Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Promise of a Progeny: God and Abraham Part III

The Promise of a Progeny: God and Abraham
Part III
By Dr. Dave Johnson

This is the third in a series of blogs regarding the relationship between God and Abraham.  We have already covered the stark contrast between Abraham’s monotheism and the polytheism prevalent in the tribes that surrounded him, and from which he, himself, came.  We have also covered God’s promise to Abraham that his descendents would inherit the land of Canaan. 

In this blog, we will examine Abraham’s understanding of the promise that God would give him descendents that would outnumber the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.  When God first promised his descendents, he was already seventy-five years old, and Sarah was sixty-five.  Given the life-span of the people of his time, having children at this age was quite normal.  But the promise was not fulfilled until after another twenty-five years, when they were both no longer fertile.  The Genesis record does show that on a few occasions the Lord reminded Abraham of the promise, but a quarter of a century is a long time to wait, and we may not assume that God continually repeated his promises, which is one of the reasons that the Bible accords great faith to Abraham. 

While the biblical text records only five occasions in this time period when God reminded Abraham of his promise (Genesis 12:7; 13:13-18; 15:1-6; 17:1-27, and 18:1-19), each one of them is significant.  In Genesis 12:7, God repeated the promise when Abraham first arrived in Canaan.  This is the first time that the promise of a progeny is directly tied to the land that Abraham would inherit.  In 13:13-18, the promise is repeated after Abraham divided the land with Lot.  The significance of repeating the promise here is to give Abraham the assurance that his future descendants, not Lot’s, would inherit the land.

The third occasion, recorded in Genesis 15, came after Abraham’s coalition had rescued Lot and others from the Chedorloaomer, the king of Elam, and his friends, who had raided south eastern Canaan and taken plunder and hostages, including his nephew, Lot.   In this raid, it became obvious to Abraham that the promised land was vulnerable to outsiders.  The loose federations of clans, tribal groups, which included Abraham’s household of 318 persons, and city-states that populated Canaan was not strong enough to withstand attack from the outside.  God’s reassurance here must have bolstered Abraham’s faith. 

The dialogue between God and Abraham in Genesis 15 is quite revealing.  First, God tells Abraham not to fear for God himself would be Abraham’s protector and rewarder.  Abraham responded essentially that there wasn’t much worth protecting since God had not given him an heir.  But God patiently repeated the promise, and Abraham believed. 

But believing does not mean that there are no questions.  In v. 8, Abraham simply asks “how?” God responds in a manner that seems odd to Westerners but was quite natural to Abraham.  What transpires in the following verses takes the form of a Hittite suzerainty treaty, a common type of treaty between two parties, undoubtedly quite familiar to Abraham—again reflecting God’s willingness to communicate with mankind through human cultures.

A suzerainty treaty, however, was not a treaty among equals, but one between a superior lord and a vassal.  Abraham clearly understood who played what role.  What is different from a normal suzerainty treaty here is that God not only laid out the terms of the treaty, he alone would be the one to execute it.  In the normal treaty procedure, both parties would walk between the slain animals.  But in this case, God, symbolized by the smoking pot and burning torch, walked alone, signifying that he was both the originator and the guarantor of the covenant.  Only he would be bound by it.  Abraham would do nothing to fulfill the covenant beyond having sexual relations with Sarah and rearing the child.  He could either accept or reject the terms but could not change them.  There were no negotiations. Abraham accepted.

How did Abraham and Sarah deal with this promise?  In Genesis 16:1-2, Sarah, who by now was probably nearing the end of childbearing age, reminded Abraham that she was barren.  This account must clearly be seen in conjunction with the events of chapter 15.  Sarah’s offered her maid in an honest effort to see the promise of God fulfilled.  But there may be more in view here than doing the will of God.  Cultural mandates and peer pressure cannot be ignored.  Barrenness was a major social disgrace because continuing the family tree was considered very important.  Sarah may have been desperate and was surely at least partially motivated by a desire to remove this social stigma.  Having an heir would assure Abraham’s place in history and establish his legacy. 

There were at least two ways that ancient Near Eastern cultures dealt with infertility.  One was by appealing to the gods for help by performing religious rituals, including prostitution.  (  The other was by using a servant as a surrogate mother.  While the first would have been reprehensible to Abraham, the second did not present any issues of conscience for him.  We must remember here that Abraham had no knowledge of the Ten Commandments as they had not yet been given.  Consequently, while God did not condone his action, he also never rebukes Abraham for having a sexual relationship with Hagar or holds him responsible for what has happened between the descendents of Ishmael and Isaac.

For thirteen years Abraham and Sarah thought that God’s covenant would be fulfilled through Ishmael.  In Genesis 17, God again appeared to Abraham and revealed that, in her old age, Sarah herself would indeed bear a child.  At this point, God did two things.  First, he changes their names from Abram and Sarai to the plural forms Abraham and Sarah, conveying the promise that they would be the progenitors of a multitude—even though, as yet, they had no child between them.  Why God did this now and not before is not explained, but it may have been to give Abraham and Sarah confidence that he would enact his will and fulfill his promise through Sarah, not Hagar.  Since names were given to describe a person’s character, the neighbors likely mocked them, reminding them that the “father of a multitude” had only one son, and that by a concubine.

The second thing that God did here was to institute the sign of the covenant, circumcision, as the seal of his agreement that the descendents of Abraham’s coming child would be God’s forever.  Circumcision was commonly practiced among the nations of Canaan, although the Philistines were an exception.  While the exact purpose of circumcision among other groups cannot be established for certain, it was most likely religious since marking one’s body was common in Canaanite religious practices.  It should be noted that while Ishmael was required to be circumcised and God would bless him because of Abraham, Ishmael was not considered a son of the covenant (17:19-20) and would not participate in the covenant blessings. What set Abraham apart from his neighbors was the intent of the circumcision as a sign of his special relationship with God.  By becoming circumcised, Abraham signified his ratification of the covenant.

Genesis 21:1-21 records both a blessing and a tragedy.  The blessing was that God finally kept his promise and gave Isaac to Abraham and Sarah.  What a joy his birth must have been to their old hearts.  In his birth, they saw the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.  But the arrival of Isaac also drove the final nail in the coffin of Sarah’s relationship with Hagar and Ishmael, and she demanded that Abraham throw them out.  Reluctantly, he did so, with a promise from God that he would also bless Ishmael.

Blessings from God also come with tests, and the blessing of a son from a covenant keeping God was no exception (Genesis 22:1-19).  One day God called Abraham to take his son to Mount Moriah.  While some scholars hold that the land Moriah was the same as Mt. Gerizim, in northern Israel, most hold that it was within the area of Mt. Zion, which was in Jerusalem, the site where David later pitched his tabernacle and placed the Ark of the Covenant, and the place where Solomon’s temple was later built.  At the time, Abraham was living in Beersheba on the southern border of modern Israel, so the necessity of a three day journey is not surprising.       

We are not told why God chose the land of Moriah.  Its, choice, moreover, does not appear to have surprised Abraham.  From time immemorial and the world over, mankind has seen mountains as viable places of worship.  While Abraham was surely appalled at the idea of sacrificing his son, human sacrifice in general, though rare, was known in Mesopotamia and possibly Egypt at the time.  In most cases it appears to have had religious connotations or some connection to the afterlife.  That God would ask Abraham to sacrifice any human, and especially the son through whom the covenant would be fulfilled, is revolting.  While the Bible is filled with God executing his justice through war and destruction, there is no other record in Scripture of God ever calling anyone to sacrifice a human life, save for giving his own Son on the cross.  Whatever Abraham may have felt, the point is that he responded in obedience, apparently without hesitation.

Why God would test Abraham is not clear from the text, but why God would test him in this manner can be easily discerned.  Isaac was not just any child, he was the one through whom God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled.  Abraham and Sarah had waited all of their married lives for this boy.  If he honored God’s command to kill the promised son, how would God fulfill his promise?  Was Abraham strong enough in his faith in God to withstand the test?  Was his allegiance to the one, true God whole and complete? The writer to the Hebrews answers the first question by stating that Abraham believed that Isaac would be resurrected (Hebrews 11:19).  Abraham’s confidence that he would not have to go through with the dastardly deed is hinted at in Genesis 22:9-10, although he may simply have answered Isaac in this manner in order to avoid telling him the truth as long as possible.  Thank God that Abraham passed the test and, after he had done so, God again reiterated the covenant (vv.15-19).   

There are several lessons that we might learn from Abraham’s life as he awaited the fulfillment of God’s promise.  First, God honors his promise on his timetable, not ours, and he does so for his own glory.  Had Sarah given birth to Isaac during her childbearing years, it would have seemed less than a miracle.  As it was, God’s hand giving her a child at the age of ninety was unmistakable.  Second, we should see Abraham as a great example of a godly man who waited patiently for God to fulfill his word.

Third, God keeps his promises in his own manner.  Again, it is tempting to say that Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands when Abraham had sex with Hagar, but the text gives no hint of this.  God never condemned them for what they did because they did not have the Ten Commandments.  At the same time, however, God made it clear that Isaac, not Ishmael (Genesis 17:17-21) was the son of the promise, even though Ishmael was required to be circumcised since he was a male member of Abraham’s household.  The achievement of God’s purposes was neither derailed nor delayed by what Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar did.

Fourth, living out God’s promises may not be understood by those around us, as when God changed the names of Abraham and Sarah prior to Isaac’s birth, and may lead to ridicule and even persecution.   In such cases, we are called to choose whether we prefer the honor of God or that of men.

Fifth, our faith in God will be tested. While this is not a new idea to anyone in Christ, we tend to ascribe the blame for our trials and temptations on the Devil.  Scripture, however, does not allow for such a narrow view.  In this passage, the trial is clearly from God.  When the trials from God come our way, the proper response is to seek to understand what message he is trying to give us or what he is trying to do in our lives.  Debbie and I recently passed through a major time of testing from the Lord that caused us much private pain but has led to much inner healing and liberation from a number of things that were holding back our spiritual growth.  These times can be richly rewarding if we will go through them trusting in God for the outcome.  Again, Abraham is a great example.  He may not have known what the outcome of his trip to the land of Moriah would bring, but he acted in obedience, trusting in God that all would be well in the end.       

Sixth, the fruit of Abraham’s life continues to this day.  Indeed, the number of his descendents, both literally and spiritually, cannot be counted.  Three major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam honor his name.  If we will be faithful to walk out the will of God for our lives, both being the people he has called us to be and doing what he has called us to do, he will bless us and we will leave a great legacy to those who follow in our footsteps. 

In looking at every text where God restated his promise to Abraham regarding a progeny, we can now see his hand at work because we are seeing it in hindsight.  Abraham had no such vantage point, making his faith truly admirable.  But while Abraham did not live to see the number of his descendents become a multitude, he did live to see Jacob and Esau, who were fifteen years old when he died.   He may have also seen Ishmael’s descendents as they apparently lived nearby and became traders with merchants of Egypt, which required passing through Canaan.  He had a number of children with his second wife, Keturah, and may have seen their offspring.  One of his descendents, whose parentage came from the line of Isaac, was the seed who would bless the nations.  How Abraham would have understood that part of the promise and its fulfillment is the subject of the next blog. 

PLEASE NOTE: Permission is hereby given to forward, print, and post this blog as long as it is done as a complete blog and its authorship is acknowledged. Thank you for your cooperation.  For automatic notification of future blogs please visit, and click on “follow.”

Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson  


  1. You say, "...takes the form of a Hittite suzerainty treaty." Actually, this doesn't show the elements of that form, but rather another common ancient Near Eastern form called the royal land grant treaty.

  2. Notice that the promise of a vast host of descendants was already being fulfilled by the time the Hebrews were ready to leave Egypt. The Egyptians feared them for their super fertility and for how numerous they were becoming in the land:
    The Israelites, however, were fruitful, increased greatly, multiplied, and became extremely strong, so that the land was filled with them. Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power over Egypt. He said to his people, "Look at the Israelite people, more numerous and stronger than we are! Come, let's deal wisely with them. Otherwise they will continue to multiply, and if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us and leave the country." .... But the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more they multiplied and spread.... and the people multiplied and became very strong. (Exod 1:7ff NET)