When humanity conspired against God in the plain of Shinar (Gen11:4), they sought for themselves a name, a nation (i.e., a city), and to be a blessing to the whole world (i.e., a tower with its top in the heavens). God stooped down and wrecked their plans, like a parent cleaning up the tinker toy towers of unruly children. The problem, however, was not with the rewards they sought, but with the manner in which they sought them. Such names, cities, and rewards cannot be grasped for oneself, in opposition to God; they must be received from him through faith. The epic tale of Abraham will show us how this works.
Here we’ll begin to work through the story of Abraham (Gen 11:27–25:18), to see both God’s great promises and Abraham’s faith. Along the way, we’ll strengthen our skills at reading and studying the Bible’s narratives—especially by learning how to mine for the story’s meaning by tracing its plot arc.
Week 1: Promises for the undeserving
The opening scenes of the story of Abram (when that’s still his name) are not the most action-packed, but they provide crucial information we must keep in mind as we progress. Let’s take careful note of this information so we can call upon it as needed in later chapters.
Read Genesis 11:27–12:3 a few times.
In verse 27, the formula “these are the generations of” signals a new section of Genesis (see the overview of Genesis in BSM 14.2), which is about the progeny of Terah. The first thing we’re told about Terah is that he fathered three sons. Who else, earlier in Genesis, fathered three sons, and what does the connection suggest? See Study Note 🅐 if you’d like some help.
Terah outlives one of his sons in his homeland. Where is that homeland? Search online or use a Bible atlas to find this location. What else took place in this very same region, earlier in Genesis? See Study Note 🅑.
Draw Terah’s family tree; it will come in handy later when these names reappear. What is the primary thing we’re told about Abram’s wife Sarai? Whose idea was it to relocate to Canaan? Why did they not make it there? What does Joshua 24:2 say that Terah, Abram, and their family were doing at this time?
Now for perhaps the most important information: Observe 12:1–3 carefully! What does the Lord want Abram to do? Where does the Lord want Abram to go? What will the Lord do for Abram there? (Note: If you are thinking about Canaan, you are allowing your familiarity with the end of the story to prevent you from observing it closely enough. God does not yet tell him where to go, does he?)
God promises Abram three things, which will drive the plot for the next 13 chapters. Each episode in Abram’s narrative focuses on one or more of these promises, so let’s make sure we identify them clearly. What are the three promises, and how do they relate to the three things sought by the builders at Babel? See Note 🅒. On a piece of paper, make three columns. Label those columns with the three promises. Over the next few days, and before moving on in our study, read the rest of Abram’s story, placing each episode in the column that matches the promise under consideration in that episode.
Week 2: Not knowing where he was going
The first three words of Genesis 12:4 astonish: “So Abram went.” Remember, God hasn’t given him a map or particular destination yet. All he’s said is, “Go away from your country and family.” Hebrews 11:8 underscores the point: “He went out, not knowing where he was going.” Genesis 12:1 simply says that God will show him the land of promise once he gets there. What sort of picture does this paint of the character of Abram?
Read Genesis 12:4–20 a few times.
Where does Abram go? Why do you think he goes there? (Review Genesis 11:31.) What does the Lord do once he arrives? Which of the three promises are being addressed in Genenis 12:4–9? How is that promise advanced? (In other words, how does Abram get a little closer to receiving what was promised?) See Note 🅓 if you need help.
In Genesis 12:10–20, which of the three promises is in view? Resist the temptation to read this story as merely a morality tale about truth and deception. The narrative’s drama resides in the presentation of that which threatens the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises. Which promise is under threat here? What is that threat? How is the threat resolved? Who is responsible for that resolution? See Note 🅔.
How deserving is Abram of these promises? How important is it to the Lord that Abram be deserving? What seems to be the Lord’s chief concern instead? Why has the Spirit-inspired narrator placed this episode immediately after the scene of Abram’s demonstration of astonishing faith? What does this tell us about God’s promises to us?
Week 3: They could not dwell together
This week, we will begin practicing the skill of observing plot structure. You may remember terms such as conflict, climax, and resolution from elementary school, and the time has come to dust off these concepts. Plot structure is one of the most handy tools for understanding a narrative text, and those who learn to recognize plot structure are more likely to grasp what is important in the story.
Before we dive in, let me explain what I mean by plot structure. Narratives tend to have a basic shape with six elements:
Setting: The characters, locations, and situation are established.
Conflict: The tension that will propel the story is introduced as an opposition between two parties (man vs. man, man vs. God, man vs. nature, man vs. himself, etc.).
Rising Action: The tension ebbs and flows, or additional tension is layered on, to increase suspense.
Climax: The conflict is finally settled, typically through some sort of reversal.
Resolution: The ends are tied up to release the tension (sometimes called the denouement).
New Setting: The characters (and often the readers) find themselves in a new situation or circumstance because of the conflict’s reversal.
The most important element for us to notice is the climax, because that is where we’ll normally find the narrative’s point or main idea. But in order to find the climax, we must first be clear on what the conflict is (what the precise source of narrative tension is). After we locate the introduction of the conflict, we’ll be able to perceive the reversal of that conflict at the point of climax. The remaining elements of plot structure largely fill in the gaps.
This week, I will model this process for you with Genesis 13. Please follow along with your Bible and notebook in hand so you can replicate the steps. In the remaining weeks of this study, I will not be as forthcoming but will prepare you to do more of the work yourself.
Read Genesis 13 a few times.
Step 1: Identify the precise point where the text introduces conflict. You will find it by figuring out where the narrative creates tension or begins to feel as though something could go wrong.
In Genesis 13, no tension is present until verse 6. Before that, Abram is simply moving around, having lots of stuff, and calling once more on the name of Yahweh. But in verse 6, “The land could not support both of them [Abram and Lot] dwelling together.”
Step 2: Label everything prior to the introduction of the conflict as Setting.
In Genesis 13, verses 1–5 serve as setting, an extended setup for the plot to unfold, beginning with verse 6.
Step 3: Figure out the precise nature of the conflict. In other words, who or what is in conflict with whom or what? Or what is the chief question raised by the plot conflict?
In Genesis 13, the conflict poses a threat to the Lord’s promise that Abram would sire a great nation that holds this land (promise vs. reality). The chief question is: If this land can’t even hold two families, how will it ever hold an entire nation?
Step 4: Find the story’s climax, which will be the precise place near the end where the conflict is solved or reversed in some way.
In Genesis 13, the climax comes in verses 15–17 when Yahweh reiterates the promise to Abram. Though his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth, this very land, all that Abram can see, will still be sufficient to hold them.
Step 5: Label everything between the conflict and the climax as Rising Action. Trace the steps where the conflict deepens or advances.
In Genesis 13, verse 7 tells us the triggering event for the conflict, which is the strife between Abram’s herdsmen and Lot’s herdsmen. So there is more going on than simply whether the land is big enough. The action rises further with the note (v. 7) that two entire nations are also presently inhabiting the land along with the two families of Abram and Lot—explaining why it feels a bit overcrowded.
Then (v. 8), Abram describes the issue first as being “between you and me” and only secondly as “between your herdsmen and my herdsmen,” suggesting that the main problem here might actually be Lot’s. Perhaps the statement in verse 6 that “the land could not support both of them” was not truly the narrator’s assessment but more likely the assessment of Lot’s character?
Limited space prevents me from covering every detail. So I will let you continue to work through the rising action for yourself. The goal is simply to let the story speak for itself, allowing the original, stated tension to wax and wane at each new development.
Step 6: Observe how the new setting, post-climax, differs from the initial setting at the story’s beginning.
In Genesis 13:18, we now have Abram dwelling near Mamre’s oaks and worshiping Yahweh like before—only without Lot (vv. 4–5).
Step 7: Label any material between the climax and the new setting as esolution. These details may paint a picture of what it looks like to live in light of the story’s climax.
In Genesis 13, the resolution is not extensive but simply describes Abram moving his tent to a new location, getting a fresh start without his nephew.
Step 8: Figure out the story’s main point, which is closely connected to the climax and/or resolution.
The main idea of Genesis 13 appears to be that God will keep his promise to Abram to give him a great nation within this land—but apart from Lot, who will not be his heir. The promise will not be realized through Lot but through another. Lot’s exclusion from the promise may have something to do with his preference for the presumed paradise of worldly wickedness (Gen 13:10, 13). We also learn that Yahweh’s promises to Abram will involve the land he can see (v. 15) but not the heir he can see. Something more than sight will be required of him.
If this process of tracing plot structure appears tedious, let me assure you that there is a mysterious glory to it. Hone your ability to trace the plot structure, and you may be surprised by how it unlocks the meaning of most of the Bible’s narratives for you. The crucial steps are 1, 3, 4, and 8, but everything is there to help you arrive at the story’s main point.
Week 4: Who is Abram’s King?
Read Genesis 14 a few times.
This week you get to work on the plot structure yourself, but here is some help. The setting in this story is quite extensive. Keep in mind that this story is part of Abram’s story, so the chief conflict is that which involves him or the Lord’s promises to him. Neither the history lesson nor the many battles recounted at the beginning are the main source of plot conflict.
With that said, follow the steps I outlined last week. Especially: Where is the conflict introduced? What is the nature of that conflict? Where is it solved or reversed? What is the main idea?
Now dig a little deeper. The extensive setting is there for a reason. Observe which words are repeated the most in this chapter. One word is repeated so frequently and obviously that it, ironically, can be easy to miss (see Note 🅕). How does that extensively repeated idea shape the story’s plot? See Note 🅖.
What does this story’s main idea tell you about Abram’s perspective toward the Lord and his promises? How should that shape your perspective toward the Lord and his promises?
Week 5: Faith counted as righteousness
Keep building on the work you’ve done so far! As you move to the next episode in Abram’s story, keep in mind all that has come before.
Read Genesis 15 a few times.
Where does the tension begin? Which of God’s promises from 12:2 is under consideration? Where, near the end of the chapter, is the tension fully resolved? What new tension is embedded within that resolution and new setting? See Note 🅗 if you need help.
Trace out the phases of rising action between the conflict and climax. How does Yahweh respond to Abram’s inner conflict? How does Abram respond to Yahweh’s assurance? Why do they continue back and forth in dialogue and response?
Genesis 15:6 is quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6; Jas 2:23). Read each of those chapters and consider: What argument is Paul or James making? How does the context (the full story) of Genesis 15 support his argument? How is Abram’s faith a model for ours?
Week 6: A God who sees
I won’t provide any answers this week; I’m confident you can do it yourself. I encourage you to take note of seeing and hearing in this week’s text.
Read Genesis 16 a few times.
List the six elements of the plot structure, with verse references for this story. What is the nature of the conflict? Which of Yahweh’s promises are under consideration? What is the nature of the climax? What is the story’s main idea? What does that main idea teach us about trusting God’s promises? How can we better see and hear the Lord Jesus?
May you delight anew in your God who sees and hears all you’re going through (Gen 16:13), and who is himself your shield and very great reward (15:1).
🅐 Adam had three sons (Cain, Abel, Seth), and so did Noah (Shem, Ham, Japheth). Both Adam and Noah were new humans at the start (or restart) of God’s creation. The description of Terah with his three sons suggests that the narrator wishes us to see another cycle of new creation and new humanity in the family of Terah.
🅑 “Chaldeans” (Gen 11:28) is the Bible’s word for the people who lived in the region of Babylon, which is the same place where the tower of Babel was built (in Hebrew, Babel = Babylon). Therefore, in the very place where God scattered humanity, he also selected one family to advance his new creation.
🅒 In Genesis 12:2, the Lord promises Abram a great nation, a great name, and an infectious blessing. In Genesis 11:4, the builders wanted a city (to hold a great nation), a great name, and a tower (that would have influence over the world). God took all three things from the “Babel-onians” and gave them to Abram, an idolator (Joshua 24:2), for free.
🅓 In Genesis 12:4–9, the main promise in view is that of the great nation, which is now closely connected to receiving the land. In verse 7, Abram gets closer to receiving the promise in that the Lord now tells him that this (Canaan) is it! Now he knows the right location where his nation—his offspring—will take up residence.
🅔 Regardless of which of the three promises you observe being threatened, you are correct. First, when famine hits the land (v. 10), it threatens the viability of this land for Abram’s coming great nation. Second, when Pharaoh abducts Sarai for his harem (v. 15), it threatens the promise of Abram’s great name. Third, when Pharaoh treats Abram well for her sake (v. 16), it seems to question the promise that Abram would be the source of the world’s blessing. This brief story brilliantly weaves all three promises together by bringing each of them under some sort of threat. But just when everything seems about to unravel, Yahweh afflicts Pharaoh and his house with great plagues (v. 17). The Lord will not allow his promises to go unfulfilled.
🅕 King is repeated 28 times in the English Standard Version. Even more if you count Melchizedek’s name, which means “king of righteousness.”
🅖 The plot conflict consists in the kings’ claim to Lot and his possessions. Though Lot has moved away, Abram still holds himself responsible for Lot’s well-being. The question is: Which king has claim to Lot (and thereby to portions of Abram’s household)? The climax is therefore not simply when Abram rescues Lot, but when he gives a tenth of the spoil to Melchizedek in verse 20, acknowledging Melchizedek’s kingship over him. Really, he’s acknowledging that God Most High, who is Mechizedek’s king, is Abram’s king as well.
🅗 Conflict in verses 2–3: Abram has no “reward” of children but only a household servant as his heir. This affects the promises of a great name and great nation. The climax comes in verse 18, where the covenant ceremony is complete, guaranteeing the promise of this land for Abram’s own offspring. The new setting, however, prophesies an ominous future for those offspring.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
- Are God’s “Plans” for You? What Jeremiah 29:11 Really Means
- Bible Study: How to Dig Deep into God’s Word
- Describing Diatheke: Covenant Centrality in the Bible
Abraham in the Old Testament and Early Judaism
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