Being a Part of Abraham’s Family

by Lois Tverberg

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants,
heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:29)

Many of us scratch our heads at why there are so many long lists of genealogies in the Bible. Our modern, individualistic Western culture makes it difficult for us to see an important theme that would have been obvious to its ancient audience — the centrality of family.

Not only is family critical in the Old Testament, it is key to some very important controversies in the New Testament as well, such as including Gentiles among the growing movement of Jewish believers in Jesus. Grasping the ideas that ancient peoples had about the family, and how these themes play out can help us understand our Bibles from beginning to end.

The Ancient Idea of Family

First, we need know that the ancient Hebrews valued family and heritage beyond anything else — it was absolutely everything in terms of a person’s identity and life goals. A person didn’t derive his identity from his occupation, but from his or her family. It was expected that children would take on their father’s profession and spiritual life.

It was also understood that children would take on their father’s personality — if a father was wise, his descendants would be wise; if he was warlike, his descendants would be warlike. Explaining what each family was like and relationships between families was very important to understanding the society as a whole.

Stories about the founders of each family were important because they were key to each family’s self-definition. This helps us to see why some biblical stories are included that don’t seem to be moral examples for us. For instance, we are told that Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had relations with him, and Moab was born, who was the father of the Moabites (Gen. 19:37).

Why are we told this? Because later in history, the Moabite women seduced the Israelites into sexual immorality (Num. 25:1). There are even hints of this in the story of Ruth, the Moabites, and her encounter with Boaz, but she was a “woman of noble character” (as Boaz said in Ruth 3:11), unlike her ancestors. We can see from this how the Moabite family’s “personality” affected its actions over many generations, and how a key to reading the Old Testament is to be aware of the associations with each family.1

Besides knowing the stories of the family’s fathers, another important thing in biblical cultures would be to understand how the inheritance was given. Typically the first-born son would receive a double portion of the inheritance and become the spiritual leader of the family, and the rest of the children would honor him, even from youth. He was considered to be the “first-fruits of his father’s vigor,” evidence of his father’s ability to leave a legacy, a source of manly pride.

Interestingly, the Bible makes an effort to point out that God did not allow his blessing to be given to any significant firstborn in the line of Abraham, including the sons of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Jesse and David!2 He was showing that the nation was established through his power, not through human achievement. The only prominent firstborn in the Bible is Jesus, who did not have an earthly father at all, but of whom God said, “This is my beloved son, in whom I delight” (Matt 3:17)!

The Epic of Abraham’s Family

Knowing this shows us the rationale for God’s covenant with Abraham. Abraham was a man of great faith, who, at God’s request, gave up his own ancestral family and homeland, a great sacrifice in that time. When God first appeared to him he was childless, which was understood to be a terrible curse, the ultimate failure in life.

Old Jewish ManBecause of his unwavering faith God promised him the greatest of blessings — that he would be the father of many nations. In biblical culture, becoming the father of a great nation would have been an enduring legacy of honor, like being elected president today.

Because it was assumed that the members of a family would be like their forefathers, it made sense that Abraham would instill in his children his strong faith in God, and a great nation of believers would result. God’s covenant with Abraham was specifically with him and his future descendants, and the “sign” of the covenant, the physical remembrance, was circumcision, which was required of all males from Abraham’s time until this day.

The sign of the covenant is not coincidental — rather, it marked the fact that the covenant was with Abraham’s “seed,” passed down through each generation of the family. Each time descendants are listed it showed that God had been honoring his covenant.

In the time of Jesus and Paul, there seemed to be quite a debate over who was a “son of Abraham,” with the understanding that a person’s salvation was linked to being a part of the covenantal family. John the Baptist warned people not to trust in their lineage when he said, “Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:9).3 

Jesus had a heated discussion with some leaders on this very topic:

[Jesus said,] “I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father.” “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.” (John 8:37- 41)

Behind this conversation seems to be the idea that they were claiming to be part of the “saved” because Abraham was their father. Jesus questions this, and points out that he expects that if they were sons of Abraham, they would then be like him.

Paul’s Understanding of the Sons of Abraham

In Paul’s writing too, he deals with the idea that being a “son of Abraham,” a circumcised Jew, was necessary for salvation. Christians have traditionally read Paul’s arguments over circumcision as a contrast between grace and legalism. Recent scholarship suggests that a greater issue was whether God could extend his salvation to others outside the family of Abraham.4

A strong sense of nationalism and isolationism was among Jews of the first century, who were a small minority in the Roman Empire, and who had gone through much persecution for not adopting Hellenistic ways. About 150 years before Christ, Jews were executed if they circumcised their sons in order to be faithful to God.

As a reaction to that persecution and to the encroaching Gentile world, they put great emphasis on observing laws that separated them from Gentiles, as a way to show their commitment to God. Being circumcised was especially important because it marked them as “sons of Abraham,” and part of the family covenant. To them, it undermined God’s covenant with Abraham to extend it to others who had not become full proselytes to Judaism.

Interestingly, Paul does not say that a person doesn’t need to be a son of Abraham to be saved. Rather, he deals with this issue by redefining what a “son of Abraham” is, by stretching the definition to include the Gentiles, the very group not included in the definition of a “son of Abraham”! He points out that Abraham himself was a Gentile, and that God’s promise was given to him because of his faith, before he was circumcised. He says,

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. (Romans 4:9-11)

In Galatians, Paul makes a similar point:

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations (Gentiles, goyim) will be blessed through you.” (Galatians 3:7)

Paul is interpreting the words of God’s promise to Abraham to say that He would bless the goyim, (meaning both “nations” and “Gentiles”) through him. He is pointing out that God’s blessings are not just for his biological descendants who were circumcised, but also for the Gentiles of the world, but yet they still come through Abraham. From this, Paul can conclude that Gentile believers in God are true sons of Abraham. In his words from Galatians 3:28-29 he concludes,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendents, and heirs according to the promise.”

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1 Another story that continues over generations is the battle with the Amelekites, and key to understanding it is the family relationships between the generations. See “Esther, The Rest of the Story.”

2 The issue of who would get the blessing of the firstborn is a theme throughout Genesis, and especially the story of Joseph and his brothers. The special coat from Jacob indicated that he had appointed Joseph firstborn, because he was the first son of Rachel, the wife he loved. Jacob once said to his family, “My wife bore me two sons” (Gen.44:27) virtually disowning Leah’s family entirely. We can see why Joseph dreamed that his family would bow down to him, and why his older brothers wanted to kill him, to eliminate him as heir. For more, see “All in the Family.”

3 It is likely that they felt that being a “son of Abraham” insured that their sins would be forgiven. See “God’s Illogical Logic of Mercy.

4 For more about Paul’s arguments in their Jewish context, see “The Context of Paul’s Conflict.”

Photos: Ojedamd [CC BY-SA 3.0], Movieevery, Hult, Adolf, 1869-1943;Augustana synod. [from old catalog] [No restrictions]

To Be the Image of God

by Lois Tverberg

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

In examining the creation account, we see that many of its profound ideas are only clear when read within its Eastern cultural way of communicating truth through images and relationships.1 A main point of the epic is to describe the creation of mankind, and to describe man’s unique relationship to God and to his world. Understanding this idea, as well as the revolutionary concept that we are made “in the image of God” is foundational to many later teachings in the Scriptures, including those of Jesus.

The Significance of Man

Reading Genesis in Hebrew reveals many wonderful wordplays that show the relationship of man to the rest of creation. The word for ground is adamah, and of course the first human is called Adam.

The name perfectly fits the scene because God formed Adam from the adamah, and Adam’s skin is red (adom, in Hebrew), like the ground. Adam is given the task of working the adamah, and when Adam dies, he will return to the adamah. God declared that because he sinned, “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).

What does the idea mean that we were made “in the image of God,” b’tzelem elohim? To an ancient person, a god’s “image” was its physical representation on earth. Idols were the images of the gods, as well as physical objects of worship like the sun and moon.

Kings were also often said to be the “images” of gods — they were the representative of a god on earth, with the belief that the gods reigned over their people through the king’s commands. This idea seems to be a part of the intent of Genesis, because right after humanity was said to be in the image of God, humanity was given the task of ruling over the earth (Gen. 1:28). We were given the job of being God’s caring presence, fulfilling his will toward the rest of creation.

From these two ideas, that Adam comes from the adamah, but is the representative of God on earth, one rabbi made a perceptive observation. He said, “A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written, ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and the other, ‘All of creation was made for my sake.'”2

We should see both our frailness and short life on this earth, and our “feet of clay” — our tendency to sin — but yet we should also remind ourselves that we have a unique relationship to God and authority over all the earth. Acknowledging both truths in balance will keep us from feeling either too arrogant or too insignificant.

All Humans Bear the Image of God

The implications of man as the “image of God” comes up repeatedly in the Bible. After the flood, God made new pronouncements about the penalty for violence and said, “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:5-6). The idea here is that an assault on any human is an affront on God himself, and God will be sure to hold the perpetrator accountable.

All violence and even insults are ultimately against the God who made us. One amusing rabbinic parable points this out:

A famous rabbi was out riding and was feeling elated because he had studied much Torah. There he chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, rabbi.” He, however, did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “Racca! (empty one or good for nothing) How ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?”

The man replied, “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel that you made.'” When the rabbi realized that he had sinned, he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me!”3

The point of the parable is that any time we insult someone, we are not just defaming that person, but the God who made him. After all, he is the one who fashioned him according to his specifications. Even more importantly, if our creator made each human to reflect his own image, when we call another “ugly,” we are insulting God as well. We actually are sinning twice, by calling God not only a poor artist, but ugly too!

James also uses the idea of the “image of God” to point out the incongruity of worshipping God while insulting others:

With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (Ja. 3:9-10)

Every human being should be treated as a special creation of God, because all are precious to him. This idea of the enormous value of human life also was part of the teaching of the rabbis:

Every individual is equally significant before God, since every man was created in his image. Therefore man was created on his own, to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is regarded by the Torah as if he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves one soul, is regarded as if he had saved a whole world.4

Male and Female He Created Them

Another wonderful idea about humanity can be found in a Hebraic reading of the story of the creation of Eve from Adam. The word we have traditionally translated as “rib,” tzela, is never used this way in the rest of the Bible. Rather, it always means “side” and when the phrase “one side” of something is used, it means one half, or one face of a building or object. (See Ex. 25:12, Ex. 26:26 or Ex. 37:3.)

When God takes out of Adam echat mitzelotav — literally “one of his sides” — the picture is really that somehow God split Adam in half and formed one half into Eve. Adam then calls her “flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone,” not just “one of my bones.” The image is that one human was separated into man and woman so that they could have companionship with each other. The complementarity between men and women is inherent in the way they were formed by being taken apart from each other, so that one supplies what the other one lacks.

This actually solves a mystery in the text. In Genesis 1:27, God created both male and female, but in Genesis 2:24, it appears that Eve is created after Adam. How could this be so? Because both were present in the first person, and the woman appears after being separated from the man.

Supporting this, throughout the entire story, the word “adam” is a generic term meaning “human,” not specifically male. In Genesis 5:2, it says so explicitly: “He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them adam.”

In the original Hebrew text, all references to the first human are neutral until God takes some of Adam’s flesh and makes a woman — ishah, in Hebrew. Only at that point is Adam called ish, a man. The Hebrew word ishah hints at her origins from within the ish, something that we can mimic in English, with the words “man” and “woman.” Interestingly, Adam is never called an ish until the ishah has been separated from him. The text seems to imply that male and female cannot define themselves fully as human without the other.5

God’s Intention for Marriage

The next verse about marriage deepens this metaphor even more. By saying, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and dabaq (be united, cleave) to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). It is describing how in marriage, a man and a woman together become what God intended from the very beginning, when the separation of one half from the other half is reversed.

Even the word we translate as “cleave” or “hold fast” in this verse, dabaq, has a lovely picture behind it. The word dabaq also can mean “to fall in love with” as when Shechem “was deeply attracted to,” dabaq, Dinah in Genesis 34:3.

1 Kings 11:2 also says that “Solomon dabaq his foreign wives in love,” which one version renders, “Solomon was irresistibly attracted to them” (New English Translation). Putting all of this together, Genesis 2:24 is saying that the reason women and men fall in love and marry is from their desire to return to this first oneness, both physically and spiritually, that was in God’s design from the very beginning.

This clarifies Jesus’ words about God’s intentions for marriage:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mt. 19:3-6)

Jesus is describing God’s original desire for marriage, that it would be a permanent union, giving companionship and completion to both persons. When he says about divorce that “it was not this way from the beginning,” he is looking beyond the law of Moses and seeing God’s perfect plan in Genesis. He concludes that when God himself puts together what he separated at first, no one should try to tear it apart.6

Imitating the One Whose Image We Bear

If all of us have God’s image within us, how should it impact the way we live? One rabbinic commentary on Genesis answers this question with a delightful story:

When creation was all but ended, only humanity was left to be created. God began to say, ‘Let us make man in our likeness,’ but some protests arose in heaven! First Truth came and fell before God’s throne, and in humility exclaimed, “Please, O God, do not call into being a creature who is beset with the vice of lying, who will tread truth under his feet!” Peace also agreed, and said, “Why, O Lord, shall this creature appear on earth, a creature so full of strife and contention, to disturb the peace and harmony of thy creation? He will carry the flame of quarrel and ill-will in his trail; he will bring about war and destruction in his eagerness for gain and conquest.”

While they were pleading against the creation of man, another voice was heard, the soft voice of Mercy. “King of the universe,” the voice exclaimed in all its mildness, “if you create a being in thy likeness, it will be a noble creature striving to imitate thy attributes by its actions. I see man now with God’s breath in his nostrils, seeking to perform his great mission, to do his noble work. I see him approaching the humble hut, seeking out those who are distressed and wretched to comfort them, drying the tears of the afflicted and despondent, raising up them that are bowed down in spirit, reaching his helping hand to those who are in need of help, speaking peace to the heart of the widow, and giving shelter to the fatherless. Such a creature cannot fail to be a glory to his maker.’ The Creator approved of the pleadings of Mercy, and called man into being.7

This story is saying that when humans show the kindness and compassion of our creator, then we reach our true potential as his creation by reflecting his image on earth. It points out man’s potential for good, even while acknowledging man’s potential for evil.

Of course the only person who truly lived up to this was Jesus: he completely reflected the image of God without succumbing to evil. Interestingly, Paul says that he was the “very image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Because he is the Son of God, he reflected the character and nature of God in a way unparalleled by any mere man.

Through his work on earth, God’s sacrificial love and desire to forgive was revealed like never before, when it was portrayed in human form. He is our model for life as it was meant to be lived. By becoming transformed into his image, we achieve our true potential for reflecting the glory of God.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom. 8:29)

[We] are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24)

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1 See the article “Thinking Hebraically About God’s Creation.”

2 Rabbi Simcha Bunam, who lived in the early 19th century, as quoted by J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p.185.

3 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’an. 20a-b1, quoted by Brad Young in The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998), p. 9.

4 Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5 The date of the saying would be between 200 BC – 200 AD, which could be either before or after Jesus’ time.

5 Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary on Genesis. (Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1989), p. 23.

6 David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998) p. 71-76. One saying went so far as to say that “A man without a wife is half a man” stressing the importance of marriage. Jesus, however, says that not all are called to it, and some put it aside out of dedication to God’s work (Matt. 19:11). See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005) for more.

7 Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 8, which dates from the 5-6th centuries AD.

Photos: Laura Dewilde on Unsplash, Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], freestocks.org on Unsplash

Say Little, Do Much

What wisdom can we learn from Abraham, the man whom God chose to make a covenant to bless the world? The rabbis were delightfully sensitive to little details in each biblical story, and their favorite stories were those of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — who they considered superheroes of faith. Certainly, they thought, we can learn from them how to live.

Bosom of AbrahamListen to what they found in the story of Abraham and his heavenly visitors in Genesis 18. When three strangers came to Abraham’s door he said, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant” (vs. 4-5).

Instead, he told Sarah to kneed three seahs (about 50 pounds!) of their finest flour into bread. He next ran out to his herd and chose one of his best calves, choice and tender, and found a servant to prepare it. Then he brought some curds and fresh milk too. It would have taken most of a day to prepare this luscious feast. The bread would need to rise, and the calf would need to roast for hours. I think there would have been enough food for fifty people or more.

Abraham had no idea who these strangers were who came to his door, and all he promised them was a little water and just a bite to eat to tide them over for their trip, but instead, he rolled out the red carpet and prepared a luxurious feast for them. Wow.

The great rabbi Shammai (who lived about fifty years before Jesus) shared an excellent comment on how to live by Abraham’s example: “Say little, do much.”1 A later rabbi added, “What does this mean? It teaches that the righteous say little and do much, whereas the wicked say much and do not even a little.”2

Jesus said a similar thing when he told the parable about the two sons in Matthew 21:

What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted? (Mt 21:28-3)

Vineyard

One son had the shocking chutzpah to say “no” to his father, something a son didn’t do in those days! Yet he then he went and did what he was told. The other respectfully said, “Yes, sir!” And then he didn’t actually do what he was supposed to.

I’ve been feeling convicted about this in my own life recently, because I’ve said that I’d do things and then backed out of them. Or I’ve forgotten my words in the midst of the other things that became important later. Or I’ve simply changed my mind! If I have a good reason, I apologize and usually people forgive me. If I forget, it just doesn’t get done, and in my mind I think, “Well it must not have been too important — maybe the other person won’t mind.”

Then I remembered one friend who made some exciting plans with me. I was very enthusiastic about what we’d do together, but then he canceled out later. Then he had the gall to do it more than once! I admit that I was irritated at him for years. It wasn’t until that I saw myself in him that I got over my anger. In his mind he genuinely wanted to do the thing he promised when he made the promise, just like I did. We were both a bundle of good intentions! Good intentions, however, aren’t the same as follow-through.

As much as I see this lack-of-follow-through in myself, it seems to be a common trait among us nowadays. I wonder if it isn’t part of our easy-going American culture. I remember reading a booklet for newly-arriving international students that warned, “When Americans tell you, ‘We will have you over to our house for supper some time,’ don’t be disappointed if they don’t invite you the next week. They may not ever invite you, but this is just their way of voicing their general intentions of welcome.”

Ouch. I imagine that this advice came out of the experience of many an international student who felt crushed and angry when their phone didn’t ring. I may have even issued some of those “mock invitations” myself.

As it says in Proverbs 25:14, “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give.”

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1 Pirke Avot 1:15

2 Avot d’Rabbi Natan 13:3

Photos: Herrad von Landsberg; Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Mystery of Prayer

by Lois Tverberg & Bruce Okkema

Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die. Genesis 20:7

The story above occurs while Abraham was living in Gerar, the land of King Abimelech. When the king’s eyes fell upon Sarah, he desired her and took her to be one of his wives. But before they had become intimate, God spoke to Abimelech in a dream and said that he was in great danger of Gods’ judgment because he had taken another man’s wife. Abimelech protested, claiming his innocence in that he had not known that she was a married woman. God told him because this was true, he was warning the king so he wouldn’t suffer for his offense.

One fascinating aspect of the story is that God told Abimelech that when Abraham would pray for the king, he would live. The implication is that God would wait to spare Abimelech until after Abraham had interceded. It seems like very odd logic that God himself would not release the king until Abraham prayed! We have a similar story at the end of book of Job. God was angry with Job’s counselors and said to them,

“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has… My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. (Job 42:7-8)

Does it strike you as strange that God would bind himself to waiting on a person’s prayers? He even tells us to pray for someone else so that he can take action. The sins in these situations have been committed against both God and man, yet could it be that God desires forgiveness between his people so much, that he asks for evidence of their forgiveness before he shows his own?

It is a mystery to us that God in some way constrains himself to working in response to prayer. Why the creator would wait for mankind to ask, when he knows the outcome and certainly does not need our advice, is beyond our understanding. Yet, he wants us to pray, and we can conclude that he is waiting for us to pray in order to accomplish his purposes.

Let us continue to pray faithfully, and let us never cease to wonder at his mystery.

Photo: martinduss (pixabay.com)

Praying with Chutzpah

by Lois Tverberg

Then Abraham said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall peak; suppose thirty are found there?” God said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” And Abraham said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord; suppose twenty are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the twenty.” Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?…” Genesis 18:30-32

The verses above are from the conversation between Abraham and God about whether God would destroy the city of Sodom. Abraham argued tenaciously with God over the city, bargaining with God until the Lord agreed that even if only ten righteous people are found in Sodom, he would spare it.

We read this story with some surprise that a human would dare debate with God. Christians generally do not think it is appropriate to be so bold with God, saying as Abraham said, “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).

The rabbis of Jesus’ day had an interesting answer for this brashness of Abraham toward God. Their interpretation was that it was as if Abraham is a child who is especially close to his father, trusting him so completely that he can say anything to him. His repeated petitions are like a little boy who keeps pulling on his father’s shirt tails, pleading with his dad, begging him over and over for a treat.

Jesus likes that kind of persistence himself. He is impressed by the Gentile woman who argues with him until he heals her daughter (Mark 7:26). He also tells a parable of a widow who keeps pounding on the door of judge until he hears her case (Lk 18:1-7). If an unrighteous judge will grant her request because she is persistent, how much more will a good and loving God answer her prayers! This is to teach us that we should always pray and never give up. Doing so shows that we believe in God’s power and His abundant love for us.

Photo by Sabine van Straaten on Unsplash

Growing Faith

by Lois Tverberg

O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?
– Genesis 15:2

AbrahamAbraham is known most for one quality – his faith in God, and his faithfulness to God. But if we look at the words that come out of his mouth through his life, we can see that his faith grows over time, as he sees that God is utterly reliable in keeping his promises.

At the beginning, when God has delayed long on his promise to give him a son, Abram said,

O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? – Gen. 15:2

We can see his doubts after long years of waiting. He also expresses his doubts to God that he will possess the land:

O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it? – Gen. 15:8

But still, he is faithful to God when God his promises seem far off, and finally God rewards him with a son. This greatly increases Abraham’s faith, so that he can say to Isaac on their way to Mt. Moriah,

God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son. – Gen. 22:8.

Finally, the last words that are recorded from Abraham show that over the years he has become utterly convinced of God’s ability to provide. When a wife needs to be found for Isaac, he said to his servant:

The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and who swore to me, saying, `To your descendants I will give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there. Gen. 23:7

Abraham began with a little faith in a God that he barely knew, and over his life, grew in faith as he saw God’s answers to his every need. So too, we will grow in confidence as we see how God’s love unfolds in our lives.


Photo: Web Gallery of Art

Offended by God

by Lois Tverberg

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. – Genesis 22:6-8

I heard, once, of a woman who was deeply offended at the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, and at this kind of God that would put a child through such terrible anguish. She said she hated the story because it showed her that God was guilty of child abuse.

Abraham sacrifices IsaacA response to that is to look at Isaac’s role in the story. Is he a little boy, terrorized by the incident? The text said that carried the load of wood himself, which would have been quite a large, heavy burden that would not have been given to a little boy. The reason he carried it may have been because he was a strong young man, and much more capable than his elderly father at carrying a heavy load of wood. If that is true, his father couldn’t have forced him against his will to do anything. He would have had to have been a willing sacrifice, complying with his fathers wishes, with trust in both his father and God. That would show that Isaac was as much a man of heroic faith as his father, if not more.

The woman’s response to this story contains a revulsion at the death of Jesus as well, when another innocent young man is asked to sacrifice Himself. Often people think of His Father as a wrathful, angry God who was cruel in asking for this sacrifice too. What we often fail to realize is that there are not two Gods involved – just one. And, the One who willingly gave Himself as a sacrifice was as much God as His Father. If this is true, God’s ultimate role in the story is not just to watch from heaven above, but to carry the wood that Isaac had carried, and become the ultimate substitution for Isaac Himself.


Photocred: Web Gallery of Art

Giving and Taking Away

by Lois Tverberg

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you. – Genesis 22:1-2

Abraham and IsaacIt seems strange that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, the very son that God had promised would be the one who would father a great nation. It’s odd that God would use His answer to prayer as the basis for a test. I think though, that God gave this test because He knows human nature.

When we come to God in prayer with a request, we can be utterly sincere about asking for a good thing that seems to be in accordance with God’s purposes. It may be a better job, having an opportunity in business, finding a spouse, or even that someone would be saved. People may spend years in sincere prayer, as Abraham did, and God is pleased by our persistent faith in His willingness to help us.

Sometimes, however, the request can become all-consuming to our prayers, until it becomes the thing by which God is measured in our eyes. When the goal seems impossible, our belief in God’s goodness may decline, and we may even get angry with Him. No matter how good a request seems to us, when anything becomes so important that God cannot say “no”, it is an idol. It has taken God’s place as ruler of our lives, and prayer is just a means to get God to serve our own ends.

We know we are that point when we use means that God hasn’t approved to reach our prayer goal. It looks like that was where Abraham and Sarah were at when Sarah brought Hagar to Abraham, so that they could “help” God fulfill His promise. God pledged to bless even their actions in weakness, but He didn’t allow their actions to be the fulfillment of His plan.

Even after God had given them Isaac, it was a possibility that their faith in God was really a faith in His ability to give them a family, something enormously important to them. In order to prove that this wasn’t true, God put his finger right on the thing that may have been more important to them than Himself. It was when Abraham finally showed that His faith was unwavering in God, even to the point of taking away the blessing that He had given before, that God was free to pour out all His blessings on them.

The Binding of Isaac

by Lois Tverberg

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you. – Genesis 22:1-2

The story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is referred to in Jewish tradition as the “Akedah,” the binding of Isaac. It is one of the most difficult to understand in the scriptures. It is also rich with meaning, and becomes richer when we are aware of the Hebrew phrases behind it.

For instance, when Abraham answered God, “Here I am,” the word, “hineni” meant much more than just an announcement of a person’s location. It was what a child said to a parent or a servant his master, to show attentive submission. It was like saying, “At your service!” Abraham was fully open to God’s requests.

Isaac and AbrahamGod’s response, “Take now your son” also needs the Hebraic nuances to pick up on its mood. The phrase uses “na” after the verb, which is a gentle request, a plea. It is if God gently asked Abraham this enormous request, saying the word “please” along with it. He is asking Abraham if he would, not harshly ordering him to do it.

And, the words in Hebrew for “go to the land” lekh l’cha, are used exactly one other time in the Bible, as God’s very first words to Abram. Then, God had tested Abram by asking him to leave his family, country and his heritage for a land God would show him. Here, God is repeating the test, but instead of asking Abraham to abandon all his past, now He asks him to abandon the future promise that God had in Isaac.

Amazingly, although Abraham showed great daring in bargaining with God to spare the lives of the people of Sodom, now he says nothing. Somehow he knows that God will come through on this test of all tests, even from the beginning.


Photocred: Web Gallery of Art

Abraham, Our Father

Bosom of Abraham

by Bruce Okkema

“The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. Matthew 1:1-2

Bosom of AbrahamAbraham is mentioned more than 200 times in the scriptures throughout both the Old and New Testaments. There are a full thirteen chapters dedicated to the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis alone, which make it one of the largest segments of the Biblical narrative. All this should tell us that the story of Abraham is very important to interpreting God’s plan for history as it applies to us. In the very first verse of the New Testament, the Gospel writer, Matthew, begins the lineage of Jesus with Abraham, and he is the first person in the Bible to be called a Hebrew (Genesis 14:13). And the prophet Isaiah tells us,

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. (Isaiah 51:1-2)

What was it about this man that was so important for us to study? It will be a fascinating journey as we walk through the life of this great man. Certainly we will see his trust, his faithfulness, his chutzpah, and his courage. We will also see that he was human, he had shortcomings, and he failed on some occasions.

Abraham did not have the benefit of hindsight as he obediently followed God’s leading; he did not know when he was being tested. But we can see how the Lord fulfilled every promise that He had made. It is almost as if God is saying to us, “Do you see how I tested this man, how he obeyed me in blind faith, and how I was faithful to him?” “Why would it be any different for you?”

James writes of Abraham, “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend (chapter 2:22-23).

I hope that one day, when my time is over, I too can be called God’s friend.


Photocred: Herrad von Landsberg