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AbrahamWhile there are several items that we could discuss next from Genesis, I don’t want this book to become so unwieldy as to become useless. So let us move forward from Noah to who could be considered the most important figure of Genesis.
A. Introduction to Abraham
In Genesis 12, we are introduced to Abraham, although at this point he is known as Abram. His name is important, as Abram means “exalted father” while Abraham means “father of many.” Additionally, Abraham’s wife begins with the name Sarai (meaning “princess”) and later becomes Sarah (meaning “princess of many”). The first identifying feature we are told of Abram is his age: seventy-five years old (Genesis 12:4). And we learn that despite the meaning of his name, he is actually childless. Genesis 12 then records God telling Abram to leave his home country and go to a new land where, he is promised, he will become a great nation.
Just like the command in the Garden of Eden, God has the right to give orders that man must fulfill. There was nothing that would morally require Abram to move to a new land. It was simply a command that God gave. To be sure, it’s clear that God had a plan in mind that required Abram to move to a new land, but we see that God did not ask Abram if it was okay for Him to enact His plan. He just commanded Abram move, and once the command was given Abram would have sinned had he not gone.
Thankfully, Abram obeys God and with his wife and his nephew Lot, they move to the area known as Bethel (“Bethel” means “house of God”). But soon there was a famine and Abram and Sarai moved on to Egypt. While there, Abram feared that the Egyptians would desire his wife and murder him, because Sarai was a beautiful woman. Because of that fear, he ordered his wife to tell the Egyptians that they were brother and sister. This was partially true, as Sarai was Abram’s half-sister, yet it is clearly meant as a deception. Abram’s fears about how the Egyptians would perceive Sarai seem to be justified in that the Egyptians did take Sarai to the Pharaoh, who praised her beauty and sought to keep her as a wife.
The biggest problem with Abram’s actions was that he did not show faith in God. God told him to move to a new land where he would become a great nation, and he couldn’t very well do that if he was dead. Therefore, Abram should have had confidence that God would have preserved his life instead of letting the Egyptians murder him. More than that, we can surmise that God intended to bless Abram’s decedents by bringing the promised Messiah mentioned in the protoevangelon through that lineage. Later, of course, we learn that this is the case, and that does bring up a practical matter.
If Pharaoh had taken Sarai as his wife, the legitimacy of Abram’s lineage would have been in question. Therefore, “the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (Genesis 12:17). This enabled Pharaoh to discover the truth about Sarai and Abram, so he sent them away with all their belongings, and the lineage for the promised redeemer was left intact.
Before we continue, this sequence of events is strange, isn’t it? Abram was the one who told the lie and doubted God, but the plagues were sent against Pharaoh. Abram, who appears to be the one who committed all the sin here, was not plagued. It is almost as if Pharaoh was punished for the crime of believing someone’s false testimony while the one giving the false testimony is not punished at all—which hardly seems right or fair. Nor does it help us to say, “Perhaps the plague was sent because Pharaoh was guilty of other sins.” He undoubtedly was guilty of lots of other sins, but the text specifically states that the plagues were “because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.”
We might next try to imagine, “Perhaps the plague wasn’t really sent by God, but was just some kind of illness brought by Sarai into Egypt that did not affect her or her husband, but did affect the Egyptians.” This would be similar to the way that smallpox came into the New World and decimated the native populations because they had no immunity to it. We commonly would not say that God brought a plague on the New World because of that, yet the text says “the LORD afflicted Pharaoh”, so the causal agent of the plagues ultimately was God, even if he did use something akin to smallpox as the means to that plague.
This actually looks quite similar to what happened to Job. Job was innocent yet was plagued. Pharaoh was innocent (if seen only in light of his actions toward Sarai) yet was plagued. There were definitely intermediary actors when it came to Job—it was Satan who literally caused the boils to erupt. But nevertheless, God acknowledged He brought that upon Job, and here in Genesis it is quite clear that the plague was from the LORD.
Interestingly, I’ve found far fewer people concerned with the fact that Pharaoh seems unjustly plagued here than that Job was unjustly plagued. And when it comes to Job, far more people are quick to try to come up with ways to distance God from what happens than in this passage. Yet thematically, they are identical. If one offends you, so should the other; if you find one justified, the other is justified on the same grounds. The Bible is consistent with itself, and we should hold to consistent beliefs about it as well.
After leaving Egypt, Abram became very wealthy, and strife arose between his shepherds and those of his nephew Lot because there wasn’t enough ground to feed all the livestock. As a result, Abram offered Lot his choice of whatever land he wanted and said he would move his own flocks to the land Lot did not want. Lot chose to remain in the area where there were many cities, and eventually came to live in the town of Sodom. Since there was a lot of conflict in that area, the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah were conquered by enemy kings and Lot was captured. Abram gathered his own men and rescued his nephew from captivity, showing he had grown strong enough to literally sustain an army.
Then comes a story that seems a little out of place. The main reason is because it will not become important until the New Testament. Indeed, it is likely that Moses himself may not have understood the significance of the event when he wrote Genesis 14:17-24, where Melchizedek, the king of Salem (the town that would become Jerusalem) and designated as “priest of God Most High” in verse 18, brings out bread and wine for Abram. Abram then gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything he owns (verse 20).
For those who have read the rest of the Bible, and particularly the book of Hebrews, the significance of this event is well known. For now, we shall imagine ourselves as the original readers and leave the meaning of this event for a future chapter. But even if you know what will happen, for the moment try to put yourselves in the shoes of an Israelite hearing this for the first time. Who is this king of Salem, and why does Abram give him a tithe of all his possessions? Why is this scene recorded? The questions must have been endless for those who only had Genesis and Job to work with!
C. The Covenant
Let us proceed to Genesis 15, which is perhaps the most pivotal chapter in all of the Old Testament, let alone Genesis. The chapter begins with Abram lamenting that he still does not have a child and that one of his servants will inherit all he owns when Abram dies. But God has other plans:
And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:4-6).The last verse can be a bit confusing due to the way the pronouns are being used. To clarify by putting in the formal noun in place of the pronoun, what the verse is saying is: “And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD counted it to Abram as righteousness.”
So what we have in this passage is first the renewed promise that the lineage of Abram would continue, and secondly that Abram’s bare belief that God would do what He said He would do is counted as righteousness. Many modern readers presume that righteousness in the Old Testament was based off of following rules and laws. But what we see in Genesis is that while disobeying the rules of God does bring about death, righteousness is found by believing God. In other words, as early as Genesis 15, the concept of salvation by faith has been demonstrated.
But God is not finished with just promising Abram children. He tells Abram to bring forward a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, as well as a turtledove and a young pigeon. Abram then cuts the livestock (but not the birds) in half. Then we read:
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:17-21).What is peculiar about this covenant is not so much what happened, but rather what did not happen. In the ANE, covenants were made in many contexts, not just in religious circles. In fact, the pattern of covenants that we know historically comes to us from the legal covenants between kings and their subjects (called suzerain covenants), or as peace treaties between warring factions. Covenants were often sealed with blood, as was done with the animals in Genesis 15 (this should also remind us of how animals were slain to provide Adam and Eve with their clothing, too). But typically what would happen is that both parties of the covenant would walk between the slain animals, signifying that both were agreeing that if the agreement was not upheld then those that broke the agreement would be cut apart just as the animals had been.
But in Genesis, only God moved between the pieces. In other words, God’s covenant with Abram is one-sided. God is the one who will provide for Abram, and Abram has to do absolutely nothing. God is the one “at risk” if the covenant is not fulfilled.
God is essentially promising upon penalty of His own death that He would do what He promised. In combination with the previous verse showing that Abram’s faith was counted as righteousness, this chapter is a very powerful statement about the sufficiency of faith alone in salvation, and shows us how deep God’s grace runs.
God did not have to make a one-sided covenant. For that matter, He could have made a one-sided covenant where Abram was the one forced to walk through the middle. That would have been perfectly just given God’s sovereignty. He had the power and could make the rules, and we have seen Him do that from the command to Adam all the way up to the command for Abram to move his household. Yet here, God gives up His rights in making the covenant with Abram.
This point cannot be emphasized enough. We too often miss it because our culture is used to the fact that Christ gave up His divine rights to become a man too, so this is in some sense familiar territory. But put yourselves in the mind of the person who has only read God’s relationship to Job—one of a sovereign king to a submissive subject. And think of all that you’ve read through Genesis up to this point, in how God is sovereign over every aspect of life and can justly demand one hundred percent perfect obedience from everyone.
And here He requires nothing. He makes a covenant that gives blessing upon blessing to Abram without getting anything in return. There never has been so generous a human ruler in existence as God is here.
But we also need to see that God’s covenant is extremely particular here. He did not make a covenant with the world, but with Abram specifically. And not only that, in the next chapter of Genesis we see that it’s not just any of Abram’s sons but the specifically promised son whom God makes the covenant with.
In that chapter, we find that Sarai feared she would have no children, so she gave her servant Hagar to Abram as a wife, saying: “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2). Abram did this and a son, Ishmael, was born. Yet Ishmael would not be the heir of the covenant.
Because the story of Abram only takes a few chapters, it’s easy to overlook how much time has passed by the end of chapter 16. Abram was seventy-five when God first promised that all nations would be blessed through his descendants. Now, he is eighty-six—eleven years later. But yet another thirteen years will pass before the LORD appears again in chapter 17. It is at this point that God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. God affirms the covenant once again: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). And as a sign for the covenant He has made, God commands all males to be circumcised from the time they are eight days old.
This time, Abraham does not believe God immediately—and really, after twenty-four years of inaction on God’s part, which of us would blame him? We read:
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year” (Genesis 17:17-21).Again we can see from this passage that while Ishmael was blessed and became a mighty nation, God clearly was not establishing a covenant with him. He wanted to covenant specifically with Isaac alone. As mentioned above, God behaved here in a way that was not only exclusive to Abraham, but even exclusive to only one of his sons.
What does that tell us? God can pick one over another, as He sees fit. He is sovereign to act as He pleases in the affairs of mankind. He can promise a covenant to a specific individual, and specifically deny it to another.
We have read quite a bit about covenants thus far, and it is very clear that the Bible contains many of them. However, we will set aside a fuller treatment of the covenants until after our survey of the Bible is complete. For now, let us turn our attention to a rather odd encounter.
D. God’s Role for Abraham
In Genesis 18, the LORD appears to Abraham, physically manifested as a human being. Along with the LORD are two angels, also taking the appearance of men. At first, the three “men” talk with Abraham about the fact that Isaac will be born soon: “The LORD said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son’” (verse 10). Sarah, who was eavesdropping, laughed at this. We then read this critical passage:
The LORD said to Abraham, “What did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:13-14)The rhetorical question God asks is of utmost importance to us now. As we look at God’s sovereignty over all creation, over how He relates with mankind, and over what He chooses to do and command, this question beautifully sums up our thoughts. “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” Clearly, the answer is no. God is in control over all creation, so He is perfectly able to make a one hundred-year-old man and a ninety-year-old woman fertile. He can do anything He desires to do. The awesomeness of God is manifest.
But looking at it this way also glosses over an important aspect of God’s attributes that we have not touched on yet: His knowledge of future events. To be fair, I’ve wanted to bring it up several times before, but here it fits more thematically. When God first appeared to Abram, He promised that Abram would become a great nation. How did God know this would happen?
There are a couple of ways we can look at it. First, we know from our earlier reading in Genesis 1 that God is eternal. Some have argued that God knows all that will happen because, to Him, everything is an eternal “now” so it’s already laid before Him. But when God talks about what will happen, He doesn’t talk about it as if the events would occur apart from Him.
Look back to God’s promise about Ishmael above, specifically: “He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 17:20b). God says what Ishmael will do (father twelve princes) and also says how (I will make him into a great nation). In other words, God is active in history, and His actions are shaping it.
We see that in the above passage too. God has promised Abram (and now Abraham) will be a great nation, and when they laugh He says, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” God is predicting what will happen because God is making what will happen.
And consider what happens next:
The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:17-19)Again, God talks about future events as things He is “about to do.” This is not passive knowledge, but rather God knows the future because He is forming the future. God is not saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham what is about to happen?”
But in addition to talking about what will come, we also see God talking about His choices. Many Christians think that predestination is limited to the New Testament, with Paul’s letters. But here, the LORD says He has chosen Abraham for a specific task: “That he may command his children and his household…to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” God has chosen Abraham so that Abraham can show what righteousness is to his offspring. And it is to that end that God asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” If Abraham is to be righteous and just, he must know what righteousness and justice are.
At this point, God talks about Sodom and Gomorrah, and the exceeding wickedness that these cities are displaying, and He indicates He will punish the towns for their unrighteousness. The two angels leave to go to Sodom while God and Abraham converse. Immediately Abraham begins to do that which God has chosen him to do:
Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake” (Genesis 18:23-26)Abraham’s first action is to intercede. He points to God’s own justice and asks if He would destroy the righteous along with the wicked. This behavior is exactly what God has chosen Abraham to do—to intercede on behalf of the righteous. This is the way by which God will bless all nations.
After God says He will relent if fifty righteous people are found, Abraham asks if He would spare the city of ten of that number were missing and there were only forty righteous people. Again, God says He would not destroy the city under those circumstances. Abraham continues to intercede, lowering the number to thirty righteous, then twenty. Finally, he asks if God would spare the city if there were only ten righteous people there. Again, the LORD said: “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it” (verse 32). Then, the LORD leaves.
We have learned an important aspect of God’s character in this exchange. Though a city be full of innumerable wicked people, God will be merciful for the sake of the few who are righteous. This is His modus operandi. Even fifty righteous people were a drop in the bucket to the numbers who lived in the city, but God says He would even spare the city for the sake of just ten. This merciful heart of God can be too amazing to comprehend, for who of us would naturally wish to spare so many evildoers for the sake of so few? Our God would.
But as we see in Genesis 19, even ten righteous people were too many to be found in Sodom and Gomorrah.
The angels who had left Abraham earlier went to the town of Sodom. Abraham’s nephew finds them in the town square and offers them lodging, but the men of Sodom want to take the angels by force and rape them. The angels end up rescuing Lot, pulling him into the house and shutting the door before striking the men of Sodom with blindness. They then tell Lot to gather his family and get out of town because the city is about to be destroyed. Lot asks if, instead of running to the hills, he can go to the town of Zoar instead, and this is granted to him.
We then read an exchange that is quite interesting, in light of much of modern theology.
As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city (Genesis 19:15-16).The interesting part of this passage is found in the final verse: “So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city.” Lot was dawdling behind while destruction came. God could have destroyed him—He had already given Lot ample warning. But instead, in an act of mercy, God forced Lot out of the city, and that act of forcing Lot to do something against his will is described as God being merciful.
It is a common argument that I’ve heard from the Arminians who I’ve interacted with that force is contrary to love. Calvinists have often pointed out many examples where this is not the case (e.g., if a child is playing in the roadway, you do not beg him to get out of the path of oncoming traffic—you run out into the street and drag him to safety). And what we read here backs that view. The loving action was to force Lot to leave, to save him despite himself. We will examine this in more detail when we examine salvation as a whole, but this aspect could not be passed over here.
The destruction of the cities tells us something about the nature of mankind too, if you will permit a slight excurses. Remember that after the flood, God had said: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). We may pause to reflect on just what age is meant by “from his youth”, and I think we can determine that from Abraham’s intercession and the subsequent destruction of Sodom. God had promised that if there were even ten righteous people, Sodom would have been spared. So only ten people were needed.
Surely, there must have been more than ten infants in the town, right? Would this not imply that infants are not naturally considered righteous?
Perhaps some might object, “But Abraham was only asking God to intervene on behalf of righteous men so infants weren’t included in the calculation.” But to counter that, first we note that Abraham’s intercession was to say to God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” If infants are righteous, then they would be counted here. Furthermore, if we look at the grammar Abraham asks God to spare “fifty righteous” without specifying who or what those righteous are. It’s just the adjective, righteous. Thus, the term must take on a universal scope for all mankind, not just men in general, unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. The text does not appear to give any reason to limit it to only adults or males.
Perhaps some others might object, “But the town of Sodom was probably fairly small so maybe there weren’t more than one or two infants there.” But the town was obviously large enough that fifty individuals constituted a small fraction of the population. We know that because when God says He is going to destroy Sodom because of the greatness of their sin, Abraham starts off with “Suppose there are fifty righteous.” If there were only, say, sixty people in the town, it would make no sense to destroy the entire town when there were fifty righteous there, so Abraham’s opening salvo makes no sense unless there were far more than fifty people living in the town.
Put it this way. If there were only sixty people in the town, then it seems to make more sense for Abraham to say, “What if there are only ten evil. Would you destroy the whole town because of ten wicked people?” And if God says He wouldn’t, Abraham would say, “What if there are five more wicked people? Would you destroy it because there are fifteen?” Etc. up to fifty: “Would you destroy the whole town because there were fifty evil people?”
Therefore, it seems obvious that there are vastly more than fifty people in the town when Abraham intercedes–so many more that fifty is a drop in the bucket.
Thus I conclude that Abraham’s intercession on behalf of Sodom, coupled with God’s promise that He would spare the city if those conditions were met, proves that when God said that mankind is evil from their youth, that includes infants and children we typically say have yet to reach “the age of accountability.” This, therefore, seems to constitute evidence for Original Sin (i.e., the concept that all of us are born depraved due to the sin of Adam).
Even if one does not believe the above constitutes evidence of Original Sin, we cannot avoid the fact that infants do not appear to be counted as righteous when it comes to deciding if the towns would be spared.
As we continue, when Lot fled the city, his wife turned and looked behind. She was immediately turned into a pillar of salt. We are not told why she looked back or what caused her to turn to salt, but some have speculated that Sodom was destroyed by a volcanic eruption, and Lot’s wife could have been consumed by a pyroclastic cloud, much like the residents of Vesuvius. Since that is pure speculation, we will set it aside as a possibility but nothing more.
The death of Lot’s wife was to have a profound impact, however. By the end of Genesis 18, Lot and his two daughters have fled to a cave instead of residing in the city of Zoar, as Lot had asked. Since he was hiding in the cave, his two daughters believed they would never have children. The devised a plan to get Lot drunk, and then sleep with him. Both gave birth to sons, the firstborn to Moab and the second to Ben-ammi. Moab became the father of the Moabites, and Ben-ammi the father of the Ammonites.
Now by the time out hypothetical time traveler would have read this passage, he would know who the Moabites and the Ammonites were. They were the enemies of Israel, and they caused massive problems for the Hebrews. As we shall see, this event will be important for another reason much later, as one of Moab’s descendents would be none other than Ruth. But that would not yet be known by our time traveler, nor even by Moses as he penned Genesis, so we will set that aside until we look at the book of Ruth.
F. Abraham and Abimelech
Immediately after this, we come upon a story that seems like déjà vu, but this time we will learn a very important aspect of the way God can relate with mankind. In Genesis 20, Abraham goes into the Negeb and, just as he had earlier with Pharaoh, claimed that Sarah was his sister. We read that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, took Sarah. But just as God intervened with Pharaoh to protect to the promised seed, God intervenes here and tells Abimelech in a dream that he is a dead man for taking Sarah.
Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours” (Genesis 20:4-7)It is easy to pass over this by reading quickly, so let me emphasize. God kept Abimelech from sinning: “It was I who kept you from sinning,” He says.
Consider the implications of this. Once it is established that God can keep people from sinning, then the natural question arises: Why doesn’t He always keep people from sinning? We saw Him destroy the whole Earth in a flood, and we just saw Him destroy two cities because of their unrighteousness—yet here, God keeps Abimelech from sin.
The text does not tell us why God kept sin from happening here but not elsewhere. We can speculate on some reasons, but the obvious conclusion is that God has sovereignty over when and how He will act with humans. He can decide when to keep someone from sinning and when to destroy someone because of their sins. God gets to make those decisions, and as we learned from Job, He does not owe us an explanation as to why He does as He does.
G. Abaham and Isaac
In Genesis 21, Isaac is born just as God had promised. Because of the strife between Sarah and Hagar (the mother of Ishmael), Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael away. But because Ishmael was still the son of Abraham, and God had promised Abraham that Ishmael would be a great nation, God protected the mother and child. We read:
When the water in the skin was gone, [Hagar] put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water (Genesis 21:15-19).In this passage we see that God protects those to whom He has sworn a promise, even if they are not specifically His chosen people. We know earlier that God has said the promise to Abraham will go through Isaac, but He still ensures the safety of Ishmael.
It is more interesting, however, to compare this with the next chapter. There, God tested Abraham and commanded him to sacrifice Isaac: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). This command is shocking, not the least of which because it goes so strongly against our intuitions about justice and righteousness. But Abraham believed God would be able to work out something, and he took Isaac to the mountain. There, he bound Isaac and took the knife to kill him.
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns (Genesis 22:11-13).Note the parallels between Isaac and Ishmael, and between Abraham and Hagar. Ishmael was placed under a bush about to die; the angel of the LORD called out and opened Hagar’s eyes so she could find water. Isaac was placed on the altar about to be killed; the angel of the LORD called out and opened Abraham’s eyes so he could find a substitute ram. In both instances, God provides salvation for the son of Abraham. Both times, He does so by opening the eyes of the other actors in the story.
While there is a little bit more that could be said about Abraham, this story is where the torch is passed from Abraham to Isaac. It may seem odd that God commanded the death of Isaac, and the Israelites must have been very confused about this. And because the rest of Scripture had not been revealed, it would have been very difficult for anyone at the time to realize that this was a foreshadowing of what would happen when God sacrificed His only Son Himself, a Son that would come from the lineage of Abraham too.
But that is something we, too, must set aside for the future.