As a gentile I came to appreciate the life of Abraham through the eyes of the Apostle Paul. He seemed to show up in much of Paul’s writing as a foundation for the gospel. How was it that the Apostle Paul, a rabbinical scholar, understood the life of this ancient nomad? You may not have studied Abraham’s life up to this point, but I believe this Patriarch has a great deal to share with us – information that can significantly change our walk with God. And who better to lead us on that journey than the Apostle Paul. To begin, consider one of Paul’s statements in Romans.
And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root.
So why did God chose Abram?
In this passage, Paul is communicating to us that the blessings and promises we possess in the New Covenant are firmly rooted in the profound encounters Abraham experienced with Yahweh. As gentiles we do not replace the olive tree; instead we are grafted into the tree sharing nourishment from the root. What are those encounters and experiences of Abraham and his descendants that we are grafted into and partake of. In other words what is the root of the olive tree?
Ok, ready to dive in? Let’s begin.
How did Abram come to receive the promise? Why does this man figure prominently throughout the pages of both Old and New Testaments? What was it about his life, his behavior or pedigree which caused God to declare him righteous? Was he more generous; did he pray more or serve more than others? Was he obedient to a set of mandates outlined by Yahweh? We’re not told that he did any of these things. In fact, the New Testament indicates that if he had, he would have had something to boast about.
Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way.
I wrestled for a long time over this question, “what made Abram stand out, why did God call him instead of someone else?” My thought process went like this, “if I could understand why God calls or draws one person instead of another maybe we can discover how to better align ourselves with his purposes.” And truthfully, after all my mental gymnastics I am no closer to resolving this issue to my own satisfaction. But I do believe I am in good company as it seems Abram was a bit conflicted in responding to God’s call as well.
In the section below I will explain my argument for what God saw in Abram and then I will debunk that same argument followed by my takeaway. If you wish to skip this little thought experiment just move forward to the next chapter. 😉
What God saw in Abram?
The Greek word for good deeds above is “ἔργον” which has to do with deeds, labor or effort. Paul is not saying that Abraham did not have any good deeds, but rather that his good deeds did not make him “right with God”, for that was not God’s way. This is where things get interesting – perhaps Abram did have some good deeds (ἔργον) and if so what were they? Could they be related to the heart of God for family? ἔργον translated into English as deeds is also used in an ethical or moral sense as “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works (ἔργον), and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Mathew 5:16). I believe this is to be the intended meaning in the Romans passage.
I am alluding to something in Abram’s life that attracted Yahweh’s attention, something which made him unique from others in his world. Abram was one of Terah’s three sons. His brother (Haran) had passed away leaving three children. We know that Abram adopted Haran’s son Lot and Nahor married one of the daughters Milcah.
From our earlier discussion we know that God is a relational being and wanted a human family. Events in the garden, flood and tower of Babel did not change God’s mind about family. But who among humanity shared God’s value system. Early on Cain had attacked and killed his brother and declared that he was not his brothers keeper. Abram’s response to Haran’s death stood in sharp contrast to Cain’s answer, “am I my brothers keeper?” Abram’s response to the same question (ἔργον) was to adopt Haran’s son Lot, caring for and raising him as his own. Not only did Abram share God’s heart for family but he was humble enough to listen to and respond to the call of God when it came.
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you…..
So Abram departed as the LORD had instructed, and Lot went with him.
The point is that Abram was concerned for his brothers name and progeny. He also recognized something of the majesty of God and responded to his call over his life. Did God see something in Abram’s responsiveness (ἔργον) that pleased the Lord. Perhaps Yahweh thought something similar to, “here is a man who shares my heart for family, I will use him to build my family.” Now this good deed did not justify Abram in the site of God (that was still to come) but it does seem to have captured Yahweh’s attention.
Why adopting Lot (Abram’s nephew) was not what captured Yahweh’s attention?
For Abram to include Lot in his journey from Harran to Canaan after Terah’s passing was in violation of God’s call to him. Remember God had said, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family“. Abram did not leave his relatives, he brought them! Furthermore, Lot was a continual source of trouble to Abram. Because of Abram’s partial obedience to the call of God, there were conflicts between Abram and Lot over grazing rights for their cattle, arguments over prime real estate, and we must not forget having to rescue Lot during the battle with the five kings. Lastly, we must not forget the anguish of having to intercede over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah where Lot chose to make his habitation.
How do we make sense of this? We still do not know why God chose Abram, but we do know that he had a tender spot in his heart for his nephew. We also know that in spite of Abram’s partial obedience God worked in spite of Abram’s disobedience and not because of his it. Lastly, Abram was conflicted in his following of God (much like us), but God was gracious because that is his nature – one of grace and patience, for he understands our weaknesses!
Meditation and discussion
What does it mean to be grafted in to the olive tree or to be nourished from its’ root?
Am I growing in my responsiveness to the Lord’s voice when I hear him speak to me?
If I viewed other believers as brothers and sisters instead of projects or adversaries how would that change things?