Friday, February 18, 2011

The Seed--God and Abraham Part IV

The Seed: God and Abraham Part IV

This is the fourth and final blog in the series of God and Abraham.  In the first blog, I attempted to describe how Abraham would have understood God in the polytheistic context in which he lived.  In the following blogs, I described how Abraham likely understood and responded to the promises of God in Genesis 12:1-3 that relate to the land that God would give him and the progeny that God would send through Sarah.  In every case, we have examined how Abraham would have understood God’s promises within his cultural context—which is the only way any of us can understand God’s word.  In this blog, we examine the meaning of the phrase found in Genesis 12:3 that in Abraham “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (NKJV).  We will try to learn, if possible, how Abraham would have understood this phrase but, in this case, because the Messiahship of Christ is rooted in the idea that he was a son of Abraham, we will also go beyond Abraham and look at how Paul understood God’s blessing through Abraham’s seed, particularly in his exposition of the Abrahamic Covenant in Galatians 3:6-16.

Abraham’s understanding of this phrase would have been deeply rooted in the overlapping concepts of family, lineage, and inheritance.  Abraham’s concept of family, like the other clans and nations of his time as well as much of the world today, meant his extended family or clan.  All cultures have what anthropologists call kinship systems that explain how the families in any given culture relate to one another as well.  Most kinship systems are either patrilineal—meaning that the family bloodline runs through the males and the family relates primarily to the man’s family, matrilineal—meaning that the bloodline flows through the mother’s side of the family, or bi-lateral, where the bloodline flows through both sides—American culture being a good example.

A quick look at Abraham’s family tree in Genesis 11:10-29 reveals that it was patriarchal.  Few women are even mentioned.  Abraham, like Terah, his father, and his other male ancestors, was the head of his clan.  In our day, it is common to look on the genealogies in the Bible, such as the one recorded in Genesis 11:10-19, and wonder why it was necessary to include them in the Scriptures.  We must remember that the Bible was written for people of all ages, not just us.  Abraham would have grasped its importance immediately.  Being listed in the genealogy meant one was part of a family and, therefore, had a place in history.

That Abraham valued his family tree is clear from the fact that he did not separate from his family until he was 75 years old, and then only because God directly ordered him to do so (Genesis 12:1-5).  He even kept his nephew, Lot, with him as long as possible, even though by this time, Lot was a grown man.  Had Terah and Nahor, Abraham’s brother, expressed a desire to accompany him, as they had originally planned to migrate to Canaan, it is inconceivable to think that Abraham would have refused them.  When it came time for Isaac to marry, Abraham sent a trusted servant to his family in Haran to find a wife for him (Genesis 24).

Because Abraham’s culture, no doubt stemming from Ur, was patrilineal, the rights of inheritance, birthright, and blessings, normally flowed through the first born son, although there were some notable exceptions such as Jacob and Esau (Genesis 24:33), Reuben and Levi and Judah (Genesis 49:1; Numbers 3:12, 13: 8:18; 1 Chronicles 5:1), and Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:8-20).  The eldest son became the priest of the family, was allotted a double portion of the father’s inheritance, and, at least in the case of the kings, was granted judicial authority (2 Chronicles 21:3) ( The eldest son also had considerable authority within the family.  In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant negotiates for Rebekah’s with her eldest brother, Laban, who was apparently responsible for her in the absence of their father, Bethuel. 

However, whether the privileges of the first born applied to Ishmael is not clear since Hagar was a concubine, not a wife.  Genesis 21:10 implies that Ishmael had at least some of the rights of the firstborn, and Sarah wanted to make sure that he had no opportunity to exercise them.  While God make clear to Abraham that Ishmael was not the one through whom his promises would be fulfilled, he did promise to bless him and make a nation from his progeny (Genesis 21:13) because his was also the son of Abraham.  In this sense, Ishmael also participated in the fulfillment of Genesis 12:2. 

With all of this in mind, we move on to Paul’s comment in Galatians 3:16 that the promise of God to Abraham referred to one seed—Jesus Christ.  Abraham most likely never understood this part of the promise.  There is no hint in the Genesis record that Abraham ever knew that one of his seed would be the Messiah.  In no way, however, does this invalidate Paul’s statement. 

For Christ to be the seed of Abraham meant that he had have an established lineage as one of Abraham’s descendents.  The genealogical lists of Matthew 1:1-18 and Luke 3:23-38 are critical to Paul’s argument.  The Matthew list traces the lineage of Mary, Jesus’ biological mother.  The second gives that of Joseph who, though not Jesus’ literal father, was his legal one.

Paul’s statement that Christ was the seed of Abraham must be seen in the context of his argument of justification by faith rather than through the law (the Ten Commandments) in Galatians 3:1-4:7.  His point is that the covenant that God had made with Abraham could not be nullified under any circumstances. The purpose of the Ten Commandments was to reveal our sin.  God’s purpose in Christ, according to Paul, was to reveal God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Throughout the ages, multiplied millions of people, representing many ethnic backgrounds from all over the world, have believed in Christ—the Seed of Abraham and received God’s blessing.  God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled.

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson 

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