Have you ever wondered why God chose Abram and called him to inherit the land of Canaan, why he made a covenant with him and his descendants? Can you identify anything unique or special about this man that attracted the creators attention?
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.
In this passage, we see that the blessings and promises of the New Covenant are firmly rooted in the encounters Abraham experienced with Yahweh. And we Gentiles (wild olive tree) have been grafted in to God’s special (cultivated) olive tree and receive spiritual nourishment from the blessing of Abraham. If that is true then perhaps we should learn about this “father of our faith”. A good question to begin with is, why did God choose Abram? What was it about his life that caught Yahweh’s attention?
Ok, ready to dive in? Let’s begin.
How did Abram come to receive the blessing, promise and the covenant? 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.
But wait, there was a good deed which Abram did. Recall that his brother Haran had died and Abram adopted the brothers son Lot. Certainly, that was a good deed, not only to care for his nephew but to protect the memory of his brothers name. If we think back on the story of Cain and Abel this is something Cain had been unwilling to do for he denied that he was his brothers keeper. In addition, Abram also cared for his half sister Sarai taking her as his wife.
Abraham replied, “I thought, ‘This is a godless place. They will want my wife and will kill me to get her.’ And she really is my sister, for we both have the same father, but different mothers. And I married her. When God called me to leave my father’s home and to travel from place to place, I told her, ‘Do me a favor. Wherever we go, tell the people that I am your brother.’”
Now we are not told if this was a normal Mesopotamian custom or perhaps necessitated by a tragic family circumstance, but regardless Abram did seem to have a heart for his family unlike his ancestor Cain.
In spite of these deeds, the Apostle Paul is very clear that is was not any good deed which drew Yahweh’s attention…so what was it then?
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.” After a lot of mental gymnastics I believe the answer is revealed in his journey with God.
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. 9 And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. 10 Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.
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 those “good deeds” be related to the heart of God for family?
I am alluding to something in Abram’s life which may have attracted Yahweh’s attention, something which made him unique from others in his world. Abram was one of Terah’s three sons. One of the sons (his brother Haran) had passed away leaving three children. We know that Abram adopted Lot (his brother Haran’s son). Nahor the other brother married one of the daughters – Milcah. Sarah (Sarai) on the other hand was not only Abram’s wife but his sister as well.
From our earlier discussion we know that God is a relational being and desired 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 as well as to marry his sister. 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.
Genesis 12:1, 4
The point is that Abram was concerned for his brothers name and progeny as well as his sisters well-being. Did God find something pleasing in Abram’s responsiveness (ἔργον)? Perhaps Yahweh thought something similar to, “here is a man who shares my heart for family and cares about people, 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 could it have captured Yahweh’s attention so that he called Abram to follow him and learn the ways of the creator God?
Why adopting Lot (Abram’s nephew) and marrying his sister was not what captured Yahweh’s attention?
For Abram to include Lot in his journey from Haran to Canaan after Terah’s passing was in violation of God’s call to him. Recall that God had said, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family“. Abram did not leave his relatives, he brought them! The result of bringing his nephew 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 real estate, not to mention having to rescue Lot during the battle with the five kings. Oh and we must not forget the anguish of having to intercede over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah where Lot chose to make his habitation. On the other hand Sarah’s beauty caused difficulty with regional kings who wished to take her into their harem. (See Gen. 20)
Did Abram do the right thing by bringing Lot with him and marrying his sister? I honestly don’t know if there’s a good answer to this question as it seems Abram was moved by concern for his brothers name and his sisters well-being. But he disobeyed the clear instruction of God’s call. How do we make sense of this?
It seems that Abram may have been conflicted (much like us) as he thought about the call of God. His responsiveness would become less murky as his journey with Yahweh continued. Yahweh on the other hand is gracious because that is his nature – one of grace and patience, for he understands our weaknesses!
Now, why did I take you through that thought experiment? Two reasons really. I want us to understand our spiritual journeys are progressive – God desires to bring us from not knowing anything about him to a level of deep intimacy, even sharing in his divine nature. Secondly, I want you to think deeply about the things you are about to read. Ask questions and draw your own conclusions, be honest and sincere in your inquiry and above all know what you believe and why!
Lastly, it’s OK not to have all the answers; I’ve discovered that the Lord gives more understanding the longer we walk in intimacy with him.
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?