In the Steps of Abraham
Abraham is an imposing figure whose presence adorns the pages of both Testaments of the Bible. He is mentioned no fewer than seventy-three times in the New Testament. Paul commends those who “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham” (Romans 4:12). Through his faith and obedience, the founder of the Hebrew nation was called the “friend of God” (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23).
Abram (as he was known initially) lived in the city called Ur, in the southern region of Mesopotamia. Quite possibly, Ur was the greatest city of the ancient world at that time. It is estimated that some twenty-five thousand people lived within the city limits (walls), with as many as two hundred thousand in the outlying area. Two-story homes with ten to twenty rooms lined the narrow, twisting streets. In the northwest segment of the city was the imposing temple of the moon god, Nanna (also called Sin), in which Abram’s ancestors almost certainly had worshiped (cf. Joshua 24:2). The regional soil was rich, producing abundant foodstuffs that were traded to neighboring nations. Ur was a prosperous center indeed.
Abraham himself was very wealthy—in gold, silver, and livestock (Genesis 13:2). He had more than 318 servants who had been born in his house (Genesis 14:14). This background information provides real flavor to his decision to leave this plush environment for the rigorous life of a nomad.
As Abram dwelt in Ur, the glory of God appeared to him, charging the patriarch to leave his land and kinsmen and go into a land to which he would be directed (Acts 7:3). Packing his possessions and taking his wife, Sarai, his father, Terah, and his nephew, Lot, he made his way northward (some five hundred fifty miles) until he came to Haran. Abraham sojourned at Haran until his father died at the age of 205 (Genesis 11:32).
After the death of Terah, the Lord renewed his promise to Abram, who was seventy-five at the time, and the patriarch made his way in a south-westward direction until he reached Canaan. His first stop was at Shechem, about thirty-five miles north of Jerusalem. Here the Lord appeared to him and confirmed his promise—that this land would belong some day to his offspring (Genesis 12:7). Abraham built an altar and worshiped God.
He then moved to an area near Bethel, some twelve miles due south; again, he paused to worship (Genesis 12:8). Meandering on southward, toward that region known as the Negeb, Abraham encountered hard times—a famine gripped the land—and he elected to migrate further to the southwest into Egypt. Here the patriarch yielded to weakness. As he and Sarai neared the land of the Pharaohs, they concocted a deceptive plan to protect Abram’s life in the event that the king wanted Sarai for his harem. Sure enough, when the pharaoh sought the beautiful sixty-five-year-old lady, the Lord “plagued” the king, who subsequently discerned the cause and asked Abraham to leave the land.
When the patriarch re-entered Canaan he again camped at Bethel. Here strife developed between his herdsmen and those of Lot, and so a separation was proposed. Abraham moved south to Hebron, while his nephew went down into the Jordan valley and dwelt at Sodom.
Eventually, a confederation of pagan kings swept through the region and Lot was taken captive. Abraham marshaled a fighting force (which included his 318 servants), pursued the enemy, and rescued Lot. En route home, the grand man of faith met the mysterious king-priest of Salem, to whom he paid tithes. Melchizedek, of course, served as a type of Christ (Psalm 110; Hebrews 5:5, 10).
As time bore on, and Sarah remained barren, a plan was formed to allow Hagar, a family slave, to bear the “promised” child, for it seemed impossible that Sarah would ever be able to give birth. Hence, when Abraham was eighty-six years old, Ishmael was born—a lad destined to become a “wild donkey of a man” (Genesis 16:12 ESV). Ishmael’s descendants, the Arabs, and the Hebrew people would become bitter enemies over the years (see His Hand Against Every Man.
When Abraham was ninety-nine, the Lord initiated the rite of circumcision as a special fleshly “sign” of the covenant he had made with the Hebrew people (Genesis 17:9ff).
Presently, Jehovah made known his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness of those cities—a chief feature of which was their sexual perversion. Amazingly, not even ten righteous people could be found within their borders. Only Lot and his two daughters eventually made it to safety. The overthrow of those cities stands as a perpetual monument against the sin of homosexuality (cf. Jude 7).
Finally, Isaac, the promised child, was born. Abraham was one hundred and Sarah was ninety at the time. The family moved to the southern-most region of the land and dwelt at Beersheba. After “many days” passed, Jehovah proceeded to put the patriarch to a “test.” The Lord instructed Abraham to take Isaac to Mt. Moriah, and there offer the lad as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1ff). Josephus suggested that Isaac was twenty-five years old at the time (Antiquities of the Jews 1.13.2). The patriarch proceeded to the appointed place, but, as every Bible student knows, the Lord intervened and provided an animal sacrifice in Isaac’s place.
After the passing of some time, Abraham’s beloved Sarah died (at the age of 127—Genesis 23:1), and the grand old man of faith tenderly buried her in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron, which he had purchased for four hundred shekels of silver (23:3ff).
Abraham lived for another thirty-eight years during which time he married Keturah, who bore him six sons (Genesis 25:1-6). Finally, the patriarch died at the age of 175, and was “gathered to his people”—this beautiful phrase implying a reunion with faithful loved ones (25:7-8).
This has been a most abbreviated survey of the life of one of the greatest characters of Old Testament history. A consideration of some of these episodes, however, holds a wonderful treasure of meaningful lessons. Let us spend a few moments reflecting upon some of these.
Lessons from the Life of Abraham
(1) Abraham was a man of sacrificial selflessness. In view of the vast wealth the gentleman possessed (Genesis 13:2), one can only imagine the property holdings he must have surrendered when he yielded to the Lord’s command and left his native Ur. He lived the balance of his life—a full century—as a wanderer, abiding in tents along the way (Hebrews 11:9). His vision of, and dedication to, the concept of the coming Messiah made all other considerations subordinate (cf. John 8:56).
(2) The patriarch was a man of conviction. Though his forbearers had been idolaters (Joshua 24:2), he was unswayed by family ties; rather, he cast his lot with the one who created him. How unlike so many today who measure their religious activity by what father or mother believed. To Abraham, truth was more important than a genealogical connection. Faith was thicker than blood! This makes sense only in the light of an eternal reality.
(3) Abraham was a man of faith, or trust. Frequently the term “faith” suggests the idea of trust, and this aspect of the word aptly describes Abram. Because of his trust in Jehovah, the patriarch left his homeland and kinsmen, he journeyed close to a thousand miles (“not knowing where he went”—Hebrews 11:8), pursuing the will of the Lord, with only the promise of arriving at a destination that God would show him (Acts 7:3). No map, no radar was available—only the benevolent hand of his Maker.
When years passed, and both he and Sarah were old, and still the promised child had not come, he did not “weaken in faith,” he did not “waver through unbelief,” but rather, he “waxed strong through faith” and glorified God. He trusted that Jehovah could, and would, overcome any natural obstacle (Romans 4:18-21).
And when the “seed” child finally arrived, and he was called upon to sacrifice the lad, still he trusted his God, the giver of life, knowing that even if the sacrificial slaying was consummated, Jehovah was able to raise Isaac from the dead, and so fulfill his promise (Hebrews 11:17-19).
(4) Abraham was a man of piety. It is interesting to note that when this man of God entered the land of promise, he immediately paused to worship Jehovah, a practice he subsequently pursued with steadfast determination (Genesis 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18). It is clear that devotion to Jehovah was no mere decorative appendage to the patriarch’s life. He had deep and burning convictions regarding his Lord. Oh how that sort of “God-first” devotion is needed today among the spiritual seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:29).
(5) Abraham was a generous man. When strife developed between his herdsmen and those of Lot, rather than exert his seniority, that gracious servant of the Lord gave his nephew first choice of the surrounding territory; he would take the “leavings.” When Lot selfishly selected the well-watered region of the Jordan valley, there was not a word of murmur from the kindly uncle.
Later, when the patriarch returned from the conquest of the heathen kings who had marauded the territory, and he encountered Melchizedek, who was the king of Salem (later known as Jerusalem), and a priest of the Most High God, he gave this holy dignitary a tenth of all he had (Genesis 14:20). And when Abraham could rightfully have taken the “booty” that was captured, he declined; he refused to be under obligation to a pagan. His trust was in Jehovah.
(6) Abraham was a person of resilience. On two occasions, because of his fear, he yielded to overt deception regarding his relationship with Sarah (see Genesis 12:10ff; 20:1ff). Though the Scriptures do not explicitly state it, doubtless the patriarch was subsequently ashamed that he had transgressed the will of the “God of truth” (Deuteronomy 32:4 KJV). He might well have thrown up his hands in despair, but he embraced Heaven’s pardon and persevered. How many today have abandoned their faith because they have been overcome by the shame of their failures? Such ought not to be.
By the way, the very fact that the great leader’s flaws are so honestly portrayed in the Scriptures is an incidental evidence of the sacred nature of the Genesis record. In a document constructed strictly by human impulse, the author might well have passed over these unsavory blemishes in charitable silence.
(7) Abraham provides a magnificent example of what constitutes true loyalty to God. His path was charted generally by a course of unwavering obedience. His was not a “faith-only” philosophy. When he was called of Jehovah, he obeyed, walking by faith and not by sight (Hebrews 11:8). The word “obeyed” in the text literally means to “hear under.” It implies a recognition of the authority of the speaker, and reflects a willingness to submit thereto.
James declared that when Abraham offered up Isaac, he was “justified by his works [obedience].” The patriarch’s “faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made complete.” The inspired writer argues that it was only in his obedience that it could be said that “Abraham believed God” and that the Lord thus accounted him as righteous. It was in this very context that James affirmed: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24).
The life of Abraham abounds with lessons from which the sincere child of God can profit. If we learn from these valuable truths, we too can be characterized as “the friend of God”—as the prophet was (James 2:23). Let us thus “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham” (Romans 4:12).