Faith is one of those fancy Christian words we can find ourselves using a lot without truly understanding what it means. To many in American culture, “faith” is the opposite of reason and is best represented by a blindfold or reckless leap. For many churchgoers, “faith” is a personal and private matter, perhaps something to be either kept or shared. On college campuses and in public spaces, “faith” is simply a nickname for a religion; thus a “faith” can be a set of doctrines, a cultural spirituality, or a set of heartfelt rituals.
In the previous sections of this Bible study (part one and part two), we worked our way through the Abraham narrative in Genesis, culminating in the birth of Isaac, the son of promise, early in chapter 21. We have considered Abraham’s faith in God’s three promises (Gen 12:1–3), which shape each episode of this brilliant epic.
- Abraham will become a great nation that inherits the land of Canaan.
- Abraham will receive a great name through his promised son.
- Abraham will become the source of blessing to all nations.
As we now conclude our study of Abraham’s story, we must consider not only Abraham’s faith but also our own. If “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:9),1 if those of faith are the true sons of Abraham (Gal 3:7), and if he is the father of those who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in his footsteps of faith (Rom 4:12), then it seems important we get this “faith” right. Therefore, this third installment of our study of Abraham will direct our attention to a crucial step in our Bible study process: application.
The Practice of Application
Before we dive into our text, let me describe a model for Bible application. We can apply the Bible in two directions:
- Inward application answers the question: How can I change? This fulfills the Great Commandments to love God and others (Matt 22:37–40).
- Outward application answers the question: How can I help and encourage others to change? This fulfills the Great Commission to make disciples (Matt 28:18–20).
We can also apply the Bible in three spheres:
- Head application addresses what we ought to know, think, or believe (or avoid thinking or believing).
- Heart application addresses what we ought to esteem, love, or value (or avoid esteeming, loving, or valuing).
- Hands application addresses what we ought to speak or do (or avoid speaking or doing).
Together, the two directions and the three spheres form a matrix of six potential areas to apply the Bible.
When it comes time to apply the main point of our passage, we can consider these six areas for potential application. You don’t have to fill in all six boxes every time you apply the Bible. But you should aim to cover all six boxes over time.
If it feels like you always come away from your Bible study with the same set of applications, perhaps you have gotten stuck thinking about the same box or two every time. In that case, this matrix can help you stretch your application muscles and nurture more fruitful change.
I’ll use the terminology from this model for the remainder of our study. Each week, I will give a little help with observation (O) and interpretation (I), but greater attention will be dedicated to practicing application. If you get stuck with the O or I, the last section (“Study Notes,” below) will help you along.
Week 1: Covenant at Beersheba (Genesis 21:22–34)
Which of the three promises to Abraham is primarily in view?
What is similar and different about the way Abraham and Abimelech treat each other? How do these comparisons drive the plot conflict?
What is similar and different about the way Abimelech (Gen 20:15, 21:32) and Pharaoh (Gen 12:19–20) treated Abraham?
What role does Abimelech’s ethnicity play in the story, and in Israel’s future?
What is the climax and main point of the story?
Inward: What is your perspective toward those who belong to the enemies of your people? Do you hold out any hope of peace or salvation for them? How have you seen the gospel cross racial, ethnic, or social lines in your community? What would it look like for you to exalt Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole world?
Outward: How can you make him more evident and available to others around you so they may join in the riches of the new covenant? How can you be an agent of God’s blessing to the world? What opportunities do you have to bring people together, to heal rifts, and to motivate others to trust in the good news of salvation by grace?
Week 2: By Myself I Have Sworn (Genesis 22)
What is the conflict? Which promise is under consideration? How does the promise itself create the conflict that drives the narrative forward? Where is the plot’s climax? Note: The climax is not necessarily the emotional or theological high point, but the point where the conflict is resolved or reversed.
In light of the promise under consideration, what role do the last few verses play? Why does the narrator choose now to tell us how many sons Abraham’s brother has? What is the story’s main point?
Week 3: These All Died in Faith (Genesis 23)
What is the plot conflict, and where is it introduced? Hint: While Sarah’s death is tragic, it does not drive this story’s plot. Most of the story is taken up with another matter altogether, for which Abraham’s loss of his wife provides the setting.
Which promise is under consideration? Where is the conflict solved or reversed in a climax? What is the main point?
Week 4: Do Not Take My Son Back There! (Genesis 24)
We come to another story that may be familiar. Once again, try to set aside your familiarity in order to observe the story closely.
In light of the larger narrative of God’s promises to Abraham, which promises are under consideration in this story? In verses 3–8, which two promises are clearly on Abraham’s mind? And which of the two is especially under threat?
As the conflict deepens through the rest of the story, who is the chief actor? How do you know? What does this tell us about how the conflict will be resolved?
Where is the climax? What is the main point?
Week 5: After the Death of Abraham (Genesis 25:1–18)
This week, you get to conclude the Abraham epic with your own study of the text. With many weeks to practice the skills, you are now ready to try this at home. Though this week’s passage (Genesis 25:1–18) may seem like a random collection of facts and names, your job is to figure out how it provides a fitting conclusion to the larger narrative of Abraham’s faith in God’s promises to him.
A template is provided for you below to assist your plot analysis and application. Allow this brilliant story to drive you to worship the very God who kept all his promises to Abraham through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The God of Abrah’m praise, Who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days, And God of Love:
Jehovah, Great I Am! By earth and heav’n confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred Name, Forever bless’d.
Promise under consideration:
Conflict: Verse 23: Abimelech vs. Abraham. Abimelech wants Abraham to treat him well, but will Abimelech reciprocate?
Promise under consideration: Those who bless Abraham will be blessed.
Climax: Verse 32: Abimelech and Abraham make a covenant; Abimelech returns home, leaving Abraham in peace to enjoy the well he dug.
Main point: When pagans, from recognition of the true God’s presence with Abraham, bless him, they, too, may come under the blessings of God’s covenant promises.
Notes: This episode makes little sense apart from the larger context of the three promises to Abraham (especially the promise of becoming a blessing to all nations). Knowing that God is with Abraham (v.22), Abimelech treats Abraham well, blessing him and wishing to live at peace with him. Like Pharaoh in chapter 12, Abimelech was lied to about Sarah’s relation to Abraham (20:1–2).
But unlike Pharaoh, Abimelech did not kick Abraham out of his country (12:19–20) but invited him to stay and retain ownership of his well. Abimelech the Philistine (ancestor to the future enemies of Israel) blesses Abraham and experiences in return the blessing of Yahweh for all nations through Abraham. Though the fulness of Jesus Christ’s salvation for the entire world had not yet been revealed, this story foreshadows the blessings of God’s covenant for all the nations of the world through faith in Jesus, the better Abraham.
Conflict: Verse 2: God vs. his own promise. Will God give Abraham a great name through his son Isaac or not?
Promise under consideration: Abraham will receive a great name, through his and Sarah’s own son, Isaac.
Climax: Verses 15–18: God reiterates his promise—now sworn by God himself and confirmed through Abraham’s faithful obedience—that God will multiply Abraham’s offspring through his beloved son Isaac, like the stars and the sand, to bless all nations.
Main point: The God of Abraham can be trusted to keep his word, even if doing so requires him to raise the dead or put his own reputation on the line with the unseen future.
Notes: It’s tempting to place the climax at verses 11–12, where the angel prevents Abraham from killing Isaac or at verses 13–14, where the Lord provides a substitute sacrifice for Isaac. But neither of those events overturns the narrative’s chief conflict introduced in verse 2.
Therefore, verses 15–18 are more accurately considered the plot’s climax. In addition, the new setting of verses 20–24 (verses which are terribly easy to ignore) draws explicit attention to the twelve sons of Abraham’s brother Nahor. Abraham still has only two sons—one of which is the son of promise—while his brother appears to be growing quickly into a great nation of his own. This highlights the nature of Abraham’s faith in promises he cannot yet see and which he has not yet received.
Conflict: Verse 4: Abraham vs. his lack of land ownership. Abraham can see the entire land before him, but will he ever own any of it as God has promised?
Promise under consideration: Abraham will become a great nation dwelling in the entire land of Canaan.
Climax: Verses 17–18: Ephron’s field in Machpelah, along with its cave and trees, is deeded over to Abraham legally and publicly as a burial ground for his dead.
Main point: Abraham’s faith in God’s promise of the land led him to secure a down payment of one small plot that could be enjoyed only in death.
Notes: This strange story is bookended by the famous episodes of Isaac’s sacrifice (Gen 22) and Isaac’s wife (Gen 24). To figure out what to do with it, it’s important to recognize the context of Abraham’s future-looking faith. God will provide a lamb in place of his son, and God will provide a daughter-in-law so the promised offspring can come.
Therefore, God will also follow through on his promise to give the land. Resist the urge to make this story about bereavement, as the loss of Sarah—however tragic—provides only a brief setting (v.2) for the extensive haggling over the field’s purchase (vv.3–16). Abraham’s faith looks far enough into the future that he is willing to pay a princely sum (vv.15–16) for something he can enjoy only in death (Heb 11:13–16).
And while Abraham, despite the promise to own all of Canaan, only ever owned this one burial ground, his descendant Jesus didn’t even own his burial ground (Matt 27:59–60). Yet Jesus endured in trusting God’s promises to him so all who trust in him could be raised to new life with him forever.
Conflict: Verses 3–8: Promise of offspring vs. promise of land. Will Abraham’s son have to marry a Canaanite in order to stay in the land, or will he have to leave the land in order to find a more fitting mother for the offspring of promise?
Promise under consideration: Both promises of land and offspring are in play, though the chief promise thrown into question is the promise of offspring (which requires Isaac to first get married).
Climax: Verse 67: Isaac brings Rebekah into his mother’s tent (in the land of Canaan). She becomes his wife, and he loves her.
Main point: When God’s promises appear to be in conflict with one another, God himself will make a way to bring all to fulfillment.
Notes: Review the rising action (verses 9 through 66) and observe how many times the Lord himself is credited with each turn of events. The story of the servant meeting Rebekah at the well is told twice, in order to drive home the point (see especially vv. 26–27 and 48). Yahweh brings not one but both promises to partial fulfillment on account of his “steadfast love and faithfulness” toward Abraham (v.27).
This inspires the servant to ask Laban to imitate such “steadfast love and faithfulness” toward Abraham (v.49). And note the closing resolution. It does not say, “So Isaac found the wife he longed for,” but, “So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (v.67b). In other words, upon Sarah’s death, there were no matriarchs of promise living in the family’s camp. But with Rebekah’s arrival, the entourage has obtained exactly that.
This article was originally published in the September/October issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
- A Bible Study about Trusting God’s Promises (Story of Abraham) Part 1
- A Bible Study about Trusting God’s Promises (Story of Abraham) Part 2
- Bible Study: How to Dig Deep into God’s Word