The Blessings of Obedience
American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Throughout the course of history there have been many individuals whose lives were so remarkable that their names are well-known to the largesse of human population hundreds or even thousands of years after they lived. Many of these were inventors who took their ideas and dreams and made them a reality that changed the properties of the human experience. Some were artists who exhibited genius in painting, sculpture, or music. Arguably, the most remembered with the greatest veneration are religious leaders, often ones who single-handedly initiating a religious movement. Of these, of course the most esteemed spiritual individual in human history is Jesus Christ who is held by Christians to be the eternal Son of God who stepped out of eternity to enter His temporal creation, bringing a message of hope and forgiveness to all who truly place their faith in God. As the man, Jesus is worthy of all respect, and as the Eternal LORD, YAHWEH, He is worthy of worship.
However, as esteemed as Jesus is, there is one individual, and possibly only one, who is venerated by an even greater number of people. Where Jesus is venerated by Christians and respected by most Jews and Muslims, Jesus’ ancestor Abram of Ur, better known as Abraham, is venerated by all three groups.
What is it about this man from ancient history that was so remarkable that he stood apart from all others in his generation? The determination of biblical genealogies is difficult to determine because of the flexibility of the use of the description of one’s “father.” However, we have record of at least ten generations from Noah to Terah, Abram’s father through the line of Noah’s son, Seth.
Genesis 11:27-32. Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot. 28And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees. 29And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah. 30But Sarai was barren; she had no child. 31And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years: and Terah died in Haran.
Figure-3. The Family of Abram
Figure-3 Illustrates the biblical description of Abram’s immediate family relationships. These are the progeny of Terah that play a part in the biblical narrative. There may be other children and siblings that are not part of the biblical history. What we may note from this chart is the influence that Abram and his siblings had on the settlement of the Ancient Middle East. From this one family came the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Israelites, Edomites, and Arabs.
Consequently, Abram was a relatively minor member of this very large family of Terah. Yet, there was something that set him apart from all the others.
Genesis 12:1. Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee:
The uniqueness of Abram is simply his relationship with God. We know that Noah came from a line of men who were faithful to God, and that Noah passed that faithfulness to his sons and their families. When the LORD brought Noah and his family through the Great Flood, He restarted the population of the earth with people of faith… quite the opposite from the first point in creation when an unrepentant Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden only to be the seed of a largely godless world population that would fall under God’s judgment.
Given the paucity of faith in ancient years, it is the faith of Abram that is so remarkable. Not only did Abram have faith in God, he was close enough to Him in his prayer life to accurately and confidently perceive the LORD’s intention and purposes for him.
How could Abram, lacking the written scriptures we have today, lacking the message of the gospel and the work of Jesus on the cross, learn of God and establish a faith relationship with Him? The answer is two-fold: the visible nature of god and the simplicity of faith. Paul writes to the Romans,
Romans 1:17-20. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. 18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. 20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
Paul understands that the presence of God, His creative power, and the unrighteousness of man is openly revealed by God through the simple observation of what He has created. God’s plan has always been to bring to Himself those who place their faith and trust in Him, and Abram is an example of this form of faith. True faith is demonstrated by obedience to the LORD because of our love for Him, our sincere appreciation for what He has done for us, and because He is LORD, holding all of the authority over us.
Consider the following illustration of this motivation for obedience. I was adopted at the age of four years. My adopted parents took me out of a very stressful, negative, and destructive environment when I was old enough to notice the difference. My new parents showed me unconditional love, and brought me to a world that was safe, positive, and loving. My mother once said, “You were so easy to raise…” though she may have never fully known the reason. I chose to be unconditionally obedient to my parents because of my love for them, my sincere appreciation for what they had done for me, and I never wanted them to regret their decision to give me this new life.
True faith in God inspires this same motivation for obedience. What separates Abram apart from his peers is his consistent desire to be obedient to the LORD. Knowing of Abram’s sincerity, the LORD could do a work through Abram that would literally, through a single person, change the world.
God’s command to Abram was simple: “leave your family and go out on your own to a place I will show you.” We may lose some of the significance of this command due to our modern, mobile, culture. During Abram’s contemporary years, and for many following, the family structure and its relationship to the clan and tribe were the foundation of society. One was identified in this structure, and their belongings and lands were held in it. Not only was God asking Abram to leave his father, his family, and his inherited lands behind, he was to step out and go to a place without any idea of where the destination might be. As agrarians, they were a nomadic people and tended to wander around an area as they continually moved their animals to fresh grasses. To follow the LORD, Abram would take his immediate family (his wife, servants, and others who might choose to join him) and break away from the family’s nomadic pattern and strike out on his own.
Following the LORD’s command would become a seminal moment in Abram’s life. Without the clan to protect them, his family would be continually in danger as they traveled. Without direction, they would have no idea if the direction they are traveling is the “right” one (more on this later). Obviously, Abram would not follow this command if he had any doubt that it was from the LORD, so it is reasonable to think that doubts may have entered his thoughts.
The LORD did not call Abram away from his family without some very significant promises. This set of promises would determine the context for God’s plan of blessing for all who would come to the LORD from this day forward. This is the only place where all three blessings are stated, but the pattern and nature of these blessings continues through the biblical narrative.
Genesis 12:2. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:
The LORD first promised that He would make from Abram a great nation. In and of itself, this would be a wonderful promise to any man in their ancient near-eastern culture, as they considered their progeny to be the most important contribution that any man could make to the world in his lifetime. However, Abram was well known for one simple fact: he was aged, and his wife Sarai was childless and past the age of child-bearing. Not only would Abram be demonstrating faith by leaving his family, but he would be demonstrating even greater faith in believing this promise. The words that are rendered “make of thee a great nation,” clearly refer to a nation that would come from his own child. How could he father a nation without children, and at their age, childbearing would be impossible.
The word that is rendered “bless” includes the idea of inheritance, a gift from the giver who in this instance is God, Himself. The LORD is stating that Abram will receive an inheritance from God that will pass from him down to the generations who will follow him. This both solidifies God’s promise for a child, and associates a change of family, from the family of Terah to the family of God.
At the time of God’s promise, Abram’s name was not very great. Being childless, he is not a father, and has no future through children. Consequently, he would have lacked most of the credentials to be considered respectable in his ancient culture. Though there is significant disagreement concerning the etymology of the name, “Abram,” it is most generally accepted that the name means “father exalted,” a rather ironic name for one who had no children. Even his name served to diminish his respect among the people. It is certainly clear in the later narratives that their lack of children caused Abram and Sarai no little frustration.
Because of this, even accepting God’s promise that his name would be highly respected would take a great deal of faith.
The next statement returns to the form of “blessing” that refers to what God is going to do through the “great nation” that he will father. His progeny will be especially blessed in some unique way. We know that the nation that God is promising is the nation of Israel, a nation that will be characterized entirely differently than every other community of human civilization that had ever lived. The LORD brought the flood to reduce the population to a faithful few, and it is through this line of patriarchs from Noah, many who were still alive in Abram’s early years, that faith in God was maintained. However, this very narrow line of faithful people would, through Israel, explode into a population that would fill the world.
Genesis 12:3. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.
God concludes the blessing by promising to bless all who bless the nation that Abram would father, and curse those who did not. This would, again, reinforce the significance and uniqueness of God’s blessing of Abram, given, again, because of the uniqueness of his faith, and the LORD’s knowledge that though his leadership an entire nation of faithful people would come. Faith would no longer be passed down through the narrow line of a father to a son, but from a father to many sons, to many sons, and God’s desire for people of faith to fill the world would finally take place.
Furthermore, it would be through this nation that the entire world would be blessed. Abram would have no idea that the LORD was speaking of the Messiah, the very YAHWEH whom he heard speak, would come as the Christ child into the world with the mission of blessing it with the gospel and providing the sacrifice that would atone for the sins of all faithful people of all ages, including himself. There would never be any greater blessing on this earth than this one that would come through him.
Yet, he had no children.
Genesis 12:4. So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.
When Abram left Haran (his family had moved from Ur to Haran under the leadership of his father, Terah), Abram was seventy-five years old, and Sarai was sixty-five years old. Abram’s nephew, Lot, chose to come with him, bringing his family and possessions along with him. Together they traveled to a “place that the LORD would show them.” How would they know that they were going in the correct direction?
Sometimes we may place our own limitations on God’s will when it comes to the major decisions of our lives, particularly when it comes to relocating our lives. We may become so focused on trying to choose the correct path that we miss the big picture. In 1992 my teaching position with a University in upstate New York was cut due to reduced enrollments. This university was conveniently located close to our large family. Our only option that would keep us in this career would be to move away from family to a place “that the LORD would show us.” However, I was offered teaching positions in five different locations around the country. Seeking to follow the LORD’s lead, how could I choose the “correct” one with so many options? Some people look for signs. Some people try to measure the peace they “feel” about their choices. However, obedience is not about signs, and it is not about feelings. Obedience is empowered by a wisdom of God that is far beyond our own. After significant prayer I learned a refreshing truth: the LORD was instructing us, like Abram: to GO. He did not make the choice for us. We were able to make the choice for ourselves knowing that God would bless us and be with us wherever we go, and He would provide a place for us wherever we landed. We happened to land in North Carolina, 750 miles from home. We have lived in North Carolina ever since.
Genesis 12:5-6. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. 6And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.
The number who traveled from Haran to the land of Canaan would have been modest, probably numbering less than twenty, and possibly as few as ten. The group included the two families and all of their “substance,” which would have included their livestock.
Abram landed in the land of “Canaan,” a region that would later become the kingdom of David, including the land west of the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, some land east of the river, and to the south to what is now Gaza (ancient Philistia) including the Negev desert, and to the north to what is now Lebanon. The area of Gaza was not included in the initial land of Canaan.
When Abram entered the land of Canaan, he was not entering an uninhabited land. The area is referred to as Canaan because it was populated by Canaanites, described in the biblical narrative as the offspring of Canaan, a grandson of Noah.
The idea is that Abram and his company are “passing through” this land, and at this point in the narrative had come to the land of Shechem, located about mid-way along the length of the Jordan River, and slightly east of a line midway between the river and the coast. There is no indication at this point that Abram and Lot intended upon settling here. They still would not have known where this land is that the LORD would “show them.”
Genesis 12:7. And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.
The Bible is silent on the exact means by which the LORD “appeared” to Abram. Our modern bent to literary scrutiny would demand that this means that the LORD, YAHWEH, appeared to Abram in bodily form. Certainly, such an appearance would have been an encouragement to Abram as, to this point, he has been operating on faith and the still-small voice of the LORD that he could hear in his heart. However, it is also quite evident that, up to this point, every decision that Abram made was based upon his faith in God, and the work that the LORD would do for him was based upon this faith. For that reason, it might be more reasonable to hold that this “appearance” of the LORD was similar to that which Abram had experienced in the past through that still-small voice that communicates to every person of faith. This form of appearance would have had every bit of voracity as the one that led Abram to leave Haran.
By stating “I give this land,” Abram’s wandering was now coming to an end by a word from the LORD. This is the second biblical reference to the building of an altar. There is a significant parallel between the first two altars that are recorded in scripture. The first was built by Noah upon hearing a word from the LORD and exiting the ark and releasing the animals after the Great Flood. The LORD had taken Noah to a new place for a new start, and Noah dedicated the place by the placement of an altar and made sacrifices there. The LORD had also taken Abram to a new place for a new start, and as the LORD used Noah to begin a community of faith, He was doing the same with Abram. From this day forward the altar, made from earth and unhewn stone, would serve as a reminder to all who would see it of the work that God did with Abram.
Genesis 12:8-9. And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD. 9And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south.
Abram did not simply stop when he heard the promise of the LORD to give him the land. The land was not for him, but for a “great nation,” stretching for what would be considered a large distance by ancient standards, and it is evident that Abram moved freely around the region, always honoring the LORD, continuing in prayer, and building altars in the locations where he would stop. Abram fully believed in the promises of God and acted upon them out of pure faith, having nothing other than the word from God to assure him. He was preparing for the building of a nation.
And yet he had no children. He knew he was at an age where child-bearing was almost impossible, yet he trusted God to be true to His promise. He believed that God would find a way.
God’s promise to Abram is reflected in the three promises that He has made to every person who places their faith and trust in Him.
1. One of the three promises made to Abram has come to fruition in the life of every believer: they are part of that Great Nation that came from Abraham and the faith that he passed down through his family.
2. The second part of the promise is that God would provide a place for those who trust in Him, and people of faith realize this both in the provisions that the LORD makes for them and also the promise of an eternal home in heaven.
3. The third promise is that the LORD will bless those who come to him in faith. Jeremiah 18:11 (RSV). For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Those who have placed their faith and trust in God share both in being part of the blessing that God gave to Abraham, and in receiving those same blessings. Abram lived in a world that was largely pagan and violent with very few people who could understand and share his faith. Though that “Great Nation” is much larger today than it ever would be in ancient years the world outside of the Church is similar in nature to what it was then. The need for the lost to be found has not changed, and the need for people of faith to live lives that demonstrate that faith through obedience to the LORD has not changed. Abram responded faithfully when the LORD asked him to do what was unthinkable in their culture. He gave up a lot when he left his family, and did so trusting that the LORD would lead him where he would go, and that the LORD would provide for him and protect him (and his family) on the journey.
How far are we willing to step outside of our comfort zone in order to follow the leading of the LORD in our lives? How long are we willing to wait upon the LORD? Abram and Sarai waited another twenty-five years until he was 100 years old and Sarai was 90 years old, when Sarai bore their son, Isaac, who would father Jacob and Esau, and it was through Jacob that the nation of Israel would be born. We will never know the full nature and content of the blessings that the LORD has for us when we fail to step out in faith and wait for the LORD to work in our lives. Abram’s is an example to follow.