Walking With and Waiting On God

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him. Genesis 17:15-27 ESV

This has proven to be a momentous day for the 99-year-old Abram. His most recent encounter with God has resulted in him receiving a new name and the newly established rite of circumcision. No longer will Abraham be allowed to live his life as he sees fit, simply waiting for God to come through and fulfill His covenant commitments. This entire chapter reveals God’s determination that Abram and his descendants will be expected to live their lives in keeping with their status as His chosen people. God has assured Abraham time and time again that He will be faithful to fulfill His covenant promises. Now, God demands that Abraham conduct his life in a manner that displays his set-apart status. And as a not-so-subtle reminder, God commanded Abraham and his male descendants to seal their commitment with the costly and painful “sign” of circumcision. This “visible” sign would be hidden and unknown by everyone except the one who bore it and the all-seeing God who had ordered it. Only a man’s parents, his wife, and Yahweh would know whether he had been circumcised.

This hidden sign helps explain God’s earlier command to Abraham: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1 ESV). God was giving Abraham and his male descendants a sign that would be virtually invisible to all. Yet, God would know. His all-seeing eyes would be able to tell if a man had chosen to live a blameless or upright life, wholly committed to God’s will and ways.

On that very same day, God informed Abraham that his wife Sarai would receive a new name as well. She would now be called Sarah. Both names mean “princess,” so it would appear that God altered the spelling of her name to signify a break with the past. Things were going to be different from this point forward. And God confirms this new future by assuring Abraham of Sarah’s role in His plan to bless the nations.

“I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” – Genesis 17:16 ESV

God had always intended for Sarah to be the “princess” who would become the “queen mother” of a great nation. Despite her old age and barrenness, God was going to bless her and make her fruitful.

But this “good news” was difficult for Abraham to accept. While he seemed to believe that God could provide him with more descendants than there are stars in the sky, he couldn’t see how Sarah would play a role in making it happen. And, as he reverently bowed before the Lord, he silently scoffed, saying, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17 ESV). For Abraham, God’s promise was believable, but it was His plan that was questionable. And this is when he reveals his stubborn belief that the son Hagar had born to him would be a more logical alternative.

“Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” – Genesis 17:18 ESV

Abraham was campaigning for Ishmael, and attempting to convince God that Sarah’s Plan B was not only workable but preferable. Abraham was asking God to alter His plan and bless the son Hagar had already delivered, rather than hopelessly waiting for the son Sarah seemed incapable of bearing. But God would have none of it, and He delivered His firm and unwavering ultimatum to Abraham.

“No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. – Genesis 17:19 ESV

Sarah’s old age was not going to be a problem for God. Her barrenness would not stand in the way of the all-powerful, sovereign God of the universe. The God who created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), would have no trouble producing a child from an elderly woman with a barren womb. This would be a miracle child who would be the key to God fulfilling His supernatural plan for mankind’s redemption.

God confirms that Ishmael will be fruitful and produce many nations. But he would not be the son of the covenant. That privilege was reserved for the child that had not yet been conceived or born. But that child already had a name: Isaac. And, throughout the rest of his life, every time Abraham heard that name, he would receive a painful reminder of that day when he scoffed at God’s promise of a son through Sarah. Isaac’s name means “he laughs,” and God would use the birth of this child to turn Abraham’s derisive laughter into heartfelt expressions of joy and delight.

God made it clear that Isaac, the son not yet born, would be the one through whom the covenant promise would be fulfilled.

“I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV

And God assured Abraham that Sarah would miraculously deliver this son within a year’s time. God committed Himself by putting it on the calendar. And then He departed. So, for the next 12 months, Abraham was going to have to wait and see if God would do what He said He would do. And each day, Abraham would be faced with the unwavering reality that not only were he and Sarah growing older but that her barrenness remained. It seems logical to assume that, during that 12-month delay, Abraham and Sarah would have continued to try and produce a son. But month after month would pass without any change in their circumstance. And as time passed, their doubt and despair would have intensified. That year would have passed by with excruciating slowness, and all Abraham and Sarah could do was worry and wait.

But Moses reveals that Abraham obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males in his household. And he points out that Abraham underwent the rite at the age of 99. Even Ishmael, the son of an Egyptian maidservant, was circumcised at the age of 13. The doubter was still diligent to do what God had commanded him to do.

That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.” – Genesis 17:26-27 ESV

For the next year, Abraham, Sarah, and the members of their household would be expected to walk before God and be blameless. But as Thomas L. Constable makes clear, “Blameless does not mean sinless but with integrity, wholeness of relationship. God requires a sanctified life of those who anticipate His promised” (Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis). Over the next 12 months, other sons would be born into Abraham’s household. His slaves and servants would bear sons, and each of them would need to be circumcised. And every time a child was born and underwent the rite of circumcision, Abraham and Sarah would receive a painful reminder that they remained barren and childless. Their integrity would be challenged. Their faith in God’s promise would be tested. And with each passing day, His call to walk in wholeness of relationship with Him, despite their doubts and despair, would become increasingly difficult to obey.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Life Under the Gracious Gaze of Almighty God

1 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, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “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 have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”  Genesis 17:1-8 ESV

Hagar eventually obeyed God, leaving the wilderness behind and returning to the household of Abram. In due time, God fulfilled His promise to the slave girl and she gave birth to a son, whom she name Ishmael, in keeping with God’s command.

“Behold, you are pregnant
    and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
    because the Lord has listened to your affliction.” – Genesis 16:11 ESV

Yet, just a few verses later, Moses seems to indicate that it was Abram who named the boy.

So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born. – Genesis 16:15-16 NLT

Rather than considering this as some sort of biblical contradiction, it makes more sense to view it as an example of God’s sovereign, behind-the-scenes activity. It was He who had decreed that the boy would be born, and it was he had selected his name. And whether God used Hagar as the instrument through which He communicated His divine wishes to Abram, or He visited Abram in a dream, He ensured that His decree would be followed. The boy’s name would be Ishmael (God hears).

The birth and naming of Ishmael were meant to send a message to Abram. That God had heard the cries of the abandoned Hagar in the wilderness should restore Abram’s confidence in God’s ability to hear his cries of fear and doubt. Abram and his wife Sarai were God’s chosen couple, and He had clearly indicated His intentions to use them as the vessels through whom He would make a great nation and shower blessings on the rest of the world. But the whole reason Ishmael existed was that Sarai had doubted God’s ability to pull off His promise through her. She was old and beyond child-bearing age. And to make matters worse, she was barren. So, she had decided that the only way the promise could be fulfilled was if Abram fathered a child with her Egyptian maidservant.

Sarai’s plan had accomplished her goal but had failed to fulfill God’s promise. Abram had a son but, according to God, he was still lacking a divinely approved heir. Ishmael would end up siring a multitude of descendants (Genesis 15:10), but they would not be the ones through whom God would bless the nations. In fact, according to God’s message to Hagar, Ishmael’s descendants would “live in open hostility against all his relatives” (Genesis 16:12 NLT).

So, Abram had a son, but he was still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise. And, as Abram watched Ishmael grow from infancy to adolescence, he would continue to wait – 13 long years. At the ripe old age of 99, Abram received a message from God.

“I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.” – Genesis 17:1-2 NLT

This encounter with God would prove to be a watershed moment in the life of Abram. While this was not the first time he had heard from God, it would be the one occasion that left the deepest impression on his life. For 13 years, he had most likely been assuming that Ishmael would be his heir. From his perspective, Hagar’s return from the wilderness was a sign from God that Ishmael was to be the long-awaited offspring through whom God would work. Abram had received no divine message to the contrary.

So, after what appears to be 13 years of divine silence, Abram receives a visit from God. For the first time in their lengthy relationship, God introduces Himself to Abram as ʾel shadday, (El Shaddai), a name that is most often translated as “God Almighty.” In using this divine appellation, God was letting Abram know that He was fully capable of accomplishing His will and fulfilling His promises without human assistance. He was the almighty, all-powerful God of the universe. He had created the heavens and the earth. He held all things together. And God wanted Abram to know that old age and barrenness would prove to be no problem for Him.

At 13 years of age, Ishmael was on the cusp of becoming a man. And in His omniscience, God knew exactly what Abram was thinking. This 99-year-old father of a teenager had made the assumption that Ishmael would be his heir.  But he was about to discover just how wrong he was and just how great God is.

Back in chapter 15, God had made a covenant with Abram. It had been a unilateral and unconditional covenant. In other words, God had declared His intentions but had placed no requirements on Abram. On this particular occasion, Abram had expressed his disappointment with God’s plan.

“You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:3 NLT

He had already decided that he was going to have to make Eliezer, his manservant, his adopted son, and heir. But God had rejected that option and reiterated His plan.

“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” – Genesis 15:4 NLT

God had reconfirmed His commitment to give Abram a son but He would do it on His terms. That son would not be adopted. He would be the biological offspring of Abram. And God had let Abram know that, from that one son, He would provide Abram with more descendants than there are stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5).

God had sealed His covenant commitment to Abram by walking through the divided carcasses of the animals that Abram had sacrificed. He had made a blood commitment to fulfill the promise He had made. But He had demanded nothing of Abram. Now, years later, God once again confirmed His commitment to multiply Abram greatly. But this time, He includes an interesting addendum to the agreement.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” – Genesis 17:1-2 ESV

This statement from God must have left the 99-year-old Abram stunned and shaking in his sandals. The almighty God seemed to be placing a condition on the covenant He had made with Abram. And this condition was anything but easy. God was demanding that Abram live a blameless life. And the impossible nature of this command did not escape Abram. As soon as he heard them, he fell on his face. He knew he was completely incapable of pulling off this divine demand. But he failed to grasp what God was really saying to him.

God was not demanding sinless perfection from His fallen and flawed servant. He was not placing a condition on the covenant that required Abram to live in unwavering obedience and moral purity. But, based on Abram’s reaction, that’s likely how he interpreted it. And sadly, that’s how many Christians view this passage today. We hear in God’s words a requirement that we live without sin and in perfect obedience to all His commands. And we wrongly assume that, if we don’t, we will miss out on His blessings for us. We make His promises to us and love for us conditional.

That’s why it is essential that we understand what God was saying to Abram. The Hebrew word for “walk” is הָלַךְ (hālaḵ) and it means to “to walk back and forth; to walk about; to live out one’s life.” Abram is being encouraged to conduct his life with the constant awareness that Almighty God is watching. Nothing escapes His notice. He is the all-seeing, all-knowing God. Abram was to have a constant awareness of God’s presence that would influence every area of his life.

But what about God’s demand that Abram “be blameless?” Was He requiring sinless perfection? Once again, the Hebrew language sheds some light on these questions. God demanded that Abram be תָּמִים (tāmîm), a word that is rich in meaning. It conveys the idea of completeness, wholeness, and integrity. God is not requiring Abram to live a life free from all sin. He is demanding that Abram recognize the wholeness of his calling. God wanted all of Abram. He had not chosen him simply as a biological vessel through whom He would create a mighty nation. No, God wanted every area of Abram’s life: body, mind, soul, and spirit. There was to be no compartmentalization. Abram was not free to hold back any area of his life from God’s control or use. In other words, Abram was being told to live the entirety of his life before God’s all-seeing eyes. There was nothing that God could not see. There was no area of Abram’s life that he was to consider as off-limits to God’s control.

And as Abram lay prostrate on the ground, God reiterated His covenant and His promise.

“This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!” – Genesis 17:4-6 NLT

Abram received a confirmation of the original covenant, as well as a new name. And that new name carried powerful significance.

“…its significance is in the wordplay with אַב־הֲמוֹן (ʾav hamon, “the father of a multitude,” which sounds like אַבְרָהָם, ʾavraham, “Abraham”). The new name would be a reminder of God’s intention to make Abraham the father of a multitude.” – NET Bible Study Notes

God was letting Abram know that the promise still stood firm but it would not be fulfilled through Ishmael. Sarai’s plan had not accomplished God’s will. There would be another son, and through him, God would fulfill every aspect of the covenant He had made with Abram. As proof of His commitment, God promised to give Abram a sign to go along with his new name. And that sign would be perpetual and permanent, passed down from generation to generation, long after Abram was gone. And once again, God reassures His doubting and sometimes disobedient servant of the incredible nature of the covenant and the promise attached to it.

“This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:7-8 NLT

God wasn’t requiring Abram to live a sinless life in order to receive the covenant promises. Abram was being invited to conduct every aspect of his life under the watchful, loving, and covenant-keeping eyes of God Almighty.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

When Men (and Women) Play God

11 And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“Behold, you are pregnant
    and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
    because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
    his hand against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

13 So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

15 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram. Genesis 16:11-16 ESV

A  pregnant and homeless Hagar found herself in the middle of the wilderness having an unexpected conversation with the angel of the Lord. And much to her surprise, this divine messenger has just commanded Hagar to return home and submit herself to the Sarai, the very woman who had cast her out like unwanted trash. This disheartened and fearful woman must have reeled at the thought of risking further alienation and possible retribution from an angry and vengeful Sarai. But the angel of God provided a doubtful Hagar with a shocking revelation that was meant to elicit faith and produce obedience.

“I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” – Genesis 16:10 ESV

God was assuring Hagar that the child she carried in her womb would not only live, but he would produce an abundance of offspring. This female Egyptian slave had been made the unwitting participant in Sarai’s clever scheme to fulfill God’s promise through human means. When Sarai’s barrenness continued to stifle any hope of her bearing a son for her husband, Abram, she had turned to Hagar as a possible and practical solution. It had been her idea to have Abram impregnate her personal handmaid. And when her plan worked, and Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child, Sarai regretted her decision and ordered the threat removed.

But, as always, God had bigger plans in store for Hagar and, more importantly,  for the baby she carried in her womb. In the middle of the inhospitable wilderness, the forlorn and forgotten Hagar was given new hope.

“You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress. – Genesis 16:11 NLT

This announcement was meant to assure Hagar that her child would live. And God would not only give her a son, but He would give that boy a name: Ishmael. This name is actually a compound word in Hebrew (yišmāʿē’l). It stems from the word for “hear” and the word for “God.” So, the boy’s God-given name would mean “God hears.” His name would reflect the reality that Yahweh had heard Hagar’s desperate cries for help and had determined to answer them. One can only imagine the fear-driven pleas of this abandoned woman as she pondered her own fate and that of her child. Was she destined to die in the wilderness, pregnant and alone? Would she live long enough to witness the birth of her child, but then be forced to watch its life slip away due to hunger and exposure to the elements? Was this some kind of divine punishment for her role in the whole affair surrogate birth mother affair?

What is interesting to consider is that, due to her identity as an Egyptian, it is highly likely that Hagar was not a follower of Yahweh. Her ten-year exposure to Abram and his family may have resulted in her conversion, but it is just as likely that she remained a worshiper of one of the many gods of Egypt. And her cries in the wilderness could have been directed at one of these false deities.

But who heard her? And who responded to her pleas for help? It was Yahweh, the very same God who had called her former master out of Haran. It had been this God’s messenger who had shown up in the wilderness and delivered the good news about her son and his future descendants. But not everything about the angel’s message would have sounded positive to Hagar. He also delivered what must have come across to her as bad news.

“This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.” – Genesis 16:12 NLT

At first glance, this pronouncement comes across as anything but good news. But to a woman who had been faced with the possible death of her unborn son, this news was hopeful. He would grow up to be a man who lived independently. He would be powerful and resourceful. And, while he would end up alienated from his own relatives, he would father a sizeable nation of his own that would have a lasting impact on the world.

In time, the descendants of Ishmael would end up as the mortal enemies of their blood relatives, the Israelites. Islamic lore teaches that Ishmael would become the patriarch of the Muslim people. But the Bible simply states that Ishmael and his descendants would live in open hostility to the descendants of Abram through his son, Isaac. Ishmael and Isaac had the same father, but two different birth mothers. And their family trees would branch off in two distinctively different directions. But God was behind it all. In fact, Paul picks up on this story when writing to the believers living in the Roman-ruled province of Galatia. He would use the disparate relationship between these two half-brothers as an illustration of those who live as slaves to the law and those who enjoy the freedom brought about by God’s promise.

Tell me, you who want to live under the law, do you know what the law actually says? The Scriptures say that Abraham had two sons, one from his slave wife and one from his freeborn wife. The son of the slave wife was born in a human attempt to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise. But the son of the freeborn wife was born as God’s own fulfillment of his promise. These two women serve as an illustration of God’s two covenants. – Galatians 4:21-24 NLT

Paul uses this Old Testament story to drive home a very important point to his Christian readers who are struggling with the difference between law and grace. He points out that Ishmael was born to a slave woman, while Isaac was born to Sarai, a free woman. The status of the two boys would dramatically impact their positions in the family of Abram. In fact, Moses makes clear that Ishmael would end up being alienated from and at odds with the other children of Abraham.

Secondly, Paul stresses the difference between their two births. Ishmael was the result of a purely human relationship. There was no miracle involved. Abram impregnated Hagar, she ended up pregnant, and eventually gave birth. There was nothing supernatural about it. But, in comparison, Sarai’s pregnancy was divinely ordained and ordered. She was old and barren, but God miraculously intervened and produced a child in fulfillment of His promise to Abram. Isaac was a son born to Sarai and not Hagar. That had been God’s plan all along. He is the God of the impossible, and He had never been in need of Sarai’s help or advice.

And Paul elaborates further on the distinction between these two women and their respective seed.

The first woman, Hagar, represents Mount Sinai where people received the law that enslaved them. And now Jerusalem is just like Mount Sinai in Arabia, because she and her children live in slavery to the law. But the other woman, Sarah, represents the heavenly Jerusalem. She is the free woman, and she is our mother. – Galatians 4:24-26 NLT

Paul is not suggesting that the story of Sarai and Hagar is mythical or purely metaphorical. But he does suggest that it contains an important allegorical lesson. These two women were very real, but their lives also served as power illustrations of a much deeper truth that would apply in the not-so-distant future. Much to the chagrin of any Jews in his readership, Paul uses the slave-born son of Hagar as an illustration of the Jewish people who refused to believe in Christ. They were stuck relying upon the law for their salvation. They considered themselves to be legitimate sons of Abram, but God viewed them differently. In Paul’s analogy, Isaac becomes a representative of those born under freedom from the law. This is a direct reference to Christians, those whom Jesus has set free from the burden of the law.

Hagar represents the Mosaic Covenant, with all its laws and legal requirements. But Sarai represents the New Covenant, made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is fascinating to consider that Jesus, the Savior of the world, also entered the world through the means of a miraculous, Spirit-enabled birth.

The promises of God will always be fulfilled by the divinely ordained means of God. Hagar had never been intended to be the mother of the offspring of Abram through whom God would bless all the nations. Human means never produce spiritual outcomes. And, while God would end up blessing Ishmael, and produce from him a great number of descendants. There would be no future Messiah or Savior born from his family tree. That was reserved for the son of the promise: Isaac.

In response to the message of the angel, Hagar declares that this God of Abram is a “God who sees.” He had seen her plight and responded to her plea. He had graciously given her a promise and a hope, and she believed. And the chapter ends on a somewhat anticlimactic note with the simple declaration:

So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born. – Genesis 16:15-16 NLT

God was far from done because the promise had not yet been fulfilled. But it would be, according to His terms, and right on time with His preordained schedule.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Mysterious Ways of God

5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” Genesis 16:5-10 ESV

The story of Sarai’s decision to give her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram as a surrogate birth mother for their future inheritance, brings an old hymn comes to mind. The events surrounding her clever solution to her own barrenness problem seem to be headed in a decidedly troubled direction. And yet, as this timeless song so aptly states, God was in full control of the entire situation.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm

Deep in unsearchable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will

William Cowper, “God Moves In a Mysterious Way” – 1774

Every detail recorded in this story seems to be taking place outside of God’s preordained will. Nowhere in the narrative does Sarai receive orders from God instructing her to implement His “Plan B.” And yet, as William Cowper so elegantly put it, God was treasuring up His bright designs and working His sovereign will.

From Sarai’s perspective, things had gone terribly wrong. Her bright idea had produced some decidedly dark outcomes. What should have been a joyous occasion, had turned into a toxic scene filled with jealousy, envy, and deep resentment. Sarai had given Hagar to Abram so that she might bear the offspring he was so desperately seeking. But when her wish came true and Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child, she began to have a case of buyer’s remorse. Sarai’s lowly maidservant suddenly found herself in the envious position of serving as the future mother of Abram’s long-awaited son. She considered herself to be the “chosen” vessel through whom God would fulfill His promise to produce from Abram a great nation.  And she flaunted her newfound celebrity status in Sarai’s despondent face.

Sarai suddenly found herself in a dramatically diminished role. She was still Abram’s wife, but she was damaged goods – unable to conceive and, therefore, of little value. But rather than blame herself for this unpleasant predicament, she lashed out at Abram.

“This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The Lord will show who’s wrong—you or me!” – Genesis 16:5 NLT

She admits that the idea had been hers, but she demanded that Abram take responsibility for the unfortunate outcome. After all, he was the one who got Hagar pregnant. But Sarai seems to be suffering from a severe case of selective memory. It was she who gave Abram both the idea and the permission to impregnate Hagar.

“Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT

Her plan had worked to perfection. Abram had faithfully (and, most likely, with great eagerness) followed her instructions and accomplished his assignment. He had successfully gotten Hagar pregnant but, in doing so, he had inadvertently made Sarai mad.

Sarai portrayed herself as the innocent victim, even suggesting that God would not hold her culpable or blameworthy for this disastrous situation. Fueling her unbridled anger and resentment was the arrogant attitude exhibited by Hagar. Moses identifies this newly elevated servant an Egyptian. It is most likely that Hagar had become a part of Abram’s family when, 10 years earlier, he had taken his family to Egypt to escape the famine in the land of Canaan. Upon his departure from Egypt, Abram had been rewarded by Pharaoh with great wealth.

Pharaoh gave Abram many gifts because of her—sheep, goats, cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. – Genesis 12:16 NLT

Hagar had probably been among the many male and female servants who accompanied Abram back to the land of Canaan. And, at some point, she had been elevated to her position as Sarai’s personal maidservant, which eventually led to her selection as the surrogate birth mother for her mistress.

It is fascinating to consider the intricate and interconnected plot lines that permeate the story of Abram’s life. Early on, even before God called Abram and commanded him to move to Canaan, Abram’s father had already decided to uproot his family from Ur and relocate them to the very same spot. It was while they were temporarily residing in Haran, that God shared His plan and promise to Abram.

Later on, Abram made a decision to escape a famine in Canaan by seeking food and shelter in Egypt. Little did he know at the time that the famine had been God’s doing. Once in Egypt, Abram feared the Egyptians would kill him in order to gain access to his attractive wife. So, he concocted a misguided plan to save his own skin declaring Sarai to be his sister. This resulted in Pharaoh confiscating Sarai as his own personal property and placing her in his harem. But paid a handsome bride price to Sarai’s “brother.” Abram ended up a much wealthier man despite his deceit and deception. And God graciously rescued Sarai from her captivity, returning her to Abram, and sending the two of them back to Canaan.

God had been working behind the scenes “in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” All along, God had been working His sovereign will – despite Abram’s selfish and self-centered actions. And the same thing was true for Sarai’s misguided attempt to do God a favor by implementing her own plan to fulfill His long-delayed promise.

Both Sarai and Abram were oblivious to what God was going. She was mad and blamed Abram. Abram simply shrugged his shoulders and told her to do what she thought best.

“Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.” – Genesis 16:6 NLT

He wasn’t about to come between his disgruntled wife and her pregnant maidservant. In fact, he wanted no part of what he considered to be a no-win situation. Abram displays a disappointing lack of leadership and integrity throughout this ordeal. He had been willing to “go into” Hagar, but now he refused to stand up for her. He was abandoning his responsibilities as a husband and a father. He placed Hagar at the mercy of his disgruntled and vengeful wife.  And Moses makes it clear that Sarai wasted no time inacting her revenge.

Then Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away. – Genesis 16:6 NLT

But as before, God’s sovereign, all-knowing will reveals itself again. Hagar fled into the desert to escape the wrath of her mistress but, while there, she encounters the mercy of gracious God. Moses indicates that “The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur” (Genesis 16:7 NLT). This does not mean the angel had been sent on a search-and-rescue mission from God, hoping to find this missing pregnant woman. God knew Hagar’s exact whereabouts, and that is right where the angel found her.

The angel asked Hagar two questions that were designed to elicit the rationale behind her flight. The angel already knew the answers but he wanted Hagar to consider the absurdity of her decision to seek refuge in the wilderness. She was an abandoned and unprotected pregnant woman attempting to fend for herself in the most inhospitable of places. She was hopeless and helpless. Or so she thought. In her mind, she had gone from the prized position as the mother of Abram’s offspring to a social pariah preparing to give birth to a bastard child in the middle of nowhere. Yet, God had news for Hagar.

When Hagar acknowledged that she was running from the wrath of Sarai, the angel gave her the surprising and somewhat disconcerting instructions to return. And then he added a shocking addendum to his command.

“I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” – Genesis 16:10 ESV

This was the angel of the Lord speaking on behalf of His Master. He was delivering to Hagar the very same God-guaranteed promise that Abram and Sarai had received. This transplanted and recently abandoned Egyptian slave girl had just received a promise from God that she would be the mother of a great nation. Abram and Sarai had condemned she and her yet-born son to a certain death, but God had chosen to reward her with progeny and a fruitful posterity.

God even assured Hagar that she could safely return to her mistresses’ side and fear no repercussions. He would go with her and protect her. At this point, Hagar has no idea what God has in store. The prospect of returning to the unfriendly and potentially hostile atmosphere of Abram’s household must have frightened her. Would she be welcomed with open arms or clenched fists? Upon his birth, would her son be accepted or rejected? She had no way of knowing how God would fulfill the promise He made, but as the following verses will make clear, she eventually took God at His word and obeyed.

Despite Sarai’s plotting and scheming and Abram’s spineless leadership, Hagar had a future, because God had a plan – a plan even included her.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Perilous Plans of Man

1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Genesis 16:1-4 ESV

To understand this chapter, one must remember the promise that God reiterated to Abram at the beginning of chapter 15.

“This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” – Genesis 15:4 ESV

Abram had become convinced that, due to his wife’s barrenness, the only way God could fulfill His promise to give Abram more descendants than there are grains of sand on the seashore, was if Abram adopted his servant, Eliezer as his heir. But God deemed that option as unacceptable. The divine plan would not be based on a household servant or even a blood-relative such as Lot. God was emphatic that the heir He had in mind would be a child born to Abram and Sarai.

Abram had expressed his strong doubts about God’s plan by stating, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir” (Genesis 15:3 ESV). In other words, he had reached the conclusion that, for God’s plan to be fulfilled, there would need to be a work-around. Yet, that’s when God had informed Abram that his very own son would be his heir. And that’s when God confirmed His statement by commanding Abram: “number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he assured Abram, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 ESV).

With this as a backdrop, chapter 16 begins to make more sense. Moses opens the chapter begins with a statement that is, excuse the pun, pregnant with meaning.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. – Genesis 16:1 ESV

Despite all the assurances from God, Abram still found himself fatherless and struggling with doubt concerning the promise of abundant offspring. At this point in his life’s journey, he had no children and, therefore, no tangible evidence that God was going to do what He had promised to do. If anything, from Abram’s point of view, he continued to face a hopeless situation that appeared to have no chance of fulfillment. At this point in the story, Abram had been living in Canaan for an extended period of time. Yet, he still owned no property and his wife had born him no heir. In other words, not much had changed since the day he had arrived in the land of Canaan from his home in Haran.

This where it gets interesting. Sarai, the one whose infertility seemed to be throwing a wrench into God’s plan, decided to come up with her own solution to the problem. There is a palpable sense of guilt in this passage. Sarai felt personally responsible for the predicament in which her husband found himself. As his wife, she had, quite literally, failed to deliver. She had given him no son. In a sense, she was burdened by her inability to produce an heir and felt compelled to come up with an alternative plan. And Moses reveals the logic behind her thinking.

She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. – Genesis 16:2 ESV

Since God had refused to consider Eliezer because he was not a blood-born son of Abram, she reasoned that there was another way to fulfill God’s requirement with a little ingenuity. If Abram was to impregnate Hagar, any son she delivered would be a true son of Abram and not an adopted servant or nephew like Lot. Since she viewed herself as the problem, she decided to remove herself from the equation.

But up to this point, Sarai had been a major player in the story of Abram’s call and commission to move his family to Canaan. Chapter 12 reveals that “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife… ” (Genesis 12:4 ESV). Sarai had always been part of the plan. And God knew all about her inability to bear children. In fact, Moses made it clear in chapter 11 that, even before Abram left Haran, Sarai’s problem was readily apparent.

Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children. – Genesis 11:30 NLT

None of this was a surprise to God. He knew and had planned for Sarai’s infertility. As the sovereign God of the universe, her physical disability was a preordained circumstance through which God was going to reveal His power and presence. He was going to prove to Abram and Sarai that He was the God of the impossible.

But in a sincere attempt to help God out, Sarai shared her ingenious idea with Abram.

“The Lord has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT

And according to Moses’ account, “Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal” (Genesis 16:2 NLT).  One can almost get the impression that Abram quickly and, rather eagerly, bought into his wife’s plan. He doesn’t question her suggestion or argue with the potential efficacy of the arrangement. He simply decides to play along.

So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. (This happened ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan). – Genesis 16:3 NLT

In an attempt to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise, Sarai decided to share her husband with another woman.

“It was a serious matter for a man to be childless in the ancient world, for it left him without an heir. But it was even more calamitous for a woman: to have a great brood of children was the mark of success as a wife; to have none was ignominious failure. So throughout the ancient East polygamy was resorted to as a means of obviating childlessness. But wealthier wives preferred the practice of surrogate motherhood, whereby they allowed their husbands to ‘go in to’ . . . their maids, a euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf. 6:4; 30:3; 38:8, 9; 39:14). The mistress could then feel that her maid’s child was her own and exert some control over it in a way that she could not if her husband simply took a second wife.” – Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, pg. 7

But unbeknownst to Sarai, her decision would have long-term ramifications, not only for she and Abram, but for their future descendants as well, and for generations to come. As Eve convinced Adam to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit of the true of the knowledge of good and evil, so Sarai convinced Abram to question God’s word and fulfill the promise through purely human and fleshly means. Hagar was never intended to be the vessel through whom God would work. She was a surrogate or substitute, chosen by a barren woman who was so desperate to have a child that she would do anything.

Sarai truly believed this was a good idea. But when her husband “had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant” (Genesis 15:4 NLT), Sarai quickly discovered just how flawed her plan really was. Abram’s encounter with Hagar produced immediate results, which must have enhanced Sarai’s feelings of inadequacy. And, to make matters worse, Hagar flaunted her pregnancy in  Sarai’s face. 

…when Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt. – Genesis 16:4 NLT

Hagar sensed that, with her pregnancy, she had been elevated to a position of primacy in Abram’s household. No longer a mere maidservant, Hagar relished her new role as the seed-bearer to Abram. She believed she would be the one to fulfill the promise of God and bring Abram the offspring for whom he long been waiting. Jealousy and an unhealthy atmosphere of competition crept into Abram’s household, and it was not long before his wife’s clever plan produced some disheartening and difficult decisions for God’s servant.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Flawed Hope of Self-Salvation

11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.  Genesis 12:11-20 ESV

Due to a severe famine in the land of Canaan, Abram was forced to seek refuge in Egypt. But upon his arrival, Abram immediately began to second guess the wisdom of his decision. He was far from home and way out of his comfort zone. Find himself in unfamiliar surroundings yet again. Abram quickly recognized that his new neighbors looked and sounded nothing like him. And his reaction to these uncomfortable circumstances reveals a great deal about Abram’s current mindset.

Even before arriving in the land, Abram began to develop a plan for dealing with what he believed would be a far-from-friendly welcome. Just as he was about to cross the border into Egypt, he came up with a strategy for dealing with what he expected would be a culture of questionable morals.

he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.” – Genesis 12:11-12 ESV

Abram feared that his wife’s stunning beauty would make her an object of desire to the Egyptians. And he feared that once they discovered that Sarai was his wife, one of them would simply kill him so he could have her as his own. In ancient cultures, women were often seen as little more than the personal property of their husbands. It was usually considered illegal to take a man’s wife. But if the husband were to die “unexpectedly,” then she would become available for purchase.

So, fearing the worst, Abram orders Sarai to tell anyone who asks that she is his sister.

“Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” – Genesis 12:13 ESV

Notice Abram’s self-obsessed outlook. He can’t stop talking about the need to protect his personal well-being. He wanted things to “go well” for him, but he shows little concern for how his little ruse might impact the life of Sarai. And as soon as they crossed the border into Egypt, Abram’s worst fears were realized.

When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. – Genesis 12:14-15 ESV

Now, to be fair, when Abram commanded Sarai to say that she was his sister, it was technically true. According to Genesis 20:12, Sarai was Abram’s half-sister because they shared the same father but different mothers. And Abram would use this convenient half-truth as a clever means of self-protection when dealing with those of less scrupulous character. But little did Abram know that his plan would backfire in such a dramatic fashion. Pharaoh himself developed an eye for the lively Sarai and had her taken into his house. And, strangely enough, Abram actually benefited from his self-centered strategy.

And for her sake he [Pharaoh] dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. – Genesis 12:16 ESV

Believing Abram to be Sarai’s older brother and official guardian, Pharaoh offered Abram what was essentially a bride price for having taken Sarai into his harem. She became Pharoah’s property and Abram was reward for it. All along, it had been Abram’s hope that things would “go well” for him, and now it had. He had benefited greatly from Sarai’s compromising situation.

But, as has been the case all along in the book of Genesis, God was operating in the background, unseen by Abram, Sarai, or Pharaoh. But it wasn’t long before He made His presence known.

…the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. – Genesis 12:17 ESV

This leader of the nation of Egypt had used his great power and wealth to purchase another trophy for his harem. And Abram had experienced a sizeable boost to his financial net-worth. But both of these men were in for a shock. Pharaoh suddenly found  his royal house facing a series of devastating plagues. Unknowingly, he had taken the bride of Abram and enslaved her as one of his servants. She had gone from being the wife of Abram to just one of the many concubines in Pharaoh’s royal harem.

Once again, the original Jewish audience to whom Moses wrote this book would have sat up and taken notice upon hearing this story from the lives of Abram and Sarai. They would have immediately seen the parallels between the enslavement of Sarai and that of their ancestors. Years later, 70 descendants of Abram would seek refuge in the land of Egypt, attempting to escape a famine in the land. They would enter Egypt as the “bride” of Yahweh. But in time, they would become the personal slaves of Pharaoh. And God would bring upon Pharaoh and his royal house a series of ten plagues, each designed to force the release of His people. The prophet Isaiah would later remind the nation of Israel of their unique status as God’s bride.

For your Maker is your husband,
    the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
    the God of the whole earth he is called. – Isaiah 54:5 ESV

So, there are tremendous similarities between the story found in Genesis 12 and that of the Israelites recorded in the book of Exodus. Unlike his successor, the Pharaoh in Abram’s day proved to be teachable and ready to rectify the grave mistake he has made.

So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” – Genesis 12:18-19 ESV

Pharaoh, suffering under the judgment of God, was ready to repent and make restitution. Rather than punishing Abram for his deceitfulness and the pain he had brought upon the royal house, Pharaoh released Sarai, and sent Abram on his way with his wife restored and his newly acquired wealth intact.

You would think that Abram learned a valuable lesson from this potentially devastating encounter with Pharaoh. But, amazingly, he would live to lie another day. Just a few chapters later, Moses records yet another incident where Abram pulled this highly flawed strategy out of his bag of tricks. Despite its highly questionable efficacy, Abram would utilize this same plan  years later when dealing with Abimelech, the king of Gerar. He seems to have learned nothing from his former attempt at self-preservation.

And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. – Genesis 20:2 ESV

As before, God intervened and delivered a terrifying message to Abimelech in a dream.

“Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” – Genesis 20:3 ESV

Fearful for his life, Abimelech declared his innocence to God and was told to return Sarai to Abraham. Essentially, God told the petrified king, “No harm done.” He had sovereignly protected Abimelech from doing anything to Sarai. But when the king confronted Abram and demanded to know why he had done such a thing, Abram was quick to justify his actions and explain his warped rationale.

“Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” – Genesis 20:12-13 ESV

And like the earlier story, Abram walks away blessed rather than chastened by God.

Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him.  And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you. – Genesis 20:14-15 ESV

God was not rewarding Abram for his deception and dishonesty. Nor was He condoning Abram’s methods. He was simply fulfilling the promise He had made to bless Abram (Genesis 12:2). And he was slowly teaching His stubborn servant a much-needed lesson about divine sovereignty and providential care. Even Abram’s ill-fated attempts to act as his own god could not jeopardize God’s plans or prevent God’s promise from being fulfilled. This was so much bigger than Abram. He was simply a conduit through whom God would bring a blessing to all the nations of the earth. And God was not going to allow Abram to derail the divine plan for mankind’s redemption.

Mankind’s constant attempts at self-salvation will always fall short. But God’s promise of future blessing will never fail to come to fruition.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Name Above All Names

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb. Genesis 12:4-9 ESV

Abram followed in the footsteps of his ancestor Noah, who “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 ESV). When God told Abram to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 ESV), he went. And the text makes it clear that Abram went, “as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4 ESV). He not only proved to be compliant but comprehensive in his obedience. He did everything just as God had commanded him to do. But there is one small detail that stands out.

When it came time for Abram to comply with God’s command, he “took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:5 ESV). It all sounds good, except for the fact that God had clearly told Abram to leave behind his country and his kindred. The Hebrew word for “kindred” is מוֹלֶדֶת (môleḏeṯ), and it can refer to “offspring” or “relatives.” Considering the context, it seems clear that God was telling Abram to leave his extended family behind. Abram and his wife, Sarai, had no children because she was barren.

And yet, the text reveals that Abram brought along his nephew, the son of his brother, Haran. A look back at the genealogy in chapter 11 reveals that Haran had fathered a son named Lot while the clan was still living in Ur of the Chaldeans. But Haran died, leaving his son, Lot, without a father. Under the circumstances, Terah, the boy’s grandfather, assumed responsibility for his care and protection. He became a surrogate father to Lot. So, when Terah moved his entire extended family to the land of Haran, Lot accompanied him. But in time, Terah died as well, leaving Lot fatherless once more. It seems that Abram and Sarai, without children of their own, assumed responsibility for the boy’s well-being. And when they packed up their belongings to follow God’s will and move to Canaan, Lot was in their company.

Abram was not explicitly violating the command to leave his kindred behind. Lot had become part of his immediate family. It is almost as if he and Sarai had made the decision to adopt this young man. After all, she was barren and they were doomed to a life without children of their own.

But what can’t be ignored is the distinct possibility that Abram and Sarai viewed Lot as a possible heir and the means by which God would fulfill His promise to produce a great nation from them. In a way, Lot could have been Abram’s ace in the hole – a security blanket that helped mitigate any doubts he may have had about God’s plan and promise. If one believes in the sovereignty of God, then it seems obvious that the death of Haran and Terah was no surprise to God. And the fact that this young man had twice been rendered fatherless was not a byproduct of chance or bad luck. There was a divine strategy in play in which God was providentially orchestrating the details surrounding Abram’s life. Terah’s decision to leave Ur had been God-ordained. The birth of Lot and his father’s eventual death were also part of God’s plan. And Abram’s “adoption” of Lot when Terah died in Haran must also be seen as the handiwork of God.

There is no indication as to how long the journey from Haran to Canaan took. But it would have been an arduous and extremely lengthy trip as Abram and his retinue made their way through strange lands occupied by many of those foreign-speaking nations that had been scattered by God after His judgment at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

Evidently, Abram was leading a rather large caravan, transporting all the possessions and people he had “acquired” while living in Haran (Genesis 12:5). It would appear that Abram had livestock and slaves in tow. A few of these unnamed servants or slaves will play important roles as the story unfolds. But their presence in the traveling party would have made progress slow and demanded greater resourcefulness when it came to provisions and protection.

But eventually, Abram arrived in the land of Canaan, just as God had commanded. And Moses indicates that Abram “passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh” (Genesis 12:6 ESV), where “he built there an altar to the Lord” (Genesis 12:7 ESV). While there’s no indication from the text that God directed Abram’s steps by providing him with detailed navigational instructions, it seems only logical that God was guiding His servant all along the way. Once again, the sovereign hand of God was determining every aspect of Abram’s pilgrimage from Haran to Canaan, even choosing Shechem as the place where Abram would erect an altar. Two times in verse 7, Moses discloses that God had appeared to Abram. These divine theophanies or manifestations of God’s presence had probably occurred all along the way, providing Abram with guidance and assurance that he was not alone.

Shechem was located in the center of Canaan, and it was there, in the heart of this foreign land that God instructed Abram to build an altar and offer sacrifices. Most likely exhausted by the long and arduous journey, Abram still obeyed God and did just as he was told. He “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8 ESV). This phrase refers to much more than just worship. It reveals an underlying awareness of the holy and righteous character of God as embodied in His divine name. The first occurrence of this phrase is found in Genesis 4:26, where it reads, “To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

The “name of the Lord” is synonymous with His character.  To devalue God’s name is tantamount to profaning His character. To call upon His name is to recognize that God alone is God. He is the transcendent and holy “other.” There is no other god besides Him. Man was made in the image of God and given the unique role of glorifying His great name by living in humble submission to His will. To call upon His name is to acknowledge one’s complete reliance upon Him and trust in Him. That is why God would later command the Israelites to treat His name with respect.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. – Exodus 20:7 ESV

To treat God’s name vainly or flippantly has much more to do with behavior than speech. Later on, God would provide His people with an example of what it meant to treat His name vainly.

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. – Leviticus 18:21 ESV

Proverbs 30:8-9 indicates that a life of self-sufficiency is a way to profane the name of the Lord.

Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.

When men make the false assumption that they can be their own benefactor and provider, they rob God of glory and profane His name. The prophet Isaiah described the anger of God against those who give Him lip-service, but whose actions reveal that they have no respect for His name and character.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

At this point in the story of Abram’s life, he is revealing his deep dependence upon God. He recognizes that his journey from Haran to Canaan has been the work of God and he wants to express his gratitude through sacrifice and praise. And having completed his sacrifice to God, Abram continued to his journey to “the hill country on the east of Bethel” (Genesis 12:8 ESV). And there, he pitched his tent, erected a second altar, and called upon the name of the Lord. Here we have a picture of the nomadic lifestyle that Abram would come to know. He would spend his entire life on the move, relocating from one place to another within the land of Canaan. Even after pitching his tent in Bethel, Abram would eventually break camp and continue his tireless trek through the land God had promised to give him as a possession. And the author of Hebrews reveals that Abram’s transient lifestyle was motivated by a firm belief that God had something great in store for him.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV

He was a man on the move, but with a faith that was firmly founded on the faithfulness of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Genesis 15-16, Matthew 8

Faith of Our Fathers.

Genesis 15-16, Matthew 8

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israelhave I found such faith.” – Matthew 8:10 ESV

The writer of Hebrews tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). In that chapter, known as the “Hall of Faith,” the author looks back at the faith of Old Testament saints like Abraham, Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Joseph and states, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13 ESV). They died in faith. They took the hope and confidence they had placed in God with them to their graves, knowing that the real reward was awaiting them after this life, not during it. Abraham would never get to see the fulfillment of all of God’s promises regarding his offspring or the land. He would not live to see God bless the nations through his descendant, Jesus. But he kept believing. He kept trusting. He placed his faith in the promises of God. “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Hebrew 11:39 ESV).

What does this passage reveal about God?

Faith must have an object and, for Abraham, the object of his faith was God. He knew that the promises he had received were only as good as the One who had given them. His ability to believe that God would do what He said He would do was based on what he knew about God. There is no question that Abraham had moments of doubt and there were numerous times when he took matters into his own hands. Chapter 16 of Genesis records the less-than-flattering story of Abram eagerly accepting Sarai’s plan for him to fulfill the promise of God through human means.

But the story of Genesis is really about the faithfulness of God as juxtaposed with the unfaithfulness of mankind. God refused to accept Abram and Sarai’s substitute plan. He was going to fulfill His promises His way. God doesn’t need our help. He doesn’t ask for our advice. He simply asks that we trust Him. What makes faith difficult is not God’s ability to do what He says He will do, but it is our ability to wait patiently until He does. Abram had to wait and God was not in a hurry. Delay usually leads to doubt. Having to wait makes us uncomfortable. Faith is based on confidence and conviction – in God and His ability to deliver on His promises. There is no doubt that when God told Abram that He would give him more descendants than there are stars in the heavens, Abram wrestled with the believability of that promise. After all, he and Sarai were not spring chickens and, on top of that, Sarai was barren. The odds were stacked against them. But a big part of faith is learning to trust God in the midst of difficult circumstances. Impossibilities are the fertile ground in which faith grows. It is when everything is looking down that we tend to see God show up.

What does this passage reveal about man?

Doubt is a natural and normal part of our human nature. But faith is unnatural, because it is spiritual. It requires a trust in the unknown, and it is something we do every day of our lives, whether we believe in God or not. It requires faith to sit in a chair. You may believe that a chair will support your weight if you sit in it, but until you physically place yourself in the chair, your beliefs remain untested and unproven. Part of Abram’s faith was the continued waiting. He had to keep on putting the full weight of his life in the hands of God, trusting that He would hold Him up. Refusing to sit in a chair because you doubt its ability to hold you up says nothing about the integrity of the chair. But it speaks volumes about your faith in the chair. Refusing to trust God’s promises because you doubt they may come true isn’t an indictment on God’s strength, but it certainly reveals the weakness of your faith. 

When God had told Abram that He would give him a son, Abram’s response was, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:2 ESV). When God assured him Eliezer was NOT the heir He had in mind, Abram stubbornly responded, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:3 ESV). When Sarai considered the likelihood of her getting pregnant well past possible, she told Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” (Genesis 16:2 ESV).

They doubted. They feared. Their convictions and confidence wavered. But God showed up. He proved Himself trustworthy and reliable time and time again. And over time, both Abram and Sarai learned to place their faith in God – regardless of the circumstances. We see this same kind of faith displayed in the gospel of Matthew in the life of the Centurion. When Jesus offers to come and heal his paralyzed servant, the Centurion replies, “But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8 ESV). Jesus commends the man’s faith. Why? Because he was placing his hope and confidence in the unknown and unseen. He had no way of knowing that Jesus could do what he was asking. But he exhibited faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. In the same chapter, the leper revealed the same kind of faith, saying to Jesus, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Matthew 8:2 ESV). This man had no track record with Jesus. He had not been healed by Jesus before. But He had a confidence and conviction in Jesus. Jesus was the object of his faith. The healing was the benefit.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

Faith is not some nebulous, ethereal thing. It should a highly practical and applicable part of the life of every believer. But the world assaults our faith. It tempts us to doubt God’s Word and deny His ability to do what He has promised to do. Abram would have his faith tested daily. So will we. But we must keep going back to the object of our faith. We must ask ourselves the question, “Has he ever given me good reason to doubt Him?” Just because we can’t see the outcome does not mean God lacks the ability to bring it about. Our faith must be in His unlimited power, impeccable character, unwavering love, and unquestionable faithfulness.

Father, You can be trusted. But the problem is not You, it’s me. I am the one who struggles, not You. My doubt has no basis in reality. It is circumstantial and unsubstantiated. You have never given me reason to doubt You. Help me keep my eyes focused on You and trust in Your proven character rather than in any particular circumstance. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org