YOUR SHARE IN GOD'S PROMISES (2)
The promises to Abraham
The beginning of our story is in the Old Testament, the book of the people of Israel. Do not let this put you off. The Old Testament is neither redundant nor out of date. The territory may be unfamiliar, but there is real treasure to be found in these early books of the Bible. Few people have heard, for example, of the promises to Abraham, yet they form the very foundation of God’s master plan. Let us briefly recount them.
Abraham was a remarkable character who lived around 2,000 BC in a city called Ur, which was in the land we now know as Iraq. He was visited one day by a messenger from the Lord, who told him to leave his birthplace. “Go”, said the Lord, “to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Because he trusted in God, Abraham sold up all his possessions and set off across the desert with his relatives. They came to the land we know as Israel.
After he had briefly surveyed the country, the Lord appeared again, and said: “To your descendants I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7). This generous offer was particularly pleasing to Abraham and his wife Sarah, because in spite of a long and happy marriage, they had no children. It seemed the Lord was promising them a family, as well as somewhere to live. Some years passed. Abraham continued to camp out in his tent, waiting patiently for something to happen, but there was no sign of a baby on the way, and the local inhabitants continued to go about their business.
One evening the messenger of the Lord appeared again. Abraham seized the opportunity to ask two important questions. “Look”, he complained gently, “You have given me no offspring”. For answer, he was taken outside his tent and shown the sky, ablaze with stars. “Count the stars, if you are able to number them”, he was told. “So shall your descendants be.” The other point troubling Abraham was the matter of the land. “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur … to give you this land to inherit it”, the angel reminded him. “Lord GOD”, he replied, “how shall I know that I will inherit it?” (Genesis 15:3-8).
A solemn covenant
For answer, the Lord proceeded to make a very solemn agreement with Abraham, after the custom of the time, termed a “covenant”. He was instructed to collect a number of carefully specified animals and birds, which were sacrificed. The bodies were divided and laid on the ground. Normally, the two parties to a covenant would pass between the pieces, thus making it legally binding. In this case, as God was promising something to Abraham, He passed between the pieces. What Abraham saw, in the velvet darkness, was a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, the form in which, so often, God has revealed Himself to His people. Abraham was satisfied. A covenant confirmed in this way could not be broken.
The years flew by. In time, as Abraham grew to know God, the promises were repeated and enlarged. Two themes ran through them unchanged – the possession of the land, and the future of his descendants. It is worth tracing the development, through Genesis 13, 15, 17 and 22. The most impressive promise of the whole series was the last. This one began with an oath: “By myself I have sworn”, said the Lord. It continued on a familiar note: “I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is upon the sea shore.” It ended in mystery: “Your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22:17,18).
Notice the change in person from a plural, numerous, “seed” or offspring, to an offspring or seed in the singular. Note, too, the importance of this “seed”. To “possess the gate” of someone is a Hebrew idiom. In ancient times, the gate was the only entrance to a fortified city. It was also the place where the rulers held court. To possess the gate of your enemies was to have complete control. Abraham’s descendant was to be all conquering, and bring universal happiness. Whom did God have in mind? Abraham could only guess, and believe.
Twenty-five years after the making of the covenants, Sarah told Abraham with great excitement that she was going to have a baby. God was keeping His word. Through all that time Abraham never doubted God would give him a son. The Apostle Paul makes this comment about him in Romans: “He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to perform” (Romans 4:20,21). Abraham’s faith was unshakeable.
No inheritance … yet
The only disturbing note in the biography of this great pioneer is the fact that when he died, he still did not possess the land. God had several times promised it to him, personally, as well as to his descendants. Yet, as the martyr Stephen recounts, God “gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on” (Acts 7:5). He died in a tent.
Yet Abraham’s confidence in God could surmount even this final obstacle. Along with his wife and children, says the writer to the Hebrews, he “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off” (Hebrews 11:13).
You can see now why Abraham is called “father of the faithful”. God had brought him to the Promised Land. God had given him a son. If God said he would inherit the land, he believed he would, even though he had to die.
Four centuries after Abraham died, his family had grown into a nation. God had repeated the promise of the land to his son Isaac, and again to his grandson Jacob, so that it ran in the family. Jacob had a second name, Israel. He bore twelve sons, each of whom became the head of a tribe or clan with thousands of members. During a time of famine the family migrated to Egypt and settled there. As they multiplied, the Egyptians grew fearful of their power, and enslaved them. Moses, the great lawgiver, was sent to set them free. After a series of calamities which ruined his country, the Egyptian Pharaoh was forced to let them go, and the Israelites set off across the wilderness to their homeland. Remarkably, this very event had been predicted in one of the promises to Abraham, as you can check for yourself in Genesis 15:13-16.
David M Pearce
(to be continued)