Genesis 12 through 15 – Abraham: The Faithful One

Chapters 12 through 25 of Genesis present the story of Abraham, who will become the/or perhaps a “founding father” of the world’s three largest faith “communities” – Jews, Christians and Muslims. In my mind – seeing the array of biblical “stories,” legends, historical accounts and meditations – as a “narrative” put together by God in “His” very mysterious way through those who put “Him” first in their lives and consciousness - the story represents God’s new plan or approach to redeeming His precious creation. I will divide the story into two parts – chapters 12 through 15 - Abraham’s call and the covenant made with him, and then chapters 16 though 25 – on the first “fruits” of that covenant.

 

Abram and his family live in Haran, a town in the northern Euphrates area of what is now Turkey. Abram receives a “call” from God, telling him to leave the home of his father’s clan and go to “a land that I will show you” (12:1). God makes a few momentous promises to Abram:  “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name so famous that it will be used as a blessing. I will bless those who bless you: I will curse those who slight you. All the tribes of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (12:2-3). We are told that Abram is 75 when he left Haran with his wife, Sarai and his nephew Lot. No one will ever convince me that we are not meant to smile at this.

 

When they get to Shechem, the Lord appears to Abram and tells him that this is the land he is promising him.  Abram builds an altar there and invokes the Lord’s name.  Then we are told that they go into Egypt to escape famine.  Abram worries about Sarai’s beauty being a source of conflict, so they agree to say she is his sister.  The Pharaoh indeed does send for her, and we are not told what transpires there, if anything did.  But Abram benefits from the Pharaoh’s favoritism; but for some reason the Lord is very displeased and strikes Egypt with severe plagues.

 

There are a number of “foreshadowing details” in this story—the move to Egypt forced by famine, the position of honor accorded the wandering man of God from Canaan; God’s infliction of a series of plagues; and the sending of God’s favored one away from Pharaoh’s kingdom as a way of bringing peace back to his kingdom. Even the wealth Abram obtains there (see 12:16), he gets to take with them. Surely this is a “type” or "figure" of the later exodus.  And what then could Sarai be as a "type" - beloved spouse of God's “Israel”?

 

Returning to the story, it is the Pharaoh who sets things right and sends the pair away. Abraham is the first of the three key players in our redemption story—to be followed by Moses and Jesus—who will in a sense “come up out of Egypt” to begin their ministries.  The story of his sojourn in Egypt (one of a triplet of like stories) establishes his prosperity, even if it comes as a result of deceit, and Sarah’s value and importance.  Like his people he comes out of Egypt loaded with goods, so much he must separate from Lot (13:5-11).

 

While Noah foreshadows him somewhat, Abram is the first “seed” of Eve through whom a redemptive figure will be introduced into the creation.  Abram is told from the first that he is only the beginning, that it will be through him that a faithful people will be formed, and that this people will have an impact far beyond the borders of the nation they will form—that blessing will come through him and his "seed" to all mankind (12: 1-3; also 17: 3-8 and again in 22:16-18).  There will be much hardship along the way—exile, slavery and oppression and who knows what else in the distant, distant, future that will come before “all the nations of the earth” will “bless themselves by [Abraham’s] descendants.  But the redemptive process is set in motion through Abram.

 

The process begins with Abram hearing God’s voice and obeying it.  The voice tells him he must leave the traditions and ties of his father’s people, and we know from what we know of mankind at this stage of history, that family and clan ties were the life-blood of individual people.  To wander away, to break the ties, meant undertaking a great risk, divorcing oneself from the society of man generally.  God is not calling Abram to go to a new land to take up their ways, but to develop a way that God will lead him to—a new way.  That Abram will go down into Egypt briefly en route to the land God is promising is interesting mostly because it will be the start of a narrative motif that will repeat itself many times—for Joseph, for Moses and later for Jesus.  Abraham, Moses and Jesus will all “come up out of Egypt” to begin their ministries.

 

In response to God’s call, Abram goes to the Negeb and on to Bethel, to the place where he had built the altar.  Abram suggests to Lot that he go off and find himself a separate place to settle. Lot chooses the Jordan plain.  Abram stays in Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain, near Sodom.  The first thing we hear about Sodom is that in inhabitants were very wicked (13:13). The chapter ends with the Lord recapitulating the promises he made to Abram: “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever” (13:16). Abram builds an altar at Hebron.

 

There is a war in the region between the kings of Shinar (Amraphel), Ellasar (Arioch), Elam (Chedorlaomer) and Goiim (Tidal) and the kings of Sodom , Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Bela.  The first league of kings is victorious and in seizing the possession and food supplies of Sodom and Gomorrah, they sweep up Abram’s nephew Lot and all he owns.  Abram then goes and with 318 of his retainers; he recaptures Lot and his possessions and brings them back.  When he returns, not only does the king of Sodom greet him, but a King by the name of Melchizedek, King of Salem (Jerusalem), greets him as well. Melchizedek is a priest of “the Most High God,” [our God, the God of Abram] and he gives Abram offerings of bread and wine (14:18-20). In turn Abram givens him a tenth of all that he won in the war.  The king of Sodom offers to let Abram keep all the possessions of his he recaptured, but Abram refuses, not wanting to be beholden to him.

 

Though these first stories – Creation, Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, the Flood and the Call of Abraham – take only 30 pages of my Bible, they are packed with what George Fox called “types” and “figures.” He talks about this in his Journal:

 

“. . . as man comes through by the Spirit and power of God to Christ who fulfils the types, figures, shadows, promises, and prophecies that were of him, and is led by the Holy Ghost into the truth and substance of the Scriptures, sitting down in him who is the author and end of them,. . .  they [are] read and understood with profit and great delight” (Journal 32).

 

Fox was not the first to see allegory and metaphor in the Old Testament writings: early Church Fathers like Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Augustine embraced these “types” and “shadows” but I think Fox was the one who “opened” this to me and for that I am so thankful. Well, that’s a lot to post and to deal with – maybe too much. I hope not. 

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Comment by Forrest Curo on 5th mo. 14, 2011 at 12:59pm

This story is recorded in this form long after the actual events, so all details here are suspect.

 

We're told, for example, that Abraham is originally living in "Ur of the Chaldees," which it would not be called until much later... but would hopefully be the accurate address when the story is eventually written down.

 

The "Let me introduce you to my sister.." motif, which we encounter several times with different characters... looks less like a "foreshadowing" and a lot more like a story which originated in Abraham's time... and was retold in multiple versions out of sheer confusion as to what was going on. Tim Callahan cites a book on this theme which asserts that Sarah is a priestess and that occasional ceremonial intercourse with kings is among her duties. This hypothesis accounts for what happens far better than what we're told, that Abraham is trusting deceit rather than God, that mild-mannered little Sarah is just tamely following his lead. Their sexual mores were different, in those days, as we see in many Bible stories. One significant element is that Abraham truly has married his sister (as we would see it) in that they have the same father-- but since they have different mothers, this isn't (at the time) considered incestuous. In fact, marrying relatives is customary for high-ranking people in these days, and many of the patriarchs do so. (It reduces the number of outside alliances a tribe can make-- but also works to keep an inheritance in the family.) In some versions of the "sacred marriage" rite that Sarah was likely following, any resulting children were to be sacrificed... (an interesting slant on the upcoming trip up the mountain with Isaac?) and in others they weren't. Payment to the husband of such a priestess... would be for her priestly services, not to compensate for what later times would consider disgraceful treatment of her, and not at all a generous hooker's fee.

 

None of this detracts, by the way, from calling the story "true" in the sense: This is a sufficiently accurate description of why Abraham left home and wandered through the Near East, and of God's long-term intentions in calling him. (The actual land 'promised' is a little different in different times' formulations of that Promise, subject to some modest human 'fudging.')

Comment by jp on 5th mo. 26, 2011 at 10:24am
Forrest, does Tim Callahan have any evidence other than the Genesis stories ( "she is my sister") to explain Sarai as a "priestess"? I'd expect to see some sort of hint in the text itself. Given the absurd acts of most of the patriarchs, it isn't that far a stretch for me to believe that we are meant to believe these stories. But maybe I should read Callahan's book...

And Irene, in your list of those who looked to these stories for Types and Shadows, you surely should include the writer of Hebrews!

Also in this section is the famous line , "Abram believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.". I find it worth noting that Paul will use this to claim that we are justified by faith and not works, whilst James will use it to say we cannot be justified by faith alone.


Meanhile, skimming through these stories I was struck by the numbers: 5 kings against 4 kings, then Abram collects just a little over 300 fighters (being over 75 years of age, did he take part in the combat, or do we get to smile here again?) and manages to defeat the victors. Is this another Type or Foreshadowing of how God will use a few to overcome the many? Or was 300+ a grand army?

Is it significant that we be told the exact number (318)?

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