Season 1, Episode 12
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
Only 12 chapters in the Book of Genesis talk about Abraham, and yet he is a foundational figure of the faith. These 12 chapters in Genesis–this is not a biography of Abraham. We know very little about his first 75 years or his last 75. And the middle part of Genesis really focuses on the 25 years in the middle of Abraham’s life from his call out of Haran at age 75 up until the birth of Isaac, when Abraham is 100 years old. And Abraham’s wife Sarah is equally key in this story, even though she has less time in print. And as we’re going to see, God’s promises that the child he will give them will come from Sarah, not just Abraham.
It is through a barren couple, a family unable to experience on their own the central mark of being a family–having a child. That God would raise up this family who will become a nation that will bear his name. There is a hint in this call of Abraham and Sarah of God reversing the Curse of Eden and what it did to the family. And it puts God’s compassion and mercy on full display from the outset.
Another observation I’m going to make is that Abraham is a mixed bag when it comes to his own spiritual journey. He’s clearly a hero of faith in the scriptures as well as across human history for the three great religions of the of the world: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But he’s a hero largely for his willingness to obey and to follow God to this new land and to believe his promises that Abraham would be blessed with a large family. But the track record becomes a bit more colorful when it comes to Abraham’s belief in how God will work that out. The narrative of Abraham’s life includes several episodes whereby Abraham takes matters into his own hands to try to give God help. Part of the story with Abraham is he is having to learn to trust in who God is and how he works.
We also see that in the story here of Abraham’s life. We are not given much detail about any commands, laws, or statutes that God had required Abraham to follow. Now, the inference in Genesis is that Abraham and Yahweh have a very intimate relationship, and there are clearly things that Abraham is expected to faithfully obey. But apart from the ritual of circumcision, the text of Scripture simply doesn’t give us any information about what those commandments might have been. And that is because this is not the point of the story.
The account of Abraham’s life here is not a biographical sketch about Abraham. But it’s primarily a theological message about who God is. Before the laws or the commands ever come into play in the message of the Bible as this unfolds, right here in Genesis, God’s focus is on making the case to Abraham — and therefore to us by extension — that he is a powerful God who can be trusted to keep his promises and bring about good. And, so, the spotlight is thus not on the obedience of Abraham. In fact, he blows it as much as he gets it right. But the spotlight in Abraham’s story is on the faithfulness and the trustworthiness of God.
We’ll take a closer look at how this plays out in Abraham’s life over the next two episodes from here. But what we see throughout here is that there is great emphasis placed on the fact that Abraham and Sarah are unable to have children. But in Genesis chapter 12, let’s back up and take a look, we read this: the Lord had said to Abraham, go from your country and your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you. This is the first part of what will become a covenant. We’ll look at that in a couple of episodes. But God says to Abraham, I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.
Now just a few verses earlier, just in a single sentence, this is all Scripture tells us at this point. And Genesis simply says that Sarah was barren and had no child. So Abraham and Sarah are childless.
You jump forward just three more chapters to Genesis 15 where the Covenant now begins to expand and the question comes up again. Abraham draws God’s attention back to this: “God, you’ve made this promise to me, but I continue childless.” And Abraham has even gone so far as to make plans to name one of his trusted servants, Eliezer, to be his legal heir. And in response, God again tells Abraham, “No, Abraham. Your own flesh and blood, your biological child — that will be the one!”
And so that’s what’s in focus here with Abraham’s life. He is a patriarch over an extended family already. People looked to him for provision and security. And yet, irony of ironies, he does not have a biological child, and that’s at the very heart of what God said he is going to do. So, this idea that Abraham is a childless father is not just a secondary plot in the narrative but is instead, front and center, the problem that is going to be addressed. In Genesis 15, God signals this intent with a name change. Prior to this moment, Abram is his name. And Abram means “Exalted Father.” An appropriate title for such a patriarch, and yet it is ironic that he himself, the exalted father, has no biological child.
Abram, your name henceforth is Abraham, father of a multitude. And indeed, that’s what happens to Abraham. Many children will follow. So, by the time the story finishes, that promise has been fulfilled to Abraham. And he has multiple children.
Abraham’s first child is his son, Ishmael. In Genesis Chapter 16, he has the son with his wife’s Egyptian servant, Hagar. And Scripture records before Hagar had even given birth while she is still pregnant, the conflict between her and Sarah becomes unbearable and Hagar leaves intending to flee. And she has an encounter with God out in the wilderness who comes to her and with great compassion and great love, speaks to her in very personal, powerful ways. And in that, God promises to bless Ishmael on Hagar’s behalf.
Ishmael is not, according to Genesis, the promised child to Abraham and Sarah through whom God will bring forth a great nation. But he does promise that Ishmael himself will become the father of many peoples. Ishmael grows up and he goes on to marry an Egyptian wife and his descendants settle the scriptures say, from Havilah to Shur, referring to this region along the East African coast. Of the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula. So that’s Ishmael, Abraham’s first son.
Genesis chapter 21, Abraham’s second son — this is, of course, the focal point now for Genesis and beyond, but this is Isaac. This is the son that Sarah gives birth to, the one that God had promised. Isaac will go on to have two sons, Jacob and Esau. And it will be the descendants of Jacob who become the 12 tribes of Israel.
And toward the end of his life, Abraham will give, in accordance with the customs of the ancient world at that point in time, to give nearly the entirety of one’s estates to a single son, a single heir. Even though Abraham has many children, by this point, Abraham gives everything he has to Isaac. That is the one that God has given and blessed, and we’ll take a deeper look at that. And we’ll kind of conclude this narrative arc on Abraham in a couple of episodes by looking at how the sacrifice of Isaac that story is really the climax of this middle section of Genesis and Abraham’s life.
But in fact, Abraham has additional children that follow. So, Ishmael and Isaac are the two oldest. In Genesis 23 we read of his wife, Sarah’s, death at 127 years of age. At which point Abraham, now himself quite elderly, takes another wife named Keturah. And with Keturah has other sons, six of whom are specifically named. Genesis 25:5 says that to the sons of his concubines, plural, Abraham gave gifts. Now, we’re not told how many other sons. The text seems to suggest multiple concubines with whom he had children, so there may well have been a greater multitude of sons. But of his wife, Keturah. six of these are named. So at least eight sons. Reference is made to at least one daughter here in the narrative.
That is Genesis 12 up through 24 and the focus on Abraham’s life. We will come back to Abraham, but for now let me give you the rest of a bird’s eye view at the remaining section of Genesis. The middle section, the middle part of the story is Genesis 25 to 37. And here are the two main characters at the beginning of this are Jacob and Esau, Isaac’s two sons. Very quickly, the narrative will zoom in and focus on Jacob, his pursuit of a wife, eventually marrying two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and then the subsequent birth of his own family. And it will be the twelve sons of Jacob, of course, who become the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel and the names of his sons become the names of the tribe.
Genesis chapters 37 to 50 constitute the end of the Book of Genesis in this narrative that opens up Act three of the Bible’s big story. And in the end section, here in these chapters, the primary figure is Joseph and the story of Joseph’s captivity, the family’s flight to Egypt during the famine that will befall, the reunion with Joseph. And, of course, how the family relocating there to Egypt at the end of all of that will go on to set the stage for the Book of the Exodus.
This is a good point just to say a few words about Israel’s historical enemies. These are people groups with whom Israel will find itself in ongoing contact and conflict. And if we understand something about these groups of people, it’s going to help us better understand what is happening across the remainder of the Old Testament, both politically, and, in some cases, even theologically and spiritually.
Several of these key groups of people, these historical enemies of Israel, are descendants of key figures here in this middle section of Genesis. So, the first group are the Ishmaelites. And these, as the name would suggest, are the descendants of Ishmael. These are Arabian tribes, who, by this point, later in Genesis have settled throughout the Arabian Peninsula. And they will appear in Canaan, most often as merchant traders. And youFor instance, the story where Joseph is sold into captivity by his brothers. They sell him to this group of Ishmaelites who were on their way to Egypt to trade. So, this is, these are the descendants of Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael.
The next group are the Midianites. The Midianites appear most often in the book of Judges. And especially the story of Gideon, who is raised up here by God to be a military force to help drive out and break Israel free from the oppression of the Midianites. Well, the Midianites are the descendants of a son of Abraham’s second wife, Keturah, one of whom is named Midian.
The land of Midian was located in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula. Today, this is part of Saudi Arabia. And it’s that strip of land that lays just along the Gulf of Aqaba, so that the eastern boundary of Midian was that body of water there right off of the Red Sea. Midian is the land that Moses ends up in after he kills the Egyptian overseer and flees for his life out of Egypt. It’s to Midian that he goes and settles down, marries Zipporah, whose father, Jethro, is a Midianite priest. And there, that’s where Moses builds a life until his encounterd with God at the burning Bush. So, the Midianites.
The next two groups are the Moabites and the Ammonites. These are the descendants of the two sons of Lot, Moab and Ben-Ammi. You can read the story in Genesis 19 about how Lot’s daughters seduce their father and end up becoming pregnant and giving birth to Moab and Ben- Ammi, so these are both Lot’s sons and his grandsons at the same time. And their descendants are known as the Moabites and the Ammonites.
The third group we are looking at here are the descendants of Esau, called the Edomites. And the land of Edom takes it names form Esau’s nickname, Edom, that referred likely to the color of his hair, which Scripture tells us was red, as well as to the color of the soil that was common throughout the land of Edom.
And, an interesting historical note. During the Roman Empire, centuries later as we are getting into the New Testament, the Roman name for Edom was Idumea. The Edomites as a distinct culture group of people had by and large ceased to exist because of events that transpire in the Old Testament. But the Idumeans are descendants of the people of Edom who have been absorbed by Jewish culture. But they trace their lineage back to Esau, not to Jacob.
But in Matthew, in the Christmas story in particular, King Herod, the one who goes after the baby Jesus and instructs all the babies to be killed—kind of a flashback to Moses and the Pharaoh. King Herod is an Edomite, or an Idumean. This is notable because, especially in Matthew’s telling who is writing to a Jewish audience. The promise of a Messiah is going to be one who will rule over God’s people, descended from the line and the house of David. And of course, David is a part of the branch of Jacob. He’s an Israelite.
Herod, on the throne, wearing the crown as king over Judah that was put there by the Romans, is not of that family line. He is descended from Jacob’s brother Esau. He is not an Israelite. And so King Herod cannot be a legitimate ruler over God’s people because of the prophetic message here that it will be the house of David that rules.
So this sets up an immediate conflict with the birth of Jesus who is proclaimed in Scripture as the true King and the fulfillment of all of these prophecies. So that’s part of the reason that Herod orders an infanticide campaign to kill all of the babies in order to try to find the one baby that he is hearing rumors about who poses a threat to his throne. Because Herod knows – first of all, he’s a puppet ruler of the Roman Empire – but he knows he does not have a legitimate claim genealogically to the throne that he is sitting on. He cannot be the king that rules over God’s people. And so just from a from a historical standpoint, and from a prophetic standpoint, it sets up this conflict between the Kingdom of Earth and the Kingdom of God that is being reestablished, of course, in the ultimate reign and triumph of Jesus as the true king.
OK, just to quickly summarize and wrap this up. Four of these are significant groups that show up in a good bit of the rest of the Old Testament. Now the first, the Midianites come along early and then disappear off the scene once we get into the time of the Kingdom and the rule of Saul and David. But the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites will factor into the dynamics and the situations with Israel throughout the bulk of the Old Testament.
The lands of Moab, Ammon, and Edom, in particular, are key geographical territories that border Israel on the western side of the Jordan River. So, they live right next door to each other with the Jordan River dividing them. There is ongoing, long-term conflict between these groups and their distant relatives, Israel. Some of this is historical enmity going back to events here that we can read about in Genesis.
Some of this, as time goes by, is conflict over possession of the land. What that means is the contemporary conflicts that we find in the Middle East between Israel and her Palestinian and Arabian neighbors, this is not a recent modern situation going back to the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1947, or the geopolitical conflicts over the last 80 years. But this is ancient. It goes back here into the time of the early Old Testament and is deeply rooted.
But I think there is a powerful message in all of this that points ahead to the rest of the story. You see, this section with Abraham, it begins with a childless father and a childless mother. And by the time we get to the end of Genesis we have nations that have emerged out of it. And so, God is is keeping his promise. And yet those nations are messy and broken and at odds with each other because it comes out of a dysfunctional family dynamic. I mean, you just, you go back and you look at and we’ll touch some of the next episode on things that Abraham does along the way. And some of what Jacob does along the way to manipulate and to bend and twist. The conflict between Jacob and Esau as brothers. Things that other members of Jacob’s family were going to do. Brothers conspiring against Joseph because of jealousy to sell him into slavery.
I mean, just one thing after the other at the personal level in the family, and it grows and it turns into that same kind of dysfunction and conflict between entire people groups that last for hundreds and thousands of years. And yet it points ahead, on the one hand, to just how radical the need for God’s redemptive work is in all of that. And yet the promise will echo through: “Abraham, I will give you a child. Your child will become the father of a great nation and that nation will be alight to all the nations. And I will bless the world through you.” And you get to this point and looking around in the story and you think, how in the world will God ever be able to resolve this? How is God going to bless a nation? Bless the world through a nation that has caught up in so much conflict.
And yet, that’s precisely the hope that is both longed for in the story of the Bible’s Big Picture. But it’s also the promise that will resound all the way through that. That redemption that God has promised to bring about through the nation of Israel: it’s going to extend to Israel’s historical enemies, as well. Because the resolution that God will bring about is not triumph of Israel, his chosen people. Over their enemies in the political military sense. But rather the ultimate victory, the ultimate redemption is victory over the violence that sin brought when it pitted brother against brother that becomes nation against nation. And God’s ultimate victory in all of this will be manifested in true social peace and goodness between historical enemies who will come to dwell, as the prophets will tell us over and over again, will come to dwell in brotherly love in the same land. And so, this is a story of a family in all of its warts and blemishes, its weaknesses; how God worked faithfully in spite of those blemishes. And God is still working that way today.