The Significance of Abraham, Part II

Calvin Culver


The importance of the Abrahamic covenant to the biblical authors cannot be overestimated. We find it emphasized again and again throughout the accounts of Abraham’s life. In chapter 12 Abraham receives the initial call as he dwells in Haran. In chapter 13, when Abraham enters the promised land the covenant is reaffirmed by God.  And then in chapter 15 the covenant is ratified or sealed in an
interesting way.

In 15:2 we find Abraham expressing his doubts about the promises God had made to him: “‘O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of
Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.'” So what’s Abraham’s problem? Simply that for all these years he has obeyed God, and yet he had seen naught of the fulfillment of what God had promised. He had no heir from his own loins, and he had not made any progress toward taking possession of the land which God had said would be his.  Yet he had journeyed nearly two thousand miles, leaving behind his home, his family, and his culture, in obedience to the call he had received. So God determined he would have to seal the covenant with
Abraham, ratifying it to Abraham’s satisfaction.

Amongst other things, we learn through the archaeological finds at Mari, and especially at Nuzu, about many of the legal customs and ceremonies of the day. In particular, we have examples of ratified or
sealed contracts preserved in some of the archaeological digs. Today, the standard procedure for sealing an agreement between two parties involves, perhaps, purchasing the services of a notary public to
countersign a note, or taking the contract to the local courthouse to have it registered and placed on file.

Amongst ancient Semites, however, the custom was very different. It was common practice, in Abraham’s day, to kill an animal and to divide its carcass between the parties, walking between the parts as this was done. In effect, the parties were saying, “May this be done to me if I should fail of my agreement.” The spilling of the animal’s blood was the guarantee binding the parties to the contract.

In chapter 15, then, God says to Abraham, in effect, “You’re absolutely right. I am the God who brought you out from Ur. I am the Lord who covenanted with you. And now I am the God who seals and ratifies that covenant.” And then we get the strange depiction at the end of chapter 15, in which Abraham divides several animals, arranging the halves opposite each other. And finally, as the sun was setting that day, Abraham in a vision saw the Spirit of the Lord descend in the form of a fire pot and pass between the halves of the animals as the voice of God solemnly reaffirmed his covenant with Abraham. Once again, God has reached out and spoken, in cultural terms familiar to the hearer, in terms that man would understand, and the covenant was sealed.

But God does not stop there. He also ratifies the covenant in another way, by giving to Abraham an outward symbol of the covenant he had just guaranteed: circumcision. Circumcision itself, as we have
learned through archaeology, was not a particularly novel idea amongst ancient Semites. It was used fairly frequently as a religious or legal rite. But God takes the act and invests it with a new meaning
and a new importance as the outward signature of a covenant which was written on the heart. It has often been observed that the act had a special significance in that it was performed on that portion of the
anatomy involved in procreation, the procuring of descendants to carry on the family. But be that as it may, what we find here is God saying to Abraham, “And here is the outward symbol to mark this new
relationship between mankind and God, between your descendants and me.”

But the covenant has both spiritual and physical benefits, especially with regard to Abraham’s descendants. Genesis 15:6, for example, is very important to a proper biblical understanding. Here
we find that Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.” It was Abraham’s belief, his trust in the unfailing mercies of God, which birthed righteousness. And such, Paul writes in
Romans 4, is the nature of rebirth in Christ; that, as one comes to faith in Jesus, he is sanctified through His blood.

Much of the story of Abraham centers around his relationship with his family. Initially in the biblical accounts, we find him being separated from his father and the other members of his father’s clan,
and then later entering into a relationship with first Lot, then Ishmael, and then with Isaac and Sarah. Much of this portion of Scripture, in fact, is in reality a family history. Why?

Well, to understand this, we must bear in mind a couple of points: first, the covenant is not for Abraham alone, but for his family as well. His family was to benefit in it, too. And they too must assume their roles in the covenant relationship.

Secondly, we find as we continue reading, Abraham getting involved in what to us appear to be some pretty strange goings on. In chapter 15, for example, Abraham complains to God: “O Sovereign Lord,
what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” And then,
later, Sarah procures one of her servants as, in effect, a surrogate parent to give birth to a child who supplants Eliezer in the inheritance. Is this, we are left asking, really the sort of thing a great man of faith would be doing?

Here again, recent archaeological discoveries shed some much – needed light on Scripture. From these ancient documents we begin to learn something of the importance that was attached by ancient peoples
to the need for raising up an heir. It was, for example, the task and the responsibility of the male child to provide care for his aging parents when they could no longer care for themselves. He was also
responsible for providing a proper burial when the parents passed on, and for maintaining the sacred religious rites for the dead. And, perhaps most significantly of all, the male heir continued the family
name and business.

The discovery of the Nuzu letters yielded knowledge of at least two methods by which a barren couple could procure an heir. The first method simply involved the adoption of one from outside the family who
would then assume all the rights and responsibilities of a natural heir. In exchange, all the family properties would become his on the death of his adopted father. The risk one ran, however, in becoming
such an adopted heir, was that the adoptive parents would later conceive and birth a natural son. In such a case, all rights and privileges of inheritance reverted to the natural child, and the adopted son, though he would not be left out of the inheritance entirely, became in effect just another servant in his master’s house. This, then, seems to be the role of Eliezer.

Sarah, it appears however, was not satisfied with this arrangement. Feeling the need for an heir from Abraham’s loins, she offered to Abraham one of her trusted maidservants as something of a vicarious substitute for herself. Through this maid, then, Abraham obtained his first natural son.

Again, until recently, Christians have questioned the morality of Abraham’s act. But through the Nuzu letters we learn that this, too, was an acceptable method of obtaining an heir for an otherwise barren
couple. A child birthed in this manner would supplant any adoptive children as heir. Such an heir, however, ran the same risk as the adopted child. If the couple were later to conceive and bear a child
together, this new child would take his place as the inheritor of the family.

While many through the ages, then, have assumed that these actions represented a weakening of the faith of Abraham, through the contributions of modern archaeology we learn that such activities were
considered quite normative in his day. We, from our comfortable vantage point of four thousand years, can look back in hindsight and see that God did, indeed, intend for Abraham a natural child, and thus
all of Abraham’s acts strike us as faithless.

But one must bear in mind that Abraham was possessed of no such perspective. In faith, he never abandoned his trust in God’s provision of an heir. Yet, as he and Sarah aged, it seemed to him
that perhaps God intended other means. First, then, Abraham adopts Eliezer, thinking, perhaps this was God’s intention for him. But such an arrangement proved ultimately unsatisfactory for both him and God.  And finally, we find Abraham’s complaint in chapter 15, answered by God’s promise that Abraham’s heir would spring from his own seed. And then, to secure this promise, God renews and ratifies the covenant with Abraham through the vision of the smoking fire pot.

But time marched onward, and Sarah’s barrenness continued unabated. Abraham, firm in his faith of a child from his own loins,  then conceived of his alternative: to raise up an heir through Sarah’s maid. Was this not, perhaps, God’s ultimate intent? Ishmael, after all, was an heir born of Abraham’s seed. Now, at last, it seemed, God’s promise had been fulfilled.

But neither was this to be. And in chapter 17 God appears again to Abraham and makes clear his intent to raise up through the barren womb of Sarah an heir for Abraham. And, though many years were yet to
pass, Sarah does, indeed, give birth, in her old age, to Isaac, as God intended.

Calvin Culver

Computers for Christ – Chicago