ABRAHAM: The Father of our Faith

The apostle Paul said “that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” (Gal. 3:7), but what was so special about Abraham and his faith? What kind of faith did Abraham have? How did that faith react in suffering? How did that faith react in failure? How did that faith react in prosperity? How did that faith react in doubting? The only way to know the answer is to look at the life of Abraham, see how his faith reacted to the circumstances of life, and then decide how best to place that kind of faith in our own lives. (“Abraham”)

Abram, as Abraham was called when he is first introduced to us in the Bible, was born and raised in the city of Ur of the Chaldeans. (Gen. 11:26-32) Ur was “the capital city of the Sumerians, one of the oldest civilisations [sic] in Mesopotamia.” (Keller, p. 20) Archaeologists have also uncovered many useful pieces of information about the metropolis of Ur of the time of Abram. For example, Ur was a very pagan city containing at least five major temples in its sacred precinct, the largest of which was dedicated to the moon-god. (Keller, pp. 13-14, cf. Josh. 24: 2, 14-15) Despite the greatness of the city, the Bible says that Abram’s father took his family and left Ur to go to Canaan, but stopped at the city of Haran. (Gen. 11:31)

Why did the family choose to leave the city of Ur? Were they looking for a better life? Perhaps they were looking to become rich. The Bible does not leave us guessing. God later tells Abram, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans . . . .”(Gen. 15:7, NASB) God had moved the family to go to Canaan, but they stopped and settled in Haran. God had a plan for Abram, but Abram’s family became and obstacle to the plan by remaining outside of Canaan. So the first challenge to Abram’s faith in God would be whether he would stay with his family in relative safety and security or whether he would follow God into unknown places.

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you;’” (Gen. 12:1, NASB) God has set the stage for this first test by telling Abram to leave everything. When one wants to follow God, all earthly entanglements have to be shed. “So Abram went forth as the LORD had spoken to him . . . .”(Gen. 12:4, NASB) Abram’s faith is seen in his action: he “went forth” as he had been told. “His obedience and trust in the God who has called him are exemplary.” (LaSor, p. 49) All faith requires obedient action. “Abraham’s faith is perhaps best seen in his ready obedience whenever called by God.” (Wiseman, “Abraham”) “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” (Heb. 11:8; cf. Jas. 1:26)

When Abram reaches this new land which God promised to him, he builds an altar and calls on the name of the LORD. (Gen. 12:5-9) Throughout the Bible there are examples of people calling on the name of the LORD. (e.g., Gen. 4:26, Joel 2:32; Acts 22:16, Rom. 10:13) When someone calls on the name of the LORD, they are either establishing, maintaining, or restoring a relationship with God. Specifically, such a call “denotes the claiming of God’s protection”. (NBD, “Call”, p. 159) Abram has trusted in the Lord and has acted on that faith; now he claims of God the protection God had promised. Abram and God are in a relationship with mutual requirements.

Does faith mean that Abram never again sinned (disobeyed God)? No. Problems soon arise in Abram’s new relationship with God. There is a famine in the land to which God had sent Abram. (Gen. 12:10) Abram’s lack of faith is seen in that instead of calling on God and relying on His protection, Abram decides to leave the promised land and find a new place in Egypt. When Abram arrives in Egypt his faith weakens farther for instead of relying on God’s promise to bless him, Abram lies and has Sarai lie about their relationship. (Gen. 12:11-16) “Abraham . . . [is] to be condemned for [his] complicity in lying, no matter how noble a motive [he] may have had, or how much truth the lie contained.” (Kaiser, p. 120) Eventually it is the pagan Pharaoh that rebukes Abram on behalf of God. (Gen. 12:17-20)

Does that mean Abram is not a good model for faith? Certainly not. Consider how Abram reacted to the rebuke. He leaves Egypt and returns to where he was supposed to be in Canaan. (Gen. 13: 1) When Abram got back to where he had earlier built an altar, “Abram called on the name of the LORD.” (Gen. 13:4) He restored his relationship with God and placed himself again under God’s protection. The faith of which Abraham is our father, is a faith that turns back to God in sincere repentance after times of wandering apart from God.

Since Abraham’s faith did not mean he was sinless, someone might think instead that his faith meant that he had absolutely no doubts in God’s promises. A little farther along in his life, Abram still has no child and he asks God how He will keep His promise. (Gen. 15:2-3) God responds by yet again promising Abram many descendants from his own body. (Gen. 15:4-5) “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6, NASB) Notice yet again that since God “reckoned” Abram’s faith as righteousness, it shows that Abram was not righteous (sinless) on his own (cf. Rom. 4:1-5). But does it mean that Abram no longer had any doubts about God’s promise? No, look at what the passage says immediately after God promises the land again to Abram, “He said ‘O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?’” (Gen. 15:8, NASB) Abram still has doubts and needs assurance in spite of the fact that he believes God. He knows that God can keep His promise, but he also knows that he is not a perfect follower (as seen already in the Egypt incident). Can Abram be sure the promise will be fulfilled even if he should again sin. So God patiently makes a covenant with Abram in a form that Abram could understand: a Chaldean covenant (Rodgers, p. 26) And God made this covenant unilateral meaning that “the responsibility for its fulfillment would rest totally on God.” (Rodgers, p.26; cf. Kaiser, pp. 129-130) From here on Abram accepts God’s promise without doubt, God will fulfill it because He must. In like manner our faith like Abraham’s must accept, in spite of any lingering doubts, that God will fulfill His promises.

However, having faith in His promises did not keep Abram from trying to help along the fulfillment of the promise. Sarai gives her servant Hagar to Abram as a concubine in order to have a son through her. (Kaiser, p. 121) Although a son was born through Hagar, God makes it clear to Abraham (for God changed his name) that He does not need anyone’s help to keep His promises. (Gen. 17:17-22) Again Abraham had done the wrong thing. He did not turn away from God as he had earlier by going to Egypt, rather he had tried to help God keep His promise. (Kaiser, p.121) Sometimes we might try to figure out how to help God keep his promises, but God does not need our help. God told Abraham to let Him worry about keeping His own promises. And with faith Abraham was able to stop trying to anticipate how God wanted the promise fulfilled.

Yet sometimes it seems there is no earthly way possible for God to keep His promises. Does fear that promises may not be kept excuse us from having faith in God? Consider that after Abraham had the promised child, Isaac, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Was that a reasonable demand? Did faith require obedience to demands man might consider unreasonable? Did faith require obedience to a command which might negate a promise of God? Here was God testing Abraham “to know his heart and to see if he would obey and fear the Lord who gave him the son he loved so dearly.” (Kaiser, p. 124) In chapter 22 of Genesis, we finally see the culmination of the faith of which Abraham is the father. “Abraham can meet the test in only one way – total and complete faith in the God who promised him Isaac and fulfilled the promise when it was beyond human means. Abraham meets the test.” (LaSor, p.49) He did what God asked. No more failures, no more doubts, no more trying to anticipate God. Abraham simply obeyed. “His faith rested in a belief in God’s ability, if need be, to raise his son from the dead (Gen 22:12, 18; Heb. 11:19).” (Wiseman, “Abraham”)

Abraham finally learned the lesson of faith. “In hope against hope he believed . . . being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.” (Rom. 4:18, 23) Abraham’s faith is one we are called to emulate. “As a true believer, he struggled successfully with doubt, found comfort and strength in prayer, and met life’s greatest challenges by acting on the conviction that God’s Word is trustworthy, to be believed, and to be obeyed.” (“Abraham”) He is an example to us, not that we should imitate his weaknesses, but rather that despite our own weaknesses we might believe that God is able to perform what He has promised to us. As Abraham’s faith began with believing things he had not seen (the land, a son), our faith is also called to begin with believing what we have not seen, “as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead”. (Rom. 4:24)

By Glenn E. Hamilton

“Abraham.” The Revell Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1990.

Kaiser, Walter, Jr., et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: IVP, 1996.

Keller, Werner. The Bible as History. Revised ed. New York: Bantam, 1980.

LaSor, William, et al. Old Testament Survey. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Rodgers, Thomas. The Panorama of the Old Testament. Newburgh: Trinity, 1988.

Wiseman, D. J. “Abraham.” New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Ed. I. Howard Marshall, et al. Downers Grove: IVP, 1996.

 

Jephthah’s Vow

“A mighty man of valor” (Judges 11:1) by the name of Jephthah made a vow to God.  Specifically he said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30b-31; emp. mine).  As rash as this vow might be, Jephthah kept his word even though the first thing out of his doors was his only daughter. “He carried out his vow with her which he had vowed” (Judges 11:39).

This story distresses many people who find it hard to fathom the very idea that anyone would kill his daughter for a promise no matter how rash. Surely, God understands that he didn’t mean to sacrifice his only daughter.  Surely, this story must be misinterpreted.  Therefore, people look for an alternate explanation.

The prevalent alternate explanation for this story would have us believe that Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed but in reality sent to become a temple priestess.  This version would be consistent with his daughter lamenting her virginity since temple priestesses had to be virgins.  Never mind the fact that this idea is not found in the passages relating this story.

Certain words in this story are found to be suspect in translation in order to support the temple priestess conclusion.  For example, the word “whatsoever” is said to be more correctly translated “whosoever” in the vow.  That being the case, then it is argued that Jephthah knew he was making a vow involving a human sacrifice.  The vow was not rash because Jephthah (in his mind) was actually making a vow in which someone in his household would ultimately be redeemed.

The Old Law allows redemption for persons and property made in a vow (Lev. 27).  A close examination of this text reveals that a firstborn child could not be redeemed (Lev. 27:28).  According to the temple priestess explanation, Jephthah was distraught because he knew she could not be redeemed upon seeing her walk through the doors.  He must have wanted to see someone else come through the doors whom he could redeem.

Unfortunately for this explanation, a firstborn is not the only thing that could not be redeemed.  In fact, anyone set aside for destruction could not be redeemed either.  “No person under the ban, who may become doomed to destruction among men, shall be redeemed, but shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 27:29).  Jephthah vowed his daughter’s destruction in exchange for the destruction of the Ammonites.  Jephthah inadvertently put his daughter under the ban.

This would mean that Jephthah performed a human sacrifice.  It is correctly argued that God finds human sacrifices detestable (Deut. 12:31).  However, we must keep in mind that Jephthah made the vow to God.  God neither required the vow nor desired it but Jephthah on his own accord made it.  “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you.  But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you. That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth” (Deut. 23:21-23).  Jephthah did not sin in making the vow.  However, he would have sinned if he failed to keep his vow.  “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed-Better not to vow than to vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:4-5).

Such vows were not unique in the Old Testament.  After Aaron’s death, King Arad, the Canaanite, attacked at Mount Hor.  “So Israel made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.  And the LORD listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of that place was called Hormah” (Numbers 21:2-3).  Hormah literally means utter destruction.  How many innocent children died as a result of this vow?  Surely, it was more than one daughter.

It would seem that Jephthah was well acquainted with the laws concerning vows and redemption.  His vow specifically required a “burnt offering.” A vow offering had to be perfect without defect (Lev.22:21-25).  He also knew the same law made provisions for an unsuitable animal intended for sacrifice if that was what came through his doors (Lev. 27:11-13).  Does it make sense to imply that Jephthah intended to offer a human sacrifice when such an offering is against God’s laws?  Jephthah obviously had some animal in mind when he made the vow!

Unfortunately for Jephthah, he did not anticipate a person coming out his doors first.  He tore his clothes when he saw his only daughter come through the doors.  He immediately remembered his vow to God.  Bravely, his daughter encouraged him to keep his word but requested time to “bewail” or “lament” her virginity.  Those words are strongly related to death. Then the record says Jephthah “carried out his vow!”

God said, ‘“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts”’ (Isa. 55:8-9).  A more suitable explanation is not to be found in scriptures for the obvious outcome of this story.  We might not like the fact that this story ends with an innocent person being sacrificed for her father’s promise.  But then again, wasn’t Christ an innocent person who was sacrificed for His Father’s promise (Gal.3:16-17)?

By Steve A. Hamilton
shamilton@rap.midco.net