Barry and Helen Setterfield — 2001
Abraham — The man God chose to begin a race of people through whom God would not only demonstrate His person, character, and plan to the world, but also the man who would be the “father” of the people through whom the promised Messiah would come. Genesis spends more time on Abraham than any other person, so there is a good deal we can learn about this remarkable human being. His story begins at the close of Genesis 11 and continues on to Genesis 25.
His genealogy: Abraham’s lineage is given in the Bible and traces back, person by person, to Adam, the first man.
Historical notes: This lineage indicates that he was born about 3360 years after Adam was created. Abraham’s death 175 years later was about 2150 years before the birth of Messiah. This chronology places the birth of Abraham in the 3rd millennium BC. The major events in his life occurred primarily in the 23rd century BC. Some of these events make it possibly to verify that dating. The first of these events in Genesis 14 was a significant war in which the kings from the cities of the Jordan plain fought against a north-eastern confederacy. The second event is reported in Genesis 18-19. This passage describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and other cities of the Jordan rift by a violent volcanic episode during which the land at the southern end of the Dead Sea dropped significantly on a fault system.
In 1978, well-known archaeologist Professor D. N. Freedman of the University of Michigan made some comments pertinent to these events in a lecture entitled ‘Archaeology and Biblical Religion’. As a result of the discovery of the Ebla Tablets (written during the 23rd century BC) he stated that: “It is now my belief that the story in Genesis 14 not only corresponds in content to the Ebla Tablet, but that the Genesis account derives from the same period. … Briefly put, the account in Genesis 14, and also in chapters 18-19, does not belong to the second millennium BC, still less to the first millennium BC, but rather to the third millennium BC.” Such a testimony from archaeological discovery is worthy of serious consideration.
Abram (as his name was at first) was born to Terah in the city of Ur of the Chaldees. While still in Ur, Abram married his very beautiful half-sister Sarai. We seldom stop to think what that great city Ur was like. Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, the famed archaeologist, led a joint Anglo-American expedition that finally started to uncover Ur of the Chaldees in the spring of 1929. Throughout the city, open squares broke the line of streets. The huge ziggurat or staged tower, with its black, red, and blue blocks, and fringe of trees, was built by king Ur-Nammu for the worship of the Moon-god, Nannar. It was the focus of a semi-circle of five enormous temples. The largest temple, dedicated to the Moon-goddess, Ningal, the wife of Nannar, was a rectangle 100 yards by 60 yards, with walls whose thickness was appropriate for a fortress. Since the daughter of the moon-god and goddess was Ishtar (Asherah), the fertility goddess, it is hardly surprising that clay tablets indicate that prostitution, and perversion were linked with the temple complex.
Clay tablets also indicate that the temple site was the main focal-point for trade. Other tablets in the immense library at Ur reveal that the principle enunciated by Pythagoras about triangles some 1500 years later was already well-known and used in the construction industry. Many mathematical tables, including formulae for the extraction of square and cube roots, historical data, genealogical information, temple hymns, and trade and diplomatic documents abounded in the library. These tablets reveal a very well-educated, literate, musical, and mathematically competent society. Indeed, in the social life of ancient Ur, boys were expected to go to school. A large building was actually set aside for this specific purpose.
The houses revealed comfort, and even luxury. Many were two-storied with up to 14 rooms, and some even had a system of large clay pipes for the removal of water and drainage. The lower floor was solidly built of burnt brick, the upper floor of mud-brick. The walls were neatly coated with plaster and periodically white-washed. The front door and entrance hall led into an attractively paved inner court, around which could be found the reception room, the living rooms, private rooms and a domestic chapel. Up a stone staircase, which concealed the toilet, was a gallery from which branched off rooms for various members of the family and the guest rooms. A wooden balustrade running round the upper story protected those rooms from the courtyard. A wide variety of ornaments with precious stones, and beautiful gold, and silver jewellery were fairly common, while the more wealthy inhabitants of the city possessed 11-stringed lyres for music.
His background: It was in this city that Abram was born, grew up and was educated. “We must radically alter,” the archaeologist Woolley wrote enthusiastically, “our view of the Hebrew patriarch when we see that his earlier years were passed in such sophisticated surroundings. He was the citizen of a great city and inherited the traditions of an old and highly organised civilisation.” In Hebrews 11, the Bible states that Abram turned his back on this idolatrous city and set out, not knowing where he was going, because he trusted in God. He also knew that God had built an eternal city which was the home of righteousness. This contrasted sharply with the licentiousness, idolatry, and iniquity of bustling Ur. In that same passage, the Bible states that, if Abraham had wanted it, he might have been given opportunity to return to Ur, but he spurned the notion, having chosen the Celestial City instead. This gives us a good idea of Abram’s early character and sense of values.
His obedience as a young man: When we combine other information in the Bible about Abram with the Genesis account, we find that the God of Glory appeared to Abram in Ur, the original family home (Acts 7:2). There in Ur, even before the family had moved to Haran, Abram was told by God that he would have to leave his family and his people and go to a place God would show him. Some further information comes from Joshua 24:2 which states that Abram’s father Terah was an idolater, perhaps a moon-god worshipper. Despite this, Genesis 11:31 reveals that it was none other than Terah himself who “took” Abram and the other members of his family as far as Haran, where they stayed until Terah’s death. The indication here is that even though it was Abram who received the visitation and instructions from God, he was still under the authority of his father Terah, who evidently believed Abram’s message from God and undertook to obey it. By implication, then, we see that Abram was not only obedient to God, but remained subject to his father, honouring and respecting him. This is possibly a foreshadowing of Jesus Himself, who, although he was without fault, unlike His parents, nevertheless remained subject to them as a child.
Prophetic note: Acts 7:2 states that the God of Glory appeared to Abram at Ur. This phrase usually means the manifestation of God in the Shekinah, made up of the cloud(s) of Glory, or the cloud(s) of Heaven. This is how God appeared to Moses, Job (38:1), Ezekiel (1:4), and others, and was the means whereby He led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21-22). The appearance of the twisting, fiery whirlwind of the Shekinah, with God’s voice instructing Abram from out of it, would contrast sharply with the lifeless gods of Ur. It is interesting to note that Jesus the Messiah claimed to be the Divine resident of the Shekinah (Matthew 24:30; Luke 21:27), and this claim before the Jewish Sanhedrin was the immediate reason that they had Him crucified (Matthew 26:64-66). Messiah promised to return in these same clouds of Glory (Acts 1:9-11; Psalm 50:3; Daniel 7:14; Revelation 1:7)
His care of his family: Even the trek to Haran was a major undertaking as they had to travel with their valuables some 900 kilometres to the north-west. Terah was aging. When they stopped in Haran, Abram stayed there until his father died, and did not leave with Sarai or other members of the family. It was only after Terah’s death (Acts 7:4) that Abram took over the leadership role in the family and moved the family and all their belongings south to Canaan.
His generosity: When he and his nephew, Lot, had to part ways because their flocks and herds were too many for them to stay together, Abram gave Lot his choice of living area. Lot picked the most desirable region by appearances, namely the lush pastures near Sodom. Abram did not dispute the choice but was content that Lot had the best option available and could now be safely released from his care. In light of the events which followed, including the destruction of Sodom and her sister cities and their surrounding regions and pastures, God’s lesson for us is not at all subtle: don’t judge by appearances. Instead, trust the Lord and seek His advice at all times.
His trust in God’s Promises: Genesis 12 opens with God’s Covenant with Abram on the proviso that he obeyed God’s command to leave Ur, his family and relatives. The seven-fold promise has never been revoked and is still in effect today. God reiterated the Covenant to Abram’s son Isaac and to his son Jacob after him. The seven-fold promise by the living God to Abram is as follows: 1). I will make of you a great nation. 2). I will bless you. 3). I will make your name great. 4). You will be a blessing. 5). I will bless them that bless you. 6). I will curse them that curse you. 7). In you will all the families of the earth be blessed. It was with this 7-fold promise for his future security from God that Abram moved out from Ur. It was when he finally separated from Lot that Abram had the assurance that he was at last in the place of this blessing.
Prophetic Note: An extensive analysis could be made covering each item in this covenant. Suffice it to say that it has been fulfilled and is still being fulfilled today. The nation of Israel came from this line of promise in fulfilment of item 1. Item 2 was partly fulfilled in Abram’s own lifetime as a personal promise, although it also has national ramifications. Item 3 has very definitely been fulfilled. Abraham is acknowledged as the key patriarch in God’s plan by the world’s three monotheistic religions which comprise a majority of the earth’s population. Item 4 has been fulfilled over many generations. Many of the great people who have been world leaders in science, technology, art, music, politics etc. have been descendants of Abraham through Jacob. Items 5 and 6 have had many fulfilments during the 20th century, but world leaders seem to be blind to the implications of their actions. Item 7 partly relates to Messiah and His yet future reign from Jerusalem over a united earth. The Bible promises it will be a time of peace, joy and prosperity such as the world has never known before.
His common sense: Although God had promised the land to Abram and his family (Gen. 12:7), when there was a famine there, Abram moved his family to Egypt immediately, to make sure they would be able to eat.
Historical Note: This would have been in the closing years of the 94 year reign of Pharaoh Pepi II (during the Old Kingdom), as Sodom, Gomorrah, and Byblos were still trading partners with Egypt at that point. Note that Byblos was wiped out by a major earthquake and fire about the time that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, and objects with the name of Pepi II were found in the ash layer.
His fallibility: God does not depend on perfect men to accomplish His will. Abram lied about Sarai while in Egypt, calling her his sister, because of his fear for both his and her well-being. As a result of this lie, Sarai’s extraordinary beauty brought her into the house of Pharaoh who treated Abram well for her sake. The subsequent problems which came upon Pharaoh and his household because of this lie are a wonderful reassurance that even if we, like Abram, react wrongly out of fear, God does not leave us.
His courage: Lot was taken captive during a war in which all the cities of the Jordan plain were unitedly involved against a north-eastern confederacy. Abram took 318 trained men, led an unexpected night attack on the much larger victorious army, and rescued not only Lot, but all the captives from Sodom, their families and possessions.
His humility: Returning from this successful rescue, Abram met Melchizedek, king of Salem (which was probably the precursor of the city of Jerusalem), who was also priest of the Most High God, the living God who had appeared to Abram. Abram acknowledges Melchizedek’s priesthood (an Order which might have stretched back to Adam), and gives him a tenth of everything.
His steadfastness: The king of Sodom tried to reward Abram for his return of the captives and their possessions. Abram, however, steadfastly declined on the basis of his faith in God and his refusal to do a deal in any way with this corrupt pagan king.
His belief in God: When God promised Abram a son, despite Abram’s childlessness, he believed God. It is written that God credited that belief to Abram as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). It was immediately after this that God established His covenant with Abram, promising him that this land where the Lord had led him would belong to his descendants forever. But the Lord said He would not give the land to Abram yet, as it still belonged to the Amorites, and “their sin has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16). Here God reveals part of His plan to us — each person and each culture will have all the time needed to prove itself, one way or the other. None will be cut off before the right time, but the day of reckoning will come.
His possible understanding of the Gospel: There is an interesting note in verse 5 of Genesis 15. The Lord takes Abram outside and tells him to look up at the stars. Abram is told to “count” or “tell” them if he can. The word translated “count” in the NIV and “tell” in the KJV is “caphar” or “sapar”, and means not only “count” or “tell,” but to recount, to enumerate, or declare. There may be a deeper meaning here. God tells Abram, “so shall your offspring (or seed) be.” This is most often taken simply to mean that Abram will be the father of peoples too numerous to count in line with God’s additional promise in Genesis 22:17. This prophecy has certainly been fulfilled. However, the word “offspring” or “seed” here in Genesis 15:5 is not plural (as that interpretation requires) but singular. This point is emphasised by the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:16 where he stated that the word “seed” in this passage is in fact singular and refers specifically to Messiah.
In Galatians 3:8, Paul makes the further enlightening comment that God proclaimed the Gospel in advance to Abram at this time. Paul then went on to use the quote “all nations will be blessed through you,” which is considered part of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Is it possible, therefore, that there was actually something in Abram’s “listing” of the stars themselves which “recounted” that Gospel promise? This possibility is explored elsewhere, including a fascinating article on the web at http://www.ldolphin.org/zodiac/. If that is the case, then there is an even greater meaning to Genesis 15:6 that “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited to him as righteousness.” This would agree exactly with Paul’s words in Romans 4:20-25 where it is written that righteousness is credited to those who believe God and the Gospel about Messiah.
His submission to his wife: The Bible makes it clear that a husband and wife are to love each other mutually, and submit to one another. Thus, because of her continued barrenness, when Sarai decided to “help” the Lord keep His promise by making sure Abram had a child by her Egyptian maidservant Hagar, Abram agreed. And so Ishmael was born because of human wisdom, not God’s wisdom; and the descendants of the child of human wisdom have been at war with the descendants of the child of Sarai — the child of the promise — ever since. God has not been at all subtle about this lesson either. We are to trust Him entirely to keep His promises in His time and in His way.
His trust of God for his safety: When God commanded that Abram and all the men under his authority be circumcised as a sign of the covenant, Abram obeyed immediately and completely. All the men were circumcised that same day. Given the pain these men had to endure and their most probable unwillingness to walk for a day or two, Abram had effectively crippled his entire defence force at once, trusting entirely to God for protection. Not coincidently, this was the same day God changed his name from Abram (high father) to Abraham (father of a multitude) and his wife’s name from Sarai (my princess) to Sarah (princess of a multitude). At the same time God repeated the promise of a son that He now specifically states was to come from Sarah herself. God Himself names the future boy Isaac, meaning “he laughs,” as that was Abraham’s reaction to God’s promise. Abraham was now ninety-nine years old, and Sarah eighty-nine.
His hospitality: In Genesis 18, when three unannounced visitors appear, Abraham takes care of them and feeds them with freshly baked bread and freshly killed meat as quickly as possible. It should be noted that this kind of hospitality may have been the custom, and it could have been considered insulting rudeness for Abraham not to take care of his visitors. Nevertheless, this hospitality is commended and held up as an example in Hebrews 13:2. These visitors repeat the Lord’s prophecy regarding a son from Abraham and Sarah, giving the additional information that it will happen within the year. This time it is Sarah who laughs, although she denies it when confronted.
His boldness: One wonders at what point in Genesis 18 Abraham realised who these visitors were. Certainly, Hebrews 13:2 says that they were initially unaware of the identity of these three visitors. Perhaps it was the specific prophecy regarding his future son that revealed their identity to Abraham. Perhaps Abraham did not fully realise until the Lord revealed to him His planned action against Sodom and Gomorrah. At that point, however, it is evident that Abraham has become aware of who his Companion is, and he intercedes for the righteous in Sodom saying “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” In what seems like a bargaining, Abraham pleads for the Lord to spare the city if there are only 50 righteous men there. Then only 45, then 40, and on down to ten men. Most people seem to miss the lesson the Lord gives here: it does not take many righteous men in an entire city to present the choice of God to a pagan world.
Historic Note: Lot had in fact lived a righteous life before the Sodomites (2 Peter 2:7), but they had rejected his testimony saying “(He) came in to sojourn, and he keeps acting as a judge; now we will deal worse with (him)…” God is just and fair. No one will be condemned who has not had the chance to make their choice. In the case of Sodom and her sister cities, God’s judgement was swift and dramatic. This area had been previously described in Genesis 13:10 as like the Garden of Eden in its beauty and lushness. After God’s judgement, the area around Sodom and the Dead Sea became a barren wasteland.
Today, this wasteland stands in silent testimony to these awesome events. American geologist Jack Finegan wrote that this “destruction came about through a great earthquake which was probably accompanied by explosions, lightning, issue of natural gas and general conflagration. … The subsidence released volcanic forces that had been lying dormant deep down along the whole length of the (Jordan valley) fracture. ” Confirmation of this explanation comes from “Ancient History” written by the early Phoenician priest Sanchuniathon who lived near this fracture. He wrote: “The Vale of Siddim (Sodom) sank and became a lake, always steaming and containing no fish, a symbol of vengeance and of death for the transgressor.”
His continuing status as a sinner: In Genesis 20, Abraham again lies to save his life. Again it is in regard to Sarah being his sister and not his wife. There are three interesting points here. First, Sarah was truly his half-sister. But that was not the primary relationship and to claim it was, was a lie. Second, the fact that Sarah had enough beauty at 90 years of age for Abraham to fear for his life because other men would want her, says something interesting about the genetics of aging some four thousand years ago. That a woman would still be that beautiful at that age is perhaps unwitting evidence of the long ages of the earliest people as listed in Genesis 5 and 11. The third point is that Sarah’s integrity had to be maintained, as she was now at the point of being ready for the conception of Isaac through Abraham. Abraham himself nearly destroyed his own chances. The intervention of God through a dream prevented the potential disaster. What is also important about Abraham’s lie here is that it is a reminder that all men sin, even when close to God. No man is perfect except Jesus Christ.
His fatherhood of Isaac and his subsequent confusion: The joy over Isaac’s birth is juxtaposed against the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael due to Sarah’s anger at Hagar’s mocking. Abraham was deeply distressed at the action he had to take. However God shows us clearly in this incident that He too cares, for He saved Ishmael from dying of thirst, and promised his Egyptian mother Hagar that he would beget 12 princes which would become a strong nation (one branch of the Arab confederacy). This emphasises that God cares for each person born into this world, and has a plan for every life, not just those people who are fulfilments of special prophecies or purposes.
His political acumen: In the establishment of the treaty of Beersheba in Genesis 21, Abraham shows his ability to deal with other leaders in some very precarious circumstances. Immediately afterwards, Abraham calls upon the Lord and plants some trees in remembrance of His faithfulness. This indicates Abraham’s acknowledgment of the Lord as his source of wisdom.
His faith: According to the Bible, Abraham knew the promise of God regarding a Messiah who was to die for the sins of the world and rise again (Galatians 3:6-18). He also knew the Messiah would be one of his descendants through Sarah. It is also possible that Abraham may have thought that Isaac was himself the promised Messiah, not knowing that Messiah was to come from his lineage at a considerably later time, but we cannot be sure. However, when God told Abraham to take his son Isaac, whom he loved so much, and kill him as a sacrifice, Abraham began to obey immediately and was within moments of killing his son when God stopped him. Abraham, however, clearly believed his son would be resurrected if killed, for God had promised the Messianic line would be through Isaac. So when he left his servants behind to wait for him to go up to the mountain with Isaac, where he was planning to sacrifice his son, he nevertheless said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Gen. 22:5). The second ‘we’ says it all. Abraham’s faith was incredible. In memorial of this event, the high point of Abraham’s walk with God, he named that place “Jehovah-jireh” (“the Lord will provide”).
His love for Sarah: When Sarah died, Abraham did not simply mourn formally for her. Genesis 23:2 tells us Abraham wept over her. Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah. This was the only piece of ground in Canaan that Abraham ever actually bought and legally possessed. As a result, Abraham himself was buried there, as were Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and Isaac’s son Jacob and his wife Leah. That cave still remains as an important shrine for the world’s three monotheistic religions. Abraham’s final act for his beloved Sarah thereby lives on today.
His diplomacy: When Abraham was asking for the cave and field for a burial place for Sarah, he was entirely respectful of the customs of the people to whom the land belonged. When Ephron the Hittite responds, “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between me and you? Bury your dead” (Gen. 23:15), it is simply said of Abraham that he “agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named…” (Gen. 23:16). Abraham could have taken the land for free, as it had been offered that way. But instead he accepted the price Ephron named without bargaining and paid him. This, from a man as powerful and respected as Abraham, guaranteed a political alliance for some time to come.
His last years: After Sarah’s death, Abraham married again and fathered six more sons (there may also have been some daughters). The Lord continued blessing him for his trust and faithfulness. We read in Genesis 25:7-8, “Altogether, Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”
Here was a man who was a sinner like all of us. But here was a man who also obeyed God and trusted him fully. Because of this he is referred to as the father of the faithful in the New Testament. There, he is also called “the friend of God” or even more literally “the lover of God”. The living God appeared to Abraham a number of times, and always Abraham responded in trust and obedience. Because of that, God was able to show Himself and His character and plan more fully to Abraham’s world and, as we read Genesis, to us.