II. Abraham (Genesis 11:10–24:67)

11:10-32 The end of chapter 11 is another fast-forward, as the author transitions from the failure of Babel to the next move in God’s redemptive plan. We get a closer look at the line of Shem, which was already highlighted in 10:21-31, and watch God handing down the blessing from Shem to Abraham (11:10-26). God was still keeping his program going, despite the evil that needed to be addressed in the world. Life and longevity were declining, but God was establishing his purposes through the genealogical record.

18:13-15 God, of course, knew that Sarah was laughing, whether he heard it directly or not (18:13). In response, he asked the most important question of faith: Is anything impossible for the Lord? (18:14). In other words, Sarah, did you forget who you are dealing with here? Do you think it’s hard for a God who made billions of stars from literally nothing to make an old lady a mother?

Most of our faith problems go back to how we answer this question. We look at the facts and say, “I must be too old, too weak, too messed up. God can’t work in this situation.” But God invites us to look past the facts and see his face, to let the facts be swallowed up in faith. Is anything impossible for the Lord? No!

18:16-21 God had not just come to reinforce his promise to Abraham. He had come on a mission of judgment toward Sodom and Gomorrah, which he shared with Abraham as they prepared to leave (18:16, 20). He would go down to see if what they have done justifies the judgment planned (18:21), which some interpreters think means that God actually needed on-the-ground intelligence. But as the fully omniscient God, of course, he already had all the information he needed. He just wanted to make it plain that the coming destruction was just. The presence of God and his angels—and the way they were to be treated—would further verify that the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah was immense, and that their sin was extremely serious (18:20). It consisted of gross immorality, violence, and oppression of the poor (see Ezek 16:49-50).

18:18-19 In the midst of this mess, God makes a beautiful statement about his vision for kingdom fathers, men who represent God, the ultimate Father. Kingdom fathers are chosen (18:19). If you’re a man and you’re a Christian, God has selected and elected you for a reason. You have a world-altering destiny that God intends you to fulfill (18:18).

A kingdom father also bears the responsibility to command his children and his house after him to keep the way of the Lord (18:19). Specifically, fathers are to teach and model before their children the duel responsibilities of righteousness (obedience to God’s moral standards) and justice (the equitable and impartial application of God’s moral law in society). God intends for men to lead their families. Our generation’s fundamental problem is family breakdown, which has lead to a generation of children with few men to follow. So our youth either follow fools or they follow themselves (which can turn out to be the same thing). God intends to use his men to represent him in the building of strong families and the raising of kingdom kids; that may be a weighty responsibility, but it’s also a thrilling opportunity. Don’t let it pass you by.

It would be in fulfilling his family responsibility that Abraham would see God’s national promises fulfilled. This again highlights the crucial role that family plays in expanding God’s kingdom agenda and building a stable society.

18:22-26 With the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah imminent, God paused, yet again, to allow them another chance. This time Abraham would be a part of the forbearing process. Abraham appealed to God’s justice, by saying, Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? (18:23). What follows is a peculiar scene that sounds akin to the kind of haggling you would hear in a fruit market. Abraham was attempting to “talk God down,” and surprisingly enough, God played along. Will you . . . sweep away the righteous . . . if there are fifty righteous people in the city? (18:23-24) Abraham asked. God responded, If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake (18:26).

18:27-33 The negotiation continued. For forty-five (18:28)? For forty (18:29)? Thirty (18:30)? Twenty (18:31)? Even just ten (18:32)? Each time God responded to Abraham’s compassionate intercession by granting him his request. God was not only allowing, but was also encouraging Abraham to keep asking for more.

This entire scene corresponds with what we read in Matthew 5:13-16, where Jesus talks of believers as the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” Our job, as members of God’s kingdom, is to act as a preserving influence in a dark and dying world. Note that God would have spared the entire city if there had been just ten believers there! Righteous people, even a small minority of them, can promote righteousness in such a way that the entire society benefits (see Jer 29:7).

19:1-5 The text shifts from Abraham’s conversation to the angels’ journey into Sodom, and immediately we see a contrast in the “hospitality” that these angels are offered. Yes, Lot prepared a feast and baked unleavened bread for them (19:3), but it was not long before the men of the city of Sod-om, both young and old, began pounding on Lot’s door (19:4), demanding to release the men so they could have sex with them (19:5). The outcry against Sodom, it seems, took only a few hours to prove its claims. Sodom had descended into such a den of sin that visitors to the city could not be left in public alone for even a few hours without fear of being raped (19:3, 5).

19:6-8 Initially, we might view Lot sympathetically. After all, he saw two men in danger and brought them in. He took a great risk in doing so. What he does next, however, shows how much of Sodom’s wicked culture he had absorbed. In his attempt to protect his angelic guests, Lot offered to give the lustful, riotous crowd his two daughters so that they could be raped instead (19:8). We are (and should be) repulsed by such an offer, which reveals Lot’s moral ties to Sodom as well as his failure to believe that God would protect him. This contrast becomes all the more plain once the angels themselves strike the crowd with blindness (19:10-11), thankfully preventing Lot from following through on his disgusting plan.

19:9-14 With the mob beating down Lot’s door, the angels decided to reveal God’s plan to Lot. We are about to destroy this place, they warned (19:13). If you have anyone else here—anyone you want to rescue—now is the time to get them out (19:12). Lot tried, but was met with confusion and laughter from his daughters’ husbands-to-be when he extended the invitation for them to leave town with him (19:14). There is no more dangerous place to be than hearing the warnings of God and shrugging them off as if they are a joke.

19:15-29 The potential sons-in-law refused to leave Sodom because they did not believe God’s wrath was real. But even Lot, the reason for this rescue mission, hesitated to leave when the time came (19:16). The angels had to drag him, his wife, and his daughters out of the city by hand because they were all too attached to it. They had become comfortable in a society that rejected God and his laws. Lot’s wife showed the most hesitance—and received the due punishment for it. Even though the angels strictly warned them, Don’t look back and don’t stop anywhere on the plain (19:17), Lot’s wife paused to look back, and instantly became a pillar of salt (19:26). She thus became a permanent monument of the consequences of disobedience and worldliness. Only because of God’s promise to Abraham were Lot and his two daughters—a mere three people out of the entire city—saved from destruction (19:29).

The story of Sodom’s destruction, while it clearly shows God’s judgment against homosexuality, offers a much larger warning. In Luke 17:32 Jesus charged us to remember not the evil men of Sodom, but “Lot’s wife,” because our chief temptation is to become too attached to this world. Jesus teaches us to be in the world, working for the good of our neighbors, but not attached to the world in sinful ways, contaminated by its rebellion against God.

19:30-38 The conclusion to Lot’s story is a pitiful one. His daughters, with their fiancés now dead, were so concerned about their marriage prospects that they devised a scheme to get Lot drunk and have sex with him (19:31-32). The plan worked, and both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father (19:36). However, as with every scheme cooked up in the minds of sinful man, this “success” would eventually turn out to be a disaster. The two sons these daughters produced, Moab and Ben-ammi, would become the patriarchs of the Moabites and Ammonites, ongoing enemies of God’s people. When we try to solve God’s “problems” for him, we only create more problems for ourselves.

20:1-18 If you feel like you’ve heard this story before, you have. In Genesis 12:10-20, Abraham, fearing for his life, lied to Pharaoh about Sarah. He said she was his sister rather than his wife. God revealed Abraham’s deception then, preventing Pharaoh from doing anything rash. In the end, Abraham left Egypt with more resources than when he had arrived.

Years later, Abraham, finding himself in a similar position—this time with the King Abimelech—decided to pull the same stunt. Abraham said about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister” (20:2). And even though Sarah was ninety years old, she was apparently still quite attractive. The king immediately brought her to himself (20:2). Before anything could happen, however, God approached Abim-elech in a dream, giving him news of the real relationship between Abraham and Sarah (20:6-8). This is the first time we see Abraham called a prophet (20:7). Abraham, in spite of his sin, was still God’s spokesman. But it seems intentional that God uses that word now, when Abraham is failing to act uprightly. Once again it is an unbelieving king, not Abraham, who does the virtuous and right thing. Abraham, the prophet, should be humiliated for being rebuked by a heathen king.

Abraham’s actions before Abimelech were more dangerous than he probably realized. God had just promised to open Sarah’s womb and let her conceive. The promise of a child, which Abraham and Sarah had been waiting on for twenty-five years, was on the cusp of fulfillment, but Abraham nearly threw it away. God himself had to intervene dramatically, threatening death to Abimelech (20:7) and closing the wombs of Abimelech’s entire household (20:18) to keep his covenant intact.

21:1-7 It had taken twenty-five years, and the promise often seemed in doubt, but sure enough, the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised (21:1). She became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham (21:2). Abraham and his wife demonstrated their faith by naming the boy Isaac, just as God had told them (21:3). The name Isaac, we will remember, means “he laughs.” But whereas the laughter of Abraham and Sarah had previously been scoffing and doubtful, with the fulfillment of the promise it transformed into the laughter of joy. Sarah herself recognized that everyone who heard her story would laugh with [her] (21:6), for what shows off the hilariously generous grace of God more than a couple in their nineties having their first child? The grace of God often seems so absurd.

21:8-13 Isaac’s birth might have transformed his parents’ mocking into laughter, but his presence precipitated another instance of mocking. Ishmael—the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham (21:9)—began to mock his half-brother Isaac. Clearly the tension between Hagar and Sarah had not fully dissipated, as the feud passed from mother to son. Sarah saw Ishmael as a threat to her son’s inheritance (21:10). In this God saw an opportunity to remove Ishmael from the household, so there would be no threat to the promised seed. But while God shared Sarah’s concern that Ishmael not be a coheir with . . . Isaac (21:10), he did not share her animosity toward Ishmael. He reassured Abraham that he would also make a nation of Ishmael because he is [Abraham’s] offspring (21:13).

The apostle Paul uses this separation of Ishmael and Isaac in Galatians 4:21-31 to illustrate the difference between flesh and Spirit, law and grace. When the legitimate heir (that is, Spirit and grace) comes, there is no longer need for the illegitimate (that is, the flesh and law). In fact, the two cannot coexist. So the flesh must be removed if believers are to experience freedom and the enjoyment of the promise of God.

21:14-21 Hagar was sent into the wilderness for the second time, this time with her son Ishmael (21:14). As before, Hagar assumed that she would soon die. Out of water and unable to bear to watch her young son die of thirst, she left the boy under one of the bushes (21:15) and went a distance away to await their deaths. But Ishmael means “he hears,” and just as God did before, God heard the boy crying (21:17). He provided a well (21:19), meeting their physical needs, and renewed the promise to make [Ishmael] a great nation (21:18), giving them spiritual hope for the journey ahead. Again God shows compassion for a single mother in distress.

21:22-32 Abraham’s blessings continued to increase, which led to a new covenant with the powerful King Abimelech. Abimelech would receive some of Abraham’s flocks and herds (21:27). In return, Abraham would retain rights to the well in Beer-sheba (21:30-31), which means “Well of the Oath.”

21:33-34 Planting trees, as Abraham did here (21:33), was not a common part of most Old Testament covenants. But the symbol was an important one, as it signified that Abraham intended to coexist in the land with other nations. This tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba (21:33) would be a sign of peace, security, and the appropriate kind of godly compromise. Abraham was doing what all believers should do: pursuing peace with his unbelieving neighbors without compromising his kingdom principles. The tree would also be a symbol of longevity, as Abraham anticipated that he (and his descendants) would stay on the land. This is why he refers to God as the Everlasting God (21:33) in this context.

22:1-2 By this point in the narrative, the promised son, Isaac, had become a young man. Abraham’s dream had come true, but into this paradise God suddenly said, Take your son . . . and offer him . . . as a burnt offering (22:2). The author says this was God’s way of testing Abraham (22:1), and what a devastating test it was! In its most basic terms, this test was a choice between God’s blessing and God himself. Would Abraham obey God and respond in faith, even though God’s new command was just as baffling—and even more painful—than any command he had previously been given?

The command is fraught with apparent contradictions. God’s command seemed to contradict God’s promises. How could God command murder? And how could such an action be explained to Sarah?

22:3 How would Abraham respond? The answer is given in that little clause, Abraham got up early in the morning. God told Abraham to give up the one blessing in his life that he treasured most—a legitimate son. Abraham’s response was to obey immediately. He may not have understood how God would provide, but he knew that God would provide. So he avoided the counterfeits of partial obedience and delayed obedience (which are both really disobedience anyway), following God boldly into the unknown.

22:4-6 When Abraham and Isaac reached the mountain, Abraham told his servants, The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you (22:5). Somehow Abraham believed that he would be coming back down the mountain with Isaac. The book of Hebrews helps us understand what was going on in his head. The writer notes that Abraham “considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead” (Heb 11:19). Abraham knew God’s promise that Isaac would continue the line of blessing, but he also knew that God had commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. The only conclusion he could draw was that God would bring him back from death.

Abraham’s belief in resurrection seems odd, especially when we realize that there had been no recorded instances of resurrection to this point. But don’t forget: Abraham had already seen God’s resurrection power. Sarah’s womb had been “dead” for twenty-five years; Abraham himself was past the age for bearing children, too. The author of Hebrews says that in terms of reproduction, the couple was “as good as dead” (Heb 11:12). Yet from this death God brought new life. Abraham may not have had a front row seat to a literal resurrection, but he knew that the same resurrecting power that brought Isaac into the world would somehow keep him in it.

22:7-8 The situation began to get awkward when Isaac noticed the lack of an animal (22:7). Abraham responded by reassuring Isaac that God himself would provide the lamb for the burnt offering (22:8). Abraham knew he was in a situation that he couldn’t fix. What he’d been asked to do felt like a contradiction, but instead of unraveling the contradiction himself, he decided to wait on God. Therefore, when God puts you in a contradiction that has no apparent solution, he alone must be trusted to resolve it.

22:9-12 When the moment of truth finally came, Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son (22:10). Thankfully, the angel of the Lord called out to him before he made the cut (22:11). Then this individual said something strange. Now I know, he said, that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me (22:12).

Many Bible students scratch their heads at this, because it sounds like God legitimately didn’t know how Abraham would act. But God knows everything factual and potential. He hasn’t, however, personally experienced everything he knows. For example, he knows all about sin, but he has never personally experienced committing sin (and never will). God had not yet experienced Abraham’s obedience. He delights in experiencing what he already knows to be the case, just as a wife delights in experiencing the love that her husband proclaims. God wants to feel our commitment. This is why he became a man—so that he could sympathize with our weaknesses.

22:13 At the same time God stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. God’s timing is funny like that. The ram must have been there the entire time, but Abraham didn’t notice it until God wanted to reveal it. The answer to Abraham’s problem was already supplied, but it was only revealed when Abraham took his step of obedience and faith. While Abraham walked up one side of the mountain with his problem, God had arranged it so that up the other side of the mountain was coming his answer. Please note, however, that God didn’t reveal the answer until obedience was complete.

22:14 Abraham fittingly named the place Yahweh-yireh, which means The Lord Will Provide. Abraham believed that God was a provider before, but something about this event made that head knowledge turn into heart knowledge.

22:15-19 Abraham would have been content to walk back down the mountain and call this a win. But God wasn’t done. He showed up again, repeating and expanding his promise to Abraham. I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars . . . and the sand on the seashore (22:17), and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring (22:18).

This sounds familiar. But then God takes it a step further. The author of Hebrews points out that [in verse 16] God makes an oath: By myself I have sworn (see Heb 6:13-18). What’s the difference between an oath and a promise? God’s promise is what he is going to do when all conditions have been met. It’s a guarantee. But God’s oath means that he’s ready to do it. You may have to wait for a promise, but the oath means that the promise is well on its way to fulfillment. It is because of these two realities (promise and oath) that it is impossible for God to lie (see Heb 6:13-18). His veracity assumes both.

22:20-24 This short, seemingly incidental genealogy contains one name that should stick out to us—Rebekah (22:23). If Abraham’s line was to continue, just as God had promised (and now sworn), then Isaac would require a wife. Rebekah would soon be that wife.

23:1 Sarah died at the age of 127 years, which may seem like a random detail. However, I see God’s gracious provision here. Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born—not only too old to have children, but also too old to spend any significant time with them. And yet God gave Sarah almost four decades with her son. Even the span of our short lives rests in the hands of a God who cares about these details.

23:2-20 Why all this talk about a burial plot? Remember where Abraham was—in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan (23:2). Abraham was in the land of promise, and saw in his wife’s death the opportunity to seize the firstfruits of God’s promise. This explains why he insisted upon paying the full price for his burial plot (23:9, 13), rather than receiving it as a gift, as Ephron and the other local leaders desired (23:6, 11). Abraham knew he could hold no lasting right to a gifted grave. An actual sale, on the other hand, with an exchange of money (23:15) and a company of witnesses (23:16), would give him a toehold in possessing the land of Canaan.

24:1-4 Abraham had begun to inherit the promises of God by this point. He had fathered Isaac, who had become grown. And with the burial plot in Kiriath-arba, he officially owned property in Canaan, God’s promised land. But God had not just promised a little land and a few descendants to him. He promised descendants as numerous as the stars and as plentiful as sand. So it became crucial for Abraham to find Isaac a wife.

He commissioned the elder of his household (24:2), essentially his chief of staff, to go to his land and family to take a wife for . . . Isaac (24:4). Abraham wanted to be sure that Isaac stayed true to the one true God, and he remembered the lesson of Lot—who became far too comfortable surrounded by godless people in a heathen culture. Rather than let Isaac get entangled in the same net with the Canaanites, Abraham looked to his homeland for Isaac’s wife. This decision was so serious that he made the servant pledge an oath by putting [his] hand under [Abraham’s] thigh (24:2)—an intimate action commonly used in those days to affirm sacred oaths.

24:5-9 Eliezer had some questions. What if the woman is unwilling to leave (24:5)? Should Isaac move to be near her instead? Abraham redoubled his intentions for Isaac to remain in the promised land (24:6), reminding Eliezer that God himself promised to give this land to [his] offspring (24:7). He had faith that God would oversee the journey so that Eliezer would find the right wife. Too many today lack that faith when it comes to finding a spouse. Only those who are committed to God and remain confident in God can expect to receive their romantic counterpart from God.

24:10-14 The servant stepped out in faith and prayed for God to reveal the right mate for Isaac. The key piece of prayer is the specific request for the girl to whom he would say, Please lower your water jug so that I may drink to respond by saying, Drink, and I’ll water your camels also (24:14). This would be an act of tremendous hospitality. It was customary in those days to offer water to strangers. It was incredibly rare, however, to offer to water a stranger’s animals. Eliezer’s entourage was not small either. He had brought ten of his master’s camels (24:10), and camels can drink up to twenty-five gallons of water.

24:15-21 To bring enough water for all the camels would have required Rebekah to haul water back and forth from the well for hours. And yet without any prodding, after offering water to Abraham’s servant, she also offered to draw water for [his] camels until they have had enough to drink (24:19). Not only that, but she also hurried to the well to do it (24:20). Rebekah showed herself to be a woman with a servant’s heart and a bodybuilder’s strength!

24:22-33 Rebekah may have been a perfect match in terms of character, but Eliezer was still wondering whether she was from the right family. After all, he had been given specific orders to take a wife from Abraham’s clan (24:4). Imagine his relief and thrill when Rebekah introduced herself as the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor (24:24). It may seem odd to us, but it was comforting to Eliezer to realize that Rebekah was Isaac’s cousin.

24:34-48 We should not overlook the faithfulness of the servant throughout this story; he kept his mission in front of him at all times. He had obviously rehearsed the instructions given to him by Abraham so frequently that he was able to recount the entire interaction, in extreme detail, at a moment’s notice. This lengthy retelling proves how serious his task was. It also shows that marriage relationships are much more important than a bride and groom might think. The purpose of marriage is not simply personal happiness, but kingdom fulfillment.

24:49-59 The moment of truth came when the servant plainly asked Rebekah’s family whether they would bless the marriage (24:49). Laban and Bethuel acknowledged that this is from the Lord, who had orchestrated the entire event (24:50). Interestingly, Rebekah too approved of the marriage (24:58), even though she had never seen Isaac. Rebekah was spiritual enough to submit her entire future to a husband she didn’t even know, because she was convinced God was at work.

24:60 Rebekah’s family sent her out with a blessing that ought to sound familiar: May your offspring possess the city gates of their enemies. There is no indication that the family knew of the promise to Abraham, which was phrased in precisely the same way (22:17). What may at first seem a coincidence is further proof of God’s involvement.

24:61-67 Just as Rebekah showed faith in agreeing to marry Isaac, Isaac also trusted God (and his father) with this match. Rebekah had her face covered with a veil (24:65) until the moment of the wedding, so Isaac needed to believe that the woman God had chosen would not only fit what he needed but would also be appealing to him. Apparently she was, because even though Isaac was grieving his mother’s death, Rebekah was able to bring him comfort and love (24:67).

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