Lessons from the Patriarchs: Abraham

In New Year’s resolutions and Character Goals, I talked about the difference between desires and goals, suggesting that goals are superior.

“The trouble with desire,” I said, “is that it tends to be passive” (a negative). “Furthermore, desires need not be within our power to achieve.” In other words, desires can be futile. But this week I’m flipping those assumptions on their heads.

That’s not to say that goals aren’t good. As creatures made in God’s image and imbued with fundamental skills, as well as His choice of special talents, we all have the ability to achieve certain pursuits in this fallen world. But as children of God, born again into His kingdom, we also need dreams beyond what we can achieve in our own strength… dreams beyond all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

As children of God, we pursue the impossible through faith.

Which brings me back to my recent studies in Genesis and my contemplations of the Patriarchs. What can we learn from their successes and mistakes?

ABRAHAM

The promise God made to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15 (which I describe here) transferred to their son Seth, then eventually Noah and his descendants leading up to the first patriarch, Abram. In the first divine promise made to this man, God said:

“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.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Genesis 12:2-3

On some level, Abram believed God (for he proceeded at least in partial obedience to the LORD’s command), and yet—when his wife Sarai failed to conceive—he tried to simplify the promise—to achieve it in his own strength by using Hagar as a substitute.

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What lessons can we learn from Abraham’s story?

First of all, we can’t force God’s timing or even His methods. Receiving a promise isn’t about being in control; it’s about trust. Obtaining a promise isn’t about working hard and then asking God to bless our efforts. As I said in my review of Havah (by Tosca Lee),

“God’s promise fulfilled in man’s strength is no promise at all.”

But why is that?

God told Abram, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Among the prose of promises listed in Genesis 12 above, that one line is the most important—and it could never have been fulfilled in man’s strength—through Ishmael’s descendants and the lineage of Hagar, the slave girl (as explained in Galatians 4:21-31).

It’s true that Ishmael would fulfill other aspects of the promise—such as becoming a great nation—but partial fulfillment wasn’t enough for God. Partial fulfillment wouldn’t lead to the Messiah, the cross, and the redemption of all mankind. Partial fulfillment wouldn’t satisfy the promise made to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15. For the enemy to be crushed and mankind to be freed, the essential lineage was the one leading to Jesus. For that, only Isaac—the son conceived in God’s strength—would do, because…

It’s only through God’s power that all people can be blessed.

Perhaps that’s why God alone—and not Abram—bore the weight of the Genesis 15 covenant:

“I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half…

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram… (Genesis 15:7-18)

Note how Abram never sets foot between the severed pieces. That’s because this isn’t a covenant both parties entered into. It’s not a two-way street with promised blessings shifting back and forth. Instead, the blessing flows in one direction only: to Abram (and all peoples) from God. As such, God alone is accountable. His cutting a covenant in this manner is the same as if He’d proclaimed: “Let Me become as these severed animals if I ever go back on this promise.”

In other words, “I’ll be dead before I fail you in this.”

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And that’s just what transpired. God died—willingly. On a cross. To fulfill the promise He’d made to Adam and Eve, then to Abraham, and—eventually—to all the inhabitants of this fallen world. A promise made in His wisdom, carried out in His strength, and fulfilled for His glory (and our benefit).

A promise to bless mankind. If we can only cease our working and striving to receive the promise only God can fulfill.

But how does that transfer to our writing—or whatever God-given passion we pursue?

“I will make you into a great nation…”

Do we only want great influence (numerous descendants) in order to feel we’ve made our mark?

“I will make your name great…”

Do we only wish for notoriety and fame so everyone knows our names? Or would we rather make a name for God?

Do we want our writing to be only an escape from reality—or to be instead an escape into a reality only comprehensible in God’s strength?

“…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

If we want the most important part of God’s promise to be true for us—for our writing, our ministry—that it would be a spiritual blessing to our readers (or whomever our audience may be), we’ll need more than an Ishmael. More than our own efforts and strength.

We’ll need a dead womb submitted to God, every earthly hope fading—until all our hopes center on God.

As Allen Arnold says in The Story of With:

51fhqlyy5fl“Let go of your preconceived notions of what is possible and ask God about His dreams for you. They will likely be far bigger than anything you’ve yet imagined.” After all, “The only way to experience a miracle is to put yourself in a position to need one. That is part of stepping into dreams so big that only God can make them come true.”

The Power of Promise?

So God says, I’ll give you a land. A place of belonging. A name, a son, a nation (Genesis 12). This in itself is a great promise, but I wonder if Abraham fully understood what God was saying.

Consider how Abram asks God for proof: “how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” (Genesis 15:8)

God indulges Abram with the outward sign of a covenant (the severed animals, and the ceremony), though I believe the words God speaks just prior to this moment serve as a pre-answer to Abram’s doubt:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
(Genesis 15:1)

A son was nice. A nation, too. But here God whispers what really matters… “I AM… your reward.” In other words…

“Don’t trust in the promise, my son. Trust in the Promise-Giver.”

This, I believe, was the very reason God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. To ensure that his trust was properly grounded. Not in Isaac—but in God.

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If the Sovereign Lord once planted a son in a dead womb, He could do it again. Or raise the sacrificed boy from the dead so he might again become the son of promise. The Creator of time itself can do above and beyond anything we can ever ask or imagine.

So… when we think we’ve finally produced a novel that could be our very own “son of promise,” instead of rushing out to the printer, we need to lay it on God’s altar. Give it back to Him to do away with or to use however He wishes.

We submit our work to God—or else it becomes an idol, a snare.

We need to realize that the tangible product in our hands is nothing apart from God’s divine power. Furthermore, God is more concerned with our relationship to Him than with our productivity. Rather than any blessings He might bestow, God Himself is our greatest reward.

Genesis: An Overview

So many important people and events come alive in the pages of this first book in the Bible—including the first man and woman, hand-fashioned by God.

This simple creative act—simple for God—surely carried a weighty resolve to which Hero Yeshua consented… Just like I discussed in my post about the Hero’s ordinary world.

To allow creation was to invite all kinds of destruction—including His own.

Though it’s hard for us to grasp, God stands outside of time—sees the beginning from the end. In this way, God creates man, knowing full well that time plods inexorably toward the cross and Yeshua’s death. Both Father and Son have already counted the cost and decided it’s worth the sacrifice. That we’re worth it. That’s the beauty of Creation.

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God created man in His image, male and female. Not as robots but free agents capable of obedience… or else defiance. He made life in the garden simple. No ten commandments there; just a single rule: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

God essentially said, don’t stick your finger in the socket or you’ll pay the price. Unfortunately, even then man had an enemy (Genesis 3), the crafty serpent, who may as well have said as he “palmed” his scaly forehead, “but of course God doesn’t want you to stick your finger in the socket. He’s hoping to keep you from the very power He Himself bears!”

Can you imagine how someone with no concept of electricity might mistakenly feel snubbed here? How long, I wonder, did it take mankind to succumb to this twisted taunt? To this day, we still suffer for acting without having all the facts. (And trust me—no matter what we think—we never have all the facts.)

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To this day, we’re still faced with choices that reap blessings or curses… life or death…

The question is: In any given moment, will we choose to follow God or Satan?

Will we submit to the Creator—remaining within the protective bounds of His perfect law—or will we sin?

Will we trust our own strength to carry us—thus erecting Self as a golden idol—or will we admit that God is the Source of every talent, every fortune, every success?

Let’s be clear: To choose God is to choose life.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” Deuteronomy 20:19-20

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The remainder of Genesis ushers in a series of divine promises and human failures as God steers mankind toward the great redemption He’s planned:

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“And I will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he (singular) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Even if this passage speaks of an ongoing battle—for surely we are, even now, victims of spiritual warfare—it also hints at the One whose death would ultimately cleanse man’s sin and reverse The Fall’s curse.

Even in the beginning, a Savior is promised… He’s coming—but not yet.

Before that time, man’s inclinations are so evil, God can’t withhold justice. His judgment comes in the form of the Flood, followed by another promise symbolized in a rainbow.

And on it goes. The tower of Babel—defiance and pride. The confusion of language—mankind brought low. And finally the Patriarchs, through whom God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 will ultimately be fulfilled in, Jesus, the promised Messiah.

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. (Galatians 4:4-5)

Genesis displays God’s power and provision in creating a world to fulfill more than man’s base needs. The natural world beckons exploration. Adam and Eve are co-fashioned for deeper relationship. Even knowing the risk of rebellion, Father-Spirit-and-Son grant their image-bearers the freedom to choose. And when man inevitably falls… God’s plan of redemption sweeps into motion.

See also, Lessons from the Patriarchs and Genesis: The Bible in Fiction, coming soon. Learn more about the biblical fiction blog series here.

Resources

Youtube Overviews: Part 1 | Part 2

Outline of Genesis: Blue Letter Bible | Bible Study Start

Chronological Reading Plans: 1-year Plan | Simplified 61-day Plan

Bible Timelines (Pinterest): Bible Hub | The Bible Timeline | Amazing Bible Timeline

Jesus in Genesis and other Genesis-related Questions: Answers in Genesis