Volume 42 - Issue 3

A Paragon of Faith? Doubting Abraham

By Andrew Chinpeng Ho


While encrusted generational layers of pious reverence for Abraham have made him out to be a hero of faith, he was not yet one when called at seventy-five. In fact, he would not too irregularly, even mendaciously, evince doubt in God’s promises, probably until Isaac’s birth. Only by the Aqedah, and then only for the last seventy-five years of his life, would Abraham be a man of faith unshakeable. Yet through this unfaithful man, God chose to solve the specific problem that arose when the families of the earth rebelled against him at the end of primeval history.

1. The Need to Doubt Abr(ah)am

Traditionally Abraham has always been seen as a hero of faith, unvarnished.1 Most commentators assume faith on Abraham’s part from the very start that either grew uninterruptedly over time or was simply maintained at its exalted heights throughout his life, with the occasional lapse or two.2 This paper will argue instead that, as the Abraham narrative proceeds apace, the protagonist showed little sign of a growing faith. In the first 25 years after his call, Abraham was shown repeatedly to be weak in faith. Only when he was almost a centenarian, with Isaac’s arrival, did he likely begin to grow such that he would act in faith unshakeable at the Aqedah, the binding of Isaac (22:11–19).

Uniformly, Abram’s answer to God’s call has always been seen as an act of great faith.3 However, Teraḥ had already initiated a move from Ur of the Chaldean in south-eastern Mesopotamia “to go to the land of Canaan (11:31) taking with him Abram, Sarai and Lot. They stopped short in north-western Mesopotamia when they “came to Ḥaran and dwelt there,” (11:32) where Teraḥ died. It appears that Abram was only continuing what Terah had set out to do.

Indeed, leaving kin and country may have been no “test of faith,” or “a difficult injunction,” or “a tearing away,” or “a break with the ancestors,” Westermann notes. He adds that such explanations “make the serious mistake of understanding Abraham in the context of a sedentary life-style. But [the patriarchs] did not have the concept of “homeland” in our sense; this became possible only with sedentary life.”4

Haran was an important caravan center involved in Amorite (northwestern Semitic) migrations. If the Terah clan was involved in the caravan trade, then the move from Haran to Canaan likely involved no drastic lifestyle changes. A city slicker’s transition to a nomadic lifestyle would have been fraught with difficulties that would have made for interesting recounting, of which the text intimates nothing at all.

Even if Abram’s answer to God’s call were a peak in his walk of faith, the other indubitably being the Aqedah, these two acts bookending the Abraham saga should not, by themselves, mandate that he evinced unfailing faith everywhere in between. Yet most commentators might implicitly assume so, which may be why they proffer complicated excuses for Abraham’s obvious shortcomings in between.5 Abram put the progenitrix at risk in the harem of pagan potentates, not once but twice (12:10–20; 20:1–18), showing the duplicitous character he was. Not only would no giant of faith do that once but even lesser mortals would likely not. Yet Cassuto argues that Abraham harboured no “base” or “vile” desire to profit at Sarai’s expense. Instead, Abram wanted to protect Sarai’s honour, he says, failing to explain how this self-serving ploy could plausibly not lead to her being unceremoniously ravaged forthwith. Cassuto does admit here that Abraham might be guilty of a “lack of faith” and “falsehood,” but this is excused through some deft racial stereotyping that blames the Bedouin in Abram for his moral shortcomings.6

To be sure, some critics do take issue with what they see as Abraham’s duplicity. Of these, feminists predominate.7 But these are the exceptions: most commentators would not deign to call Abra(ha)m a man weak in faith. These may also include higher critics who generally see the two stories—Abraham claiming Sarai to be his sister first with Pharaoh and then with Abimelech—as duplicates since key words and expressions are common to the two stories.8 But are they motivated to do so because perhaps they implicitly assume that no paragon of faith would be so unspeakably underhanded, not just once but twice. However, if Abram were no giant of faith for a long period after God’s call, the possibility of this perfidious behavior becomes easier to accept, by virtue of which fantastical excuses for Abram become unnecessary.

Abraham’s story begins with Terah’s genealogy (11:27–32). Descended from Shem, Terah and his family would have been little different from those who rebelled against God and who tried to make a name for themselves generations ago. Thus also Abram at his calling. Immediately after the genealogy at 12:3b is a promise of blessing for “all the families of the earth.”9 Prior to 12:3, the Hebrew word for “families” here occurs only in the Table of Nations. If this is an intentional word connection, then 12:3 declares that “all the families of the earth” who rebelled against God in Genesis 11 “are to be blessed in Abraham and his seed,” a promise repeated at 18:18 and 22:18.10 If this was God’s solution to the problem, then Abram was “a new Adam [for the] renewal of human life in history …to reverse the curses of Eden.”11

For all this to come through Abram, that conduit ought to be a man of great faith. Yet if it were so, then all glory would redound to Abram, not God. On reflection, then, logic requires a fallible Abraham whose faith would not infrequently wilt under pressure but also stand firm (in)frequently enough for God’s purposes to be realized through him. This paper will argue so in four parts: first, “Doubting Abram,” from call to covenant cutting; next, “Doubter Still,” from covenant man to the Aḇimelech perfidy; and, then, “Faithful Finally,” from Isaac’s birth to Abraham’s demise, a period when he was arguably the hero of faith. Finally, this construal of Abraham’s life is shown to be not incommensurable with that in the New Testament.

2. The Three Abra(ha)ms

2.1. Doubting Abram

At 12:1, God told Abram to leave his land. This is generally regarded as a test of Abram’s faith to which he supposedly responded magnificently. If he obeys, he will be a blessing. It is not that he will represent a standard for blessings, for God says to Abram that “you shall be a blessing!” (12:2b), where the verb is in the imperative, that is, “be a blessing.”12 Placed right in the middle of seven phrases in God’s initial speech to the patriarch, “Abram must be more than a recipient. He is both a receptacle for the divine blessing and a transmitter of that blessing,” Hamilton ventures.13

But when he set out from Haran, Lot went with him. Abram did not leave his relatives behind: he had a whole caravan in tow. That Lot is important is hinted at by his introduction so early in Terah’s genealogy. But there is no clarification as to why Abraham brought Lot along. Perhaps “the oldest uncle assumed the guardianship of the child of his dead brother, which is clear in 14:12.”14 Yet 14:12 simply says that the kings of the east “took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and left.” How does 14:12 begin to prove that Abram was culturally expected to take care of Lot? It is not even clear that Abraham was Lot’s eldest uncle.

Creative excuses for why Abram did not leave behind his relatives though explicitly commanded abound. For example, based on the 11:31 phrase “they went with them,” Cassuto postulates that Abram, Sarai and Lot “constituted a specific group within the general circle of the family,” one that urged the others to move to Canaan. As a group, they “influenced Terah and the other members of the family to … travel together to their destination” such that “they went with them” simply means that “all the members of the family went forth with them, that is, with Abram, Sarai and Lot.”15

Yet the text offers no basis to think that Abram and a special group urged the whole clan to come along. And even if Cassuto were right, it simply shows Abram disobeyed God from the very start: he was to leave kith and kin behind. Only Turner correctly observes how this fact “clearly demonstrates that Abram did not” fully obey the command to leave family behind. What is more, it was a huge caravan (12:5) that came along, with “all their possessions that they had gathered, and the beings whom they had acquired in Ḥaran.”16

Though Lot plays a significant role in Abram’s life, he is not directly mentioned as a beneficiary of the covenant nor is he present whenever God reveals himself to the patriarch. Still, Sarai is barren, so the next generation might have had to come through Lot. Perhaps it was for this very cause that Abram brought him along, being without any children at age seventy-five. But bringing Lot along was a grievous mistake. Abram went because God told him to whereas Lot simply followed Abram, as an orphan. It is only after Sodom’s destruction that Lot finally separates from Abram for good. It is only then that God issues his land grant promise to Abram that implicitly included the choice land he had given to Lot, progenitor of Israel’s enemies, the Moabites and Ammonites.

For several years after God called Abram, He would not appear to him again. In that extended period, Sarai remained barren. As they were not getting any younger, doubts must have assailed Abram’s mind. Then there was a famine, a parallel to Sarai’s barren womb, which would see Abram heading to Egypt, where his duplicitous ploy would lead to Sarai ending up in Pharaoh’s harem. While a vacillating faith explains Abram’s perfidy, it may have not been just him not waiting for God to act but, indeed, a gambit at ridding himself of Sarai, who was not going to bear him an heir anyway. As Steinberg notes, “Sarai is both primary wife and woman, yet she is never said to be the one whom Abram loves, as he is said to love Isaac in 12:22.”17

Abram claimed that he thought commoners might threaten his life (v. 12) but instead it was Pharaoh who did so (v. 15). Yet, things did work out for Egypt was indeed the good life. God would bring great plagues on Pharaoh and his house to preserve the progenitrix. Thus, Abram’s mendacity was punished with plagues, though inflicted on the cheated, not the cheater and, despite his faithlessness, Abram left Egypt materially enhanced (12:20).

At 13:8–13, problems in the land once again impelled Abraham towards “the plain of the Jordan [that] was well watered everywhere … like the garden of God, like the land of Egypt” (13:10). A second Egypt beckoned, promising the good life but its end would be fire and brimstone from heaven. Yet all would end well for Abram and Lot. Just as Pharaoh’s officials made sure Abram departed from Egypt (12:20), God “sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow” (19:29).

At this point, however, the land could not have appeared to be where Abram would become the “great nation” (12:2). Nothing had gone right for him there. He had thought he might make it in Egypt, but then he was sacked from it by the most powerful man in the known world. His presumptive heir, Lot, was saved but lost all the worldly riches he had accumulated while living in the land that God had promised to Abram. Was God’s promise ever coming to pass? Things must have looked bleak.

Then his putative heir was abducted by warring kings. At Mamre, against the most unequal of odds, Abram successfully rescued Lot (14:13–20). Did he go to war against such odds just to save the man whom he assumed would inherit God’s promise? Or did Abram have so much faith that God would deliver his assumed heir? The text gives no hint. But rather than this episode being a redactor’s infelicitous insertion, if Abram were motivated to save his presumptive heir, then the derring-do makes good sense.

After this exhilarating episode, the unfaithful Abram is evident yet again. Heretofore, God had said thrice to Abram that the land was to be his (12:7; 13:15, 17). At Genesis 12, God had sworn an unconditional oath to Abram, so no covenant was called for. Years later, at Genesis 15 and still without a son, Abram would have the chutzpah to tell God directly: “You have given me no seed, and one born in my house [Eliezer of Damascus] is my heir!” (v. 3).18

By this time, Abram might have given up on Lot as heir and begun to pin his hopes, however unwillingly, upon Eliezer instead. Abram’s unbelief thus voiced saw God deciding to cut a covenant with this mere mortal. A party to cutting a covenant was, in essence, swearing that should he fail to keep its terms, he was to die like these animals cut into pieces. Adopting such a death position assured the other party one was going to keep the covenant at all costs. However, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram … a frightening great darkness fell upon him” (15:12). In that state, Abram could not walk between the pieces as required. Was it because God wanted for the burden to be solely his?

That this was God’s response to a man full of fear is suggested by the quixotic reassurance that “the word of God came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your reward is exceedingly great (15:1). But why was he afraid? At the end of Genesis 14, he was basking in victory at war but perhaps Abram feared retaliation. Yet, all three times that God announced “Do not be afraid” to the patriarchs—Abram at 15:1, Isaac at 26:24 and Jacob at 46:3—neither Abram’s son nor grandson had just won a war, such that they would be wary of retaliation.

Three times, God had sworn to give Abram the land (12:7; 13:15, 17). Thus, in lamenting that Eliezer was going to be his heir, what doubting Abram was saying was: “I am not getting the land myself, and you have not even given me a son who might inherit it in due course. So why say you have given me the land?” If this, then God’s reassuring “Do not be afraid” makes sense.

That “he believed in God, and He reckoned it to him for righteousness” (15:6) also begins to make sense, but not as Sarna claims, that “Abram’s act of faith made him worthy of the Creator’s reward, which is secured through the covenant”.19 This need not be a proto-gospel of salvation by faith. Instead, it was just Abram expressing his fears anyway despite God’s reassuring him not to fear.

Abram is then assured that his seed would be as numerous as the stars “and he believed in God, and He reckoned it to him for righteousness” (v. 6), where righteousness involved a servant taking his master’s word as the unvarnished truth, rather than the meeting of some abstract moral standard. That righteousness involved one doing that which was expected of one in a particular relationship is exemplified in Genesis 38:26, where Judah said of Tamar: “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shĕlah my son.” Here, Judah admitted that Tamar who resorted to playing the harlot to get him to inseminate her as being “more righteous” than him. In their relationship of father-in-law to daughter-in-law, he had not given her his youngest son as husband he promised her so many years ago. Therefore, Judah had been unrighteous but Tamar righteous.20

One’s righteousness was gauged only “by the specific relationship in which [one] had … to prove himself true,” von Rad argues.21 If so, Abram was accounted righteous because he did what God expected of him, which was to believe in and trust his covenant partner to keep faith. But soon after he was declared righteous (15:6) and the land promise repeated (v. 7), Abram’s unbelief materialized again as he questions: “Master God, whereby do I know that I possess it?” (v. 8). God could well have thrown up his hands in despair, figuratively speaking, but he told Abram, perhaps in a huff, to bring a heifer, goat, ram, pigeon and dove, which were all cut in two (except for the two birds). Hastily, God cut a covenant with Abram to assure him that his seed would indeed inherit the promise but only “in the fourth generation” (15:16), at the cost of God’s own life, if need be.

The Genesis 15 covenant was more like a last will than a covenant in its unilaterality. The darkness that overcame Abram may have been the objectifying of his trepidation at the prospect of dying without heir. His was a dark disbelief even at the point that God deigned to cut the covenant. In that darkness, a disturbing prophecy of 400 years of slavery for his descendants was given, though that would be followed by freedom. Still, his unbelief was not mitigated by the covenant cutting. From the heights of the awesome rite, 16:1 brings the reader back down to earth with a thud: the existential problem plaguing Abram remained unsolved: “Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no child,” recalling the opening dilemma hanging over the Abraham narrative: “Sarai was barren, she had no child” (11:30). It was back to square one.

In Genesis 16, Abram and Sarai’s despair hit rock bottom. If Abram had trusted God at the covenant’s cutting, that trust had evaporated. It must have seemed just too implausible to him for old Sarai to bring him his heir. At this point then, Abram did not do what was expected of him, which was to stay loyal to God by believing him. At this point, thus, he was unrighteous.

Still, nine years had gone by since they left Haran. Indeed, in Genesis 12, they had resorted to Egypt, where God intervened miraculously to resolve an entanglement of their own making. Then, in 16:2, Sarai would suggest Hagar “and Abram listened to Sarai’s voice.” In thus hearkening to Sarai’s suggestion, Abram would act unrighteously again. That is, he did not do that which was expected of him in his covenanted relationship with God: Abram had not learned the lesson from his dalliance with Egypt. Importantly, Abraham had not learned to trust God unreservedly.

Humanly speaking, this was perfectly understandable. It had been a decade since they arrived in Canaan. Sarai’s decision to use a surrogate was something she must have mulled over, reasoning: “It might be that I am built up by [Hagar]” (v. 2). Unfortunately, when Hagar conceived, “she began to despise her mistress” (v. 4). As a result, Hagar would have to leave the Abraham household eventually. Nevertheless, her son, Ishmael, would grow up to be blessed by God.

2.2. The Doubter Still

When Abram was ninety-nine, God reappeared to lecture him (17:1–22), though God did throw in a promise, then a command and yet another promise (vv. 1–8, 9–14, 15–22, respectively). Whilst God was reiterating the inviolability of his covenant, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed,” condescendingly presuming Ishmael to be the seed despite God’s definition of the seed to be “a son of eight days … circumcised by you” (v. 12), a bill that Ishmael, by then a teenager of thirteen, could not fit.

The name of the son of promise, Isaac, in Hebrew, being built on the word for “laugh,” accentuated how grievous Abraham’s lack of faith was. In fact, Genesis 17 begins with God appearing and admonishing him to “walk before Me and be blameless” (v. 1). If Abram was ever to see the promises fulfilled, he had to do his part first, which was to walk blamelessly before God. He had been found wanting up to that point and would remain so until the Aqedah when he would do righteously, hearing and obeying. In turn, God would confirm his promises by an oath again (22:16–18).22

Now 13 years since Ishmael’s birth, Abram had still not learned to be faithful. He was to be tested again: circumcision could endanger the male organ of procreation needed to bring children into the world. Requiring Abraham to endanger his son’s procreative organ at eight days of age was telling him to look to God and obey his commandments even if doing so posed the risk of cutting off his descendants, thus endangering even God’s ability to keep his promise.23

Since this commandment came subsequent to the Hagar gambit, circumcision might have been intended as a lesson inscribed in the flesh to rein in the human assumption that one’s ability to reproduce was something to be exercised at will.24 If so, this commandment to circumcise indicated that Abraham was not walking before God blamelessly enough yet.

Genesis 15 defines the land that God covenanted to give Abram, and Genesis 17 defines the people of that covenant. The word “covenant” appears 13 times in God’s speech.25 Gentry and Wellum suggest that Genesis 15 and 17 relate two aspects of one covenant. Both Genesis 15 and 17 deal with “seed,” “land,” and dependence on God; both fill out the Genesis 12:1–3 plan of moving to the promised land to become a nation at Genesis 15 (realized in the Sinai covenant) and becoming a blessing for all the families of the earth at Genesis 17 (realized through Christ Jesus in the new covenant).26 However, some argue, as DeRouchie notes, that Genesis 15 and 17 are two covenants, “the first temporal, unilateral/unconditional, and national and the second eternal, bilateral/conditional, and international.”27 For example, Sailhamer suggests that God was making a second covenant with Abraham, in that “the two covenants [were] distinct covenants—a covenant made in regard to the promise of the land (15:18–21) and a covenant made in regard to the promise of a great abundance of descendants (17:2).”28

It is a novel reading that argues a second covenant was necessary for “a great abundance of descendants.” Against such a thesis, first, no animals were cut in Genesis 17 as in ch. 15. Secondly, if Abraham were not going to have descendants aplenty, how would the land promise be fulfilled? As such, it must be that the land promise as covenanted included implicitly an abundance of descendants. Finally, Ishmael might as well have been the promised seed.29 At Genesis 17:20, God says: “I shall bless him [Ishmael], and shall make him bear fruit, and greatly increase him. He is to bring forth twelve princes, and I shall make him a great nation.” Yet at v. 21, God adds: “But my covenant I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah is to bear to you at this set time next year.” It seems that God was merely specifying in greater detail through whom it would be that the covenanted land promise would come.

A parallel concern arises at Genesis 21:16–18, which some scholars consider to be God ratifying his covenant with Abraham while others claim that this was the work of a less-than-careful redactor.30 But there was arguably no second covenant if they were simply different parts of one covenant as suggested by Leviticus 26:42 (“Then I shall remember … my covenant [singular] with Abraham”), Deuteronomy 4:30–31 (“In your distress … in the latter days, then you shall return to … God.… He does not … forget the covenant [singular] of your fathers which He swore to them”), and Nehemiah 9:7–8 (“You are God … who chose Abram … and made a covenant [singular] with him to give the land”).31

Overall, it might be more apposite to say with DeRouchie that there was but one covenant, the everlasting one that was cut with Abraham at Genesis 15.

Genesis 17 distinguishes two progressive eras for the everlasting Abrahamic covenant—the first national or geopolitical (Gen 17:7–8) with a genealogical principle as its guide and circumcision as its sign (Gen 17:9–13); and the second international with the patriarch’s fatherhood being established by spiritual adoption and no longer bound by biology, ethnicity, or the distinguishing mark of circumcision (Gen 17:4–6; … cf. Gen 12:1–3).32

Through the Promised Seed was to arise a new humanity.33 At 17:19, God reacted to Abraham’s derisive laugh of unbelief: “No, Sarah your wife is truly bearing a son to you, and you shall call his name Isaac. And I shall establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.” (v. 19) Thus God repeated what He had said earlier, identifying Sarah as “your wife” twice as if to emphasize it was not “your concubine(s)” who would bring forth the seed.

Abraham had been waiting for these words for twenty-four years: “My covenant I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah is to bear to you at this set time next year” (v. 21). If we read God as being miffed by Abraham’s perhaps disdainful laughter which betrayed his lack of faith yet again, then v. 22 makes sense: “When He had ended speaking with him, God went up from Abraham”—God did not wait around to see what Abraham would do next. He just up and left.

Was God with Abraham all this time? God is said to have “appeared to him” at 17:1 (and at 18:1), so he arguably was speaking to Abraham face-to-face on earth, as it were, for why else would the verse say that it was when he had ended speaking that he went up? It reads naturally that God was speaking to Abraham on earth and when he was done, he went up (back to heaven, presumably). Thus, it is entirely possible to read the story in this manner and accordingly surmise that a displeased God did not wait around to see what Abraham was going to do—presumably foreknowing Abraham was about to obey the commandment wrongly, circumcising every male even though he was specifically commanded to circumcise baby boys at eight days of age

Wyschogrod calls circumcision “a searing of the covenant into the flesh of Israel,”34 but how did it serve as a sign of the covenant? Perhaps it was to be a visible reminder of the covenant curse, of being cut off from the people for disloyalty to God. If so, it may be an everlasting warning about keeping faith with God. This reading is suggested by the parallels in Genesis 18 where Sarah was caught laughing at God’s declaring that she would have a child even at her age as nothing was too difficult for him (18:12; cf. 17:17). She was rebuked for laughing. At both 17:21 and 18:14, God declared Isaac would be born in a year and then at both 17:22 and 18:33, “God went up/away as soon as He had ended speaking to Abraham,” perhaps quite displeased each time.

Abraham may have misunderstood the circumcision commandment, which required him to circumcise a baby boy at eight days of age. Why this did not plainly mean just the next baby boy to be born in his household, and not the existing male members of his household, is not clear. Abraham circumcised all the males in his household, himself included, adding incomprehension to faithlessness. Still, he would get it right a year later, circumcising the eight- day-old Isaac “as God had commanded him” (21:4). The argument here is that God did not mean for Abraham to circumcise the males already in his household at that very time for they would have been well over eight days in age unless there had coincidentally been a newborn around. That is, Abraham misconstrued God’s command to circumcise at day eight of life, which applied to the next boy born in Abraham’s household. A plain reading of the text shows that God did not command all Hebrew males with intact prepuces at the time to also be circumcised; no such command could have been implied in the day eight requirement.

In Genesis 18, along with two messengers, God appeared again to Abraham to announce the coming birth of Isaac. At v. 10, it was “the LORD” and not “they” of v. 9, who announced Isaac’s impending birth and chided Sarah for laughing: “No, but you did laugh!” (v. 15). He added, “Is any matter too hard for the LORD?” (v. 14). Immediately after the stinging rebuke, which might have been still ringing in Sarah’s ears, God departed with the two.

But soon again, the one in whom “all the nations of the earth with be blessed” (18:13) would reprise his duplicity, entangling Sarah yet again with an ignorant but unblameworthy gentile, Abimelech, the king of Gerar (20:1–18). This interlude increases the suspense for the reader by delaying Isaac’s birth. This time, Abraham even blamed God for making him sojourn in that place where pagans had no respect for (his) life (20:11–13).

Yet, God did not hasten Abraham for his utterly dishonorable behavior here. What then might be the point of this unsavory story? Some critical scholars feel it is a duplicate tale redacted into the text from a different source, which is why the story sits here so uncomfortably. However, a less involved explanation is possible. Abram had jeopardized their marital fidelity by separating from Sarai in Egypt in trying to protect himself. But his Sarai-is-my-sister gambit in Egypt also stood for his infidelity to God. If so, his repeat Sarah-is-my-sister gambit with Abimelech might simply show an Abraham who continued to waver in faith. He may not have quite grasped that it was God being displeased at his unrighteous behavior that led to the circumcision commandment. If so, he may have had no qualms reprising his chicanery, having good reason to lie again as he feared being killed. Thus, 25 years after being called, Abraham’s faith was still lacking.

2.3. Faithful Finally

As Genesis 20 closes, Abraham prayed for the women of the king’s household, whose barrenness was lifted and proceeded to have children. Like these childbirths, that of Isaac would finally come though his mother’s fecundity had also ceased, humanly speaking but God “visited Sarah as He had said, and God did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him (21:1–2).

The double emphasis here, “as He had said … and as He had spoken,” stresses that God is righteous, keeping his promises to those in covenant. At 100, Abraham was finally fit to have the true heir by Sarah, the true wife. Now he would finally learn to trust God completely, even unto death. The Aqedah was a test where 22:1 actually says God was going to try Abraham, which meant that he had yet to prove himself. But this time, the miracle of Isaac’s birth had taught Abraham to be faithful even unto death. This time he was ready. This time, he passed with flying colors, so God declared: “By myself I have sworn … because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, that I shall certainly bless you, and … in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (vv. 16–18).

This blessing is the ultimate of its kind in the patriarchal narratives. For while the blessing sounds like those elsewhere (12:2–3; 18:18–19; 26:4; and 28:14), it is only here that that reasons are given: “because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son” (v. 16) and “because you have obeyed my voice” (v. 18).35 This time, Abraham proved himself righteous, doing what his relationship with God required of him, to trust and obey God, even unto death.

While moderns may regard faith as inward mental conviction, faith in the Old Testament had to do with action. Thus, God tested Abraham to see if he would do what was expected of him. This time, Abraham declared thrice “Here I am” (vv. 1, 7, 11) indicating his willingness to listen, obey and do. Here, in contrast to his repeated failures, Abraham’s obedience is stressed three times in respect of his son, his “only one” (יָחִיד) a term used three times here at vv. 2, 12, 16. This time, Abraham did what was expected of him and God intervened at the crucial moment.

Later, he sent forth his oldest servant to the old country to get a wife for Isaac, Rebecca (24:24), so Abraham saw God providing again the next generation’s progenitrix. But once Isaac is married, unexpectedly, “Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah,” who would then bear him six more sons (25:2–4). Here, the verb translated “took” (וַיִּקַּח) may also be rendered “had taken,” as the NIV indicates in its margins. Though Keturah is called a wife at v. 1, she is a concubine in v. 6 and 1 Chronicles 1:32. If Keturah were a wife, then Abraham likely took her after Sarah’s death; if she were a concubine, Abraham might have taken her while Sarah was still alive.36 Like Ishmael, the six sons by Keturah would later be “sent away” to the east (v. 6) with gifts, so there would be no disputes after Abraham’s death as Isaac had been made sole heir. The fact that her sons were sent away suggests that Keturah was indeed a concubine.

But why did Abraham take a concubine so late in life? Was it because he saw that Isaac was not getting any younger and yet no suitable wife was in sight? Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca (25:20), so Abraham was 140 when Isaac finally got married. If he was 137 when Sarah died, and Isaac was not yet married, perhaps in his widowhood, Abraham could not see how God was ever going to keep his promise through Isaac that he (Abraham) would “be the father of a multitude of nations,” seeing that Rebecca could not have children, at least at first (25:21).

Rebecca’s apparent infertility could have been the final straw, spurring Abraham to think that God was going to make him the father of many nations through not Isaac (alone) but also through Ishmael who had twelve sons (25:13–15) and, if so, why not through other sons he might sire even now?

Perhaps he thought of all the reasons that Sarah had adumbrated to him when she had urged him to take Hagar. Rabbinical commentaries offer another excuse to “rescue” Abraham’s name from calumniation, arguing that Keturah was just Hagar’s new name. But Luther ably showed why this was impossible.37 Perhaps the arguments for Hagar sounded persuasive all over again. If so, Abraham was simply reprising his faith in worldly methods of attaining to God’s blessings. If so, even in the last stretch of his life, he might have still been less the hero of faith that tradition makes him out to be.

But this seems out of character for someone who had had a change of heart at Isaac’s miraculous birth, a change indubitably proven at the Aqedah. It seems more likely that Abraham would have become a man of great faith in the final seventy-five years of his life. Moreover, the birth of six sons after Isaac would have been even more miraculous for Abraham who would have been at least 140. A better explanation might be that Abraham took Keturah after Hagar but before Sarah bore Isaac. If so, Isaac was really the eighth and last son to spring from Abraham’s loins. That Abraham took Keturah after Hagar but before Sarah bore Isaac may be hinted at in the sequence at 1 Chronicles 1:28–34: “The sons of Abraham; Isaac, and Ishmael. These are their generations: The firstborn of Ishmael.… These are the sons of Ishmael.… Now the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine were … Abraham begat Isaac. The sons of Isaac; Esau and Israel.…”

After the Hagar problem, perhaps Sarai convinced Abraham to try again with a more compliant servant girl. Hagar could have been made an example of to Keturah. This is a plausible scenario, for it is not until Genesis 17:16, 19, 21 that God tells Abraham thrice it was specifically Sarah who was to bring forth the son of promise. That Abraham took Keturah is discombobulating only because the narrative is read as chronological, whereas this pericope might well been an appendix of sorts, inserted here to explain the origin of nations.

Thus this episode narrated out of time probably does not invalidate the deduction that the post-Aqedah Abraham was already a hero of faith, so that God would call him, after his life was over “Abraham, my friend” (Isa 41:8) and for 2 Chronicles 20:7 to hold him up as “Abraham, your friend.” At the end of his life, Abraham had secured God’s passing grade of final approval.

3. Conclusion

But is this reading of Abraham compatible with the construal of him as an icon of faith in the New Testament? The New Testament refers to Abraham 74 times in 70 verses, which is way more than any other Old Testament character apart from Moses, but it passes over the evidence of Abraham’s lack of faith with neither mention nor excuse. It may be argued that the details of Abraham’s perfidy on the various occasions do not eclipse the critical instances when he did what was right, critically at the Call and at the Aqedah. In those very instances when he did what was expected of him, he was declared righteous because, in doing what he was supposed to do, he did show that he believed God, not simply with an inner, mental affirmation of what God said, as moderns might imagine. Instead, Abraham did carry out precisely that which such mental assent must lead to.

This understanding of faith, which always includes active obedience, is why James 2:21–22 say rightly: “Was not Abraham our father declared right by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that the belief was working with his works, and by the works the belief was perfected.” Because he came to a place where he would do rightly, Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him for righteousness” (v. 22), where righteousness consists of doing what a particular relationship requires.

This is to say that Abraham was accounted righteous not because he believed God as a matter of giving pure mental assent to a propositional truth while he sat on his hands, doing nothing. The faith that Abraham exhibited at the critical junctures was always accompanied by his obedience to God’s commandments. Indeed, at the end of his life, God would commend him, saying “Abraham obeyed my voice and guarded my charge: my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Gen 26:5). Thus, this article’s understanding of Abraham is not at loggerheads with the New Testament’s construal of the patriarch, his righteousness and faith.

While much has been made of Abraham as a hero of faith over the generations, he was not yet one when he was first called. Contrary to traditional models, he would not too irregularly, even mendaciously, evince doubt in God’s promises. By elucidating his failures throughout his sojourn in the land, this man who is always called a hero of faith was shown to be, almost always, a man of little faith. Only by the Aqedah and thus perhaps for the last seventy-five years of his life would he be a man of unswerving faith.

Yet it was through this frequently unfaithful man that God chose to solve the problem that arose when the “families of the earth” rebelled against him at the end of primeval history. Numerous as the stars in the sky, his descendants would, four centuries later, begin to inherit the land and thence make Abraham the father of many nations.38

[1] On the esteem with which Abraham is held in Judaism, see Richard N. Longenecker, “The ‘Faith of Abraham’ Theme in Paul, James and Hebrews: A Study in the Circumstantial Nature of New Testament Teaching,” JETS 20 (1977), 204–5. On the Christian side of the ledger, Waltke’s remark is also typical: “The plot is driven by Abraham’s struggle to trust the Creator in the face of a series of conflicts testing his faith [being asked] to sacrifice the child in whom his offspring will be reckoned.” See Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 195.

[2] However, Claus Westermann notes that commentators typically “laud Abram’s obedience, at times, in too fulsome a way” (Genesis 12–36: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion, CC [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1986], 152.

[3] For example, Nahum M. Sarna opines that the assurance Abraham “was to become the progenitor of a ‘great nation’ … could [not] possibly be fulfilled in [his] lifetime [so] Scripture intended to emphasize … the magnitude of his act of faith” (Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel [New York: McGraw Hill, 1966], 100).

[4] Westermann, Genesis 12–36, 148.

[5] On Abram’s duplicity in passing Sarai off to Pharaoh as his sister (12:12), Hugh White rationalizes that Abram “hears the threatening voices of the Egyptians. This indicates that the forthcoming contest will be … a contest between the new promise-formed, future-oriented character, and a representative of the type of existing power structure from which he was previously called to separate himself” (Narration and Discourse in the Book of Genesis [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991], 179–80).

[6] Umberto Cassuto writes: “Abram was still afflicted by one of the faults of the Bedouin character; only in the future would he succeed, little by little, in purifying himself completely” (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part 2: From Noah to Abraham, trans. Israel Abrahams [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1964], 348–50).

[7] For instance, Ilona Rashkow muses: “Since discourse often reflects hidden desires, perhaps Abraham’s real motive is to receive gifts from the Egyptians – [he] sees Sarah as expendable because she has no child” (The Phallacy of Genesis: A Feminist-Psychoanalytic Approach [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993], 43). Likewise, Naomi Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis: A Household Economics Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 54.

[8] Gary Rendsburg, Redaction of Genesis (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1986), 39–40.

[9] John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 139.

[10] Gerhard Von Rad, “Promised Land and Yahweh’s Land,” in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, trans. EWT Dicken (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 92. Likewise, Matthew A. Thomas argues that the five major toledot divisions move from all of creation (Gen 2:4) to humanity (5:1), to all living people after the Flood (6:9), to the line through Shem (11:10), and finally in 37:2 to Israel through Jacob (These Are the Generations: Identity, Covenant, and the “Toledot” Formula, LHBOTS 551 [London: T&T Clark, 2011], 73).

[11] Michael Fishbane, Biblical Text and Texture: A Literary Reading of Selected Texts (Oxford: Oneworld, 1998), 39.

[12] Lawrence Turner argues that the imperative וֶהְיֵה suggests “be a blessing!” so that v. 3 “should be rendered as consequences of that imperative: ‘Be a blessing, so that I may bless those who bless you’” (Genesis Readings: A New Biblical Commentary [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000], 64). Nahum M. Sarna, however, opines that it means “you will serve as the standard by which a blessing is invoked” (Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989], 89).

[13] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 373. Similarly Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 330.

[14] Sarna, Genesis, 90.

[15] Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, 280–81.

[16] Turner, Genesis Readings, 64–65.

[17] Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis, 53n29.

[18] Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 113. In the Hebrew, “to me” (לִי) is placed before “give” (נָתַתָּה) for emphasis.

[19] Sarna, Genesis, 113.

[20] Hermann Cremer argues: “Every relationship brings with it certain claims upon conduct, and the satisfaction of these claims, which issue from the relationship and in which alone the relationship can persist, is described by … צדק … a term denoting relationship … in the sense of referring to a real relationship of two parties … and not to the relationship of an object under consideration to an idea” (Biblisch-theologishes Wörterbuch, 7th ed. [Gotha, 1893], 273–75, quoted in Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, 2 vols. [Peabody, MA: Prince, 2005], 1:371).

[21] von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 1:371.

[22] Genesis 17:1–2 evinces an imperative + imperative + cohortative + cohortative structure, which suggests that the two clauses beginning with cohortatives are promises conditioned on the main imperative being fulfilled; see Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (New York: Scribner’s, 1973), §107c.

[23] Circumcision “requires the cutting of the part of the male body through which God’s promise will be fulfilled,” according to John Goldingay, “The Significance of Circumcision,” JSOT 88 (2000): 9.

[24] The circumcision commandment finds its fulfilment at Luke 2:1, Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum argue: “Jesus’ circumcision … marks the fulfillment of circumcision in its purpose of preserving a line of descent from Abraham to Christ.… In Christ, Abraham’s true seed is now here, and as such, circumcision is no longer necessary.… In this sense, Jesus’ circumcision is the last significant covenantal circumcision recorded in Scripture. All other circumcisions, such as Timothy’s (Acts 16:3), were done only for principled pragmatic concerns in order to win Jews to the gospel” (Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012], 701).

[25] That is, twelve times as “my covenant” or “eternal covenant,” and just one time in the phrase “sign of the covenant.” At 17:9–14, circumcision is designated a sign of the covenant, not the covenant itself that was cut at Genesis 15.

[26] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 275–80, 89.

[27] Noted by Jason S. DeRouchie, “Counting Stars with Abraham and the Prophets: New Covenant Ecclesiology in Old Testament Perspective.” JETS 58 (2015): 453.

[28] Sailhamer, Pentateuch as Narrative, 156.

[29] Michael Riccardi, “The Seed of Abraham: A Theological Analysis of Galatians 3 and Its Implications for Israel,” Master’s Seminary Journal 25 (2014): 58.

[30] For instance, Westermann, Genesis 12–36, 357, 363.

[31] The word “covenant” in biblical Hebrew never appears in the plural; see Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament, trans. David E. Orton, Tools for Biblical Study 7 (Leiden: Deo, 2005), 438.

[32] DeRouchie, “Counting Stars with Abraham and the Prophets,” 482.

[33] This new humanity is to populate God’s kingdom, whose borders will transcend the promised land to include numerous peoples globally (Gen 1:28; Matt 5:5; Rom 4:13; cf. Eph 6:2–3; Heb 11:13–16), when his glory will fill all the earth, like the seas cover it (Num 14:21; Hab 2:14; Ps 72:19). See Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 468–70; cf. 703–16. In regard to this new humanity, it may be summarized, as DeRouchie does, that: “Jesus’ being the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45; cf. Rom 5:18–19), the head of a new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), the “offspring” of Abraham and David … mediates a new covenant (Heb 9:15; 12:24) that creates the church as one new man (Eph 2:15). All members in the new covenant are identified with Christ in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:5–6; Col 2:12–13; 3:3); they are children of ‘the Jerusalem above’ (Gal 4:26, 31; cf. Heb 12:22–24) … regardless of one’s original heritage” (“Counting Stars with Abraham and the Prophets,” 485). DeRouchie examines the macrostructure of Genesis as signposted by the ten toledot in the book and surmises that the main theme of Genesis is “the means by which God’s blessing commission of kingdom advancement will be fulfilled in a cursed and perverted world is through an ever-expanding God-oriented, hope-filled, mission-minded community, climaxing in a single king in the line of promise who will perfectly reflect, resemble, and represent God and who will definitively overcome all evil, thus restoring right order to God’s kingdom for the fame of his name” (“The Blessing-Commission, the Promised Offspring, and the Toledot Structure of Genesis,” JETS 56 [2013]: 247).

[34] Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal Election (Minneapolis: Winston, 1983), 67.

[35] Emphasis in italics mine; R. W. L. Moberly, “The Earliest Commentary on the Aqedah,” VT 38 (1988), 318.

[36] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 165.

[37] Martin Luther argues, “Some maintain that Keturah is Hagar herself, whom he again received into favor after the death of his wife Sarah and later on took to wife, since she had now humbled herself and repented … the computation of the years does not agree.… Hagar bore Ishmael when Abraham was 86, and she was married to him when she was about 30. Since her fifteenth year she had been reared by Sarah, who then took her into the house for the first time. There she remained until she was 30, when she became the mother of Ishmael. But Isaac is born 14 years after Ishmaels birth. When these years are added up, they make 44 years, or at least 40. To these should further be added the 40 years of Isaac, who marries Rebecca in his fortieth year. Consequently, Hagar’s age adds up to 84 years, more or less, when she, too, in accordance with nature, had to be exhausted. And it is impossible to conclude that she bore six sons at that age” “Lectures on Genesis Chapters 21–25,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 4, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, trans. George V. Schick [Saint Louis: Concordia, 1964], 300–1).

[38] Both Jews and Gentiles in Christ would be Abraham’s true “seed” (Gal 3:16) and both would be part of the true Israel (Gal 6:16; cf. 3:28–29; Isa 49:3, 5). See Christopher W. Cowan, “Context is Everything: ‘The Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16,” SBJT 14 (2010), 78–85.

Andrew Chinpeng Ho

Andy Ho is pastor at the Woodlands Baptist Assembly in Singapore.

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