Sometimes we don’t get stories right. It happens every day. Your friend tells you about their day and maybe, although it’s highly unlikely, you are not listening well and you miss a part of the story. You say “yes” when they are finished and later find out you signed yourself up to help them with a booth they are sponsoring at some exhibit. You think to yourself, “I need to learn to listen better.”
Or you and your spouse watch the same movie in the same movie theater at the same time sharing the same popcorn. You leave and one of you says, “That movie was about a precious ring that gets lost and has to be recaptured.” The other one says, “That’s all you got out of it? That movie was about how courage is in each of us and under the right circumstances we can all rise to the occasion and withstand evil in our time.”
Sometimes we don’t get stories right. We don’t listen well. Or we hear different things. The same is true with the Bible. For instance, take the story of Abraham. He is called the father of our faith (cf. Romans 4:16). We hear his story and we might come away thinking, “I could never have the kind of faith Abraham had.”
And that’s not what his story intends for us to “get.” If you don’t know the story, let me give you a refresher.
It starts with a short story about a tower. It’s known as the Tower of Babel.
The whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. 2 As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let us make oven-fired bricks.” (They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar.) 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth.”
5 Then the Lord came down to look over the city and the tower that the humans were building. 6 The Lord said, “If they have begun to do this as one people all having the same language, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let’s go down there and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore it is called Babylon, for there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth, and from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth. — Genesis 11:1-9 (CSB)
The name Babylon and the root word for “confuse” sound similar in the Hebrew language. Something was confused at this place. And the Hebrew storytellers, who are telling this story at the time of their exile in Babylon, want their own people to know what that is.
The tower, or ziggurat, dotted the landscape of early Mesopotamian cities. It served no real purpose other than it was a sacred space for the gods. One name of a ziggurat was “temple of the stairway to pure heaven.” There may be a song about that somewhere. There were steps for the gods and people to connect. The god could descend the stairs and the people would connect in an adjoining temple. But Israel’s worship structures had no stairs going up to heaven. They waited for God to come to them.
Thus the confusion. The Tower story is meant to say that these other gods that are seen dotting the landscape by towers are not the true gods. The God of Israel is and they are the true people of God. They are because of faith. And that brings us to the story of Abraham which follows the Tower.
A few generations later, God appears to Abraham who is still called Abram and makes a promise with him. He is going to make of him a “great nation”—which means he’s going to get a lot of offspring—and he is going to give him “land”—which inconveniently is currently inhabited by the Canaanites (Genesis 12:1-9). So Abraham packs up his truck and moves to Canaan, just like that.
The words of the promise were hardly finished when a famine hit the land which causes Abraham and Sarah (who is still named Sarai) to move to Egypt so they won’t starve. (You should know there is another story coming at the end of Genesis where God’s people go to Egypt so they won’t starve.)
All is well and good until on the way Abraham realizes that Sarah is a “woman beautiful in appearance” (12:11). He thinks that the Egyptians will kill him so they can take Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem.
Instead of turning back because there is a famine, Abraham devices a scheme. He tells Sarah that they will tell the Egyptians that she is his sister so that his life will be spared. He does that and then makes a profit. “He treated Abram well because of her, and Abram acquired flocks and herds, male and female donkeys, male and female slaves, and camels (Genesis 12:16).
Nice move for a father of faith. Pimp out your wife so you can save your own back. That’s what’s great about these stories. They seem disinterested in presenting Abraham as a model of virtue. And maybe Abraham is showing some faith. The two promises made to him were that he would be given land and he would be given an heir. That’s not going to happen if they die in a famine.
And it’s not going to happen if something happens to Abraham. Sarah wasn’t mentioned in the promise. The promise was made to Abraham. All that needed to happen for the promise to have a chance was for Abraham to live. He’s willing to “sacrifice” Sarah for that. And later he’ll be willing to sacrifice his own son for that promise.
The next thing that happens is that the promise is renewed. Abraham and Sarah are still childless, so Abraham thinks that maybe his slave, “Eliezer of Damascus,” is to be the fulfillment of the promise. So God steps in and clarifies that it is “one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” Then God took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous” (Genesis 15:4-5).
Notice that still the promise involves Abraham. Sarah is not mentioned. In fact, at the start of the story in Genesis 11 we are told that Sarah was barren, so we might expect there to be someone else to give Abraham a child.
And that’s exactly where this old couple looks for one. Sarah suggests that Abraham sleep with her handmaiden. He thinks about it for a nanosecond—it was a legal and reasonable move in that time—and next thing you know Ishmael is born. This creates some serious family tensions that exist even today, but at least now there is a child. His name means “God sees.” So surely this is the path forward.
But it isn’t. Now God comes to Abraham and tells him it is Sarah that will give him a child. Now, if we’ve heard this story before we think that they should have just waited for this to come about. But Abraham and Sarah had no idea this was going to happen.
Instead of getting upset at this old couple for making Sarah out to be Abraham’s sister so Abe can live and then using the slave-girl Hagar to produce an heir, maybe we should see that they are trying to be obedient. They are doing the best with what they know. In their own way—maybe not the way we think we have to think about faithfulness—they are being faithful.
It makes for a better twist in the story when God steps in and does the unexpected. Sarah has the baby. Then, in another surprise move, Ishmael is removed from the scene. He and his mother are sent away. All of the eggs are placed in one basket—Isaac. Plan B—Ishmael—is not an option.
That’s a big enough twist. Then all of a sudden God tells Abraham to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice. What would you do? (If you have a teenager who is currently acting as a teenager acts, don’t go out and follow this command. It was to Abraham. Not to you.)
Here’s what Abraham did. He did not hesitate. He did not question. He obeys. And he doesn’t know where it will lead.
Abraham is the father of faith. But maybe he’s the father of a faith you thought you couldn’t have. You thought his faith was a perfect faith. It was a faith that never did anything wrong. It was a faith that could not ever be reached.
If that is what you heard in this story, then maybe you heard wrong. A mentor of mine named Stanley Shipp used to say that there was nothing really that special about any of the Bible characters. They just happened to be around when the Bible was being written.
What that taught me is that you and I could have been Bible characters. And when we hear this story correctly we can be people of faith too. The Israelites needed to hear that when they were off in a foreign land in captivity. You know they were thinking about what put them there—their disobedience. That cycle of obeying and living in the land and disobeying and finding themselves in exile was a story written in the Adam and Eve story.
It was the Adam and Eve story. But it is also your story and mine. The humankind story. You and I know that cycle too, don’t we? We are obedient and things may seem to be going well. We are disobedient and then things might fall apart.
But sometimes the opposite happens. We think we are being faithful and we see little good happening for us. We can be unfaithful and find things go pretty well for us in some ways. Life can be confusing at times and even in seasons.
That’s where it helps to hear the Abraham story well. The faith he shows us is a faith that does the best it can at the moment.
Maybe you’ve had days like that. Days where you’re just able to do the best you can at that moment. I have days like that. Days when I’m not sure what all God is up to. I hear part of what he tells me and I don’t know how what he tells me is going to work out. So I take a step. I just take the best step I can come up with at the moment.
Rich Mullins wrote a song about the struggle of faith years ago. In it he mentioned the Abraham story:
Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me
He was a stranger in this land
And I am that, no less than he
And on this road to righteousness
Sometimes the climb can be so steep
I may falter in my steps
But never beyond Your reach
O God you are my God, and I will ever praise you…
And I will seek you in the morning
… And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days
Abraham is a story about how to have faith. Not a perfect faith that behaves correctly all the time or sees the future clearly. But a faith that does its best at the moment.
And then watches God come to them and sees what He does.
It’s an earthy faith. One you and I can have.