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Abraham's Impatient Faith -- a study of Genesis 15 and 16

Updated: Feb 9

Even people of faith can become impatient.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 15 and 16

God repeats His promise to Abraham -- that Abraham will be the father of a multitude. Abraham believes God (a model for Christians today), but that doesn't prevent him from taking the fulfillment of that promise into his own hands, to disastrous ends. God can bring good out of our impatience and poor choices, but let us be people of steady faith.

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (15:6)


When We Covered This Passage in 2015

In the previous post, I focused on

Below, I offer "patience" as the intro discussion topic. If you like the "promises" idea, take a look at that earlier post.


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Your Favorite Saying about Patience

No, you can't use "Patience is a virtue". That's too easy.


I particularly like "You must first have a lot of patience to learn to have patience" and "Even a snail will eventually reach its destination".


How about you?


How Patient Are You?

I intend this to be a fun topic, but let's be sensitive that a particularly impatient person might think you are picking on them. What things try your patience? For me, it's three things: other drivers not paying attention to the road, 1-800 help lines that are not helpful, and packages that get delayed in shipping. And maybe a few other things.


What are your relative tolerances of patience with respect to those things? For example -- with respect to packages, I can go 3-4 days before I start checking on the tracking number; with respect to waiting on hold, I can go 10-15 minutes before I start to get antsy; but with respect to other drivers, I've got maybe 3 seconds. (A follow up question would be to explain what your impatience "looks like", but I'd be careful with this one. I know plenty of people who say and do things they immediately regret when they are impatient. Impatience is not an excuse for bad behavior.)


I'm pretty sure that impatience is a growing problem in our world. Anecdotally, I think we all believe that. ("Modern conveniences have made us more impatient", right?) Surprisingly, I couldn't find very many recent studies one way or another about this.


This survey from Nashville is pretty fun. How do you respond to these highlights:

  • 62 percent wait less than a minute before hanging up after being put on hold.

  • 76 percent frequently exceed the speed limit to get to their destination faster.

  • Millennials check their phones an average of eight times when waiting to hear back from someone they’ve dated.

  • 62 percent push an elevator button multiple times.


This survey from London is pretty fun, too:

  • Surveyed Brits also reported losing their cool after just 18 seconds of searching for a pen.

  • Respondents said any longer than 14 minutes spent waiting for ordered food to arrive at a restaurant would seriously try their patience.

  • "Surprisingly, 95% of respondents still admitted that they believe patience is a virtue."


I love people. Philosophically speaking, of course.


(This study from UCLA argues that people with mid-levels of patience are happier than people with extreme-levels of patience. I have no idea what that means.)


But let's push credibility to its limit with this map:

If America is the most patient country in the world, remind me never to travel anywhere else. Ever.


What Are Your Best Demonstrations of Patience?

If you are a Christian, and the Spirit of God is at work transforming you, then your "patience" is being developed. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. Right??? So, what are some examples of your patience?


I had a wonderful talk with one of our church members recently, and along the way, he mentioned being in an inconveniently-located house for many years but with the strong conviction that God wanted him to continue to live there. Then, someone who lived next to them had a serious crisis, and his family was able to help take care of them. He believes that's why God wanted him to stay in that house. Now of course, many good things happened during those years, but he believes God wanted him to be there for that season when his neighbor needed them.


The biggest takeaway I had talking to him was the waiting-for-many-years part. While he was waiting, he really didn't understand why. Looking back, he believes he does understand. But it took years to get to that point.


If you're in the middle of your I-don't-understand-why phase, perhaps that's your best demonstration of patience.


What Does Patience Even Mean?

I may be getting ahead of myself here. Ask your group what they think patience means.


From my Holman Bible Dictionary (which everyone should own a copy of) -- their one-sentence definition of patience is

Active endurance of opposition, not a passive resignation.

That's well put. Other words that they use are "endurance, steadfastness, longsuffering, and forbearance". They note that God is the ultimate example of patience.


Here is one of the paragraphs:

God's people are to be patient. The psalmist learned to be patient when confronted with the prosperity of the wicked (Ps. 37:1-3, 9-13, 34-38). Christians should face adversity patiently (Rom. 5:3-5). Patience is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Christian love is patient (1 Cor. 13:4, 7). Ministers are to be patient (2 Cor. 6:6)

Yes, that's using the word to define itself, but in this instance I think it works. In any case, it should get your discussion rolling.

 

Where We Are in Genesis

A lot happens in Genesis 14. Some Bible historians call this a woefully underappreciated chapter. There are a lot of "maps of Genesis 14" out there, and all of them are pretty hard to follow. I guess that's because these events are bigger than I think.

When you look at many of these maps, they have armies marching from all over the Fertile Crescent. The armies from afar strike a decisive victory south of Sodom, and they march home with many spoils of war -- including Lot and his family. Abraham goes after them with an army of 300 (in that day, that would have been a significant force, but more about this in our passage below) and gets Lot back.


Buried in all of this action is the critically important (and quite odd) encounter with someone named Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He offers a blessing to Abraham, and Abraham gives him a tenth of everything. (I might have to try that.) The author of Hebrews suggests that there is more than meets the eye to this Melchizedek (particularly chapter 7) -- what many Jews blinked-and-missed was a messenger of God who pointed out the coming Messiah. We really don't have time to get into that this week.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Isaac and Ishmael in Islam

The relationship between elements of Islam and elements of Judaism in the Middle East is one of the most important storylines in the world today -- those storylines can be traced back to what we are studying in Genesis this quarter. Future lessons focus on the passages related specifically to Ishmael and Isaac, but those lessons also cover many other topics, so this seems like the best week to give an overview of this critical topic. It will also help us keep an additional perspective on those future passages.


Unless you are competent or experienced in Islamic studies (and I am not), tread very lightly. I'm only bringing it up in this post because I know that plenty of our group members will probably want to ask a question about it -- again, seeing as how this is dominating world news right now. Always admit the limits of your knowledge, and never speak out of ignorance!


In the Quran, Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac are all considered great prophets. Isaac is the ancestor of Moses and the Jews; Ishmael is the ancestor of Muhammad and the Muslims. Ishmael is the true first-born son of Abraham through Hagar. Critically, the Quran leans in to the fact that Abraham married Hagar before having Ishmael with her. (This week's passage indeed says that Abraham took Hagar as a "wife", but the descriptions all indicate that she was treated as little more than a concubine.) (We will talk about the very different conclusions Christians draw from these circumstances in our study below.)


Another critical data point in the Quran is that Ishmael was the child to be sacrificed in Genesis 22, not Isaac. The implications of that, particularly what Islam can then say about the Christian idea of substitutionary atonement, are staggering.


Isaac, as little as he is mentioned in the Quran, is held in high esteem. So, how do we get from that to the current relationship between Jews and Muslims in Israel today? It's extremely complicated, and within the different factions of Islam, there is a huge divergence of what the Quran means when it talks about Isaac and the Jews. (As an aside, that should only make sense. We can't effectively talk about what "Baptists" believe or what "Methodists" believe, can we? No, we have to specify which group of Baptists or Methodists, and even then, we probably have to account for regional differences or even local differences.)


Here are just three of the many positions taken by Islamic scholars:

  1. Isaac is the rightful heir of the Promised Land; Abraham gave the Promised Land to Isaac and his descendants, and there is nothing wrong with the Jews claiming the right to live there.

  2. Isaac is not the rightful heir to the Promised Land -- he is an usurper; Ishmael is the rightful heir to all of the blessings of Abraham. Consequently, the Muslims have the God-given right to live in the land of Israel.

  3. The Jews abdicated their right to the Promised Land through their terrible behavior described in the Old Testament. Muslims rightfully claimed empty territory when they took up residence in Israel; they can defend their claim.

Many of the papers I read told a version of number 3 -- it doesn't matter if God gave the land to Ishmael or Isaac because the Jews forfeited any right to the land. (The United Nations is a complicating factor to them that I won't attempt to explain.)


Things escalate due to two main factors: the violence inherent in jihad, and the violent rhetoric spouted specifically with respect to Jews. I truly thought that antisemitism in World War II was as bad as it could get, but I was wrong. The language used about Jews by certain Islamic leaders is even worse.


And this is where things get unsolvably messy. There is no "theological reasoning" with someone's deep-rooted racism. The groups labeled "terrorist" probably aren't thinking too deeply about the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac -- they have been programmed to want to kill all Jews.


What's my point? The different Islamic perspectives on Ishmael and Isaac can help us understand some of the conflict between the two groups, but probably not as much as I would like to think.


[Very much an aside: there are plenty of scholars who doubt that Ishmael is the direct ancestor of Muhammad, but for this topic, that's almost beside the point. Tradition is reality in many religions.]

 

Part 1: Abraham Gets Impatient with God (Genesis 15:1-6)

After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward will be very great. 2 But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.” 4 Now the word of the Lord came to him: “This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He 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.” 6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

First, note the word "vision". This is probably for the benefit of Moses' Hebrew audience who were terrified of the appearance of God on Mt. Sinai.


Second, note the connection with what Melchizedek said to Abraham a few verses earlier. Abraham had a great military victory against multiple kings -- that is a sign of God's supernatural protection of Abraham. Here, God confirms that: "I am your shield."


But Abraham is getting antsy.


(Obvious question: no, we don't know anything else about Eliezer of Damascus.)


This all kind of reminds me of a familiar passage in Luke 1:

30 Then the angel told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.” 34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”

We have said that Mary's question is quite reasonable and does not suggest doubt in God. Similarly, Abraham's question is reasonable -- he doesn't have any sons of his own. What are the differences between Abraham's and Mary's questions?


Does the repetition about the "heir" make Abraham sound a little whiny to you? It kinda does to me. BUT the Bible is exceedingly clear that Abraham still believed God. So, how can we explain Abraham's question? Perhaps he misunderstood God? God very quickly clarified that his descendants would come from his own body.


And Abraham believed Him.


The New Testament makes a very big deal about verse 6, and so should we. We read Romans 4 last week. This week, let's read Galatians 3:

You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by the Spirit, are you now finishing by the flesh? 4 Did you experience so much for nothing—if in fact it was for nothing? 5 So then, does God give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law? Or is it by believing what you heard— 6 just like Abraham who believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness?
7 You know, then, that those who have faith, these are Abraham’s sons. 8 Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and proclaimed the gospel ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. 9 Consequently, those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith.
10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, Everyone who does not do everything written in the book of the law is cursed. 11 Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous will live by faith. 12 But the law is not based on faith; instead, the one who does these things will live by them. 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. 14 The purpose was that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles by Christ Jesus, so that we could receive the promised Spirit through faith.
15 Brothers and sisters, I’m using a human illustration. No one sets aside or makes additions to a validated human will. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say “and to seeds,” as though referring to many, but referring to one, and to your seed, who is Christ. 17 My point is this: The law, which came 430 years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously established by God and thus cancel the promise. 18 For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise; but God has graciously given it to Abraham through the promise.

In other words, because righteousness was credited to Abraham by virtue of his faith (not his obedience to a law that had not been given), we realize that salvation is through faith, not works. That means everything to Christians (us) who might not be blood-descendants of Abraham and under the law.


Paul adds the wrinkle that God's promises were made through Abraham to Jesus, the One who lived up to God's standards (unlike Abraham). So, when we trust God, it is not based on our own merit but on Christ's. We trust that God the Father loves God the Son, and God the Son won our salvation based on His merit, not ours.


When verse 6 says "Abraham believed the Lord" -- that word for "believe" is in a tense (stem) that emphasizes a belief in reliability. In other words, something like "I believe this building has a trustworthy foundation, so I will live in it". In other words, it's not so much that Abraham believed what God said as that he believed God Himself. He believed that God was reliable and thus he could trust what God said. Subtle difference, but important.


This is what the author of Hebrews tapped into in Hebrews 11:

8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and set out for a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, coheirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
11 By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the one who had promised was faithful. 12 Therefore, from one man—in fact, from one as good as dead—came offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and as innumerable as the grains of sand along the seashore.

And because Abraham had faith in God Himself, God "credited" that to Abraham as righteousness. In other words, Abraham's faith in God would be the foundation for a right relationship with God. God would thus make that right relationship available to Abraham and his offspring. That would be God's gift to Abraham -- not so much the offspring but that they would be God's people (see the following verses).


Unfortunately for everybody, and I mean everybody, Abraham and Sarah made decisions that seem at odds with this faith.


But for our part, we can realize from this that our own impatience with God, our potential doubts and questions of God, those do not invalidate our faith. God does not expect our faith to be perfect any more than He expects us to be perfect. I take great solace in this. But we are still supposed to have faith!


What's the difference between "believing God" and "believing in God"? What kind of faith do you have?


And of course we can't stop short of the most important question we could ask -- if you were to die and stand before God and God ask you why He should let you into heaven, what would you say?

 

Night Sky Illustration

I put this in my 2015 post, and I think it's worth repeating. We see the same night sky as Abraham did (with a bit more light pollution). The human eye can only see about 5,000 stars on a perfectly clear, moonless night. But with the help of a telescope, we realize that the number of stars becomes essentially uncountable. Since 2015, the James Webb telescope has come online, and the stars in the universe have become astonishingly breathtaking. To me, that's a "God detail". God created all of this and used it for Abraham, knowing that one day we would be able to see so much more of God's creativity.

Here's a website dedicated to the Webb telescope:


Forgive me, but let me indulge my inner Charlie Brown:

 

In the Meantime

We skip the rest of Genesis 15. There's a very important (and dramatic) covenant ratification. Because Abraham believed the Lord, God "formally" gave the Promised Land to Abraham's descendants. Here, we shouldn't read Abraham's question as doubt but rather as fulfilling what was then a normal "formula" for a covenant. My earlier post about this passage --

goes into detail about the nature and purposes of covenants in the ancient world. Please refer to that post (this current post is already going to be too long).


Animal sacrifice was a normal part of executing a covenant. Walking between the animal remains seems to be symbolic of the commitment to "see the covenant through". But note that in his dream, only the representative of God "walked" through the animal parts; this covenant is a promise from God, one that Abraham cannot invalidate.


God also tells Abraham about the Egyptian captivity. Abraham probably didn't understand that, but you can be sure that Moses' Hebrew audience took careful notice of this. Verse 16 is absolutely critical to this end -- the reason God allowed the Hebrews to remain in captivity all that time was out of mercy to the inhabitants of the Promised Land. He was giving them the opportunity to make the choice of Abraham and believe in Him.


To those people who suggest that it was unfair for God to have the Hebrews cast the inhabitants of the Promised Land out, I simply offer verse 16. God gave those inhabitants the chance to repent and "join His people" so to speak. They chose not to.

 

Part 2: Sarah Gets Really Impatient with God (Genesis 16:1-4)

Abram’s wife, Sarai, had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. 2 Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So Abram’s wife, Sarai, took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband, Abram, as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan ten years. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she saw that she was pregnant, her mistress became contemptible to her.

Yes, Abraham believed God, but he sure did a poor job convincing his wife to do the same. And he sure didn't talk her out of a plan for him to procreate with Hagar. (Note that God hasn't changed Sarah's name from Sarai yet.)


This is where discussions with Muslims get awkward. Ishmael was the product of an impetuous union, made apart from the blessing and plan of God. Therefore, Paul likens Ishmael to the failure of the human will apart from the promise of God in Galatians 3:

21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and the other by a free woman. 23 But the one by the slave was born as a result of the flesh, while the one by the free woman was born through promise. 24 These things are being taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery—this is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar represents Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

Muhammad would not be born for centuries, so Paul is making no claims about Islam the religion. But he is saying very clearly that Isaac represents the promise of God (which leads to Jesus), and Ishmael represents the corrupted will of humanity that is in slavery to sin. Paul makes it clear that he is speaking figuratively, but there is extreme insight in his words.


That does not mean that God did not care about Hagar and Ishmael! On the contrary -- God cared for and blessed them. In the passage that follows what we read this week, God has this exchange with Hagar:

9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her authority.” 10 The angel of the Lord said to her, “I will greatly multiply your offspring, and they will be too many to count.” 11 The angel of the Lord said to her, “You have conceived and will have a son. You will name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your cry of affliction. 12 This man will be like a wild donkey. His hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; he will settle near all his relatives.” 13 So she named the Lord who spoke to her: “You are El-roi,” for she said, “In this place, have I actually seen the one who sees me?” 14 That is why the well is called Beer-lahai-roi. It is between Kadesh and Bered. 15 So Hagar gave birth to Abram’s son, and Abram named his son (whom Hagar bore) Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him.

Indeed, God blessed Ishmael and his descendants, but the circumstances are far different from what the Quran says about him.


Now -- let's get to the "point" of these verses: once Hagar became pregnant (as Sarah could not), Hagar began to hold Sarah in contempt. She thought of herself as the "superior" wife because she could give Abraham the heir that Sarah could not. And in that ancient culture, the wife who produced the heir would become "primary".


As we will see in the next section, that was a gross misreading of things. Sarah was Abraham's beloved wife -- Hagar was a concubine, a means to an end. (This is quite the opposite of the fantasy stories in which the wife was a political means, but the concubine was the love of the man's life.)


This is all quite messed up, and everybody looks bad here. But none of this bad behavior pushed the people involved beyond the grace and love of God.


(We will take a look at the similarly-dysfunctional relationship between Rachel and Leah in a few weeks.)


I can think of two different ways to discuss the implications:

  1. What is a time your impatience caused you to do something you regretted? We've all been here. Just make sure that your story is appropriate for a Bible study.

  2. What is a time your impatience with God caused you to make the lesser choice? This is more specific, and I also think it's the topic worth spending some time on.


That second one is a tough question to me because I believe that God can work anything for our good -- even our wrong decisions. In other words, it might have been the wrong/lesser choice, but God made good things happen from it. But we usually know in our hearts when we are being impatient with God.


I can think of a time many years ago when we were choosing between two church positions. One was available immediately, and one wouldn't vote on our call for 3-4 weeks. I did the "bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" logic and we took that first church. Based on our experience in that church, I can't help but think that I made the impatient choice. God brought many, many good things out of it, so I would never call that decision a mistake. But I wonder if we made the choice that God did not prefer for us.


Importantly, we cannot change our past choices. So, I wouldn't want you to spend too much time thinking about the past. Rather, spin this forward -- what are the choices/decisions you are contemplating right now that might be impacted by your impatience?


We can't change the past, but we must take control of our present.

 

Part 3: Instant Regret (Genesis 16:5-6)

5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for my suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and when she saw that she was pregnant, I became contemptible to her. May the Lord judge between me and you.” 6 Abram replied to Sarai, “Here, your slave is in your power; do whatever you want with her.” Then Sarai mistreated her so much that she ran away from her.

This is the least surprising outcome of this week's passage. Let's be clear about one thing: even if someone treats you badly, you have no right to treat them badly.


The Bible Project has been releasing a series of videos on the Sermon on the Mount (I highly recommend them). Based on what we read in just these few verses, does Sarah or Hagar "sound like" the kind of person Jesus is reaching out to in His sermon?

Indeed, the following verses make it clear that God did reach out to and care for Hagar. Years later, Sarah would chase out Hagar and Ishmael, and God would again care for them. Sarah does not look good in this relationship.


But that passage in Hebrews 11 makes it clear that Sarah is still someone whose faith is to be praised. We must not define Sarah by her worst moments. Likewise, we can take away from this that God does not define us by our worst moments. That's what grace is.


Now -- let's call out Abraham in all of this. As David preached last week, as the husband, Abraham will be held accountable for the spiritual health of his family. Sarah brought this situation to Abraham, and Abraham encouraged her to do this terrible thing to Hagar.


[Aside -- speaking as a husband -- how would I have responded to an irate Sarah? Cue the pathetic husband memes!]


[By the way husbands, do not forget that Wednesday is Valentine's Day.]


In other words, Abraham shares blame for what happened. Now -- let's look more closely at Sarah's words. She directly blames Abraham for the situation, not the pregnancy. (In other words, not the "you did this to me" joke.) This probably means that Abraham was "feeding Hagar's pride". Perhaps Abraham had changed his behavior and become more loving and attentive to Hagar than he had been before -- treating her as the mother of his heir in the expectations of the culture. If this is the case, Abraham would bear much of the blame. In fact -- you could push this to be that Sarah felt she needed to push Hagar away because she didn't trust Abraham's behavior in this (!). Abraham quickly got back in line...


Here, your topic is personal responsibility. When we studied Genesis 3, we talked about how sin led to blame and lack of accountability. What are some personal sins you have not been taking responsibility for? (Yes, part of the problem might be that you aren't acknowledging the sin in the first place, but I trust the Holy Spirit to point these things out to you.)


Some of the time, perhaps most of the time, our impatience with God only causes us to miss out on some of the blessing He has for us. But every once in a while, our impatience can have truly disastrous consequences.


Our call to action from this week's passage is to be people of faith, not doubt. (Ooh -- side question: what is the relationship between doubt and impatience?)

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