Define the Relationship

Genesis 12-22

January 22, 2006 | Brian Bill

After finally sweeping Beth off her feet, we started dating and as far as I was concerned we were just months away from matrimony.  Things were going very well…or so I thought.  I’ll never forget that dreadful day when Beth said we needed to talk.  She told me that she wanted some time…away from me…in order to discern whether God wanted us to move forward.  I wanted to tell her that God had already made that clear to me but I wisely kept quiet, living out the truth of Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent…”   Apparently she wanted to make sure I was Mr. Right and so we entered relationship limbo.  To this day Beth tells me that this nebulous season only lasted for a week or two.  To me it felt more like two months.

After this time of separation, Beth saw the light and our relationship was back on track.  We moved from friendship to courtship and as they say, the rest is history.  Looking back, this was an important time because it helped us define our relationship so we could go forward.

In a similar way Abraham experienced a number of situations when he was invited to a new place of intimacy, a new level of commitment, and a deeper sense of community with the Almighty God.  Likewise, you and I encounter defining moments when we have the opportunity to deepen our faith and love for the Lord.

When we come to Genesis 12 we wonder if God is going to run out of patience with people.  After Adam and Eve’s slide into sinful depravity, Cain kills his brother and the world’s wickedness causes God to be grieved.  He sends a flood to purge the planet but then shortly afterwards the people gather to build the Tower of Babel.  But then we read that God’s plan is to begin again through one man who will be the father of many nations.  In the second half of chapter 11 we can trace Abraham’s lineage back to Noah’s son Shem.  We sometimes don’t like to hear this but God is a choosing God.  He chooses Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Judah, not his brothers; David, not his brothers.  God is narrowing the line throughout the generations, which is the biblical basis for the doctrine of election.  If we fast forward, we see God’s genealogy of grace finally culminating in the Lord Jesus Christ.

As we take an overview of Abraham’s amazing adventure we’ll discover six dramatic encounters that shaped his spiritual life and set the stage for God’s redemptive purposes.  By the way, he is referred to as Abram early in the story but for our purposes I’m just going to call him Abraham.

1. The Call to Commitment (Genesis 11:31-12:9; Acts 7:2-4). 

God’s command to Abraham was very clear.  He was to leave everything safe and familiar.  We see this in 12:1: “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.’” 

According to Acts 7:2-4, Abraham actually heard the call when he was in Ur: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.  ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’   So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran.  After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living.”  Ur was located in what is now southern Iraq, just north of the Persian Gulf, while Haran is in modern-day Turkey, a distance of about 600 miles.  Abraham and his family made this long journey and then stopped in Haran, which was a natural place to stop because it was a city very similar to Ur and was a center of moon-god worship.  Abraham’s father Terah would have been very comfortable there because as Joshua 24:2 tells us, he worshipped “other gods.”  But instead of just resting for awhile, they actually set up residence.

While it is admirable that Abraham and his family left Ur, we could say that they only half-way obeyed.  Some commentators believe that Abraham stayed in Haran up to five years and that it wasn’t until his father died that he moved on.  Having said that, at least Abraham got up and went.  This wasn’t easy because he was told to go to a place that God would show him.  He didn’t have a map and couldn’t “Google” the geography.  I like how John Ortberg imagines how Abraham explains everything to his wife: “Sarah, pack up all our belongings.  We’re moving away from everyone and everything familiar to us.”  To which Sarah asks, “Where are we going?”  Abraham stutters a bit: “I don’t know exactly.  I’ll know it when I see it.”  This would be the only trip in human history where a wife would say, “Where in the world are we?” and her husband would say, “God only knows,” and he’d be speaking literal truth!

When God tells you to move, make sure you get up and go!

Abraham had been successful in Haran for we read in verse 5 that he had accumulated both people and possessions.  This move of 500 miles probably doesn’t make much sense to Abraham.  He had contacts and family and friends and a good job.  Why leave all that behind?  Because God told him to.  Remember too that Abraham was not a young man anymore.  At seventy-five years old, he chose to obey God.  Would you have done the same thing?  Some of you are older now and maybe you sense that you’re just coasting spiritually.  Don’t discount yourselves as a key player in God’s kingdom work.  Be a finisher!  When God tells you to move, make sure you get up and go!

Notice how obeying is linked to blessing.  When he goes, he will gain much more than he ever left.  Read verses 2-3 with me and count the number of times you hear the word blessing, blessed or bless: “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.” In verse 7, Abraham is told that his offspring will be given the land and in verse 8 Abraham responds by building an altar and calling “on the name of the Lord.”

2. A Costly Compromise (Genesis 12:10-20). 

Abraham left what was comfortable and now seems to be growing in his love relationship with God, right?  Yes and no.  At the first sign of trouble when a famine came to the land, instead of praying about it, we read that Abraham and his family fled to Egypt.  We often fold when we encounter trials, don’t we?  This is the first of many times that God’s people escaped to Egypt when things got tough.  Egypt came to symbolize compromise, though God did tell people to go there temporarily on at least two occasions in Genesis 46:3 and Matthew 2:13.  But since going to Egypt was his own idea, Abraham turns to his own resources and tells Sarah to lie.  One scheme leads to another scheme.  The very first words of Abraham ever recorded in Scripture are found in Genesis 12:11-13: “As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.  When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live.  Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” 

Ortberg says that this is not a great moment in the history of husbanding.  Sarah ends up in Pharaoh’s harem and God has to intervene.  That reminds me of 2 Timothy 2:13: “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”   Pharaoh then gives Abraham a lesson in integrity which apparently is not taken to heart because Abraham uses this same lie on another king named Abimelech in Genesis 20.  If you are rebuked by a nonbeliever you’d better pay attention.  This happened to Jonah in 1:8-10 when even the sailors knew that it was unwise to run from God.

This became another defining moment for Abraham because he now realizes how sinister and selfish he can be.  He saw the horror in his own heart and probably marveled at how quickly he headed south – not just geographically, but also spiritually.  The same is true for all of us. 

3. Consecration of his Cash (Genesis 13-14). 

Like Cindy, Abraham slowly starts to turn back to the Lord after drifting.  We see this in Genesis 13:4: “Abram called on the name of the Lord.” Because he called on the Lord, and tried to put Him first, Abraham was able to make sure his possessions did not end up possessing him.  In the first instance, we read that Abraham’s herdsmen and Lot’s herdsmen started quarreling because they were running out of space for all their possessions.  Amazingly, in order to keep the community intact, Abraham allowed Lot to have the best land.  Because they were “brothers” Abraham didn’t want his possessions to come before people.  As the older uncle, Abraham could have taken what he wanted but he gave the best lots to Lot.

In chapter 14, Lot is captured in a battle that involves some local chieftains.  Abraham comes to the rescue and in the course of this interacts with two different kings.  The king of Sodom offers the spoils of war to Abraham but Abraham essentially says, “You can keep your stuff” because he doesn’t want to align himself with this ungodly king.  The other king in this chapter has a cool name and a very intriguing character.  He is mentioned only briefly here but reappears in Psalm 110 and in the New Testament book of Hebrews.  Melchizedek is called the “priest of God Most High” in verse 18.  This is a good lesson for us.  God has His people everywhere, and is at work in all places.  After Melchizedek blesses Abraham and the Almighty, we read in verse 20 that Abraham gave Melchizedek “a tenth of everything.”  This was Abraham’s way of saying that everything he had really came from God.  By giving a tithe, he was putting God before his possessions.

4. The Cutting of a Covenant (Genesis 15). 

Do you get the sense that Abraham was a lot like us?  He exhibited faith and put God first in his finances and yet compromised and schemed and tried to figure things out on his own.  Knowing that Abraham is probably afraid of retribution from those he defeated, and maybe second-guessing his decision to not take the reward from the King of Sodom, God tells him in Genesis 15:1: “Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  

Abraham responds in a way that reveals his doubting heart: “But Abraham said, ‘…what can you give me?”  We do this as well, don’t we?  God gives us promises and we say, “But God.”  Once again Abraham decides to figure this out on his own by suggesting that his servant Eliezer could serve as the heir to the promise.  It’s been about 10 years since God promised him a son and nothing has happened.  God again makes it very clear that human ingenuity is not going to accomplish God’s purposes as he restates the promise and then tells him to gaze at the stars in verses 4-5: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.  He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.’  Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”

It is amazing to me that God, who has everything and needs nothing, desires to enter into a covenant with Abraham.  This is one of the most significant chapters in the Bible for it shows us the depth of God’s love and the initiative He was willing to take to enter into an irreversible relationship with us.  Covenants were often made in that culture between two equal partners (bilateral) and sometimes also between a stronger and weaker partner (unilateral).  The covenant that God makes is clearly unilateral.  Normally in unilateral covenants, the stronger partner was always after something like water rights, or land to graze his animals on.  Here’s a good question to ask: What is God going to get out of the deal?  He knows how fickle and faithless the human race is, and how folly rules the human heart.  What does God get out of the covenant?  He gets someone to bless.

Let’s look at this amazing agreement called a covenant a little more closely because it’s really at the heart of the Bible, mentioned 285 times in the Old Testament alone.  In the Hebrew the phrase “making a covenant” can be translated “to cut a covenant.”  John Ortberg defines it this way: “A covenant is a means to establish a binding relationship where none existed before, based on faithfulness to a solemn vow.”  The background to this is both gripping and a bit gross.  

In response to Abraham’s question, “How can I know?” God tells Abraham to gather a heifer, a goat, and a ram, along with a dove and a young pigeon.  He then cuts the three animals in two and leans the two halves against the walls of a trench he had earlier dug.  The blood from the animals pools on the path between the carcasses.  Abraham would have understood from this that God was getting a contract ready for signing.  This was their way to “cut a deal.”  Typically two parties would take a covenant walk through the blood, symbolizing that if either one broke it, they would be cut up just like the animals.  Jeremiah 34:18 tells us that this was more than just a contract; it was very serious: “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”

Abraham may have been waiting to take this walk with God but amazingly God puts him to sleep and a “thick and dreadful darkness came over him” in verse 12.  God tells Abraham that hardships are ahead for his people and then when it was dark, “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.”  A smoking firepot reminds us of the pillar of cloud, the smoke on Mount Sinai, and the cloud of God’s Shekinah glory (Exodus 13:21-22; 19:18; 1 Kings 8:10-12).  The blazing torch represents the pillar of fire, the burning bush, and the fire that came from heaven (Exodus 13:21-22; 3:4; 1 Kings 18:38).  Let me ask you a question.  What part did Abraham have in this covenant?  What did he have to do? Nothing; because he was asleep!  God took the blood walk alone, showing that He signed it for both of them.  The message is clear.  God’s covenant with Abraham is based on who God is, not what Abraham is or what Abraham does.  Incidentally, the word “lovingkindness” communicates this idea of loyalty in Psalm 103:8: “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.” 

5. The Call to Choose Hope (Genesis 16-21). 

Amazingly, even after this incredible display of God’s faithfulness, Abraham agrees to sleep with Sarah’s servant Hagar and they have a son named Ishmael.  Once again he tries to take things into his own hands and once again God tells Abraham that He will confirm His covenant with a son of promise.  Abraham is then told to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant, and Abraham obeys that “very day.”  Ortberg wonders how Abraham really felt about this.  Maybe inside he said to himself, “Hey, Noah got a rainbow.  This isn’t fair.  Could we make the sign something else like a cloud or a secret handshake?”

Finally, after 25 years of waiting, the son of promise was born to them.  When Abraham and Sarah got the news they both started laughing, and so God gave the boy the name Isaac, which means laughter.  Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude of nations.”  Now the promises of God could be fulfilled through Isaac.  I imagine that the household was filled with hope and laughter and joy.  Sarah says, “God has brought me laugher, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  It is pretty funny.  People probably laughed when Sarah strained vegetables for her family because nobody in the family had a single tooth!  But God still had some things he wanted to teach Abraham.

6. A Challenge to His Commitment (Genesis 22).

When we finish chapter 21, Isaac is still pretty young.  Now he is about 15-years-old, which means Abraham is around 115.  Look at verse 1: “Some time later God tested Abraham.”  Abraham had passed some tests earlier in his life and he had failed some other ones.  Now he is about to face an extreme exam, the likes of which he had never encountered before.  God calls out to him, “Abraham!”  Like a true servant, he spontaneously replies, “Here I am.” This is the seventh time that we know God has spoken to him, but this time God is going to demand something out of Abraham that will be extremely costly and exceedingly confusing: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”  

Sometimes we are not given reasons either because God just wants us to faithfully follow Him

The three words – take, go, sacrifice – must have taken Abraham’s breath away.  This was Abraham’s opportunity to demonstrate whether He loved the Lord with all his “heart, soul and strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).  I want you to notice that God gives no explanation; just an expectation that Abraham would obey this staggering command.  Sometimes we are not given reasons either because God just wants us to faithfully follow Him.  

When Abraham received this tough test of faith, he didn’t argue with God and notice that he also didn’t check with others.   Not one word of objection is recorded in the entire text.  Instead, he practiced immediate obedience: “Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.  He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.  When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.”  

What we see next in verses 4-6 is that he was also persistent: “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there.  We will worship and then we will come back to you.’  Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.”  The journey to Moriah covered about 50 miles and took three days to get there.  Can you imagine what must have been going through Abraham’s mind?

Abraham has the faith to believe that both he and Isaac will return after they worship!  Notice the pronouns: “We will worship…we will come back.”  In this first instance of the word “worship” in the Bible, we see worship is more than just singing.  At its heart, worship involves a willingness to surrender all to God, holding nothing back.  It is obediently giving God what He wants and trusting Him to provide whatever we need.

As Abraham and Isaac walked up the mountain together, “Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’  ‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.  ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’” Oh, how these words must have sliced right through a devoted dad’s heart.  Abraham then answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  Notice that “God himself” will provide the sacrifice.  The sacrifice will come from Him.  The word “provide” is the word Jireh and has a very rich meaning.  It is translated as “to see” and as “provision.”  God sees beforehand what it is that He will provide.  Abraham knew that God would somehow see to it that everything would work out.  He would be able to worship because God would provide the offering for the sacrifice.

Then he took his son, tied him up and laid him on the altar.  To complete his obedience, “Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.” Abraham had every intention of following through on his commitment to completely obey.  With the knife hovering in the air, an angel of the Lord calls out, “Abraham!  Abraham!”  Once again, Abraham responds as a servant, “Here I am.”  Then Abraham breathes a huge sigh of relief as he hears these words: “Do not lay a hand on the boy…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 had passed the test but he still needed to complete the sacrifice and so God made provision for him in verse 13: “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.” 

Notice that the ram was caught by its horns, meaning that it was not bloodied or beat up.  This lamb needed to be without imperfection according to Leviticus 22:21: “it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable.”  Abraham went over and got the ram, killed it and lit the fire to complete his worship.  According to Genesis 22:13, Abraham offered this lamb instead of his son.”  The ram took the place of Isaac; it was a substitute offering.   One author suggests that the word thicket refers to thorns, reminding us of the thorns that pierced the scalp of our Savior.

When I preached on this passage some time ago I made some parallels to Jesus that are worth repeating:

  • Isaac carried the wood on his back; Jesus bore the weight of His cross as He walked through the streets of Jerusalem on the way to a hill called Calvary.
  • Both Isaac and Jesus were “obedient unto death,” as they quietly submitted to the will of their fathers.
  • Both Isaac and Jesus were “bound” in preparation for death.
  • Mount Moriah is where the Temple was eventually built.  The very place where the blood of the ram soaked into the wood was where countless offerings of blood were presented in the Temple.  Scholars tell us that Mount Moriah is another name for Calvary, the place where Jesus gave His life for our sins, where his blood stained a wooden cross.
  • Abraham and Isaac traveled three days to the mountain where Isaac’s life was eventually spared; Jesus was buried for three days before coming back to life.
  • Isaac learned about a substitionary sacrifice when the lamb was killed in his place.  Likewise, Jesus as the perfect “lamb of God” gave his life for us, in our place.
  • God’s provision is always nearby.  The ram was in the thicket, close enough for Abraham to see.  According to Psalm 75:1, God’s name is near.  All you have to do is call out to Him.

And so we see six defining moments in the life of Abraham.  Let me summarize:

The Call to Commitment.

  1. A Costly Compromise.
  2. The Consecration of his Cash.
  3. The Cutting of a Covenant.
  4. The Call to Choose Hope.
  5. A Challenge to his Commitment.

Closing Questions

I’m going to invite you right now to quiet your hearts and focus on some closing questions.  Ask the Holy Spirit to apply these truths to your life.  But before we do that, let’s meditate on this promise given to Abraham in Genesis 18:14: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

  1. What do you need to leave behind if you are going to fully follow God?
  2. If you’re married, do you need to recommit yourself to the covenant of marriage?
  3. Are you walking in covenant relationship with Jesus right now?  Are there any ways you are breaking that covenant?
  4. Have you ever believed in the Lord for salvation?  In Genesis 15:6, we read that “Abraham believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.”  Abraham wasn’t perfect and neither are you.  But he believed the Lord, and when he did, righteousness was immediately credited to his account.  The same can be true for you right now, at this very moment.

Charlotte Elliot was a young woman who had never defined her relationship with the Lord.  She went to church but was not a Christian.  One day a preacher challenged her with these words: “Charlotte, when are you going to come to Jesus?”  Taken aback, she replied, “Oh, I don’t know how.”  To which the minister replied, “You don’t know how?  Why, you come to Jesus just as you are.”  She knelt by her bed and put her trust in Jesus as the one who walked through the path of blood for her.  Later, she wrote a hymn with these words:

Just as I am, without one plea,

But that Thy blood was shed for me,

And that Thou biddest me come to Thee, 

O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not

To rid my soul of one dark blot;

To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,

Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;

Because Thy promise I believe,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?