Faith, Doubt, and Faith Again: Genesis 12:1 through 13:18

INTRODUCTION

We live in an age where faith appears to be assaulted by doubt at every turn. For every tenant of Biblical truth there seems to be a scientist, philosopher or entertainer bent on disproving it. For this reason, as Christians we can easily withdraw into our own, tight-knit world, where we are safe from the uncertainties outside. However, this is neither necessary nor Biblical. In fact, as we turn to the life of Abraham we see that doubt is not something inherently opposed to faith; it is actually a vital part of its development.

Abraham had reasons to doubt God time and time again: when the land he was promised fell victim to famine; when he fled to Egypt only to be separated from his wife; when he was promised a massive offspring only to remain childless into his elderly years. His life illustrates a quotation by Frederick Buechner: "Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving" (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Revised and Expanded Edition).

This continual struggle with doubt is quite understandable in Abraham's case. After all, God made "impossible" promises to him, and then chose the most bizarre ways of making good on them. One sometimes wonders how Abraham kept his sanity (during the journey to murder his son, for example), much less his faith. When it was all said and done, Abraham truly had faith in God. That is, he believed God was ultimately trustworthy, no matter how twisted the path to His promises appeared, so Abraham continued to be faithful. As a result, he stands as the New Testament's favorite Old Testament faith hero.

The Jews appealed to their rights as children of Abraham against John the Baptist's call to repentance from the heart (Matthew 3:9). Jesus himself included Abraham in many of His teachings (Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28; 16:23-31; John 8:39, 40). Paul cited Abraham's faith in teaching how God justifies people (Romans 4:1-3, 12-22; Galatians 3:6-18). And the writer of Hebrews declared, "Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going" (11:8, NIV). For that is faith's essence.

I. FAITH TO OBEY GOD (Genesis 12:1-9)

The life of Abraham teaches us that faith is linked first and foremost to obedience. Abraham did not need to be able to wrap his mind around all that God was promising him; he simply needed to act on the faith he had to trust the character of God. This initially required the abandonment of the place of stability and security Abraham had known his entire life in Haran.

A.   Abraham Leaves in Faith (vv. 1, 4, 5)

      1. Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee:

      4. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.

      5. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

In Genesis, God's amazing plan to build a nation that would serve Him alone takes shape in germinal form. The point at which Abraham fits into the overall framework of the Biblical story is vital to understanding his significance. Abraham is the first to whom God revealed His plan to form a nation, and it was through God's only Son that this came to fulfillment. This is why the name Abram, a variation of the word father in Hebrew, was changed by God to Abraham, meaning "father of many" (ch. 17). When the Gospel writers constructed their genealogical records of Jesus Christ, they led all the way back to Abraham, in order to prove Jesus' authentic Jewishness (Matthew 1:1; Luke 3:34). In fact, it is with Abraham that Matthew began his Gospel story. We can faithfully say, then, that without Abram's willingness to obey the command of God, the landscape of Biblical history would look completely different. He had no way of knowing just how important he was to all of humanity at that time, but he was willing to sacrifice in order to obey God anyway.

Genesis 12:1 begins the history of God's interaction with the Jewish nation. There is no mention of how this conversation was conducted, and we would like answers to a myriad of questions: Where was Abram when God called him? What was he doing? Did he hear an audible voice or simply receive an impression in his heart? What did God describe about Himself, if anything? How did Abram know it was Yahweh? We can only guess at such details. We know one essential—it was Yahweh who called Abram.

This naming of Yahweh is an important aspect of the beginning of the story, which comes across a little fuzzily in the English translation. In short, there are numerous designations for God in the Old Testament that typically utilize either the designation Elohim or Yahweh. Elohim, and its shortened form El, mirrors our generic term for "God" (see, for instance, Genesis 1:1ff). Yahweh, however, is taken from the specific name of Israel's God written in four letters without vowels (YHWH), so as to render the sacred name unpronounceable (Christians added the vowels later in order to pronounce God's Hebrew name). English translations write "LORD" in all caps to denote this name. Often, the two designations for God are combined in the Old Testament, written in English as "the LORD God" (e.g. 2:4ff). Here in Genesis 12:1, the YHWH stands alone as if to accentuate the fact that it was Israel's God who distinctively called Abram.

Why is this important? The calling of Abram by the named God of Israel (not just their generic name for God) is vital because it may give us a hint as to Abram's background. We know from archaeological digs around the ancient Near East that these early peoples were extremely religious. By this time, Abram is 75 years old (v. 4), and thus has been practicing the religion of his family/clan his entire life. The alternate "gods" of the land typically focused on fertility and often demanded human sacrifice. Simply the fact that he would be open to this new God, who was downright strange compared to the gods his clan served, indicates Abram's courageous heart.

Abram needed all of the courage he could muster to have faith in this new God and then to obey Him. Yet obey he did, packing up his entire family right down to his nephew Lot and setting out from the comfortable city of Haran. This included quite a bit of property, for Abram was apparently a man of some means. For a well-to-do urban dweller, nomadic life likely had no more appeal than it would today, particularly at 75 years old. But Abram obeyed anyway by faith, providing an example for all readers of Scripture to follow. In Abram's heart, the land of security, comfort and stability was no match for this divine call from Yahweh.

B.   Obedient Faith (vv. 2, 3, 6-9)

      2. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:

      3. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

      6. And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.

      7. And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him.

      8. And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord.

      9. And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south.

It was not only the compelling identify of Yahweh that convinced Abram to totally pull up roots and hit the road for an unknown destination, but the promise of God. Whereas some might have considered His promise too good to be true, Abram must have found it too good not to be true.

Abram could probably not have known, at least initially, that the promise to not only create a nation from him but also to bless all other nations through him (v. 3) referred to God's sending of the Messiah. Through Jesus Christ, salvation would reach beyond Israel, culminating in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 and the ministry of Paul the apostle. The fact that Israel failed to reach out to other nations on its own, resulting in its heartless religious leaders portrayed in the Gospels, no doubt weighed heavily on the heart of Jesus himself (see Matthew 23:37-39). It is part of the sweeping message of the Biblical narrative that Israel be a blessing to the entire earth, beginning with God's promise here to Abram.

After Abram departed Haran and arrived in the land of Canaan, the Lord appeared again with a specific word about his possession of that land (Genesis 12:7). This pattern clearly runs throughout the Abraham narratives in chapters 12-25, as God specifies His initial promise, fleshing it out and making it clearer. He does not give the big picture to Abram all at once, but in pieces. Abram responds by building a sacrificial altar to Yahweh, a practice he likely learned in the pagan religions of his clan, but there is no mention of an actual animal sacrifice here or when he builds the second altar between Bethel and Ai (12:8). There is explicit mention, however, of the Canaanites, said to inhabit the land "at that time" (v. 6, NIV). This reference, also in 13:7, may give us some insight into the author or editor of this history, who apparently compiles the material after Joshua has driven out the Canaanites. Literarily, the reference also foreshadows the coming Exodus and conquest. The reader recognizes that God's promise to Abram will directly affect the Canaanites, since God promises their land to Abram's descendants.

II.    FEAR AND DOUBT (Genesis 12:10-20)

Abram's obedience to God does not remain a smooth road for long. After God's promise is reinforced in verse 7, a famine immediately strikes the land, and things get bumpy. It has been often said that adversity proves the character of a man, and in this regard Abram quickly fails the test.

A.   Abraham Falters (vv. 10-16)

      10. And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.

      11. And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon:

      12. Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive.

      13. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.

      14. And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair.

      15. The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.

      16. And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.

After the optimistic description of Abram's sacrificial obedience to the promise and command of God in verses 1-9, this section is a letdown in its entirety. We can only imagine Abram's frustration as he pulled up roots again and entered dangerous territory. Abram wandered from the land of Canaan, which God promised him, into Egypt, which God had not promised him. The famine, of course, gave him a good excuse, but trouble quickly mounted. As of yet, Abram did not understand the character of Yahweh, who had called him.

This story happened, of course, before the Ten Commandments were given, so deception was the order of the day. Knowing Sarai's astounding beauty firsthand, Abram was sure this could be a problem, so he devised a scheme to lie about their relationship in order to protect himself. The deception worked, but the result probably was not what Abram had expected. Sarai was quickly married off to Pharaoh himself in exchange for more wealth for Abram. The Egyptians believed Abram was her brother, and they paid him the bride price by giving him sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, and servants.

B.   Yahweh Saves Abram From a Place of Compromise (vv. 17-20)

      17. And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram's wife.

      18. And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?

      19. Why saidst thou, She is my sister? so I might have taken her to me to wife: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way.

      20. And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, and his wife, and all that he had.

From a material standpoint, the situation was comfortable again for Abram. He found a way out of God's promise due to the famine, and was living off the wealth of Egypt, but he had lost his beautiful wife. Sarai had been taken into Pharaoh's harem, where she was being prepared for entering a sexual relationship with Pharaoh. Ironically, it is Pharaoh who recognized the hand of Abram's God in the diseases spreading throughout his palace, and he apparently squeezed the truth out of Sarai before confronting Abram. Providentially, the unnamed plague that struck Pharaoh's house caused him to be in such awe of God that he would not harm a hair on Abram's head, and he even sent a delegation to help Abram's household leave Egypt. It was nothing short of the closest call, but Yahweh wasn't about to give up on Abram. The journey, the adventure, had just begun.

III.   FAITH TO LET GO (Genesis 13:1-18)

A different Abram emerges in chapter 13. Seasoned by the trial and deliverance in Egypt, and still goaded on by God's promises back in Haran, he begins to recognize the supremacy of Yahweh, both in the sense that this God is serious when He makes commandments and that with equal passion He commits to His promises. Now that Abram has learned these truths (the hard way), he begins to truly trust God, and as a result God's promise to him is intensified.

A.   Abram Returns to God (vv. 1-4)

      1. And Abram went up out of Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south.

      2. And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold.

      3. And he went on his journeys from the south even to Bethel, unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Hai;

      4. Unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first: and there Abram called on the name of the Lord.

Enriched by the bounties of Pharaoh, Genesis 13 begins another significant segment of Abram's life. This was quite a demotion from Pharaoh's lavish court, as the Negev ("the south") was known as a dry, arid region in southern Palestine. Yet for Abram, it was nothing short of a spiritual pilgrimage. In verse 4, Abram returns to the exact spot, between Ai and Bethel, where he built the altar to Yahweh in 12:8. And just as he did back then, Abram "called on the name of the Lord" (13:4). Had he been calling on the names of other gods, sinking back into those forms of worship that were all he knew for 75 years? We do not know. However, the fact that Abram turns back to God marks a major turning point in his life. However, just like his initial act of obedience when he left Haran was met with the tragedy of a famine, Abram's recommitment to Yahweh here is followed by conflict.

B.  Abram Defers to Lot (vv. 5-13)

      5. And Lot also, which went with Abram, had flocks, and herds, and tents.

      6. And the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together: for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together.

      7. And there was a strife between the herdmen of Abram's cattle and the herdmen of Lot's cattle: and the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land.

      8. And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren.

      9. Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left.

      10. And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar.

      11. Then Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan; and Lot journeyed east: and they separated themselves the one from the other.

      12. Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom.

      13. But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly.

By all indications, sticking with Abram had been a very profitable venture for his nephew Lot. Working for the family business had brought him a significant portion of blessing, mostly due to his ability to breed animals successfully, and it quickly became a point of contention between the two "companies." In fact, after a while they grew so prodigious that there was simply not enough vegetation in a single area to feed all the livestock. This was not surprising in the dry regions of Palestine, and they were certainly not the only herders in the land. Disputes among their employees exacerbated the tension.

Abram stepped up and said, "Is not the whole land before you? Let's part company. If you go to the left, I'll go to the right; if you go to the right, I'll go to the left" (v. 9, NIV).

What had happened to Abram? A short time before, he had put into motion a scheme that enslaved his wife, made him rich, and almost killed the entire government body of Egypt. Now, however, he extends dramatic grace to his nephew, calling him "brother" (v. 8). As the patriarch of the family clan, Abram possessed the authority to make such decisions himself, but he humbly deferred to his subordinate, the lesser Lot. Whether he thought Lot would choose fairly, we cannot know. After all, Lot had become rich on the coattails of Abram. Surely he would honor his elder! Instead, he took the well-watered Jordan plains, leaving Abram with the arid Canaan desert. Lot "pitched his tent even as far as Sodom" (v. 12, NKJV). Sodom was known for its atrocious sin and firm opposition to Yahweh, yet Lot spread out his camp to reach that city. This reveals that Lot's heart was turned toward the flesh instead of toward Yahweh.

C. God Reinforces His Promise (vv. 14-18)

      14. And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:

      15. For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.

      16. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.

      17. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.

      18. Then Abram removed his tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the Lord.

Although Abram had just given up the eastern land to his ungrateful nephew, Yahweh immediately put that loss into perspective. The east was nothing; God would give Abram's descendants everything he could see in every direction. And for the first time, Yahweh revealed how expansive this promise would be—throughout all time. What a promise for one rather average man traipsing around in the Palestinian desert! His descendants would always have the rights to that land, no matter what. Then God announced that Abram's offspring would be as plentiful and uncountable as dust particles (later, in 15:5, God uses the metaphor of the stars in the sky). Since Abram was able to exercise the faith to let go, even to the point of being personally wronged by Lot, God drew near to him.

God also reckoned that Abram was ready for a new command. Abram was instructed to walk around in the land he had just seen—through its length and breadth—as an act of faith that he genuinely believed God was giving it to him and his descendants forever (13:17). This is a strange commandment to a man who was already elderly and had already traveled such great distances, but Abram packed quickly and began walking.

Chapters 12 and 13, then, depict Abram's progression from a well-to-do urban dweller to a full-fledged nomad. Why did God desire Abram to be nomadic? Could He not have accomplished His purposes by having Abram set up a city in the Promised Land? Two reasons are possible for this.

First, the nomadic life requires total dependence on God. Abram would no longer have the comforts of home to live in, only the shelter of tents and the harsh conditions of the open wilderness (which was often desert). He could not learn to depend fully on Yahweh in comfort, but only in neediness.

Second, the nomadic lifestyle requires a continual disposition of hospitality. Nomads must learn to stick together, to live in community, to welcome one another into their dwellings. They cannot survive otherwise. In fact, God's judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah is immediately connected to the city's inability to be hospitable to the visiting angels, and Lot is saved because he practices passionate hospitality toward them (19:1-7).

This preference for hospitality became the basis for many of the Ten Commandments and the Torah community laws in general. The Jews were expected to treat one another with kindness and fairness on the basis of hospitality. Later, Jesus himself commanded His disciples that when they traveled for ministry, they were to engage in hospitality with those who would provide a bed and food for them (Luke 10:7). So we see that Abram's lifestyle lay the foundation for many of the themes that come later in Scripture, including hospitality and total dependence on God.

CONCLUSION

The beginning of Abram's journey with Yahweh was fraught with difficulty and the sometimes hard, but always invaluable, lessons of faith. God gave unchanging commands to Abram, offered His grace at every turn, encouraging him time and time again with His precious promise that the entire earth would benefit from Abram's life and his descendants. Even before he became known as "Abraham," before God made a formal covenant with him, and before he was given any offspring whatsoever, God shaped Abram's character to get him ready for all of these things. Through Abram's faith to obey God, even through fear and doubt, and ultimately his faith to let go and trust Yahweh, he placed himself in a position to be further used of God.

GOLDEN TEXT CHALLENGE

"BY FAITH ABRAHAM, WHEN HE WAS CALLED TO GO OUT INTO A PLACE WHICH HE SHOULD AFTER RECEIVE FOR AN INHERITANCE, OBEYED; AND HE WENT OUT, NOT KNOWING WHITHER HE WENT" (Hebrews 11:8).

Abraham was called of God. This call consisted of a command and a promise. The command was, "Get thee out of thy country" (Genesis 12:1). The promise was that all nations would be blessed in him. Abraham obeyed the command. He went out as he was called to do. What an illustration of faith! On the first call of God, he responded with absolute obedience without regard for what it might cost him or even of what the reward consisted.

The same is required of us. Our attitude toward God must be one of complete trust.

Unit Theme:

Abraham

Central Truth:

Developing a healthy faith in God may require wrestling with fear and doubt.

Focus:

Acknowledge that the struggle with doubt is part of our journey with God and trust Him for renewed faith.

Context:

Around 2000 B.C., events taking place in Haran, Canaan and Egypt

Golden Text:

"By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went" (Hebrews 11:8).

Study Outline:

I. Faith to Obey God

(Genesis 12:1-9)

II.   Fear and Doubt

(Genesis 12:10-20)

III.   Faith to Let Go

(Genesis 13:1-18)

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