If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)
In the previous article, I looked at James 1 and the temptation to view temptation as coming from God. James says that temptation does not come from God, yet we know from experience as well as the Bible that temptations come our way. I have found it helpful to think of it this way. In times of war, if one of our soldiers gets captured, he may be tortured. The enemy wishes to break the soldier. So in our training of soldiers, we may torture them. The point is not to break but to prepare and to strengthen them. The same action, waterboarding for example, is meant by the enemy to destroy but is done by friends to help bring success. Likewise, Job 1 shows that the one who places his trust in God goes through tests. Satan wishes to put the believer through tests that will destroy him and show that God is unworthy of trust. God allows these tests as they, in fact, show that his people stand in their trust of God.
The life of Abraham is presented in the NT as an example of a life of faith and an encouragement for believers. So, I think it is worthwhile to view Abraham’s actions – not only in the “big events” but also the details – as steps in the life of faith.
The first part we looked at was his call. We saw that he was given the commands to go to where God sent him and to be a blessing and we saw his obedience in both areas. Next in the life of Abraham are three tests or trials. We see Abraham grow in his walk of faith through these trials.
The first trial is found immediately after the account of his going to the Promised Land, in Genesis 12:10-13:4. We are not given a time frame for this event. It is written almost as a continuation of the story. Abraham shows up in the land, sees God, builds an altar and there is a drought so Abraham goes to Egypt. The commentaries are almost universal in their presenting this as a negative – some exceedingly overboard in reading that narrative into this narrative. They see Abraham here as cowardly, foolish and faithless and the lesson is: no matter how well it turned out, do not be like Abraham here. God hates mistakes and doesn’t want to run around fixing yours. Besides the fact that the Bible nowhere pronounces such a judgment on the account, I believe the “don’t make mistakes” take short-circuits what we can learn from this incident about the life of Faith.
In the land, Abraham is confronted with a drought. As with anybody living their lives, even those living a life of faith, Abraham has a decision to make. He chose to go where there is no drought. My guess is that it was a decision he made with the wisdom that he had. There is no reason to argue from silence that since we have no record of God talking he made this decision on his own without faith. If we are honest, many of our decisions are made the same way. We have circumstances we have to deal with wisdom and no direct leading. This is how we grow in wisdom and maturity.
Likewise, I think there is wisdom with the decision to call Sarah his sister. Many commentators make the “deception” the main lesson of this incident. Yet, there was good reason for Abraham to do this. Given that Abraham was right that some Egyptian was likely to kill him in order to take Sarah as his wife, Abraham set it up so that anyone who wished to take Sarah would have to negotiate with him, which would give him control over the situation. Especially since this type of set-up comes up two more times in Genesis – including a second incident with Abraham, who presumably should have learned his lesson here – I would say it was a not uncommon tactic. To key on the “deception” I believe reads our morés back into Abraham’s time. What Abraham did not count on – and probably could not have considered – is that one with whom no one negotiates would choose to take Sarah. If Pharaoh wants, he takes. We are told that he treated Abraham well, showing consideration to the “brother”. And, key to the story, God moved to protect Abraham and Sarah. It is through this incident that God started to fulfill his promise to bless Abraham and to make him great (Genesis 12:2 cp 13:2). Plus, on his return to the land, Abraham built an altar “calling on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 13:4)
This incident in the life of Abraham illustrates the life of faith without direct leading. Abraham was in circumstances which called on him to make choices. Even when he made the best choice available to him, it went over his head and we see that the life of Faith is not lived on its own. It is a life lived trusting in the one who justifies the ungodly. Who can be against us? Not Pharaoh. Even if you believe Abraham was foolish, cowardly and faithless in this section, the point of the story is God is at work accomplishing his goal for his people and even we cannot stand against us.
In Genesis 13:5-18, Abraham comes into tension with his nephew Lot. The issue is that they both had gotten large flocks and herds in Egypt and they could no longer live together because of competition for land to keep them in. Like the last section, this is a test of scarcity – a scarcity caused by God’s blessing and by being in too close proximity. What is Abraham’s priority? Let there be no quarreling … for we are brothers (v 8). There is no need for strife. Though the land is his by promise, Abraham’s life of faith means he does not have to grasp at it (cp Philippians 2:6).
This story shows the life of faith responding to interpersonal conflict. Abraham’s response was gracious and righteous, seeking peace (the NT passages relating to this are numerous Romans 12:18ff for starters). Here, Abraham’s wisdom is perhaps not as questionable as his decision to go to Egypt; at least in this chapter the commentaries rediscover what a wonderful man Abraham is. By leaving the choice to Lot, Abraham was trusting God with the outcome and once again, God protected him. Lot’s took his tent towards Sodom while Abraham turned away from there. Another result is that God gave Abraham more of a Revelation concerning his promise of the land. Abraham walked the land ending in Hebron where he built an altar to the Lord.
The third test of Abraham’s faith is found in Genesis 14:1-24. The first part of the chapter involves the invasion of the land by four kings. Seemingly without direct leading from the Lord (just like his decisions in chapter 12 and chapter 13), Abraham pursues the invaders, defeats them in battle and rescues his nephew. These are actions of a man in his circumstances. They show Abraham to be courageous and decisive. The place where Abraham caught up with the invaders and joined battle was some 140 miles from his home in Hebron. The campaign, then, probably lasted weeks. My concern, however, is how Abraham’s life of Faith responds to the victory. There are two points, shown by Abraham’s reactions to meeting the two kings at the end of the chapter.
The text has a cross structure. That is, the king of Sodom is mentioned first, and then Melchizedek but Melchizedek speaks first, and then the King of Sodom. The King of Sodom came to Abraham empty-handed, which I guess is to be expected given that his city had been looted. The fact the two kings came out together might indicate that after his defeat, the King of Sodom was staying in Salem with Malchizedek. The area where they met was right outside Jerusalem, which many say is Salem where Malchizedek was king.
In Hebrews 5-7, particularly chapter 7, the writer gives an analysis of Malchizedek, which I won’t touch on here. What we see in Genesis is that besides being king, He was priest of God Most High (Genesis 14:18). He brought out a celebratory banquet and pronounced the blessing of God on Abraham and praise to God for the victory. For reasons that will come out more forcefully later, this provides an important Godward focus for Abraham. What this incident shows is that Abraham was not the only believer in the world at that time and that Abraham needed to spend time with the others. The life of faith is lived in communion with others of faith. In Hebrews, it says that time together encourages each other to “love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24,25). We see that here as Abraham joins in worship and acknowledges God by the act of giving a tribute (a tenth of everything. v 20) to God’s priest.
We also see the fruit of this time with Malchizedek in Abraham’s response to the King of Sodom. This king makes what appears to be a generous offer to Abraham to keep all the goods. Of course, Abraham had won all the goods in battle, so there is reason to think that this vanquished king’s offer was more than a bit presumptuous. Abraham, himself, seemed to think the booty was his by the fact that he had given Malchizedek a tenth of everything. But the time of worship and celebration with his fellow believer seemed to open Abraham’s eyes to another reality – the reality of the nature of the King of Sodom and of his offer. The price of accepting free goods from this man was too high for the life of faith.
But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ (Genesis 14:22-23). There are a couple of things to notice in the text. First is the way Abraham describes God. It is word for word what Malchizedek said in his blessing (vv 19,20). I am not trying to speculate that Abraham was neglecting God previous to his meeting Malchizedek, but Malchizedek’s blessing of Abraham informed Abraham’s response to the King of Sodom, just as our times of worship and fellowship should inform our interactions outside of those times.
The second thing to notice also leads to my conclusions above. The phrase translated I have lifted my hand to the Lord is in the present tense in the Hebrew. Rather than some previous meditation and oath on the part of Abraham, the present tense indicates an immediate (crisis) choice: Right now, I am raising my hand to the Lord. It could have been very easy to justify the acceptance of the King’s offer. God had promised to bless Abraham and here was a great deal of goods being offered to him. The fact that he was despoiling an evil king could have made it even sweeter deal. But Abraham’s eyes of Faith, encouraged by fellowship and worship, saw that the blessing of God would be from God and he rejected the king’s offer as it would cause boasting on the part of the king. A life of Faith, then, does not live in desperate taking advantage out of compromise, but is free to wait for God.
By faith Abraham lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country … For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:9-10) The three tests of Abraham’s faith covered in this article were choices Abraham made without direct revelation from God, much like our life of faith. We have promises, but concerning specific choices, things are often maddingly vague. We see Abraham making choices with the wisdom he has – especially in the first instance, we see that he gets in over his head – and I think we can see Abraham growing in wisdom through these choices, just like we do in our lives of Faith. Growth is one of the underlying principles of Faith which tends to be ignored when we study biblical lives. Abraham would not have gotten to his decision in chapter 14 (to say nothing of his decision in chapter 22) without his decisions in 12 or 13. Just like the child who will not be able to walk until he goes through the process of wobbling and falling (with the parents right there to catch him from grave danger), the child of God has to haltingly practice the life of Faith. And in the process, God is right there. He is for us; no one and no thing can take us from him.