Abraham, Israel’s ancestral role model of faith in God

The stories in Genesis 12-50 present the ancestral narratives of Israel in the lineage of Abram (Abraham later); Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Like the Primeval Story presented in Genesis 1-11, Bandstra suggests, the sources of these ancestral narratives are identified by the documentary hypothesis as the Yahwist, the Elohist, and the Priestly writers, which explains some parallels or connections between the episodes of different characters reflecting the features of three different sources. (p 81)

Bandstra presents the ancestral stories of Israel with three cycles regarding the three major saga[1] collections comprising the ancestral narratives; Abraham cycle, Jacob cycle, and Joseph cycle.

Similarly, Stanley presents the plot of Genesis 12-50 as Israel’s ancestral narratives with three Acts in terms of the main characters among the ancestors of the people of Israel and Judah; Act 1: Abraham and Sarah, Act 2: Isaac and Jacob, and Act3: Joseph and his brothers. (pp 218-222)

Which ancestral stories relate to the issue of trust in divine promises?

Among these three major groups of ancestral narratives, the major theme of Abraham’s stories appears to be dealing with God’s promises and covenant for Abraham with a homeland, offspring and being a blessing and Abraham’s trust in God’s promises. Bandstra explains that the Abraham cycle lays the groundwork for the history of Israel by continuing the primeval theme of blessing with his departure for a new land leaving “his comfortable surroundings with an eager but simple faith and facing many dangers and occasional stumbles.”  In addition, Bandstra suggests, through the challenges Abraham experienced in his journey, “his faith matures and his relationship with God deepens.” (p 81) Thus, among the three ancestral narratives, I suggest that Abraham’s stories prominently relate to the issue of trust in divine promises.

List some specific episodes that stand out in your mind that have to do with issues of belief, trust, and faith.

The first episode reflecting Abraham’s trust in God’s promises is Genesis 12:1-9 which begins with God’s call for Abram (Abraham later) to leave his homeland with His promise of a homeland, offspring, and being a blessing for Abram. For God’s command to leave his homeland, Abram simply followed God’s will and went with all his family, which I think shows Abram’s trust in God. The commentary of the Harper Collins Study Bible also interprets that this simple response of Abram shows his righteousness and faithfulness (p 21).  Stanley also suggests that from the beginning of the story, Abram is presented as a model of obedience to God following the command of Yahweh to leave his homeland and travel to Canaan. (p218)

However, in the next episode in Genesis 12:10-20, which narrates Abram and Sarai’s journey to Egypt to avoid a famine in the land of Canaan, Abram showed his lack of faith in God in his deceiving Pharaoh by passing off Sarai as his sister with a fear that the Egyptian who wanted to take Sarai for her beauty would kill him. Bandstra explains this as strategic for the theological plot development of Abraham cycle. According to Bandstra, this episode “benchmarks Abram’s insecurity and sets the story up for Abraham to grow in trust and confidence in God’s promises as the narrative progresses.”(p 83)

The same kind of episode is found in Genesis 20:1-7, which narrates Abraham and Sarah’s travel at Gerar. In this episode, Abraham again deceived Abimelech, King of Gerar, to save his life in the same way by saying Sarah as his sister. However, God intervened in the episode by revealing himself in the dream of Abimelech and saved Sarah’s virtue and abimelech’s innocence. (The Harper Collins Study Bible, p 31)

The third similar episode is found in Genesis 26:6-11, which is a story of Isaac and Rebekah in Gerar. In this episode, Isaac deceived the men of Gerar in fear of being killed like his father Abraham for Rebekah’s beauty.

According to the Harper Collins Study Bible, these three stories of the matriarch in danger occurring in three different forms expresses a threat to the promise of offspring, which might reflect Abraham and Isaac’s lack of trust in God’s promise offspring.(p 21)

There are more episodes that stand out in my mind relating to Abram and Sarai’s trust in God’s promise of offspring. One is the episode of the birth of Ishmael in Genesis 16, which reflects Sarai’s lack of trust in God’s promise of offspring and finding her own way of have an offspring of Abram; having a child through her slave, Hagar. In this episode, Abram’s following Sarai’s request appears to reflect his doubt or his own interpretation of God’s promise of offspring. Bandstra suggests that this episode “reflects the concern for heir, which was the ancestors’ great hope for the future and that it also reveals the uncertain nature of the inheritance, given the constant threat of infertility.” (p 86) In other words, in this episode, Abram and Sarai’s physical conditions appear to force them to feel uncertain about the fulfillment of God’s promise of offspring.

In the episode of God’s covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17:1-22, which Bandstra explains has the structure of a treaty covenant[2] between God and Abraham, with God’ change of the name of Abram into Abraham and of Sarai into Sarah, Abraham’s laughing and saying to himself about his doubt for God’s promise of giving a son by Sarah also appears to show Abraham’s trust issue about God’s promise of offspring even in the middle of God’s announcement of the covenant. In Genesis 18:12, it was Sarah who laughed to God’s announcement of Sarah’s having a son, which also seems to indicate Sarah’s doubt of God’s promise based on her age and infertile condition.

However, even with all these episodes concerning the issue of Abraham’s (and/or Sarah’s) trust in God, God continued to visit Abraham in his travels and confirm His promises with His covenant with Abraham, upon which Abraham relied on through the cycle of his life by following God’s command. Finally, Abraham witnessed the fulfillment of God’s promise of offspring, the birth of Isaac for Abraham and Sarah in their old age, which is the evidence of the fulfillment of God’s promise to give Abraham a son by Sarah,

The final episode in Genesis 22 about God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, which is mentioned as God’s test of Abraham (22:1), culminates Abraham’s faith in God after the birth of Isaac in his unquestioning obedience to God’s command to kill his only son, whom God gave him by His promise, without any complaint and hesitation.

Ellen F. Davis’s “The Binding of Isaac”[3] explains this episode as the issue of ‘mutual trust’ between God and Abraham and presents two possibility for God’s discharge of sadism or tyranny; i) this is a real test of God for Abraham’s faith in Him, his commitment to God before everything else; ii) this is God’s expression of His control of the covenant relationship, which entails the balance of boldness and submission. Considering the first verse of Genesis 22 and Abraham’s historical status as Israel’s ancestral role model of faith in God, I rather choose Davis’s first interpretation of this episode as God’s test of Abraham’s faith in Him. Bandstra also asserts that the first sentence of the text, “… God tested Abraham,” gives us the purpose of the story right at the beginning. (p91) At the end of the episode, when Abraham passed the test in 22:12, God repeated his promise of blessing in 22:15-18, which presents Abraham as a model for Israel in his full and immediate obedience to God’s word. (Bandstra, p 93).

What developments can you trace in the growth and quality of the ancestors’ trust?

As we can see in the episodes mentioned above and as Bandstra mentions for the episode of Abram’s deceiving Pharaoh, in the progress of the narrative, from the episodes which show Abraham’s weakness of faith in God as well as his faithfulness to follow God’s command to the culminating episode of Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, we can trace Abraham’s trust and confidence in God’s promises with covenant growing and changed from an insecure and shallow quality to a deep and secure faith in the promise of God. (Bandstra, p94)

[1] Bandstra describes a saga as follows,

“A saga is a legendary narrative about an ancestor or community figure. The plot of a saga is simple and recounts the leader’s success in weathering threats or overcoming obstacles. Sagas explore human experiences and may have been intended to support the reader through life’s problems.”

[2] Dr. Lester explains in his lecture of “Covenant A” that a treaty covenant is an agreement between two or more parties who may be equal or unequal with one another in their power and stature regarding the agreement. Bandstra also explains that the structure of a treaty covenant has mutual rights and obligations. (p 87)

[3] Bible Odyssey




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