The Patriarchs: 2166-1660
Abraham and the Covenant
Last week, we talked about Noah, and the covenant that God made with him. We know that the world had become a very violent place, and so God decided to destroy everything in it, except for Noah and his family. God had Noah build an ark – a big boat - and then put some of every kind of animal and bird on it. Noah and his family also got on board, and God closed the door. Seven days later, the rain began to fall, destroying everything that wasn’t on the ark, with the exception of the fish and sea creatures.
After the rain stopped and the waters receded, God made a covenant with Noah, promising to never again destroy the earth by flooding it. God even put a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of that covenant. Today, we’re going to hear about another covenant that God made, this time with a man named Abraham. Abraham’s story actually begins where Noah’s ends, though.
In the story of Noah’s ark, we heard that Noah had three sons, named Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sometime after the flood, each of Noah’s sons moved away, settling on their own land. Japheth went north, claiming part of the area that we know today as Europe. Ham went south, claiming the land of Egypt, and parts of northern Africa. Shem went to the area we now refer to as the Middle East.
In Genesis 11, we hear the genealogy of Shem’s family, descending from generation to generation until we hear of a man named Terah. In Genesis 11:27, we hear that Terah had three sons of his own. The sons were named Milkah, Haran, who later became the father of Lot, and Abram.
Scripture tells us that at one point, Terah, Abram, Abram’s wife Sarai, and Abram’s nephew Lot left their hometown of Ur in the Chaldeans, and settled in Haran. You have a map in your bulletin which may make it easier to follow this story. Terah eventually died and was buried in Haran. Let’s look at what happened next to Abram.
In our Scripture reading for this morning, we heard that God called to Abram and told him to leave his country and go to a land that God would show him. God then told Abram three things that God would do for him if he obeyed. Listen again to Genesis 12:2-3 where we hear these promises. 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.
We’ll talk about those specific blessings in a bit, but let’s talk about what happened next. In Genesis 12:4, we hear that Abram was about 75 years old when he and his family left Haran to go to Canaan. Remember Noah’s son Ham? Ham had a son named Canaan, and so the region where Canaan and his family settled was named after him. That’s where Abram, Sarai, and Lot went.
In any case, when Abram arrived there, he saw that the area was inhabited by the Canaanites. In Genesis 12:7, though, we hear that God once again appeared to Abram, and said: “To your offspring I will give this land.” The land God referred to was the area between the Nile River in Egypt and the Euphrates River. In other words, it’s what we’ve come to know as the Promised Land.
Now notice that God told Abram that the land would be given to Abram’s “offspring,” and not to Abram himself. We need to understand why this statement is so significant. Scripture tells us that Abram was about 75 years old when he left to go to Canaan, and at that point, Abram and his wife Sarai had never been able to have children. Sarai was considered to be barren. So it had to make Abram wonder why God would say that his offspring would inherit the land when Abram had no hope of ever having any offspring.
It’s clear, though, that God had a definite plan right from the start and that God intended to provide for Abram every step of the way. We’ll hear in a few moments how God made a way for Abram and Sarai to have a child, so that his offspring could, in fact, inherit the land. And even though Abram himself never saw them entering the Promised Land, God’s promise was fulfilled when the Israelites – who were descended from Abram – finally crossed into it many years later.
Let’s get back to Abram’s story. Abram and his family settled in the desert area around Canaan called the Negev, but after they lived there for a short time, there was a severe famine, so they left that area and went to Egypt. When they got to Egypt, Abram did something rather interesting. His wife Sarai was apparently very beautiful and so Abram worried that the Egyptians would kill him and take his wife, so he told her to lie and say that she was his sister. And she did, and when the Pharaoh saw her, he had her move into the palace, where she was well treated. Abram was also treated well because of her, and was given cattle, donkeys, sheep, and even household servants.
This arrangement worked out pretty well for a while, but God wasn’t happy that Abram had lied about his wife. God sent a plague to attack the Pharaoh and his household. The Pharaoh then found out the truth about Abram and Sarai and banished them from the country. They left Egypt and went back to the Negev, taking their possessions and their servants with them. They finally settled in Bethel, where Abram lived a very prosperous life.
At one point, we’re told that Abram became concerned about who would inherit his estate since he had no offspring. In Genesis 15:1-5, we hear this: After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” 2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Now imagine, if you will, how confused Abram must have been. He and his wife had never been able to have children, and yet God was telling him that he would have more offspring than the number of stars in the sky. It made no sense to Abram. And so like other most human beings would do, Abram and his wife tried to figure out a way to make this happen on their own.
In Genesis 16, we hear that Sarai had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. She decided to build her family through Hagar, and so she told Abram to go sleep with her. And so Abram did, and as luck would have it, Hagar got pregnant with Abram’s child. She eventually gave birth to a son who was named Ishmael. Abram was 86 years old at the time.
So now Abram had a son, who he thought would help fulfill the call that God had placed on him. That wasn’t God’s plan, though. Listen to Genesis 17:1-8 to see what happened next: When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
And then we hear in verses 15-16: 15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
How did Abram – now called Abraham – respond to that? Listen to verse 17: Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Abraham responded just like any of us would respond, right? He couldn’t possibly believe that he and Sarah could have a child at their ages, especially when they’d been unable to for so many years.
We hear that Sarah also laughed when she heard this, but sure enough, after a series of other events, Sarah eventually gave birth to a son who was named Isaac. There’s much more to this story than we have time for today, but I want to share one final part of it. In Genesis 22, we’re told that God once again appeared to Abraham, and told him to take his son Isaac and go to the region of Moriah. God told Abraham that once he got to the place where God directed him, he was to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering to God. Now it’s interesting that nowhere in Scripture do we hear that Abraham argued with God, or even resisted doing what God told him to do. We simply hear in Genesis 22:3-8 that Abraham followed God’s directions exactly.
Listen to what happened next, from verses 9 – 10: When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
Can you imagine what must have been going through Abraham’s mind at that point? And what must have been going through Isaac’s mind? Let me read verses 11 – 18: But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Did you hear that last line? “Through your offspring, all nations on earth will be blessed, because you obeyed me.” Think back to our Scripture reading for today, when we heard God speak to Abraham for the very first time. Remember the blessings that God gave him? God told him that He’d make Abraham into a great nation, by promising to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. Abraham didn’t witness this himself, the promise was fulfilled when the Israelites entered the Promised Land many years later.
God also promised to that Abraham would have many descendants. Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren for many years, so they had no hope of ever having a child. But God fulfilled that promise when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. We’ll talk more about Isaac and his offspring in a later message.
Finally, God promised Abraham that all people on earth would be blessed because of him. How can we say that all people have been blessed? Just listen to what we hear in Matthew’s gospel and I think you’ll understand: This is Matthew 1:1-2; it goes like this: This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob…” The genealogy continues until we hear in verse 16: and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Right there is our blessing, a blessing that’s for all people on earth, just like God promised. Jesus Christ is our blessing, and Scripture makes it clear that Jesus is a direct descendant not only of Abraham, but of Noah, and of Adam himself. The reason we have these genealogies in the Bible is to show us that God had a plan right from the start to save us and to bring us back into a right relationship with Him. That’s what HIS-story is all about; that’s why we have this Bible, to tell us God’s story, and to show us how amazingly wonderful our God is.
Yes, God was angry when Adam and Eve sinned, and yes, God was angry when the world became desolate and violent, but God never stopped loving any of us, and God never stopped wanting us to return to Him. God’s story – HIS-story – is about that love, and the story isn’t over yet. Next week, we’re going to hear the role that Abraham’s son Isaac played in this great love story that God has written for us, but as we end today, let me offer a prayer.