Monday, May 28, 2012

The Faith of Abraham

The Faith of Abraham

Stephen's defense was based upon the faith of Abram, who later was called Abraham. In obedience to God's direct command, Abram left a country in which his family ancestors had lived for generations, to a land completely foreign to him.

"Now the Lord said to Abram, - Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Genesis 12:1-3 (ESV)

Abram obeyed, but with great reluctance and procrastination.

Still, he obeyed.

Yet what was Abram's reward? What happened to God's promise?

"God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect: that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. - But I will judge the nation that they serve, - said God, - and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place." Acts 7:4-7 (ESV)

INHERITANCE: kleronomia (heirship, a patrimony or a possession); from keleronomos (a sharer by lot, an inheritor, a possessor); from kleros (a die for drawing chances, a portion) and nomos (law or regulation or principle); from klao (to break, specially of bread) and nemo (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals)

A family sitting down to eat a meal would have the father break a loaf of bread in pieces, giving to each member of the family what they needed. Each portion of bread was "klao", broken off, and "nemo", shared with others.

The concept of sharing included the distribution of lots in games of chance. The lots were probably "kleros", pieces of sticks, drawn at random.

Distribution of real property or valuable assets were regulated by "nomos", civil laws that guaranteed rights and mandated responsibilities regarding dividing up land and belongings among family members.

All of the laws and regulations, the "kleronomia" of life, supposed a man to have children to which he would portion off all that he owned.

Abram entered Canaan with no hope of "kleronomia".

Abram camped and tramped throughout the length of Canaan, building altars of worship of God, providing for his wife, nephew and servants, trading livestock, silver and gold, becoming a wealthy, powerful man.

Yet he could not claim one square foot of land for his descendents.

He had no children of his own.

Growing older, death coming closer, all of Abram's wealth would likely end up possessed by strangers.

But Stephen's defense emphasized the promise of God. God promised that Abram would have children. God would require Abram's descendents to live as sojourners, oppressed and enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years, but after their tribulation they would come out and worship God. (Acts 7:6-7)

Stephen is building an argument for his defense. His first step is to remind the council of Abraham's obedience to God, his faith in God's reward despite actual circumstances that seem impossibly barren. Beyond the immediate circumstance is God's warning that Abraham's descendents will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years.

Stephen understood that all of this was completely known by his accusers. The Jewish religious rulers on the council had heard, read and studied the Old Testament thoroughly.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Put yourself in the council's place, forgetting for the moment that you already know how the story ends. What would the council be feeling at this point in Stephen's argument? What is Stephen's purpose in rehashing Abraham's history, especially the barren, hopeless, oppressive part of his history?

Stephen has reminded the council of their common forefather in faith, Abraham. Despite troubling circumstance and human weakness, Abraham trusted God to fulfill His promises of reward and joy.

Stephen continues with rehearsing Abraham's life:

"And he [God] gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs." Acts 7:8 (ESV)

Verses seven to eight in Stephen's account covers most of Abraham's life. Verse seven begins with God's promise to Abraham (Abram) in Shechem, on the northern edge of Canaan. Abram treks the length of this land southward, even to the point of entering Egypt to survive a period of famine. With him, traveling every mile, was his entire household: wife Sarai, nephew Lot, servants and livestock.

Egypt was not good for Abram's marriage, and he left, retracing his steps northward, leaving Lot in the Jordan Valley, eastward. Abram returns to the first encampment he had made in Canaan, Shechem, near the Oaks of Mamre, and made his permanent home.

From here Abram became a powerful, influencial property owner. He joined with local Canaanites in battle with foreign kings. He continued to worship and trust God.

He and Sarai continued to live childless.

Abram was eighty-six years old when he and Sarai faltered in their faith, diluting God's promise of an heir by assuming that any child, born of any woman, would suffice. Abram lay with Sarai's servant, Hagar, with Sarai's urging.

Hagar bore Abram a son. They named him Ishmael. (Genesis 16:15)

Sixteen years later, God appeared to Abram and changed the names of both Abram and Sarai. (Genesis 17)

ABRAM: abram (high father); from abiram (father of height); from ab (father) and ramam (to be high, to rise or raise)

ABRAHAM: abraham (father of a multitude)

SARAI: saray (dominative); from sar (a head person); from sarar (to have, exercise or get dominion)

SARAH: sara (a mistress, a female noble); from sar (a head person); from sarar (to have, exercise or get dominion)

Abraham was 99 years old when God changed his name and reaffirmed His promise of a son, a genuine birth-child of Abraham and Sarah.

At the same time, God commanded Abraham to be circumcised, and to continue to circumcise every male born in his house, throughout every generation, whether born of family or servants, blood relative or foreign.

Not long after, Abraham moved his people far south, to Gerar, near to the border with Egypt, the "land of the Philistines". No reason is given. Again, Abraham and Sarah experience a challenge to their marriage.

It is here that Sarah becomes pregnant.

"The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac." Genesis 21:1-3 (ESV)

ISAAC: yshaq (laughter, as in mockery); from sahaq (to laugh outright, in merriment or scorn; by implication to sport)

Abraham was 100 years old, Sarah was 90 years old.

It was here that Abraham finally, literally planted roots. In worship and memorial of God's everlasting faithfulness, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree near his well, naming the place Beersheba, "the well of an oath". Here he experienced the greatest test of his faith of the mountain of Moriah, nearly sacrificing his precious son, Isaac.

37 years later, Sarah was nearing death, and they moved back to their first home in Canaan, near the Oaks of Mamre. Sara died, at age 127, and Abraham purchased the field in which she was buried.

After many years, Abraham heard news of his old home country, the land near Shinar in Mesopotamia. He wanted his son, Isaac, to remain faithful to the Everlasting God, and he feared the result if Isaac were to marry a pantheistic Canaanite woman. He sent a servant back to Mesopotamia to find a woman of the family of Abraham's brother, Nahor.

Isaac married Rebekah, the granddaughter of Nahor. Rebekah and Isaac gave birth to Jacob and Esau. Jacob's name was changed to Israel, and he had twelve sons, the patriarchs of the nation of Israel.

All of this happened from verses seven and eight of Stephen's account of Abraham's life. Stephen mentions none of this. Verse seven: God gives a promise to faithful but weak Abram. Verse eight: Abraham is circumcised, has a son, has a grandson, and twelve great-grandsons become the patriarchs of a great nation.

As Stephen briefly recounts the life of Abraham, the listening council, all Jewish leaders, must have known all of this. His jump from verse seven to verse eight must have triggered in his listeners memories of the decades that he skipped over.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Stephen's defense to this point can be condensed into two foundational facts: Abraham believed God despite great difficulty, and Abraham's great-grandsons became patriarchs of a great nation. What logic is he following? Why are these two facts critical to his defense?

PATRIARCHS: patriarches (a progenitor, "patriarch"); from patria (paternal descent, or a group of families or a whole race or nation); from pater (father)

Before these sons of Jacob became revered patriarchs, they were selfish, fleshly and malicious brothers of the youngest of them: Joseph.

"And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household." Acts 7:9-10 (ESV)

Stephen is building his defensive argument, step by step, using the history of the Israelite nation to show the unstoppable power and mercy of God.

God exercised great mercy and power on behalf of Abram, an undeserving, sinful, weak, godless man. Included in the mercy and power was a promise of reward and great joy, given to Abram hundreds of years before it was to happen.

Joseph's story seemed to be the start of fulfillment of that promise.

Joseph survived violent assault, slavery and imprisonment in a foreign dungeon before God gave him favor and wisdom above all others, exalting Joseph to the throne of Egypt, second only to the Phaoaroh.

Perhaps for one moment the family of Jacob, the descendents of Abraham, had a brief, exciting thought: "Perhaps now the ruler of Egypt will conquer all of Canaan on behalf of the promise given by God to Abraham!"

That was not God's plan.

God directed circumstance and human hearts to bring all of Abraham's descendents as a group to Egypt, hundreds of miles from the land promised him by God.

"There came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem." Acts 7:11-16 (ESV)

For the descendents of Abraham, now deep in the land and influence of Egypt, the promise of Canaan would easily fade away. As the patriarchs grew old and died, what hope could a half-remembered promise from God bring? What good would be land hundreds of miles away, occupied and controlled by other people?

Hope lived, however, in the sons of Abraham.

"Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem." Acts 7:15-16 (ESV)

Jacob insisted on being buried in God's promised land, the field back at little Shechem, near the Oaks of Mamre, in Canaan.

"I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place." Genesis 49:29-30 (ESV)

Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah were all buried in the land promised by God.

Joseph, on his deathbed, made the same request:

"I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying - God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here." Genesis 50:24-25 (ESV)

Joseph died and was buried in Egypt, but he completely believed God's promise and bound his family to believe also. He fully expected God to give the entire land of Canaan to Abraham's descendents, Joseph's descendents.

When that happened, he wanted his bones to be buried with his father.

Abraham's faith was entrusted to his sons, and they embraced that legacy of faith, trusting that God would do what he had promised.

Abraham's life story forms the foundation of Stephen's argument, defending himself from charges of heresy and blasphemy. The story of Abraham can be summarized as someone who trusted God to do what He promises, no matter how long it may take.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What promise of God do you claim, despite not yet receiving it? What experiences have made it seem that His promise is very far away, so far that many people would take it as a sign that God does not exist.

Image provided by Chris, Creative Commons License