While Abram was an idolator in Ur of the Chaldeans (Josh 24:2–3), God appeared to him and made three staggering promises (Gen 12:1–3).
- I will make you into a great nation.
- I will make your name great.
- I will make you the source of blessing for the whole world.
Abram’s kinsmen had tried to seize these very three things for themselves (Gen 11:2–4), but God elected to give the promises to this one man for free. All he had to do was receive them and live as though he believed they would come true.
In part one of the study, we explored the first portion of Abram’s narrative in the book of Genesis. We learned along with him that becoming a great nation would involve inheriting the land of Canaan. Acquiring a great name would involve securing an heir from his own body. And blessing the world means fighting evil, giving generously, and not hiding behind his wife.
Here’s part one in case you missed it.
In part two, our study will focus on what Abram’s story teaches us about the nature and benefits of faith in the promises of God. We pick up the action right after the birth of Abram’s own son, Ishmael (Gen 16:15–16). It was a rough ride to get here, but Abram’s finally got his heir.
Week 1: My Covenant in Your Flesh
The epic story of Abraham is filled with intense drama—drama that is nonetheless easy to miss because the Hebrew narrative style is so straightforwardly, brilliantly simple. For example, if my last sentence in the previous paragraph tripped you up, you may be impaired by your familiarity with the story.
If you thought, “Wait a minute… Ishmael’s not his heir,” you might benefit from re-reading the whole story, from Genesis 11:27 through the end of Genesis 16, while putting yourself in Abram’s shoes. He relocates to Canaan with his family (12:4–5). His nephew disinherits himself (13:11), though Abram still fights to protect him (14:15–16). Abram believes his estate will pass to his homeborn servant (15:2). God assures him he’ll have a son of his own (15:4). Eventually, Abram’s own son is born (16:15–16).
So as you come to chapter 17, set aside (for now) where you know the story is heading. Read it with a view toward how Abram would have experienced these events. Catch the drama. The dearly-held expectations. The length of time that passes with tremendous patience.
From 16:16 to 17:1, years have passed. Thirteen years in which Abram (which means “exalted father,” by the way) has been raising his son, his own son, presumably teaching him the ways of the Lord. Teaching his son about the three great promises for their family. About the glorious future for their people and the nations of the world. In that setting …
Read Genesis 17 a few times.
The clauses “God said to Abraham” (or “God said to him”) serve as narrative markers that divide God’s speech into three sections. Who is the main subject of each section? What does God say each of those subjects will do or should do? Try answering these questions yourself first, but then see Note [A] at the end of this study if you’d like some help.
Over the course of these three sections, which promises or instructions look back to the past, connecting Abraham to Noah and Adam before him? Which promises or instructions shock him in the present, drastically altering his view of the world? Which promises or instructions assure him for the future?
Why do you think Abraham advocates for the status of Ishmael (v.18)? How would God’s response assure him?
Look again at how Abraham responds to God’s speeches (verses 23–27). What picture does this paint of Abraham’s trust in God?
Now to conclude this week’s study, take a look at Hebrews 11:11–16 and Romans 4. What do these apostolic reflections on the faith of Abraham suggest regarding the Christian’s faith in Jesus Christ? What hinders you from trusting the Lord Jesus Christ amid your darkest circumstances?
Week 2: I Have Chosen Him
God has appeared to Abraham, expanding his promises by assuring Abraham that Ishmael will not be his heir. Instead, Sarah herself will conceive and bear a son “at this time next year” (17:21). The following scene in chapter 18 takes place at nearly the same time, since the Lord repeats that Sarah’s son will be born “about this time next year” (Gen 18:14). Abraham laughed with delight at God’s promise (Gen 17:17). How will Sarah now respond?
Read Genesis 18 a few times.
When Abraham sees three visitors and welcomes them to his home, whom is he entertaining unawares? See Note [B]. At what point in the story does the narrator suggest Abraham realizes who exactly he is speaking with? How do you know?
In the opening paragraph, what sort of a host is Abraham? (Find a Bible dictionary, such as the Lexham Bible Dictionary, to explain the units of measurement to help you figure out how much food is prepared.) How have his life experiences so far shaped him to be so lavish in generosity?
What is the purpose of the visit from the three travelers? Which of the three promises is in view? The Lord already delivered this news to Abraham in the previous chapter; why does he visit over supper to deliver it again? What is the response? What is significant about Sarah’s laughter, to make the Lord draw attention to it in verses 13–15?
Note: Verse 12 is the only time in the biblical record that Sarah refers to Abraham as her lord. Why do you think Peter picks up on this moment in her life to set her as an example for fearless and holy women (1 Peter 3:1–6)?
Where are the men standing for the chapter’s final conversation? Take note of this location, as it will become important in next week’s study. What do the Lord’s monologues in verses 17–21 communicate about his relationship with Abraham? How did their relationship grow to become like this?
In the bargaining at the chapter’s close, what is the main thing driving Abraham to speak up? What is at stake regarding the character of God? Notice how much back-and-forth, cyclic detail the narrator describes. Why do you think he describes the negotiations with such vivid particulars? What kind of picture does this paint of Abraham, his faith in God, and God’s accessibility to those who trust him?
If you feel like the plot hasn’t really climaxed or resolved yet, you’re well in tune with it. Chapters 18 and 19 fit closely enough together that they ought to be considered as one long unit. But sometimes it’s helpful to divide such a lengthy text. So don’t worry about the lack of resolution, and bring your questions back next week into your study of the next chapter.
Week 3: Escape to the Hills!
In chapter 18, Abraham entertained the Lord and two of his angels, serving them a lavish meal. There was a conversation about offspring at the entrance of the residence. Abraham’s guest then revealed what he was about to do, and Abraham bargained with him in favor of a different outcome.
Prepare yourself for some deja vu, for a similar sequence of events is about to be repeated.
Read Genesis 19 a few times.
Make a list of comparisons and contrasts between this chapter and chapter 18. In particular, consider my summary in the opening paragraph of this week’s study, and take note of all the similarities and differences in Lot’s entertaining of his guests. What do these similarities and differences suggest about Lot’s character? As you make your list and reflect on the narrator’s characterization of Abraham and Lot, don’t forget that the Apostle Peter considered Lot to be a righteous man, distressed by everything going on around him (2 Peter 2:6–8).
At the end of chapter 18, the Lord promised not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if his angels found only 10 righteous people there. Upon inspection, how many righteous people did they find? The Lord still destroyed the cities, but what is the answer to Abraham’s chief question (“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” [18:23])? What if there is only one who is righteous? Will the Lord sweep him away with the wicked?
Last week, I asked you to take note of where Abraham had his final conversation with the Lord. Now: Where do the angels want Lot to go in order to escape the coming judgment (v.17)? What is the significance of going there (vv.27–28)? What is Lot’s counteroffer (vv.19–20)? What has Lot learned since the last time he made a similar choice (Gen 13:10–13)? How does it work out for him the second time around (vv.30–38)? See Note [C].
What does this chapter teach about the judgment of God? What does it teach about the nature and benefits of faith in God’s promises? What does it teach us about attaching ourselves to the man of faith through whom God will bless the world? What does all of this teach about the Lord Jesus and your faith in him?
Week 4: He is a Prophet
This week, more deja vu. When narratives recount similar incidents, there is a reason for this repetition beyond simply communicating that “this thing happened again.” So as you take a look at Genesis 20 this week, you’ll want to keep a close eye on chapter 12 so you can distinguish between the episodes. Our goal is to understand why the narrator includes both incidents and what the repetition communicates about Abraham’s faith (or struggle with faith) in God’s promises.
Read Genesis 20 a few times. Then go back and read Genesis 12:10–20 a few times.
Make yourself a list of all the similarities and differences you can find between the two stories. Here are some specific questions to help you distinguish them:
- How is the setting similar or different? What causes Abraham to relocate his household in each story?
- What instigates the plot conflict in each story?
- What is similar or different about Abraham’s role in each story? How is his rationale for his actions similar or different in each story? How is he described in each story?
- What is similar or different about Sarah’s role in each story?
- What is similar or different about the king who seizes Sarah for his harem in each story?
- What is similar or different about God’s role in each story? How does his judgment on the king fit the crime?
- What is similar or different about the resolution of each story? What offer does each king make to Abraham after learning about the deception? What does Abraham come away with?
- Which of God’s three promises to Abraham is at stake in each story? How does the story’s resolution protect or advance those promises?
Now, in light of all those similarities and differences, what appears to be the particular focus of this second incident in chapter 20? While we may be inclined to focus our attention on where to lay the blame for what happens in this chapter, the flow of the larger story of Abraham should have trained us by now to ask a more important question: How does this episode further the promises God has made to Abraham? What sort of God is he when everything becomes a big, tangled mess?
Week 5: The Lord Did as He had Promised
Since chapter 16, the Abraham story has given particular attention to the promise that Abraham’s great name would be carried through the birth of a son. Not Ishmael. Not Lot. But one born by Sarah herself. So now we reach something of a climax in this middle section of the larger epic.
Read Genesis 21:1–21 a few times.
Review your notes from chapters 16 to 20 and write down everything God has said or promised that finds fulfillment in this story. This is not my own idea, but is the very thing the narrator wishes you to do: “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised” (Gen 22:1).
Our God is a promise-keeping God. He is a God who keeps his word. This story paints this picture with vivid strokes, so let’s not miss that point. How can this story encourage you when you struggle to believe that God will do as he has said? How does this story paint a picture of Abraham’s faith? How does it paint a picture of Sarah’s faith?
In chapter 16, God told Hagar to return to Sarah after having run away from her. Why does he now support the plan to send Hagar and her son away? What has changed to make the separation a good idea? How does God still keep his word to both Hagar (see 16:10–12) and Abraham (see 17:20)?
What is the triggering event to cause the need for separation in this chapter? What is going on there? It may help to know that the name Isaac means “he laughs.” Isaac’s name has been the subject of wordplay over the course of the last few chapters (see 17:17; 18:12–15; 19:14 [“jesting” is the same Hebrew word]; and 21:6). In addition, did you observe that Abraham’s first son is never called by his name in chapter 21? What do all these things suggest about what is going on to trigger the separation? See Note [D] if you could use some help.
What do all of these things teach us about the Lord and his promises? What does the story teach about the nature of faith in God’s promises? What promises has God made for those who set their faith in his Son, Jesus Christ? How does Abraham’s story assure you to trust that God will do what he said he will do?
Study Notes[A] Part 1 (verses 1–8) is about God: “I am God Almighty.” It describes all the things God himself will do for Abram: make a covenant, multiply him, make him a father of nations to live up to his new name, make him fruitful, etc. Part 2 (verses 9–14) is about Abraham: “As for you.” Abraham must keep God’s covenant by circumcising every male in his household. Part 3 (verses 15–21) is about Sarah: “As for Sarai your wife.” She is to give birth to her own son, named Isaac, who will carry forward God’s everlasting covenant. [B] Make sure to check 18:1, 18:22, and 19:1 for the precise identities of the three visitors. [C] The angels want Lot to escape to the hills, where Abraham is living. Presumably, they are encouraging Lot to return to Abraham’s household. Lot refuses, perhaps still wishing to keep his distance from his uncle. Instead he asks for the Lord to spare the littlest of the towns on the plain. But Lot doesn’t stay there long. Instead of going to live on the mountain with Uncle Abraham, he ends up living in the mountain with his daughters—whose lives now look more like those of Sodom than those of the faith of Abraham. Lot and his family could not keep Sodom going physically or economically, but they could continue its legacy in their hearts and home life. Such are the risks of refusing association with the one through whom God has chosen to bless the world. [D] Though many translations use words like “mocking” in 21:9 to make Ishmael appear sinister, the constant wordplay over many chapters strongly suggests that Ishmael is simply trying to out-Isaac Isaac as the son of promise comes of age. In other words, to be extremely literal, 21:9 says that Sarah sees the unnamed son of Hagar Isaacking. Perhaps she thinks, “Oh no he doesn’t. There’s only one Isaac. There’s only one son of the promise. The son of the slave woman must go, lest there be any doubt or confusion at all as to who the true heir is.” And lest you think I may be reading too much into the story here, is this not precisely how the Apostle Paul reads this story in Galatians 4:21–31?
This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 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)
- Bible Study: How to Dig Deep into God’s Word
- Describing Diatheke: Covenant Centrality in the Bible