Update 2020-06-09: Podcast added: Abraham and the obstacles to God’s kingdom.
Abraham is the most significant human so far. The narrator devoted more space to Abraham than to Adam, Cain, Lamech, Seth, Enoch, Noah, and Shem combined. Why was Abraham so important? His significance was his contribution to the kingdom of God.
Abraham is our introduction to the nation of Israel, but it’s far more than that. All nations tell stories about their own significance, but Israel is different. The point Genesis makes is that Israel did not exist for Israel’s sake. Israel’s significance was their part in a global drama. They were the servant of YHWH, the divine ruler who planned to re-establish his kingdom on earth through them.
When we first met Abraham, God had permitted the nations to have their own governments. He had blocked the rulers of Babel from grasping control of the whole earth, but how was God going to regain authority over the nations? His surprising plan was to create from Abraham a nation governed by God, so the nations could see what they were missing.
He called Abraham to leave the region of Babel where the sons of men had attempted the global coup (Genesis 11). There was no hope for humanity there: as subsequent generations showed, imperial powers like Assyria and Babylon showed no respect for God’s kingdom as they perpetrated the power-crazed attitudes of Nimrod the conquistador (Genesis 10).
Leaving the rebellious community that had tried to take over God’s reign, Abraham went to a place that YHWH had chosen to establish a new kind of nation from Abraham’s descendants. This nation would be ruled by God—a living expression of the kingdom of God as intended in the beginning. The goal of this earth-shattering project was that the nations would see the blessing they were missing—the blessing of a divine ruler—so that eventually the blessing of divine rule would be restored to the nations. Abraham’s descendants were to be the servant of YHWH, restoring by example the kingdom of God on earth (Genesis 12).
There were many obstacles to this kingdom goal:
- Powerful rulers like Pharaoh would threaten Abraham’s life and take whatever they wanted, shattering his family (Genesis 12).
- Some of Abraham’s family would give up on the promises, seduced by the tangible benefits of the rebellious (Genesis 13).
- Would the kings actually see God Most High at work in Abraham? Or would they be so besotted with their own power that the project would never work (Genesis 14)?
- Could Abraham trust YHWH to make this plan work, when Abraham would be dead long before the promises were fulfilled? Since he had no descendant, the plan already seemed dead (Genesis 15–17)?
- How would God hold human rebelliousness in check until the promise of his government became a reality (Genesis 18–19)?
- How would Abraham’s people manage to live among neighbouring nations like the Philistines with their human rulers (Genesis 20)?
- When God finally gave Abraham and Sarah their heir, they acted abusively (Genesis 21). When Abraham had his successor so that dynastic power was within his grasp, would he rebel as the rest of humanity has done? Or would he meet God at the appointed place and yield his precious successor (Genesis 22)?
Even in the face of all these obstacles and tests, Abraham continued to trust God, believing that the heavenly ruler would re-establish his reign over the earth through his descendants. Before he died, Abraham finally got a little piece of the Promised Land to bury Sarah (Genesis 23), and he organized a wife for Isaac so the promises could continue in the next generation (Genesis 24).
That’s how Abraham became the father of faith. In a world that was grasping at God’s power, Abraham turned the other way and became God’s servant. He believed the heavenly sovereign would re-establish his kingdom. He pegged his life on it.
What others are saying
Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 66:
God sees an elderly, childless couple in the land of Babel itself and decides to make them the launch pad of his whole mission of cosmic redemption. One can almost hear the sharp intake of breath among the angels when the astonishing plan was revealed. They knew, as the reader of Genesis 1–11 now knows, the sheer scale of devastation that serpentine evil and human recalcitrance have wrought in God’s creation. What sort of an answer can be provided through Abram and Sarai? Yet that is precisely the scale of what now follows.
The call of Abram is the beginning of God’s answer to the evil of human hearts, the strife of nations, and the groaning brokenness of his whole creation. It is the beginning of the mission of God and the mission of God’s people.
Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 56–57 (emphasis original):
At Babel, people had sought to make a name for themselves, but God promises that he will make a great name for Abraham and his descendants through their involvement with him and dependence upon him. But as the story told in Genesis 12–25 demonstrates, this sense of trust in God and dependence upon God’s promise is hard to achieve and even harder to hold on to. Abraham does demonstrate remarkable faith in God by following his call to leave country and kindred and go to the land that God will show him (12:1). Yet the same longing for autonomy that we saw in Genesis 3 and 11 remains present in Abraham.
Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 41.
Read Genesis 12–25.