After the Flood, the sons of men attempted to recreate the civilizational glory that had existed before the Flood. We have to remember that we should not look at ancient civilization through the lens of evolution—men gradually striving to progress. Rather, we have learned the story of a great Fall, in which man was created “advanced,” rebelled against God, and then began the long, slow downward spirial of devolution. Outside His covenant of grace, God kept placing obstacles in front of unregenerate man so that each attempt at civilization had less glory than the one previous to it. This was done by means of judgments like death, judgments like the Flood, shortening of lifespans, and confusion of languages. The history of man outside of Christ is a history of deterioration and corruption. This is not reversed until the great reversal at Pentecost, when the confusion of the languages was finally reversed.
But to understand Pentecost, we need to understand the Tower of Babel. So this attempt at autonomous re-creation on the plains of Shinar ended with God confusing their languages, which ensured that they scattered in every direction. Once the languages were confounded, people began marrying only within their linguistic group, and this was no doubt the reason distinct races of men began to develop. The sons of Noah belonged to one family, but these three sons are the fathers of our different races. When this division had happened, the sons of men fell rapidly back into an idolatry as diverse as they were. One of the idolatrous cultures that developed was found in Ur of the Chaldees. Ur was located in what is now southern Iraq, and the people there worshipped the god Nannar.
There was one man there who was delivered from the idolatry. After the Flood, the lives of men got appreciably shorter, but this did not happen instantaneously. Shem lived to be six hundred years old. His son Arphaxad lived to be 438. A few generations later Peleg lived to be 239. The line of deterioration is clear, but still the antediluvian glory was not to be easily erased. Abram’s father Terah lived to be 205, and even Abraham died when he was 175.
Although Abram was descended from Shem (9 generations), by Abram’s time the family was caught up in the surrounding idolatry. “And Joshua said unto all the people, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods” (Josh. 24:2). At the same time, it is likely that a certain degree of faithfulness remained because the line of Shem was probably the way the written records which constitute the early part of Genesis made their way down to Moses, who was their editor.
Now his decision is not explained to us, but whatever the reason, the day finally came when Terah, Abram’s father, decided to leave Ur of the Chaldees. The intent was to come to Canaan, but they wound up settling in Harran, which was almost due north of Canaan. After the death of Terah (when he was 205), the Lord told Abram to leave his country, kindred, and his father’s house, and God would take him to a new land. God promised that He would make a great nation of Abram, blessing him, making his name great, and making him a blessing to others. From the very beginning of God’s dealings with Abram, He always was promising him that his descendents would be great. Those that blessed Abram would be blessed, while those who cursed him would be cursed. And in Abram all the families of the earth would be blessed.
And so Abram obeyed and came down from the north, moving south into Canaan, living as a nomadic pilgrim. In faith, he established two altars, one at Shechem and another at Bethel. In doing this, he was doing more than simply offering his own personal worship—he was claiming the land for the right worship of YHWH. These were not small alcoves where Abraham could pray privately. But at the same time, he built these altars in great patience, as we shall see. Based on the number of warriors who lived in his “household,” the entire household was probably somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 souls. By establishing these altars, Abram was functioning in the land (that was promised to him) as an evangelist. He did not have to seize what God had promised to give him. We are in much the same position today. The earth is ours because God has given it to His Son, but we do not grasp it. Rather, we establish the right worship of God and trust Him to do what he has promised.
Because of famine that came upon the land, Abram and his household had to move temporarily to Egypt. While there, Abraham represented Sarai as his sister (and she was his half/sister) and so the Pharaoh took Sarai into his house. The Pharaoh bestowed many gifts upon Abram, and the Lord in His turn bestowed many plagues upon Pharaoh. Pharaoh figured the situation out somehow and sent Abram away with a rebuke. As we read this story, we must be careful not to be hasty in condemning Abram (in this part of the story, and in a few others) without knowing all the details and facts that God has not seen fit to give to us. Remember the plagues from God came upon Pharaoh, and not upon Abram. It is quite possible that Abram was in a better position to protect his wife as her brother than he would have been as her husband. We should always be wary when we are raining down plagues on different characters in the story than the Author of the story is doing. Nevertheless, because Pharaoh sent Abram away, Abram returned to Canaan, and came to Bethel and worshipped the Lord there.
When he arrived there, tension developed with the house of Lot. Abram was a very rich man, not only in gold and silver, but also in cattle. Lot’s house had grown as well, and the situation got to the point where the herdsmen of the two houses came to the point of strife. Abram acted the part of a peacemaker, and offered to let Lot make the choice of which way he would go. As we imagine this entire story in our mind’s eye, take care not to paint contemporary Palestine (brown, dry, and desolate) as the backdrop of this story. At that time, the plain of Jordan surrounding the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were as lush as Egypt, and both places could even be compared to the garden of Eden. So Lot made a choice to his (apparent) advantage, and God immediately promised Abram the entire land. God then invited Abram to walk through the whole land; all of it was to be his. His descendents would be like the dust of the earth. So Abram came to a place called Mamre, and he built another altar.
God promises conquest and dominion to Abram repeatedly, and Abram’s consistent response of faith is to build an altar for right worship first.
But there are some other characters in this story as well. Chedorlaomer was the king of Elam, which at that time was a regional power. Sodom and Gomorrah (and three other cities nearby) had to pay tribute to him, but when they revolted, there was a war in which Chedorlaomer and his allies soundly defeated the five cities of the plain. In this defeat for Sodom, Lot and his household were taken captive. When Abram heard this news he took 318 warriors and pursued Chedorlaomer, attacked him at night, completely defeated him and brought back the captured goods. Although we have emphasized that Abram was a man of faith, one who began by building altars, we also see throughout his life that faith without works is dead. Abram was also a general, a competent military man, and the fact that many of us have never imagined him in armor shows that we perhaps believe that faith without works is somehow not dead. Establishing right worship comes first, but never forget that establishing right worship also has consequences.
After the battle, Melchizedek, king of Salem, met Abram with bread and wine, and blessed him. The name Melchizedek means king of righteousness, and the name of the city he ruled over (as a priest/king) meant peace. This place Salem was almost certainly Jerusalem. We know nothing about the background of this great king, and the fact that we do not know means we should understand Him as a type of the great Melchizedek to come. Abram saw all this by faith, and in return for the blessing of bread, wine and blessing, he presented a tithe of the spoil to Melchizedek. After this, Abram refused to take any of the spoil for himself from the king of Sodom. All his blessings were from God.
After these things, a great promise was given. The word of the Lord came to Abram in a dark and holy vision. In this vision, the Lord promised Abram that his seed would be in number like the stars of heaven. Abram believed in the Lord, and the Lord counted it to him for righteousness. God then promised him the land again. Abram then asked how he could know this for certain. In this request, he was not wavering in faith, he was asking God for a sensible sign of His promises. And this is what God gave to him.
He instructed Abram to take a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, and a three-year-old ram, along with a turtledove and a pigeon. This done, the animals were cut in two, and each part was laid opposite its corresponding part, but this did not happen to the turtledove and pigeon. When scavanger birds came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them off. At that time, during the sunset, Abram had a deep sleep fall upon him. At the same time, a “horror of great darkness” fell upon Abram—a sense of the numinous, of holy dread, of terror and awe.
God promised Abram here that his seed would live as aliens in a land not their own, for four hundred years. That nation would then be judged, and the sons of Abraham would come up out of the land with great wealth. For his part, Abram would live to a full old age, and four generations after Abram his seed would come back to this land. The reason for the delay was that the wickedness of the Amorites, who were then in the land, was not full enough to warrant their destruction yet. At this, the sun went completely down, and a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passed between the divided pieces of the animals. This was a self-maledictory oath given by God. He was the one who passed between the animals, not Abram. “May all this happen to Me,” God said, “if I do not fulfill My Word to you.”
But when Sarai saw that she was not able to give Abram a son, she gave her handmaid Hagar to him, so that she might give him a son in this way, and adopt him for her own. This is another place in our story where it might be dangerous to condemn Abram thoughtlessly. God had promised him many descendents, and had said they would not be reckoned through an adoption of Eliezer of Damascus. Abram had not yet been told that the son of promise would be born to Sarai. And so Sarai suggested this expedient. But when Hagar conceived, she became proud and despised her mistress, and as a result was driven from the encampment. After an angel appeared to her, she returned submissively to her mistress, and bore a son to Abram named Ishmael.
But a time soon came when God made a covenant with new names involved. When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him and made the covenant of circumcision with him. In this covenant, Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, and Sarai was renamed Sarah. Every man child born in the house of Abraham was to be circumcised. And God promised that a son was to be born to Sarah, and Abraham laughed. The name Isaac means laughter. And so Abraham was circumcised when he was 99 years old, and Ishmael was thirteen. In a certain sense, this means that Isaac was the first “covenant child,” born in a covenanted household. Abraham prayed that Ishmael might be “the one,” but God responded again that the child of promise would be born from Sarah, and he would be named Isaac. Nevertheless, Ishmael would be blessed. And God gave Abraham real encouragement—Isaac would be born within the year.
This covenant was to be an everlasting covenant. God would be the God of Abraham and the God of his seed after him. The terms of the covenant were that every male was to be circumcised, on the eighth day after birth. And although the sign of this covenant was applied to every male in Abraham’s house, the covenant related to it was to be established with Isaac.
Abraham came to the point of silence, and left off talking with God. God then went up from Abraham.
Shortly after his, the Lord appeared to Abraham again, this time on the way to the destruction of Sodom. Two angels were with the Lord, and Abraham showed hospitality to them. As they were eating, the Lord asked after Sarah, who was in the tent. He promised her a son within the year. Sarah overheard this, and laughed in unbelief. “I am old,” she thought within herself, “and my lord is old.” The Lord asked why she had laughed, and she denied having laughed because she was now afraid. Despite her fear, she had called Abraham lord, and so Peter calls Christian women to surpass her holy example. That was just a moment in this conversation, however, and the Lord determined to show Abraham all that He was going to do to Sodom.
After the destruction of the cities of the plain, Abraham moved south (but not all the way to Egypt). He sojourned in a place called Gerar, which had a king named Abimelech. Abraham said (once again) that Sarah was his sister, and so Abimelech sent for her. But God appeared to Abimelech in a dream, and said, “Behold, you are a dead man. The woman you have taken is another man’s wife.” But Abimelech had not touched her, and said, “Lord, will you overthrow a righteous nation.” His argument was that he was not wicked like Sodom and Gomorrah were. Abimelech woke up in a fright, and told his household. They were all frightened, and Abimelech asked Abraham why he had done this thing. Abraham explained everything, and received enormous gifts from the king. Then Abraham prayed for Abimelech so that the women throughout the household of Abimelech began conceiving again.
After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a son was finally born to Abraham by Sarah. Isaac was circumcised according to the covenant, and when it came time for Isaac to be weaned, a great festival was established. Ishmael took the occasion to mock his younger brother, and Sarah justly demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be driven away. God confirmed this, although it was a grief to Abraham. The two women here are two covenants—one represents the covenant apprehended by faith, while the other represents at bottom the covenant to break covenant.
Some time later, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the one through whom the covenant was promised to be fulfilled. By this time, Abraham knew that the promise had to be fulfilled through Isaac. His God was not fickle, like the idols of the surrounding peoples, and had fulfilled his word in every detail thus far. God had insisted on Isaac over Eliezer. He had insisted on Isaac over Ishmael. And Abraham was confident that God would therefore have to insist on Isaac living over Isaac dead. Abraham believed that Isaac was going to be raised from the dead after he had killed him, but God instead stopped him from killing Isaac at the last moment, and provided a ram for the sacrifice. Abraham knew this on the basis of the confirmation God had given him in that earlier horror of darkness. If Isaac died, and stayed dead, then the Lord would have to be cut in two. And in Abraham’s obedience here—the obedience of faith—we see the glory of the gospel.
Sarah died when she was one hundred and twenty seven. Some time after her death, Abraham arranged for the marriage of his son Isaac with Rebekah. After this, although he was over one hundred, Abraham married again, to a woman named Keturah. She bore him six sons, but they did not receive the same kind of inheritance that Isaac received. Abraham also gave gifts to the sons of his concubines, and sent them to the east while he was still alive. And when Abraham reached the age of 175, he was finally gathered to his people. His two oldest sons, Isaac and Ishmael, came together to honor and bury their father and ours in the cave where Sarah had been buried.