By James Riley Strange, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament, Samford University
THE BASIS FOR CONFIDENCE
Today we begin a six-week study of Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors in the faith. This does not mean their every action was good and just. Both had dramatic moral failings, and both strained to trust God, but both also managed to obey in their imperfect ways.
This makes them fit models of fidelity for us, who in our own time and in our own ways also struggle with obedience.
We first read the names Abram and Sarai in Genesis 11:26–29. Here we also learn they are Mesopotamians from “Ur of the Chaldeans,” a city on the lower Euphrates River. Before the famous call, they already had endured a long journey with Abram’s father, Terah, who took his extended family to Haran in northwestern Mesopotamia, the place where they lived when Terah died. Read Genesis 11:24–12:20 for context. In the Old Testament, “the LORD” spelled in capital letters translates the Hebrew word “Yahweh.”
God calls us to follow Him. (1–3)
As with most biblical figures, including Jesus, we know little of Abram and Sarai when they were young. Later Jewish texts will remember them before their calling as those who simply said “Yes” to God.
As Mesopotamians, Abram and Sarai may have been raised as polytheists. Sarai/Sarah (“princess” or “lady”) implies Sarai was named for Sharratu, the wife of the Mesopotamian moon god. If this is the case, then the first patriarch and matriarch model the abandonment of other gods that Israel’s prophets will constantly demand.
God makes no introduction. Rather, the command is abrupt: God wants Abram and Sarai to leave behind country, tribe and house — that is, everything familiar and safe.
The language, “Go … to the land that I will show you,” reveals they know neither their destination nor in which direction to go. It also foreshadows God’s later command to sacrifice Isaac, the promised child (22:2).
God’s promise of descendants in verse 2 is in tension with 11:30, which introduces the theme of barrenness among the matriarchs. Now we know the couple must expect a miracle.
We respond to God’s call with obedience. (4–6)
We are not told why Abram does as God says. Perhaps it is because God promises “a great nation” of descendants and blessing.
In context, “blessing” usually means wealth and prosperity (see Deut. 28:1–14), but Abram and Sarai will not see the promise’s first part fulfilled, and on the way to the second part they will suffer instability and heartache.
The last sentence of verse 6 shows the story was written centuries after the events it talks about, when Canaanites no longer lived in the land.
A relationship of trust leads us to worship. (7–8)
Notice God does not promise land to Abram, but to his “offspring” (literally “seed”).
Indeed, at the end of their lives, Abram and Sarai remain landless nomads. Now, in response to a promise to be fulfilled long after his death, Abram builds altars outside of cities in which he and Sarai will not live.
Next week we will see that despite these acts of worship, Abram does not always trust God’s promise and will endanger Sarai as a result. Here, however, we note that Abram worships God before seeing any realization of the promise he has heard.
Already we see the obedience of these two heroes of the faith will vary from inconsistent and inadequate to dependable and robust.
They are like us. We can be assured of both the heights we can reach and God’s forgiveness when we stoop too low.