This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Abram — a better grace story

One of the heroes of the Christian faith (heck, he’s a hero for Christians, Jews and Muslims, let’s be honest) was Abram. Because I can’t speak as a Jew or Muslim, I can only go from a Christian perspective on this. However, I think, in some ways, at least in the Christian circles I run in, Abram as a hero is perhaps giving him a bit too much credit. Instead, maybe Abram was more like the rest of us than we like to think, and because of that, his story is so much more relatable. Let me explain.

Using passages like Hebrews 11 and verses like Genesis 15:6, Abram (later called Abraham) is lifted up as some amazing bastion of faith. He believed God when God promised that he would become a nation against all the odds; therefore, Abram is this guy way up on a pedestal, almost unreachable. His ability to have faith in God is so far beyond our own that we might as well give up. Who can have more faith than Abram? After all, he knew that he and his wife, Sarah, were too old to have children, so this is just an amazing piece of trust. And then the whole Isaac on the mountain deal… I mean, seriously. He just goes up and the knife is practically on the way down toward Isaac’s throat when God stops him. Abram was this AMAZING super-hero of the faith. Untouchable. The Hagar and Ishmael fiasco… Well, that shows that he’s just human like the rest of us but, really, this guy cannot be approached when it comes to faith.

Or was he?

One thing we need to remember is that these stories in Genesis were written down by Moses (or others or whatever) as Israel was forming a national identity. These were originally oral history tales passed down from parent to child over generations as tools of instruction, describing their personal values, explaining their faith, explaining why things are the way they are in society and, in this case, why YHWH deserves our trust even when we don’t know all the details. Put yourself in the position of a young child sitting at a grandfather’s feet and listening to the story being woven. They don’t know the outcome at the end. All they know is there’s this guy, Abram, whom God promised something to. If we look at one very particular detail in the story as presented in the Bible, this really comes home.

As I allude to above, we assume that when God tells Abram in Genesis 12 and then again in Genesis 15 that Abram will be a father to a nation that Abram recognizes that Sarai (later Sarah) is his natural partner in this. But if you read the story from the beginning to the end, it isn’t until Genesis 17 that Sarah is even mentioned as being the instrumental wife in the story. God’s promise to Abram was simply, “You’ll be a great nation” and “From your offspring…” Abram is the only person mentioned here. Now, we can play the game of “Well, that’s just what it says, but Abram only had the one wife, so, obviously, he’d assume that.” But would he?

In this time period in human history, polygamous marriages were commonplace and having a concubine to bear children when the favored wife cannot is just what is done. It wasn’t questioned. Now, in hind-sight, from God’s later commandments and such we know that this is not exactly what God wants from us, but for Abram who, quite literally, stopped being an idol worshipper and started worshipping YHWH relatively recently, this was not necessarily an assumption we can make about him. Just as people who call themselves followers of Jesus are continually growing in their lives and being transformed, we have to assume that Abram (and others in Genesis) didn’t suddenly become Torah-believing Jews right off the bat (that, and the Torah didn’t exist yet, so…).

So, what we have is Abram hearing God’s promise and saying, “Okie-dokie, God. I believe you. Now what?” And he gets a bit of silence. God doesn’t give him any details, so Abram is left to try to figure stuff out. And isn’t that just like the rest of us? This is why Abram is not some Faith-Man with cape and cowl. He’s just a normal dude, trying to do right by God and trusting God when he doesn’t know all the details. I can think of so many times in my life when this is the case. It seems to me that God wants me to do something, I get confirmation of “Yep, that’s right,” and then I get a lot of static in the Heavenly Two-Way Radio and I think, “OK, now what?” What does one do in this respect?

Pretty much what Abram did. A pretty common way of looking at the Hagar/Ishmael part of the story is to look at it as this great hero having a weak moment and not trusting God for a brief time, long enough to get Hagar pregnant. After that, he goes back to being the dude with a halo and a rock-star faith street cred. But what if the Hagar incident wasn’t quite so colossal a failure? What if it was simply Abram reasoning and rationalizing the “now what?” part?

Sarai comes to him with a proposal; he ponders it and thinks, “Well, I’m not sure what God had in store. This seems pretty reasonable, actually. After all, God didn’t tell me not to take a concubine. OK, let’s do this.” Again, we cannot necessarily assume that Abram would have understood that God’s promise initially included Sarai. That doesn’t happen until later. Again, listen to this tale as an oral story. God is slowly revealing to Abraham the details as those details become necessary. Despite Abraham’s earlier mistake (understandable, even if a bit thick-headed), God’s plan did not change. Nothing Abraham did changed the plan, and God’s grace and mercy covered for Abraham’s failings.

What this shows me, as a man trying to follow God, is that my trust in God is what is important. I need to trust that when God says that something is in store for me, then that is what’s going to happen. That’s the easy part, really. But where it gets really hard — where it gets really, really hard — is trying to figure out, “What’s my next step?” God tells us, frequently in his word, that he desires us to partner with him in his plan. The book of Genesis starts out that way, making us his images and his representatives in this world. When God says something is in store for us, we naturally try to discern, faithfully, what our part is in it. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ll be faced with many choices, and we need to do our proper diligence to figure out, “Is this choice what God wants me to do? Or is it the other one?” We should be relying on God’s Spirit and guidance to make those choices, but, unfortunately for us, there are other pressures and voices of the world around us leading us making the wrong choice. Just like Abram did with Hagar.

And that’s where this story of Abram is even more encouraging to me than anything else. If Abram is a super-hero of the faith, then I can’t really touch his perfection. But if Abram is a guy, just like me, trying to figure stuff out, and making mistakes in the process, then there’s hope for me yet. God took a normal, everyday guy like Abram, a guy who tried to trust God the best way he could, and did something wonderful with him. That MEANS that God can do that with me, too. And it’s not because I’m some amazing guy with faith and trust who can believe six impossible things before breakfast, but because I’m just an ordinary guy stumbling through the haze of this world, listening for God’s voice. Abram’s story is a much better story about grace, trust, faith and forgiveness when seen this way. It’s a story that empowers and encourages me — normal ordinary me — to keep moving forward, even when it’s not always clear.

Robert Martin blogs thoughts, reflections and stories regarding theology and the Christian walk at The Abnormal Anabaptist, where a version of this post originally appeared.

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