II. Abraham (Genesis 11:10–24:67)


II. Abraham (11:10–24:67)

A. Father Abraham and His Rocky Faith Journey (11:10–14:24)

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.

The genealogy slows down as it approaches Abram, whose name means exalted father (11:27-32). We pick up the action as Abram’s father, Terah, was moving his family from Ur of the Chaldeans (a wealthy city in Mesopotamia) to go to the land of Canaan, the promised land (11:31). Terah, however, stopped short in the land of Haran—modern day northern Syria (11:31). Abram’s trip to the promised land would have to wait until Terah’s death (11:32).

12:1-3 When God saw the wickedness in Noah’s day, he reestablished his plan by choosing one faithful man. We see the same pattern happening here with Abram. God’s desire was still to fill the earth with his glory and bless all the peoples (12:3), but he began that mission by calling one individual. Thus, God commanded Abram to leave his land, his relatives, and his father’s house to go to a new land (12:1).

Abram had to act in faith, because he did not know where God was leading him. He only knew that if he would obey, God would respond by making him into a great nation, making his name great, and even using him to bring blessing to others (12:2). God was advancing his kingdom agenda through Abram.

12:4-7 Abram obeyed God’s command, leaving Haran with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all of the other people (12:5) who were stepping out in faith with Abram. When he arrived at the oak of Moreh (12:6), most likely a Canaanite worship center, God promised to give this land to Abram’s offspring (12:7). Abram’s faith in action had led to further illumination.

This is God’s pattern: not only does obedience lead to blessing, but it also leads to greater clarity of God’s will, purpose, and direction in our lives. God speaks in concert with our obedience, not with our rebellion.

12:7-9 Abram responded to God’s promise by building two altars to the true God—one at the oak of Moreh and another in Bethel (see 12:7-8). These altars represented public declarations of faith in the midst of a pagan environment. We may not build stone altars today, but we too should make public declarations of our faith in God—even when our society wants nothing to do with him.

12:10 Abram began his journey of faith well, obediently leaving Haran, traveling to Canaan, and making declarations of allegiance to God along the way. But his faith soon gave way to fear. A famine caused Abram and his family to travel to Egypt for food. This was a bad move because God had made it clear that he wanted Abram in Canaan, not Egypt. The moment Abram assessed the situation from a human perspective, he made a decision that threatened to jeopardize God’s program.

12:11-15 While in Egypt, Abram’s fear grew. He worried that someone might see Sarai’s beauty and kill him to get her (12:11-12). So he hatched a plan to save his skin. Sarai was to say that she was Abram’s sister (12:13)—which, according to 20:12, was half true. Abram may have reasoned that any serious suitor would have to ask him for permission to marry Sarai, which would give them enough time to escape. But not just any suitor showed interest. Pharaoh himself wanted Sarai for a wife, so he bypassed the normal conventions and welcomed her right into the palace (12:15).

12:16 The immediate outcome of this little drama was that Abram got fabulously wealthy. But at what cost? No amount of money could make up for the fact that Abram was ready to give up his wife and abandon the promise of God for mere self-preservation.

12:17-20 This odd story demonstrates God’s commitment to his kingdom program and promises. He sent severe plagues to Pharaoh’s household (12:17), which immediately signaled to the people involved that they had been deceived. Pharaoh, whose position of power would have allowed him to do nearly anything, acted with more integrity than Abram in giving Sarai back without punishing the couple in any way (12:18-20).

13:1-7 Having been sent away from Egypt, Abram and his family journeyed to the Negev (13:1), then from the Negev to Bethel (13:3), gradually making their way back toward the land of promise. By this point Abram had become rich in livestock, silver, and gold (13:2), but so had his nephew Lot (13:5). Had the men’s wealth just been in silver and gold, they would have had no problem. But their herds were too vast for any one area (13:6). There simply wasn’t enough water and pasture for all of their livestock.

13:8-9 Abram recognized that he and Lot had to separate. Surprisingly, though, Abram chose to preserve relationship over keeping the economic upper hand. He allowed Lot to pick his plot of land first (13:9). This was an incredibly generous decision: in that culture, as head of the household, Abram had every right to make the first choice himself. But he had faith in God’s promise and provision, so he was able to defer to Lot.

13:10-13 Lot looked at the two options and saw that the entire plain of the Jordan as far as Zoar was well watered everywhere (13:10). He saw the material wealth in front of him, but failed to see what he should have—that it couldn’t last. God was going to judge the region soon, because the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord (13:13). Yet Lot chose to get close to sin for the material gain and beauty of a moment, journeying eastward toward Sodom and Gomorrah (13:11). In Genesis, moving east was always a bad sign, and that is precisely the direction in which Lot was headed.

13:14-17 Earlier, Lot lifted up his eyes and saw only what can be seen with the physical senses. Here, however, God lifted up Abram’s eyes to see the spiritual promise of God (13:14). The great lesson for Israel—and for us—here is that we must get God’s perspective on our situations, not relying on our own. We perceive only the temporary; God sees the eternal.

What God offered to Abram was long-term: I will give you and your offspring forever all the land that you see (13:15). Moreover, God seemed to increase his promise, now telling Abram that his descendants would multiply so dramatically that they would be as innumerable as the dust of the earth (13:16). Best of all, Abram wouldn’t have to do anything to make this happen. I will give it to you (13:17), God plainly told him. The beautiful part of obeying God is that you don’t have to take what’s yours; he gives it to you freely.

13:18 Abram moved his tent near the oaks of Mamre at Hebron, building there another altar to the Lord. He heard God’s promise and received it, worshiping God because of his word and finding security in that word. Unlike he’d done during his time in Egypt, Abram was now moving by faith, not by sight, which would be the foundation not only of his obedience but also of the obedience that God wants for all who follow him (see 2 Cor 5:7).

14:1-12 It wasn’t long before Lot’s location led him to trouble. War broke out among five Canaanite kings (14:8-9) and four kings from the east (14:1-2), and Lot was caught in the scuffle. In the process of conquering the five Canaanite kings, the eastern armies took spoils from the region—including Lot and his family (14:12).

14:13-16 Word reached Abram that Lot had been captured (14:13-14), so he assembled his 318 trained men to go get his nephew back (14:14). (If you’re going to take 318 men against the armies of four kings, they had better be “trained”!) With them, Abram pursued the armies as far as Hobah to the north of Damascus (14:15)—that means he covered about 240 miles, by night, without a single army vehicle. And sure enough, he brought back . . . his relative Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the other people (14:16).

The only explanation for such a victory was God fulfilling his word to Abram—that those who hurt Abram were hurting God, and God himself would defend Abram. God wants to be our protector when circumstances have raided our lives and stolen our joy, our hope, our tomorrows. He can lead a rescue mission to bring them back.

14:17-18 Abram’s daring military venture released a lot more than Lot and his family. Several kings were freed, and one of them came to thank Abram. His name was Melchizedek, king of Salem, called a priest to God Most High (14:18). Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness,” and Salem means “peace.” (The city of Jerusalem, for instance, means “city of peace.”) So this person is also the King of Peace.

The peculiar thing about him is that he’s both a king and a priest. Kings rule over the people, while priests stand between the people and God. No Jew ever occupied both offices. This is why the author of Hebrews says that Jesus was a priest and a king in “the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:10). Jesus is the true and permanent King of Righteousness and Peace, and he is the great high priest who bridged the gap between God and humanity. Melchizedek is a prototype of the Son of God.

14:19 Melchizedek blessed Abram in the name of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. This name for God, El Elyon, emphasizes his power and might. Literally, it’s a superlative, meaning “God, the highest.” It comes up in this context because God wanted to emphasize his control. He wanted Abram to know that the kings were never in charge of the situation; he was. The kings thought they were high until El Elyon got into the fight. With El Elyon, an army of 318 can overpower the armies of multiple kings. With El Elyon in your life, the “kings” of sin, darkness, and temptation don’t stand a chance.

14:20 We see the first tithe here, as Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything. The order here is crucial. Abram only gave Melchizedek his tithe after Melchizedek had blessed him (14:19-20). In other words, Abram did not give to get God’s blessing; he gave because he had already been blessed by God. His giving was a response to what God had done. Since Jesus came in “the order of Melchizedek,” the tithe is still valid today as believers respond to the goodness of God in their lives (see Heb 7:1-17).

14:21 Apparently the king of Sodom liked the sight of Melchizedek getting a tenth of Abram’s spoils, so he moved in to cut a deal with Abram too: Give me the people, but take the possessions for yourself. In other words, he wanted to make this a fifty-fifty split. But the king of Sodom had been on the losing end of this battle. He was one of the captives that Abram set free, yet he was trying to negotiate to make it look like he had something to do with the victory.

14:22-24 Abram responded by putting the king of Sodom in his place. He told the king that he would be keeping his own spoils (thank you very much), and wouldn’t touch even a thread or sandal strap or anything that belongs to him, because Abram wanted to make sure the king could never say, I made Abram rich (14:23). The victory was God’s, and so God alone deserves the glory. This is a subtle reminder not to compromise with the world for the sake of economic or political gain.

B. From Abram to Abraham: A Covenant Renewed (15:1–17:27)

15:1-3 About ten years had passed since Abram first picked up and moved his family toward Canaan (12:1-4). Back then, God promised Abram great blessing, his own land, and a multitude of children. But Abram still had no kids—a fact that he felt compelled to point out to God (15:2-3). His faith was starting to falter.

15:4-5 God renewed his covenant with Abram by insisting that one who comes from [his] own body would inherit his wealth (15:4). He also added some specificity to the promise: whereas previously he had said Abram would simply become “a great nation” (12:2), now he fleshed that out by pointing to the stars. Count the stars, if you are able (15:5). That’s how many descendants you’ll have. Abram felt old and barren, and God knew it. But if God was powerful enough to create billions of stars out of nothing, he would be powerful enough to create new life from an old man. And he’s powerful enough to create new life in you, too.

15:6 While looking up at the night sky, in spite of all the obstacles still before him, Abram believed God’s promise. God saw this faith and credited it to him as righteousness. The apostle Paul would pick up on this verse in Romans 4:3, using Abram as an example of how faith works. God spoke to Abram, and Abram took him at his word. That’s the essence of faith. Because of this faith, God chose to count Abram’s faith as righteousness. That’s the result of faith.

15:7-21 Abram believed but still wanted more details about how all of this would come to pass. He asked, Lord God, how can I know that I will possess this land? (15:8). God then asked Abram to perform what seemed to be a bizarre ritual. He told Abram to get a three-year-old cow, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon (15:9). Abram did so and cut each animal in half (15:10). Then Abram fell asleep (15:12).

These strange details are important to what happened next. God renewed his cov-enant with Abram, giving a few more specifics about the promised land (15:18-21) and letting Abram know about Israel’s future exile in Egypt (15:13-16). The key detail, though, is that God alone—in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch—passed through the path of the torn animals (15:17).

Covenants like this one were supposed to have two people involved. Both parties to the covenant were supposed to walk between the slain animals, signaling that if either one broke their side of the agreement, he would suffer a fate like that of the animals. God’s covenant, then, was radically unique: Abram wasn’t even awake when it was made, so he couldn’t walk the cov-enant out. God walked through for both of them, promising to bear the fatal burden if either of them broke the covenant. Centuries later, after mountains of human sin had accumulated, the Son of God bore the covenant penalty on the cross of Calvary.

16:1-4 Even after hearing the promise of God again—and believing it—Abram and Sarai found it difficult to know how they would produce a child. After all, both of them were old, pushing the century mark, and the promise was still unfulfilled.

So Sarai did what many of us do when we don’t like God’s timing: she produced a scheme to help God out. It was the custom of the day for a servant to act as a surrogate when the wife of the household couldn’t conceive. Sarai, therefore, took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and offered her to her husband . . . as a wife (16:3). Abram quietly acquiesced to the plan (16:4), passively making the same mistake Adam did in allowing his wife to overrule the word and will of God.

16:4-6 Abram and Sarai’s scheme seemed successful when Hagar . . . became pregnant (16:4). But her pregnancy was hardly the panacea that Sarai hoped for. (After all, encouraging your man to sleep with another woman will never lead to a happy family life.) And so, Hagar’s pregnancy, rather than causing celebration, only incited Sarai’s jealousy and rage. Sarai mistreated her so much that she ran away (16:6). Just as with Adam and Eve, the consequences of sin were immediately present in interpersonal conflict.

16:7-11 Hagar was now a pregnant single woman without a place to lay her head. But God met her in her place of despair. Through the angel of the Lord (16:7), he guided her back to Abram and Sarai (16:9). He also promised that the child in her womb would be a son (16:11). Not only that, but also God called his name Ishmael, which means “God hears” (16:11). Even though the people closest to her had turned on her and she felt completely alone, God himself came close to Hagar, reassuring her that he had heard her despair. God is near to the brokenhearted, and he hears their cries (see Ps 34:18). This gives hope to any single mother who reaches out to God.

16:12 Ishmael, Hagar’s promised son, would be like a wild donkey, which is not to be taken as a compliment in any era or culture. His descendants would be unruly, bringing conflict into the household of God for generations to come. The Ishmaelites would be a consistent nemesis for the Jews, with their hand . . . against everyone. Sarai’s earthly act, though intended to serve a spiritual purpose, only led to more conflict, crisis, and enmity. The only safe way to fulfill the purposes of God is through living in obedience to the revealed will of God.

16:13-16 In spite of the negative promises about Ishmael’s future, Hagar still recognized that God had met her in her place of despair. So she named the Lord who spoke to her: “You are El-roi” (16:13), meaning “The God who sees.” What greater comfort can there be than to know that God hears, sees, and cares?

17:1 Abram was ninety-nine years old. Twenty-four years had passed since God first promised him a son, a promise that looked increasingly impossible if Sarai was to be the mother. But God assured Abram, I am God Almighty. He is full of power. Abram, then, didn’t need to worry about the fulfillment of the promise. All he needed to do was to fulfill his obligation to God: Live in my presence and be blameless.

17:2-3 God repeated his covenant to Abram again, promising to multiply him greatly (17:2). Abram responded in the only appropriate way: he fell facedown before God (17:3). This represented both fear and faith, a combination that God honored by revealing more of his plan.

17:4-8 Name changes in the Bible are always important, because names carry meaning and identity. God changed Abram’s name, even before the promise was fulfilled, from Abram to Abraham (17:5). Abram means “exalted father,” but Abraham means “father of a multitude” because he would become the father of many nations (17:5). The promise had grown.

Notice, however, that nothing had changed in Abram’s life, except that he had gotten older, faltering in his faith along the way. What was unlikely at age seventy-five was now downright unthinkable at age ninety-nine. And God didn’t do anything to change the circumstances. Instead, he changed Abram’s name to fit his own promise. Some of us are walking through life thinking we need a new circumstance, when what we need is a new name. God may not do anything to fix our situation, but he can always change our name to fit his purposes.

17:9-14 The sign of God’s renewed covenant with Abraham was that every male must circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin (17:11). This painful procedure underscores the commitment God expected from those in covenant with him. Even though God was the primary agent in the covenant, his people were responsible to sacrifice in order to enter that agreement.

Circumcision had two unique areas of significance. First, it was a signal that men would carry the covenant, as we see this promise pass from Abraham to his son Isaac, to his son Jacob, and so on. Second, circumcision was to be a perpetual reminder to the people that God intended to remove impurity from their midst. Removing the male foreskin helped to prevent disease, and God used the practice to prefigure how his kingdom would operate: it would be purged of impurity and would pursue holiness.

17:15-16 Just as Abram received a new name from God (Abraham), so too did Sarai. By God’s command, Sarai became Sarah, meaning “princess” (17:15). With this new name comes a renewed promise, that she will produce nations; kings of peoples will come from her (17:16).

17:17-22 Abraham found this as difficult to believe as we would, since he was pushing one hundred and Sarah was ninety. He laughed (17:17) because he couldn’t take God seriously, so God decided to have a little fun with Abraham. He repeated the promise of Sarah bearing a son, but added, you will name him Isaac (17:19)—the name Isaac meaning “he laughs.” For the rest of his life, every time Abraham would say his son’s name, he would be reminded that he had laughed at the miracle God had promised. God always gets the last laugh.

17:23-27 Abraham immediately obeyed the command to circumcise himself and his men, on that very day (17:23). Considering what the procedure entailed, I think this was nothing short of a miraculous act of faith. For believers today, circumcision no longer operates as the sign of God’s kingdom. It has been replaced by baptism, the sign of the new covenant. Baptism serves as a sign that we are operating in accordance with God’s covenant and allowing his kingdom rule to govern our lives.

C. Sodom and Lot (18:1–19:38)

18:1-2 Soon after Abraham’s covenant of circumcision, he was visited by what appeared to be three men standing near him (18:2). But the text makes it clear that it was actually the Lord and two angels (18:1; 19:1). Like Old Testament appearances of the “angel of the Lord” or the “commander of the Lord’s army” (see Josh 5:13-15; Judg 2:1-5; 13:1-23), this was a “Christophany,” a preincarnate but visible manifestation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

18:3-8 Abraham did not realize at the time who these visitors were; nevertheless, he hurried to show them hospitality (18:3-4). God had decided to visit with Abraham, personally confirming what he had already promised many times. The picture here is a surprisingly intimate one: God sat and ate with Abraham for half a day, fellowshipping with him and surrounding his promise with his presence.

18:9-12 Every time God interacted with Abraham, he reminded him of the same promise. This time, though, the promise got more specific. I will certainly come back to you in about a year’s time, God said, and your wife Sarah will have a son! (18:10). Sarah, who had her ear to the tent door, overheard this audacious promise. She laughed to herself—scoffed—at the silliness of the idea (18:12). Evidently Abraham had failed to pass along the lesson he had just learned about the folly of laughing at God.

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.

D. Isaac: Birth, Sacrifice, and Quest for a Wife (20:1–24:67)

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).