I’m finally posting again, after a few months of school insanity and then recovery. I hope to get back to writing the blog more often with things I’ve learned in class. This is a short paper I wrote for Old Testament Theology on Abraham and Yahweh. I loved learning this and doing the research. The assignment was to take the story of Abraham (Genesis 11:27-25:11) and study the relationship between Abraham and Yahweh. We could not refer to any other part of the Old Testament or New Testament, but had to take the story as it stood on its own. It was a tremendously revealing experience, and I understand Abraham and Yahweh so much more deeply.
While hindsight can reveal the past more clearly to people, sometimes it can limit the ability to understand what was happening during a given event. It is easy to take knowledge learned later on and examine the past. Many times this can be a fruitful study, but other times this knowledge can block insight into how the people within the events understood what was taking place. Such is the case with the story of Abraham1 in Genesis 11:27-25:11. It is a familiar story to many Christians. But what was going on for Abraham? Setting aside the revelations of the later Old and New Testaments is not easy, but doing so enables the reader to understand Abraham’s perspective. Reading the text on its own reveals the growing personal relationship between Yahweh and Abraham over a span of approximately 100 years. This essay will examine how that relationship grew from a general deity-human relationship into a deep, personal relationship of faith, trust and covenantal connection.
When Yahweh first speaks with Abraham, Yahweh gives a command and a promise to Abraham. Yahweh commands Abraham to leave his father’s household and go to another land, which Yahweh will show him. Yahweh also promises that Abraham will be made into a great nation (12:1-2). It is striking that Abraham does not seem surprised that God is speaking with him with commands and promises. Without any apparent hesitation, Abraham leaves. When he reaches Shechem in Canaan, Yahweh appears to Abraham and promises him that this land is meant for his descendants (12:6-7). Abraham builds an altar to Yahweh there and at each of the next few places he stays. This is likely an automatic ritual response to Yahweh’s words and appearance – he obeys Yahweh and builds an altar to worship him. The relationship is a distant deity to human relationship, which was common in the Ancient Near East culture. Yahweh speaks, and Abraham obeys, but never verbally responds to Yahweh.
The relationship between Yahweh and Abraham begins to deepen after Abraham has to rescue Lot from his kidnappers. On his victorious return, Abraham meets Melchizedek, the priest of El Eleyon, God Most High, and they break bread and take wine together. Abraham seems to learn from Melchizedek, who calls Yahweh Koneh shamayim va-arets, “acquirer” or “possessor” of heaven and earth (14:18-19). Abraham then uses this title when rejecting the king of Sodom’s offer of the spoils, saying he is sworn to Yahweh, Koneh shamayim va-arets, and will not be made rich by any man (14:22-23). This is the first time in the narrative that Abraham verbally declares his allegiance to Yahweh. With this statement, Abraham sets himself apart from the Canaanites as a follower and worshiper of Yahweh, instead of the Canaanite gods.
It is no coincidence that after this declaration comes the relationship’s most significant event – the covenant. The covenant is a crucial part of Ancient Near East culture, and Yahweh uses the covenant to deepen his relationship with Abraham. Even before the covenant is formally enacted, however, the relationship between Yahweh and Abraham has changed. Abraham is no longer a passively obedient worshipper of Yahweh, but is an active participant in the relationship, conversing with and asking questions of Yahweh, whom he calls Adonai (“Lord”) (15:2-3,8). Yahweh’s responds to Abraham’s questions with promises, commanding Abraham to look at the stars, saying his descendants will be that numerous. Despite all natural circumstances being against the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises, Abraham believes (15:4-6). When faced with the question of how Abraham will possess the land, Yahweh commands a specific kind of sacrifice from Abraham (a heifer, goat, ram, dove and pigeon) and then, in the symbols of a smoking firepot and blazing torch, passes between the halves of the sacrifice, cutting a covenant with Abraham to demonstrate his commitment to his promises (15:9, 17). The personal relationship between Yahweh and Abraham now includes the legal aspect of the covenant, when the sovereign power (Yahweh) cuts a covenant with the subordinate person (Abraham).
Years pass before the narrative returns to the relationship between Yahweh and Abraham. There is no indication of whether Yahweh and Abraham have spoken since the covenant was cut. When Yahweh appears, saying that he is El Shaddai (“God Almighty”) and commands Abraham to walk before him and be blameless, Abraham falls facedown (17:1b-3a). Abraham’s reaction is intriguing, as he has never before fallen facedown when Yahweh has appeared to him (12:7). Why is he falling facedown now? Perhaps the covenant has changed the relationship, but the text is not clear why Abraham falls facedown here. At Yahweh’s appearance, he commands Abraham to circumcise all the males of his household as a symbol of their covenant (17:10). Circumcision was not widely practiced in Canaanite culture, and would likely set Abraham and his household apart from the Canaanites. Abraham obeys the command, but before doing so, questions Yahweh’s promise to give him a son through Sarah and begs Yahweh to give Ishmael his blessing (17:17-18). The reader is left wondering whether Yahweh and Abraham have continued to speak with one another, or if this is the first time in thirteen or more years that Yahweh has spoken with Abraham. Abraham’s request that Ishmael receive the blessing seems like an old argument between Yahweh and Abraham.
In the next part of the narrative, Yahweh arrives at Abraham’s tent in the guise of a man, accompanied by two other men. Abraham seems very aware that it is Yahweh who is visiting him, though it is not explained how. It simply describes Abraham’s low bow and hospitality (18:1-8). After the three men have eaten, Abraham walks with Yahweh and bargains for Lot’s life (18:16-33). Abraham is asking a favor of his God and sovereign, and he does so in a hesitant fashion. He never directly asks Yahweh to spare Lot. Abraham is close enough with Yahweh to walk and talk with him, yet he never forgets his reverence and respect for the one he calls Shophet, the one who judges (18:25).
As much reverence as Abraham has for Yahweh, he never loses his awareness that the Canaanites have no like reverence (20:11). Despite Yahweh declaring himself as Abraham’s shield (15:1), Abraham lies to protect himself. Ultimately Yahweh proves he is capable of protecting both Abraham and Sarah (20:3-7). Yahweh’s speech and actions to Abimelech and his household cause Abimelech to acknowledge and fear Yahweh, but he does not begin to serve and worship him. Instead, Abimelech makes a treaty with Abraham, so that Yahweh will have no reason to punish him (21:22-32). This emphasizes that, despite the appearance of Melchizedek, Yahweh is Abraham’s God, not a god of the Canaanites. His commands, promises and covenant deal with Abraham, and therefore Abraham’s household, alone.
The first promise of Yahweh is fulfilled when Sarah gives birth to Isaac when Abraham is a hundred years old (21:1-6), twenty-five years after Yahweh’s promise to make him into a great nation (12:1-2). After Isaac’s birth, Abraham never questions Yahweh again. Even when Yahweh commands Abraham to listen to Sarah and send away Ishmael, his son by Hagar, Abraham does not ask why or even bargain for Ishmael to stay (21:11-13). The birth of Isaac is a significant event in the life of Abraham, because it is the fulfillment of Yahweh’s covenantal promise to give Abraham an heir of his body by his wife. This is the first promise of Yahweh to come to complete fruition. It confirms the faith and trust that Abraham has in Yahweh.
While Abraham has questioned Yahweh, he has always followed Yahweh’s commands. After Isaac was born and Ishmael sent away, Yahweh commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering at Moriah (22:2). Abraham shows his faith in Yahweh through his obedient and unquestioning response. Yahweh responds to Abraham’s faith by commanding him to stop and gives him a ram to sacrifice instead. Why does Abraham not protest the sacrifice of his son? It is perhaps because the personal and covenantal relationship between Yahweh and Abraham has solidified into a deep, true and faithful understanding. Yahweh’s promises have been fulfilled. He has been a shield to Abraham and his household, and he has given Abraham a son through Sarah. Abraham trusts Yahweh so much he does not hesitate to sacrifice Isaac at Yahweh’s command.
The sacrifice is the last direct encounter Yahweh and Abraham have within the text. Although Abraham speaks of God as “Yahweh, God of heaven and God of earth” to his servant, and the servant prays to Yahweh, his master’s God, while seeking a wife for Isaac, Yahweh does not again appear in the text. Abraham continues to worship and trust Yahweh, and Yahweh continues to bless Abraham (24:1-3).
Throughout the story of Abraham, the relationship with Yahweh has grown and changed. This was not an instantaneous transformation but took many years to develop. By the end, Abraham does not need an explicit promise from Yahweh to know that Yahweh will help his servant find a non-Canaanite wife for Isaac (24:7). Abraham’s faith in Yahweh is complete. What began as a traditional relationship between god and man, filled with the rituals of Abraham’s culture, was transformed into a deep personal and covenantal relationship between Yahweh, Sovereign Lord and Eternal God, and Abraham, faithful and righteous man.