WISDOM FROM THE BEGINNING – PART IV – SECTION II
OF THE CALL OF ABRAHAM
I. Having left Melchizedek, Abram then encounters God again and receives a new promise from Him, but with a challenge and terrifying darkness.
A. Despite his recent victory, it appears Abram is fearful, for God's first words to Him are "fear not."
1. Abram may
have been fearful of the ramifications of becoming involved in international
politics, with the potential of empires from the east now turning on
him. Or, having met the seemingly timeless Melchizedek, he recognizes
now even more his own mortality.
1. He appears
to believe that God will make his name great, but only through his general
group, not his own children. Childlessness was considered a curse among
all the ancient peoples, but especially among the Jews. See, e.g.,
Gen. 30:23; 1 Sam. 1:1-8; Luke 1:25. So important was having children
that the Dueteronomic law called for the brother of one who dies childless
to raise children in his name. See Duet. 25:5-10. The Book of
Wisdom, written shortly before the time of Christ, assures the reader
that those who are, without fault, childless, will be greatly blessed
by God. See Wis. 3:13-4:6. But that assurance was needed
precisely because people often asked why God would allow a just woman
to be without children.
3. Here, critically, Abraham places faith in God. The next line contains an ambiguity. It can read either "He [God] credited it to him [Abram] as an act of righteousness" or "he [Abram] credited it to Him [God] as an act of righteousness." The ambiguity is perhaps deliberate; there is a mutual trust.
a. As read in the first way, this line, in verse 6 of chapter 15, will have an extensive subsequent history.
b. St. Paul
cites it as evidence of the fact that faith itself justifies before
there is any good work. It is the faith that gives righteousness,
not any act of Abraham. See Rom. 4:1-13; Gal. 3:1-6.
5. Interestingly, even after Abram puts his faith in God, the dialogue continues.
a. God makes
it clear that He was the one who called Abram's father from Ur.
Chapter 11 had not actually said it was God who was calling Terah out
of Ur, but rather only that he left. Here, however, God makes
it clear that that departure was no accident, even though Abram may
not have seen God's hand at work at the time. God's hand is
usually at work in a person's life long before he perceives it.
Here also God uses the term "Yahweh" for the first time to Abram.
1. God calls for Abram to begin with a customary ritual, bring four three-year old animals as a sacrifice, dividing the heifer, the ram and goat, but not the pigeon.
to Robert Sacks, the goat symbolizes a ruler, the heifer the priests,
the ram the average person, and the dove the poor. The variance
is in accordance with the cost and rarity of the animal. See Leon
Kaas, The Beginning of Wisdom 304 f.n.8. Other commentators elevate
the dove, who cannot be divided, as a symbol of the spirit.
b. The divided
animals are a symbol that the parties would rather be torn in two than
violate the covenant. They pass through that symbol indicating
II. Abram and Sarai then try to take matters into their own hands by having Abram conceive a child through Hagar.
Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the term for angel (mal'akh, aggelos or angelus)
also means messenger. The Bible sometimes goes back and forth
between the meanings. See, e.g., Mark 1:2-3 (referring to John
the Baptist as the Lord's messenger, with a quote from Malachi that
plainly refers to angels.)
2. The angel
first gives Hagar a chance to describe her condition, which she does
plainly and simply, in contrast to the machinations elsewhere.
3. As with the mixed promise to Abram regarding his descendants inheriting the land, but only after 400 years of oppression, the angel gives a mixed (but in the end glorious) promise to Abram and Hagar's descendants.
the angel promises that her descendants will, like Abram's descendants
by Sarai, be too numerous to count.
- This place is near Kadesh, which is north of the Sea of Galilee, at the northernmost part of what will become the nation of Israel. The family of Laban and Rachel, a brother and sister who are grandchildren of Abraham's brother, Nahor will settle there. Isaac will travel there and marry Rachel. See Gen. 24:62.
III. After thirteen years, the narrative picks up again with God blessing Abram even more, changing his name, promising him many nations through Isaac, and calling for the covenant to be reaffirmed through circumcision.
A. At this point,
Ishmael is thirteen, which would be a common age for a young man to
start being called an adult. Circumcision at about the age of
thirteen was a common rite of passage in ancient Near Eastern cultures,
as it is among Muslims today.
B. God begins by
referring to Himself as God Almighty (El-Shaddai), the first use of
that term in the Bible. The phrase El-Shaddai tends to be associated
with the mystery of God. See Gen. 36:11; Ex. 6:3; Job 5:17,
8:3-5, 22:3-26; 40:2. The Book of Revelation uses the term
God Almighty (in Greek, but with a Hebrew background) frequently, especially
with reference to the worship given to God and the judgment of God,
all of which ends in the peace of the heavenly Jerusalem. See
Rev. 1:8, 4:8, 11:17, 15:3, 16:7, 14; 19:15; 21:22.
C. God promises again
an eternal covenant, with the moral basis that Abram is to walk in His
presence blamelessly. The ritual aspect (emphasized before with
the ritual in chapter 15 and later with circumcision) is combined with
the moral law. This combination, central in Jewish thought, is
not universal. Many religions in the ancient Near East, and even
now in the West, have very little in the way of a moral code.
And many moral codes, such as those of the ancient Aristotelians, Platonists,
and Stoics, as well as modern Enlightenment era philosophies such as
those of Hume, Kant, and John Stuart Mill have no religious connection.
1. God now changes Abram's name to Abraham, meaning a "father of many nations." Through Ishmael, and later through Isaac's son Esau, many other nations would spring from Abram, now Abraham. The idea is that his blessings would be enjoyed, not only by what would be the Israelites, but also by nations throughout the world. The Psalms and prophets would anticipate the day when all nations would come before the new Jerusalem. See, e.g., Ps. 87:4-6; Is. 60:10-14, 66:18-21. We now see the fulfillment of that promise in the Church.
- There is
also the promise of many kings from Abraham; the notion of kingdom is
a strong one for the Jews and Christians, although the king should not
be like that of other nations. See, e.g., Duet. 17:14-20; John
- In this
promise especially, there is a continual repetition of the word "you,"
and "your," with twelve instances of the former and five of the
latter in six verses. There is a great emphasis on the centrality
of Abraham to God's plans
2. God also reiterates
His promise of a land and a lasting covenant, but adds that it will
be an "everlasting covenant." Despite all the sinfulness of
man, God's love will make His covenant last. In His sacrifice
on Calvary, Jesus took the old rituals and made them the final and eternal
covenant. See Heb. 8-9.
3. God promises Abraham that the covenant will be through his son by Sarai, whose name God changes to the more precise Sarah.
is skeptical of this promise because of the seeming physical impossibility.
He inwardly laughs and outwardly lessens Gods own offer, saying that
it will be enough for the promises to be through Ishmael. Strangely,
he seems to think that he must let God out of His extravagant promises.
reaction to Abraham is not harsh, but does repudiate him. First,
because of Abraham's laughter, the son will be called Isaac, which
is derived from the Hebrew words for "May God laugh." Isaac
will, in his very name, be a continual reminder that the ways of God
seem foolish to human beings, but that God laughs at human scheming.
See Ps. 2:1-4; 1 Cor. 1:18-25. Children are ever God's response
to human skepticism and worldly plans, upsetting both of them.
c. God promises
that Ishmael, whom Abraham plainly loves, will himself be blessed and
become the father of twelve chieftains. Ishmael's line will
actually get a generational jump on the line of Isaac, whose son Jacob
will be the father of twelve patriarchs. Chapter 25 will list
the twelve sons of Ishmael, and indicate that they spread throughout
a vast part of Arabia. Muslims to this day consider themselves
to be descendants of Ishmael.
4. On Abraham and his heirs' part, God required circumcision as a sign of the covenant. God was taking a common ritual and moving it into infancy, at eight days.
is both a personal and familial act and also ritual one. There
is a connection to generative powers, but not one that is itself sexual.
Thus, God is taking a common rite of the time and making it work for
D. Abraham once again shows his faithfulness by carrying out the circumcision. The text emphasizes his own actions, but his people (whose males presumably numbered over 500) must have cooperated.
- The fact that he could even make such a proposal to his people demonstrates the risks he was willing to take in order to please God. The fact that Abraham could command such loyalty is astonishing and testifies to the faith his people had in him.