In the letter known as Romans, the apostle Paul was writing to the Christian community in Rome, which he didn’t know yet; his other letters are largely to churches and people whom he knew well.
He’s trying to present himself and his understanding of the Gospel, in a way that will make the church in Rome take him seriously.
One of the early topics Paul takes up is the question of the place of Gentiles, non-Jewish Christians, in the church, in a time in which Christianity was still largely a movement with in Judaism.
Paul himself has been a faithful and observant Jew. When he mentions “the Law” here, that is shorthand for the whole way of life to which the Jewish people are called through their covenant relationship with God – prayer and worship practices, kosher food rules, rules about money, wealth, and land, and much, much more.
And, of course, circumcision – the core mark of the covenant.
Paul is arguing with the idea that only people who already follow Jewish law can become part of this new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ. And he does so by talking about Abraham, the person with whom God formed the first covenant that became the basis for the Jewish faith.
Paul says that God called and blessed Abraham not because Abraham was a righteous Jew – there was no such thing yet! – but because Abraham was faithful. He responded readily to God’s call, and went where God sent him.
And therefore – Paul says – God can likewise call faithful Gentiles today. Obedience to the Law is not the only way to enter into relationship with the God of Israel, made known in Jesus Christ.
That’s what Paul is up to, here.
But Paul is also simplifying Abraham’s story a good bit!
Let’s take a look.
Paul says, “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. …”
Well… Yes. But also: no.
Our Genesis text today is the beginning of Abraham’s story. At this point his name is Abram – and his wife is Sarai. We are still early in first book of the Bible; the LORD who speaks to Abraham is not yet really known to humanity. The last human God spoke to was Noah, and that was many generations earlier.
So Abram’s ready response to God, when God addresses him out of the blue, is striking. God tells a wealthy, 75-year-old man to up and leave home – and Abram says, Okay.
I wonder if Abram’s responsiveness has to do with the fact that despite his wealth, Abram wants something very much indeed. He wants a child. He and Sarai have never been able to conceive. And even though God doesn’t specifically promise, yet, to give them a child, God does promise to make Abram a great nation. That his lineage won’t die out, as he fears.
That catches Abram’s attention… and perhaps drives his willingness to follow this call. Maybe what we have here is a meeting of deep needs: God wants to call and form a nation, and Abram wants to be a dad.
So, here, at the very beginning, yes, we see Abram’s trust in God. This is a heck of a leap of faith.
But there are lots of other moments in Abram’s story that are less clear.
Abram and his household travel into the land of Canaan, and he builds an altar and worships God. But then there’s a famine and Abram and Sarai go to Egypt.
Abram tells Sarai, “You are a beautiful woman; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me. So, say you are my sister, so that my life may be spared on your account.” …!!
Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, takes note of Sarai’s beauty and takes her into his house as a wife, and gives Abram a lot of gifts as thanks!
But then God afflicts Pharaoh with various plagues, and Pharaoh figures out that Sarai is Abram’s wife and angrily gives her back.
And Abram sets off again – with Sarai, and all the gifts from Pharaoh.
It’s an unsettling episode, and suggests a deep fearfulness in Abram – such that he won’t even protect his own wife.
God speaks to Abram again in a vision, and Abram complains that God has still given him no children; his heir is a favored servant. God says, “Your very own child shall be your heir… look towards heaven and count the stars: so shall your descendants be!”
Then we get the line Paul is quoting, here in Romans: “[Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In other words: Abram’s trust in God’s promise counted as righteousness, before the Law existed as the measure of human righteous behavior.
Yet in the very next verses Abram questions God! God promises Abram that his descendants will have a homeland, and Abram asks, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
It’s one of a number of places in Scripture where somebody asks God for a sign to confirm that a prophetic message actually has authority behind it!
God gives Abram his sign, and and a more detailed promise of a future homeland. Now is Abram able to trust in God’s very specific and detailed promises? Well. Sort of.
Abram – now 86 years old – and Sarai decide to take matters into their own hands with respect to this promised child. It seems that Sarai cannot have children, so she tells Abram to spend some private time with her enslaved Egyptian servant, Hagar. If Hagar and Abram have a child, that child could also be “counted” as Sarai’s child, because Hagar is enslaved.
This arrangement was not so strange, in that time and place – something to bear in mind when people talk about Biblical marriage! But Genesis lets us know that it was still not a great idea, here. Hagar does get pregnant, and tensions arise between Sarai and Hagar.
When Sarai complains, Abram tells Sarai, She’s your slave; do whatever you want to her.
So Sarai drives Hagar away into the desert.
I want to talk about Hagar another time, so let me just say here that this sure seems like another significant failure of trust.
Both in taking this ill-advised path towards providing Abram with a son; and then not having the courage to stick with that plan and protect the woman carrying his much-wanted child.
FOURTEEN YEARS PASS. Then God shows up again. God gives Abram a new name, Abraham; God once again promises Abraham many offspring and a homeland; and introduces the covenant sign of circumcision.
Then God gives Sarai a new name too – Sarah – and says that Abraham and Sarah will have their own child.
Remember when Paul said, “[Abraham] did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb”?
Well: Genesis chapter 17, verse 17, says: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” ROTFL!
Finding this promised child improbable, Abraham asks God to instead bless Ishmael, the son he had with Hagar.
God says, I will bless Ishmael; but you and Sarah will have a son.
And Abraham believes all this enough to circumcise himself and all the men and boys of his household – so that’s saying something!…
In Genesis 19, three angels visit Abraham and Sarah and repeat the promise that they will have a son. We’ll hear that story next Sunday.
But then – while we’re waiting on Isaac’s promised conception – Abraham and Sarah travel again, and once again Abraham tells the locals that Sarah is his sister, and once again the local king – King Abimelech of Gerar – takes Sarah as a wife! God tells the king in a dream, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.” Abimelech, like Pharaoh before him, is pretty mad at Abraham about the situation.
Abraham explains that Sarah is actually his half-sister, so it’s not a lie really; and he says, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”
Abimelech gives Sarah back to Abraham, and 1000 pieces of silver besides.
So, even after all these concrete, specific promises that he and Sarah will have a child, Abraham is still doing this weird, fearful thing, putting his wife at risk!
After that, finally, Sarah conceives and baby Isaac is born. Sarah gets jealous of Hagar again, and Hagar is driven out, again. Then we come to the story of the binding of Isaac – which it’s possible to read as the ultimate proof of Abraham’s trust in God, or as the most fundamental failure of trust possible. Father John will speak about that story in a couple of weeks, so I’ll leave it there for now.
I want to be clear: These are ancient, ancient stories, which probably tell us more about how the Israelites were trying to make sense of their own history and what it meant to be God’s people, than they do about specific things that happened in the literal historical sense.
But: the minds and hearts and voices that passed down these stories, and eventually crafted them into texts that endure, were thoughtful and wise.
They expected readers or hearers to come to know Abram’s story as a whole.
They expected readers or hearers to see Abram struggling with faith, with trust, in all these little separate episodes and in the overall story arc.
Abraham’s story is a lot more complicated than Paul makes it. It is not just one simple, whole-hearted Yes that settles things for good.
Abram lived a long life, with many twists and turns. There were times when he felt very clear in his path and his relationship with God, and times when he really second-guessed whether God was with him or had a purpose or plan for him. When he questioned whether God would lead him through whatever he was facing.
And I think that’s important. Not just as a matter of arguing with Paul’s exegesis, his interpretation of Abraham’s life, but for us as people of faith.
While I can’t relate to most of the specifics of Abraham’s story, the pattern – the ebb and flow, the push and pull – of his life of faith seem very familiar to me.
I do have a base level of trust in God’s goodness; I believe that God loves and holds me.
But that by no means makes it easy to navigate or bear everything that life brings. I struggle, and second-guess, and question, too.
Having and holding a basic, core Yes to God doesn’t mean we don’t wobble or waver. And I think there’s hope in that, actually.
Not so much in Paul’s reading of Abraham’s story – Paul’s description of Abraham as someone who was SO faithful, who believed SO strongly, never questioning, that God blessed him and worked through him to accomplish God’s purposes.
But there’s hope when we read Abraham, the great-grandfather of three world religions, the way that Genesis actually presents him: as someone who wants to believe; who struggles and yearns and messes up, yet fumbles his way through a faithful life. Confused, impatient, often afraid. But still: a life of faith. A life in conversation with God. A holy dance with God’s purposes for self and others.
May we indeed have a faith like Abram.