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.”


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]

A Bridegroom of Blood

by Lois Tverberg

But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched [Moses’] feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.) – Exodus 4:25-26

One of the strangest stories in the Bible is when Moses and his wife and son return to Egypt after God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go. The original Hebrew text is difficult to interpret, and it is not clear whether Moses’ life or his son’s life was in danger, and who was touched with the blood. Commentators believe that this may have been part of a longer story handed down orally that the ancient audience was assumed to know.

A few keys can help us see the point of the story, though. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, the visible mark of the commitment between the people of Israel and God. God seems to require this sign before fulfilling covenantal promises. With Abraham, even though God appeared to him years before he was called to circumcise his family, it was only after he did so that Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, the promised son. Similarly, God had called Moses at the bush, but now before God can use him to fulfill his covenant, he must come under the covenant himself.

A new understanding of the word translated “bridegroom” also clarifies the passage. In Hebrew, the word hatan commonly means “bridegroom.” But in Akkadian and Arabic, two closely-related languages to Hebrew, the word means “protected” or “circumcised.” This passage may have been using a less common definition of hatan, so Zipporah would have said “You are protected by blood,” instead of “a bridegroom of blood.” (1)

The surrounding text also gives some insight. Immediately before this story are the words that God gave Moses for Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.” (Ex. 4:22-23) This is a prophecy of the coming of the plague of the death of the firstborn that will allow the Israelites to go free. The Israelites were protected from judgment by the blood of the lamb daubed on their doorposts. This story seems to be a foreshadowing of that event, showing that Moses’ own son was protected by blood as well. The word for “touched” is the same as that used for daubing the blood of the lambs on the doorposts, suggesting that this is the case.

All this points to the idea that in ancient ways of thinking, God was communicating that salvation from judgment only comes from being protected by blood. Through this strange story, we can see into the future, to the need for the shedding of the blood of Jesus as well.

(1) Sarna, N., The JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, Jewish Publication Society, 1991, p. 26.

Sons of Hell

by Lois Tverberg

“You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Matt. 23:15

Jesus’ words are shocking in the passage above, and one wonders about what context could have provoked such a harsh statement from him. Some interesting possibilities arise when we know more about what first-century reality. According to Josephus, a positive attitude toward Judaism was widespread in the Roman Empire. He said,

There is scarcely a nation among the barbarians, nor a city among the more civilized Greeks, that does not greet our customs with enthusiasm, or that does not wish to adopt our dietary customs, our sabbatical rest, even the lighting of our Sabbath candles…..1

And we know from the Gospels and Paul that many God-fearing Gentiles joined the Jews to worship Israel’s God in each town’s synagogue. Jesus healed the servant of the centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) and God sent Peter to Cornelius, who also was a God-fearer (Acts 10). Both Cornelius and the centurion were considered righteous, so it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus was criticizing the practice of inviting Gentiles to worship the true God of Israel.

These Gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel were not considered actual “converts” or “proselytes” to Judaism because they hadn’t become circumcized, which was the sign of the covenant given to Abraham. It may surprise readers today that there were some who were radically opposed to this. Hippolytus (~236 AD) wrote that this was true of some of the Zealots:

But the adherents of another party, if they happen to hear any one maintaining a discussion concerning God and His laws–supposing such to be an uncircumcised person, they will closely watch him and when they meet a person of this description in any place alone, they will threaten to slay him if he refuses to undergo the rite of circumcision. Now, if the latter does not wish to comply with this request, an Essene spares not, but even slaughters. And it is from this occurrence that they have received their appellation, being denominated (by some) Zelotae, but by others Sicarii. 2

The Zealots were violently opposed to the rule of Rome and any friendliness between Jew and Gentile. Josephus relays that some would walk with short daggers and assassinate any Jews that they believed were too sympathetic to the Roman empire, or were not strict enough in their obedience to the law. They were extremely rigid and isolationistic, and wanted Jews to be entirely separate from the pagan world around them. They saw the Scripture as something only accessible by God’s chosen people and no one else. From the passage above, it seems that they would have hated God-fearers and sought to either convert them entirely to their form of Judaism, or else kill them.

Is it possible that Jesus is talking to these people who forced conversions and then recruited from their ranks to make more violent defenders of Judaism? It is hard to know, but it is a possibility. It also gives an interesting background of why Paul was so persecuted by the “circumcision group” and why he had such strong feelings against them. God loves all people, not just the Jews, and he wanted the Gospel to reach all the nations.

Sons of Hell

1 As quoted in “The Conversion Debate”

2 Refutation of All Heresies, ch. 21.