Week 2 – God Builds a Nation

Scripture Readings:  Genesis 12-13, 15-17, 21-22, 32-33, 35; Romans 4; Hebrews 11

Significant Moments in The Story

God calls Abram – Genesis 12

God Seals His Promise to Abram – Genesis 15

Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 16

Circumcision as a Sign of the Covenant – Genesis 17

The Birth of Isaac – Genesis 21

God Tests Abraham – Genesis 22

Jacob’s Name is Changed to Israel – Genesis 32

Key Themes

Why build a nation?

If the problem of sin is a universal problem, why does God focus His attention on this one man, Abram, and his family?  Has he forgotten about the problems of sin?  No.  Before, God had set apart Noah to spare him and his family from the destruction that would come upon the rest of the world.  Now, however, God is setting apart Abram and his descendants not as sole survivors but as a vessel through which all of humanity will come to be restored to God’s blessing (Genesis 12:3).  Redemption is not wiping the slate clean, but working in, with, and through humanity to recreate and rediscover the image of God.

How does God build a nation?

According to Genesis 17, Abram was 99 years old when God changed his name to Abraham and promised him, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4).  At the time, Sara was 90 years old and barren.  If God was going to build a nation with a couple, promising multitudes of descendants, shouldn’t he start with a young, energetic, virile couple?  No, because it needed to be clear that God was who was ultimately at work.  And God is inviting humanity into a relationship that is based not on walks in the cool of the day but faith.  Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”  Abraham and Sarah will both live to see the birth of Isaac.  However, they will not be around to see the multitude of descendants that God is promising.  However, they were willing to base their hopes and their lives on God’s promise.  God is creating a community defined not by a language or a tribe but by a shared hope that God will fulfill His promises.

The significance of covenant

Throughout this entire reading, God is making promises to Abraham and to his family (Genesis 12, Genesis 15-17, Genesis 21, Genesis 35).  As God develops the relationship with Abraham and with his family, God invites them to be a part of a relationship with Him that is based on promises by both God and man.  This is not a contractual relationship of “If you will do this, then I will do that.”  Instead, these are promises that define expectations, that state the character of each party in the relationship.  The Bible will refer to these types of promises with the word “covenant”.  Covenant will become the defining quality of God and His people.

Background Information

The call of Abram – Genesis 12:1-9

God promises to give Abram a land and to bless him with a multitude of descendants.  In one sense, God is counteracting the confusion following the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) when man was scattered across the face of the earth unable to communicate with one another.  Now, through Abraham, all of the earth will be brought together to receive God’s blessing.

Eliezer of Damascus – Genesis 15:2-4

Evidence indicates that, in some ancient cultures, childless couples would practice “slave adoption”, where the couple would adopt a son to serve them all of their lives and who would inherit upon their death.  If, however, a natural son was born to the couple, the adopted son would have to yield his right to inheritance.

The smoking fire pot – Genesis 15:7-21

God engages in what was probably an early covenant ceremony practice in which agreeing parties would cut an animal in two and then walk between the parts.  Though we are not exactly sure of the reason for such a practice, some believe that the ancient ceremony was a visualization of an unspoken message in the agreement:  if either party breaks the agreement, they are liable to be cut in two themselves!  

Throughout the Scriptures, fire will be a common sign of the presence of God.

The iniquity of the Amorites – Genesis 15:16

In Genesis 9, Noah’s son Ham sees his father lying naked in his tent and goes and tells his two brothers, who walk into Noah’s tent backwards and cover their father up so that they do not see him in a state of disgrace and shame.  When he wakes up, Noah curses Ham and his son, Canaan.  While there is much discussion as to why Ham’s actions deserve a curse, some believe it may be because Ham chose to go and make his father’s disgrace public rather than cover him up himself or keep quiet about it.  

Whatever the explanation, Canaan was the forefather of the Amorites, and it seems Ham’s descendants are still living with Noah’s curse.  Therefore, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be delayed in inheriting the promised land until the effects of Noah’s curse have been removed.

Circumcision – Genesis 17:9-27

Though often associated with the Hebrew people, circumcision is not unique to the descendants of Abraham.  Some of Israel’s neighbors also practiced circumcision of males as a sign of membership in a community.  In this case, circumcision was used to identify not a relationship among humans but a relationship between humanity and God.

Jacob and Esau – Genesis 32-33

Jacob and Esau are the children of Isaac, the grandchildren of Abraham.  They are twins, though Esau is a few minutes older and, therefore, recognized as the firstborn son with all the advantages and inheritance expectations that go along with being the firstborn.  In Genesis 25:29-34, Jacob convinces a famished Esau to trade his birthright (leadership of the family and a double share of the inheritance) for some stew.  Then, in Genesis 27, Jacob disguises himself to trick a blind Isaac into giving him the blessing he had intended to give to Esau.  In the ancient mindset, the words of a blessing were believed to  be powerful and could dictate the future of an individual or a people.  Because of all this, Esau swore to kill Jacob.  The boys’ mother, Rebekah, learns of Esau’s plan and tells Jacob to run away to her brother’s house and stay there until Esau’s anger has cooled.  Jacob eventually marries his uncle’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and has twelve sons, who will become the twelve tribes of Israel.  We pick up the story as Jacob is returning with his family to meet Esau for the first time since he ran away.

Some Questions That Might Come Up

How could Sarah give Hagar to Abraham in the first place to bear his child?

There is evidence that in some ancient cultures a marriage contract obligated the wife to provide her husband with a substitute if the wife was barren.  Interesting enough, these same contracts forbid the expulsion of the mother and her son should a son be born of the union.  This may explain, in part, Abraham’s distress regarding sending Hagar and Ishmael away in Genesis 21:11.

Why does God need to test Abraham?

Genesis 22 is one of the most powerful tales of all of Scripture.  The author tells the tale in such a way that we can almost hear the story being retold around a camp fire, with all who were listening spell bound as to what would happen.  The text gives us, the reader, an out in Genesis 22:1 by telling us that everything that we read next is a test.  However, even that out leaves us with a question:  why is God testing Abraham in the first place?

The answer to that question has been discussed as much as any issue in the Old Testament.  Some point out that Abraham has, on several occasions, seemed to doubt whether or not God actually will deliver on his promises (i.e. passing off Sarah as his sister, his relationship with Hagar).  Others have pointed out that this is where God finds out if Abraham is truly interested in a relationship with Him or was just interested in getting a son out of the deal.  Will Abraham still trust in God’s character even once the core of the promise has been fulfilled?  Others see in this story the evidence of the gift of free will.  Though God can foresee all the options, he does not know what choice Abraham will make.  Ultimately, God needed to know if Abraham could pass the ultimate questions of faithfulness as a pattern and lesson for his future descendants.  At the same time, some point out that God is also being tested.  Abraham needs to know that God’s earlier promises are permanent!

This is a story that asks hard questions, and so it should not be dismissed as simple or easy.  It also seems to be, as we might expect, a traumatic moment in the life of Abraham and his family.  It is interesting to note that, in Genesis 22:19, Abraham went to Beer-sheba and lived there.  In Genesis 23:2, we are told that Sarah died at Hebron, some 25 miles away.  The next time we see Isaac after the events of Genesis 22, he is living in “the Negeb” (Genesis 24:62) an area south of Beer-sheba.  We are never to see, it seems, Abraham, Isaac and Sarah together after the events of Genesis 22.

Additional Resources

A Map of the region where most of the events of the Old Testament will take place.

A Map of the region where most of the events of the Old Testament will take place.