Abraham is recognized to be many things in the Abrahamic religions. In Judaism, he is the father of Israel, the patriarch through whom the covenant between God and man was made. In Islam, he is an ancestor of Muhammad, and an exemplary prophet and apostle of God. In Christianity, he is named the father and ancestor of all who believe in God in faith, celebrated for his belief and trust in God which were “reckoned… to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3).
Abraham’s legendary faith is important to Christians — if Abraham was indeed justified and made righteous only by his faith, then salvation and justification are possible not just for the people of Israel, but for everyone in every place and time as long as they have faith. If God’s covenant with Abraham was, as Christians believe, based on Abraham’s faith and not any works of any law, then we have hope that it may indeed be possible for sinful humans to be counted as righteous in God’s eyes. And so stories of Abraham’s tremendous faith are widely celebrated in Christianity. We hear how he left Ur of the Chaldeans, his home and everything familiar to him at a ripe old age of 75, to go out into the unknown at God’s instruction (Gen 12:1). We hear how he believed in God to keep his promise of granting him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, even though he was without a child and he was close to a hundred years old (Gen 15:6). We hear how he believed that God would provide him a son through his wife Sarah, even though Sarah was both barren and post-menopausal, at the age of ninety (Gen 17:17). And most dramatically, after Isaac was indeed born (to his centenarian parents — he must have gone through a very different parenting experience from his peers), we hear how Abraham was willing to lose this promised and only son, Isaac, in sacrifice to God if indeed necessary — even though this would have meant losing both his promise of having many descendants and a son whom he dearly loved (Gen 22:1-18).
Abraham is celebrated and respected by Christians for his almost unbelievable faith and obedience, in the face of obstacles that are unimaginable to us in present times. And he should be — would that such faith would be seen more throughout the church! But it is often overlooked that Abraham’s powerful faith did not arise overnight; indeed, Abraham’s faith went over many speed bumps before it was refined and perfected. A few decades elapsed between the time Abraham was called out of Ur and when he was called to sacrifice Isaac, and in these few decades, the book of Genesis details a good number of instances where Abraham demonstrated his human fallibility, and at times, his lack of faith as we would have expected.
When Abram (before he was renamed Abraham) was first called out of his hometown, he was instructed to leave “[his] country and [his] kindred and [his] father’s house” and go to the land that God would show him, so that God could make of him a great nation (Gen 12:1). However, Abram did not completely obey in leaving his father’s house — he took Lot, the son of his deceased brother, with him. It is unclear why Abram took his orphaned nephew with him. Perhaps he simply really loved Lot and had compassion for him, and adopted him to keep providing for him. Perhaps they were just really close as uncle and nephew, and Abram appreciated more company on his journey. But read in the context of the great (and fantastic) promise that was given to him as a childless old man, it is also possible — and perhaps probable — that Abram took Lot along to leave open the possibility that if he were to eventually die without child, God’s promise of many descendants might still be realized through his nephew, his closest relative around who was still capable of bearing offspring. Since it was nearly impossible, in Abram’s fathoming, that he would bear his own son with he and his wife being so old, he perhaps imagined that Lot might have to be the vessel of God’s blessing to him — as a de facto son of sorts.
Later, we read how Abram claimed that his wife Sarai was his sister while they were residing in Egypt, “[knowing] well that [Sarai was] a woman beautiful in appearance” and that if the Egyptians knew that she had a husband, they might kill Abram to take her (Gen 12:11-12). It may be of importance here to note that Sarai must indeed have been of remarkable beauty to be so desirable even at the age of sixty-five. In any case, moral judgment on Abram’s decision aside, we see how Abram was afraid for his life and tried to take matters into his own hands and wisdom, not trusting that if God promised to make him a father of many nations, God would know how to keep him alive long enough to do it. Abram had enough faith to leave his home to follow God into the unknown, but he was still plagued with a lingering need to be in control.
Not long after, after leaving Egypt with life, wife and riches in tow, Abram is compelled to separate from Lot. However, God reminds Abram of His covenant — to which Abram responds, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? … You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” (Gen 15:2-3) Being honest before God, Abram reveals to God his wavering belief in things working out as promised — Lot was no longer with him, and he was still without a son. In response, God tells Abram that the heir through which God will fulfill his promise will not be Eliezer, but his own biological child (Gen 15:4). It is here, after having spent years traveling with God, experiencing God’s provision even in spite of his trying to take matters into his own hands, that Abram reached a point in his relationship with God that he could believe Him — and where it was then (famously) reckoned to him as righteousness.
Having faith is hard, especially in circumstances where the odds are against us. But in the person and story of Abraham, we can learn a lot — we learn that faith is not something that can be easily and quickly built up, and that wavering is part of the process. We learn that increasing measures of faith come with increasing experiences of God’s faithfulness, and that even the father of faith began having difficulty trusting from time to time. Abraham is the father of faith because he had faith and apprehended God’s promises for all who would become his descendants by similarly having faith; however, he is also the father of faith also because he shows us what faith in reality is like. In Abraham’s journey, may we find encouragement to strive to build our faith into one that is authentic and tested, one that gives us certainty and hope in life.
Credit must be given to Professor Jon D. Levenson of Harvard Divinity School, in whose class (Religion 25: Introduction to Judaism) and under whose teaching much of these reflections arose and throve.