The Faith of Abraham – An Excerpt From Genesis (The Story of God Bible Commentary Series)
The Story of God Bible Commentary explains and illuminates each passage of Scripture in light of the Bible’s grand story. It aims to set each passage within the context of Scripture and leads the reader to (1) “Listen to the Story,” (2) “Interpret the Story,” and (3) “Live the Story.”
In his commentary on Genesis, Tremper Longman III examines each portion of scripture through this three-step process. This week’s excerpt is taken from the “Live the Story” section of Genesis 11:27-12:9, and encourages us to reflect on Abraham’s faith journey, as well as our own.
THE JOURNEY OF FAITH
Genesis 12:1 – 3 reverberates through the rest of the Bible. In large part, the Abraham narrative follows the patriarch’s reactions to threats and obstacles to the fulfillment of the promises. We will see in the following episodes of his life that he occasionally responds with faith, but more often he doubts and responds with fear and self-protection. At the end of his life, God will test him to the utmost and he will show himself to be utterly faithful (see Gen 22).
For this reason, the New Testament presents Abraham as a model of the life of faith. After defining faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1), the author of Hebrews presents a portrait gallery of examples of faith from the past. The author devotes two parts to Abraham. We will cite portions of the Hebrews passage throughout our study of Abraham in order to remind us of this central theme and its relevance for our lives today: Heb 11:8 – 10
The author of Hebrews understood the connection with the Christian life of faith. We too have received promises from God. He will be with us during our lives, and he will come again and bring his people into the heavenly city described in Revelation 21 – 22. But we too, like Abraham, are constantly challenged by threats and obstacles to the fulfillment of that promise. Is God really with me? The disappointments and pain of life seem to provide counterevidence. Is there really a heaven or is it a figment of my imagination? Doubts plague us. How do we respond? Fear or faith? Abraham is a model for us, and we will soon see he is far, far from perfect. He will be an encouragement for us to hold on as he did, because we too are far, far from perfect.
The Myth of Certainty
While we reflect on Abraham’s faith journey and our own, it is important to realize that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but unbelief. If we are certain about something, we do not need faith. Paralyzing doubt can hurt faith, but the reflective Christian will often struggle with doubt. As Taylor points out, certainty can only be achieved by a kind of blind acceptance of authority that suppresses questions and doubts. On the other hand, though, doubts that lead to an avoidance of commitment to the object of faith (in our case Jesus) is unhealthy. The church needs to create a culture where healthy, faith-growing doubt can exist and be expressed.
Israel, the Seed of Abraham
God promised Abraham that he would make him a “great nation” (12:2). We observed above that the fulfillment of this promise would mean that Abraham would have many descendants and also would come to possess the land. Indeed, the most immediate threat to the fulfillment of the promise will be Sarah’s persistent barrenness. To have many descendants a couple has to start with one! Of course, as we know and will see as the plot continues that one son, Isaac, will eventually be born. But the promise of a great nation entails a large population, not just even a large family, and this aspect of the promise is spelled out in more detail later in the patriarchal narratives. Later God will tell Abraham: “ ‘Look up to the sky and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’ ” (15:5; see also 22:17; 26:4).
This promise is fulfilled in the nation of Israel born in the exodus event as is signaled by the comment at the beginning of the book of Exodus that “the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them” (1:7).
The story of Joshua narrates how the numerous people of Israel enter and begin to take possession of the land. It is this great nation, Israel, that is to be blessed by God and to bring a blessing to all the nations of the world. Thus, we can see how the promises to Abraham given in 12:1 – 3 reverberate beyond the book of Genesis and through the rest of the Old Testament as it tells the story of Israel, the seed of Abraham, but not even that is the end of the story.
As we turn our attention next to the New Testament, we see that Israel is not only the seed of Abraham, but more importantly Jesus is the seed of Abraham.
Jesus, the Seed of Abraham
Unfortunately, the Old Testament is not a story of triumph but one that is rocky from beginning to end. Like Abraham himself, Israel did not always respond with faith and trust in God. Indeed, Joshua through Kings, while having many bright spots, tells a story of persistent sin. Rather than being a light to the nations Israel received the judgment of God who used the nations (particularly Assyria and Babylon) to remove their status as an independent nation. The exile was not the end of the story to be sure (Ezra–Nehemiah; Esther), but the story of the Old Testament shows that persistent problems remain (see Neh 13).
How does the New Testament look back at the promises to Abraham and in particular the promise of offspring or seed? Paul provides a surprising answer: no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ (>Gal 3:15 – 16).
At first sight, Paul’s statement is outrageous. As we have just seen, the promise of seed was spelled out in later passages (Gen 15:5, etc.) in a way that clearly points to the nation of Israel, and Paul, who was well trained in Scripture would know that. Paul, though, here exploits the collective singular “seed” to make the bold statement that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. He is the “seed” of Abraham through whom the promise of universal blessing will flow. Notice how Paul ends this part of his argument when he tells the Galatian Christians this: Gal 3:26 – 29
Christians then are also the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises. The church is a spiritual entity, but metaphorically that “great nation” who receives and dispenses God’s blessing to the world.
Continue to listen and live the story of God.