraham knew that the Canaanites were a wicked people, and that God was going to drive them out, because of their sins. This would not occur for several hundred years, but it would come to pass (15:12-21). God was going to drive out the Canaanites and give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. How, then, could his son marry a Canaanite woman? Furthermore, Abraham witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In addition to this, he observed the effect that the Canaanites had on Lot and on his family. If Lot’s wife was a Canaanite, this was visible proof of the danger of intermarrying with the Canaanites. And so Abraham concluded that he must acquire a wife for his son from his own people. They may not all trust in the God of Israel, but they were not as corrupt as the Canaanites.
This chapter goes into great detail to describe how Abraham’s servant went about fulfilling his master’s desires. What a marvelous and faithful servant this fellow was. He seems to have shared his master’s faith, for he prays for guidance and praises God when his prayers are answered (24:12, 26). He is eager to return to Canaan with Isaac’s wife as soon as possible. In some ways, he goes beyond his master’s guidelines, as can be seen by the test he employed. He did not merely look for a woman with the right ancestry, nor only for a woman who was beautiful, though Rebekah was surely both of these. He wanted a woman of character, a true servant. He went to a well where a relative was likely to come, and he prayed that the woman of God’s choosing would show hospitality to him by giving him water, as well as his camels. Rebekah was the answer to his prayers, and it was only then that the servant learned she also was the daughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor’s son, Bethuel (22:20-24; 24:24). A wife for Isaac had been found, and soon the servant was on his way home with her. His mission was accomplished, and now Abraham is ready to die. We read of his death in chapter 25.
God had started with one man and one woman in the Garden of Eden. They sinned, plunging the whole creation into sin and chaos. God had promised Eve that her seed would destroy Satan and would provide a solution for sin (Genesis 3:15). It looked as though that “seed” would be Abel, but his brother Cain killed him (Genesis 4). God replaced Abel with Seth, and his line is traced in the genealogy of Genesis 5, ending with Noah. God destroyed the whole earth, but spared Noah and his family, so that the “seed” of the woman would be preserved. It was through Noah’s son Shem that the “seed” would come, for it is from the line of Shem that Abraham is born (Genesis 11). God confused man’s language at Babel (11:1-9), so that many nations came into being (chapter 10). From among these nations, God chose to create a new nation, through whom He would bless all the nations. This nation was to come from one man, Abraham. Through divine calling and guidance, God brought Abraham to the land of Canaan and made a covenant with him there. By means of various trials, God made of Abraham a man of faith. In Abraham’s greatest test of faith (the sacrifice of Isaac), God gave us a glimpse of how He would bring about the redemption of man. It was through the sacrifice of an only son of His choosing that the sins of men would be atoned for. It was a mystery that none understood fully at the time, but it is there nonetheless for us to look back upon and see that it was truly a prophetic moment. It was there on Mount Moriah (the temple mount in Jerusalem) that the Messiah was rejected of men and died at the hands of sinners on a Roman cross. In some way, Abraham saw that day by faith and rejoiced in it (John 8:56).
The lessons for the ancient Israelites (those of Moses’ day and later) were many. The Israelites of Moses’ day had just entered into a covenant with God – the Mosaic Covenant. With all of its commandments and instructions the Israelites could become legalistic. While the Jews of Jesus’ day proudly announced that they were Abraham’s descendants, they were not like him at all. This was because they made two false assumptions. First, that mere physical descent put one in the category of those who would be blessed. We can see that the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant were much more specifically applied. Secondly, Abraham was the “father of the faith,” not the “father of salvation by works.” His good works did not save Abraham. Abraham was saved by grace, and in spite of many sins. Let any who would mistakenly conclude that Abraham was saved by his works look again. He was declared righteous, based upon faith, not works (15:6). He was declared righteous before he was circumcised, and many years before the law was given. It is because of the Abrahamic Covenant that men are saved, not because men strive to keep the Mosaic Covenant. Paul will make this abundantly clear in Galatians 3 and elsewhere. The Mosaic Covenant was given after the Abrahamic Covenant, not to fulfill it, but to restrain sin until the coming of Christ and the New Covenant. The Mosaic Covenant cannot save; it can only reveal our sin, and our need for salvation. The Abrahamic Covenant looks forward to the cross of Calvary and to the salvation our Lord accomplished there.
The life of Abraham shows us that he was not saved because of his faithfulness to God, but because of God’s faithfulness to him. Over and over, Abraham failed. He trusted in God, but imperfectly. Over many years, God deepened and enriched his faith. But the life of Abraham should make it very clear to us that Abraham’s salvation was not earned; it was a gift from God. It was not based upon Abraham’s works, but upon God’s choosing and covenant promises.
The Israelites who would first hear Moses’ account of Abraham’s calling and life were those who were poised at the entrance of the land of Canaan. It is our text that informs the Israelites just why this land is about to be theirs. It is this generation that will actually experience the privilege of possessing the land of Canaan, at least partially. Moses has provided these Israelites with the basis for their possession of the land. He also informs them that their successful occupation of the land of Canaan has been prophesied many years earlier (Genesis 15:12-21). From time to time, the Israelites would threaten to go back to Egypt, rather than to press on to possess the land of Canaan. Our text makes it very plain that the land of Canaan is “home” for God’s people. What encouragement and incentive the story of Abraham must have given the Israelites who were about to occupy the land.
Our text also dramatically illustrates the truth that obedience to God’s commands brings blessing, while disobedience brings difficulty. Indeed, for the unbeliever, disobedience brings divine judgment. In the rescue of Lot and the destruction of Sodom we see both the goodness and the severity of God:
4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but threw them into hell and locked them up in chains in utter darkness, to be kept until the judgment, 5 and if he did not spare the ancient world, but did protect Noah, a herald of righteousness, along with seven others, when God brought a flood on an ungodly world, 6 and if he turned to ashes the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah when he condemned them to destruction, having appointed them to serve as an example to future generations of the ungodly, 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man in anguish over the debauched lifestyle of lawless men, 8 (for while he lived among them day after day, that righteous man was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) 9 —if so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to reserve the unrighteous for punishment at the day of judgment, 10 especially those who indulge their fleshly desires and who despise authority (2 Peter 2:4-10).
Righteousness brings blessing, and sin brings judgment.
Finally, our text provides us with some powerful instruction concerning inter-marriage. God has very clearly forbidden the Israelites from inter-marrying with the Canaanites:
1 When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are going to occupy and forces out many nations before you—Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you—2 and he delivers them over to you and you attack them, you must utterly annihilate them. Make no covenant with them nor show them compassion! 3 You must not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from me to worship other gods. Then the wrath of the Lord will erupt against you and he will soon destroy you. 5 Instead, this is what you must do to them: You must tear down their altars, shatter their sacred pillars, cut down their sacred Asherah poles, and burn up their images. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. He has chosen you to be a people prized above all others on the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:1-6; see also Exodus 34:11-16; Joshua 23:9-13).
Lot may serve as a negative illustration of inter-marriage with the Canaanites, but the strong emphasis on Abraham’s search for a godly wife for his son stresses this from the positive perspective. Let the Israelites learn how important it is to marry a godly wife, who is not a Canaanite.
Our text has much to teach us about our family responsibilities. Both negatively (Lot) and positively (Abraham) we see how important it is to have a godly wife. Lot’s wife was too attached to her world. Abraham’s wife Sarah eventually becomes an example of humility and submission (1 Peter 3:6). Sarah assisted Abraham in showing hospitality (18:6); Rebekah was also a woman committed to showing hospitality (24:17-20). Lot’s wife (never named) is not even mentioned until the flight from Sodom, and then not in a favorable light. The length and detail of Abraham’s servant’s search for a wife for Isaac is an indication of how important it is to choose a godly mate.
Abraham initially was willing to sacrifice his wife to save his own life, just as Lot was willing to sacrifice his daughters to protect his guests. But Abraham comes to cherish his children and his wife. It is then that Abraham’s faith will be given the ultimate test, the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. How many of us as parents put our children ahead of God? The man who started poorly – Abraham – ended well. As much as he loved Isaac, Abraham was willing to obey God, even if it meant taking the life of his son. Please do not misinterpret what I am saying. Take note of the fact that God did not allow Abraham to follow through with the sacrifice of Isaac. But when it comes to loving God first, above family, how strong is our faith?
25 Now large crowds were accompanying Jesus, and turning to them he said, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-27).
Many today are sacrificing their families, but it is not in obedience to God. They sacrifice their families on the altar of self-interest. In Luke 14:25-27 (above), Jesus not only requires His disciples to love Him more than their families, He insists that His disciples love Him more than themselves. His disciples must take up their own cross, they must die daily to self-interest, in order to follow Him. I believe that Abraham loved Isaac more than life itself and would have gladly taken the place of his son (or his wife). But when God put Abraham’s faith to the test, he chose God over everything else, and everyone else, including himself.
Abraham and Lot illustrate the folly of situational ethics. Situational ethics subordinate obedience to absolute commands to human judgment of difficult circumstances. Sometimes it is a choice between what would be called the “lesser of two evils.” Lot’s daughters knew it was wrong to have children by their father, but they felt that having no children at all was worse. They did not trust God to give them husbands; they assumed that their present circumstances were impossible to change. And this when God had just given their relatives (Abraham and Sarah) a son in their old age! But Lot’s daughters were only doing what they had seen and heard their own father do. To Lot, the insult and injury of his guests (who needed no defending) was worse than the rape of his two virgin daughters. This was another example of situational ethics. Abraham did exactly the same thing when he was willing to sacrifice the purity of his wife (and potentially the promised seed) in order to protect himself in a dangerous situation.
Situational ethics is wrong because of a fundamental premise. That premise is that God places us in circumstances where we must sin. The Scriptures say otherwise:
No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: he will not let you be tried too much, but with the trial will also provide a way through it so that you may be able to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13).
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. 16 Do not be led astray, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change (James 1:13-17).
God never puts us in circumstances where sin is the only way out. Situational ethics says otherwise. God does place us in circumstances where it may appear that there is no way out. He brought the Israelites to the Red Sea, with the Egyptians behind them in hot pursuit. But God did so to show His love and power, separating the Red Sea, so that it made “a way of escape” for His people, while being the means of destruction for their enemies. Situational ethics refuses to trust God’s ability to save when the situation looks impossible. Situational ethics operates by sight, not by faith. But we are to walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
The life of Abraham should teach us that men and women of faith, even great faith, are not perfect. There are plenty of flaws in Abraham’s life, but he is a man who trusted God for his eternal salvation. He is a man who somehow grasped that his promised “seed” would include “the seed,” the one through whom the death grip of sin would be broken:
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:16).
“Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).
Abraham understood that he was a sinner, and that his salvation rested in God’s provision of “the seed,” the “seed” promised in Genesis 3:15, the “seed” who was the Lord Jesus Christ. It was His death on Calvary that paid the price for sin, that defeated Satan once and for all. It is in Him that we must place our faith for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal salvation.
Note, too, that Abraham’s faith was a “resurrection faith;” Abraham believed in a God who could raise the dead (Hebrews 11:19). God had given he and Sarah – who were as good as dead – the child He had promised. God would raise that child from the dead, if necessary. It was not necessary for Him to raise Isaac because God provided a substitute for Isaac. Immediately, God provided a ram, but ultimately God provided the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Isaiah 52:13—53:9). By raising our Lord from the dead, God vindicated His words and works, and demonstrated that He was pleased with our Lord’s eternal sacrifice (Romans 1:4).
Abraham’s faith was God-given faith, a faith that God initially gave to Abraham, and a faith that God caused to grow, through time and troubles. Like Abraham, saints grow in faith in the midst of trials and tribulations. These were not brought into our lives to break us, but to build us up in faith.
1. 1 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. 3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:1-5).
2. 2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything (James 1:2-4).
3. 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold—gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away—and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:3-7).
The life of Abraham not only describes the process of his growth in faith, but the fruits of it. Consider the marks of maturity that we can see in Abraham’s life, which should characterize us in our maturity as well.
1. Obedience. Abraham obeyed God in faith.
2. Hospitality. Abraham was marked by hospitality (chapter 18), as was Lot (chapter 19) and Rebekah (chapter 24). No wonder this is one of the qualifications for an elder (1 Timothy 3:2).
3. Intimacy with God. Abraham became the “friend of God” (James 2:23), a man to whom God revealed His promises and purposes.
4. Intercession. Abraham came to be less concerned with himself, and more concerned with others. His intercession with God in chapter 18 is one of the high water marks of spirituality in his life.
5. Influence. I believe that Abraham’s faith impacted others around him. I think this can be seen in Sarah’s faith and submission (1 Peter 3:6), and in the spiritual maturity of Abraham’s trusted servant (Genesis 24).
6. Less dependence upon the spectacular and more day-to-day dependence, obedience, and fellowship with God. At the outset of Abraham’s life, it seemed that Abraham required more external verification, more spectacular confirmation (see Genesis 15:8), but as time went on, God’s Word alone was sufficient basis for trust and obedience (Genesis 22).
I pray that each of you has come to trust in the God of Abraham for your eternal salvation, and that you and I, like Abraham, will grow in our faith, being faithful to the end.
64 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on December 3, 2000.
65 Peter refers to this incident in 1 Peter 3:6, where Sarah speaks of Abraham as her “lord” or “master.” Peter can surely see that this was evidence of her submission, because this was what she was thinking in her mind. If there were ever a time to think less of her husband, it would be in her private thoughts, unknown and unknowable to others (or at least that she assumed no one else could know). At the most unlikely moment, when an apparently impossible event was prophesied, Sarah thought of herself in terms of her submission to her husband. If Abraham’s finest hour is seen in Genesis 22, Sarah’s finest hour seems to be here.
66 I recently received an e-mail asking if I thought Satan could read our thoughts. I responded that I did not believe that Satan could read our minds because this would entail omniscience (knowing all), an attribute that belongs only to God. Further evidence for this conclusion can be seen in our text. While the three “men” speak with Abraham, it is only the Lord who exposes Sarah’s inner thoughts. This was something the angels did not know and could not know. If angels could not read Sarah’s mind, then Satan – a fallen angel – cannot read minds either.
67 See 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23.
68 Compare John 15:15.
69 It should be noted that God’s grace extended beyond Abraham’s request. God agreed not to destroy the cities if but ten righteous could be found. Ten righteous people were not found, but God nevertheless removed the righteous from the city of Sodom before He destroyed it. God did not spare the city for the sake of the righteous, but He did spare the righteous from His wrath upon the wicked city.
70 The husband is to be like Christ, laying down his life for the good of his wife – Ephesians 5:25f.
71 Something He did not say in chapter 16. Abraham listened to Sarai when he should have refused to do so.
72 See 17:18-21.
73 Is this meant to reflect, and even anticipate, the words of 22:3? I am inclined to think so. This is a prototype of his greater sacrifice in chapter 22.
74 This seems to set the stage for Isaac’s later disputes with Abimelech’s servants over the possession of other wells that he or his father had dug (see chapter 26).
75 See 21:14. I am tempted to think that Abraham left early, not because he was eager to get an early start for this task, but in order to leave before Sarah awoke. He would never convince her that he should carry out this mission!
76 We find the Abrahamic Covenant earlier given and affirmed to Abraham in 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-27.
Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)