In the Bible, Abraham is a foundational figure, and he is particularly renowned for his great faith. That’s why the apostle Paul says of Abraham: He is the father of all who believe. (Romans 4:11)
A little later in the same passage, Paul writes that Abraham is father of all those who “have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed …” (Romans 4:16–17)
In the book of Hebrews, chapter 11 is known as the “faith” chapter. It highlights the heroes of faith. Among them, the faith of Abraham is highlighted more than that of any other Biblical hero. It is said of him that:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11:8–12)
Something doesn’t seem to quite add up about the faith of Abraham
The problem with all of this is that the historical record of Abraham’s life doesn’t seem to point to him as a man of great faith. Instead, he seems a man of a weak and doubting faith.
The reason why we don’t easily realise this when we think of Abraham is because we filter and view his life through the narrative of Hebrews 11. But that actually wasn’t the reality of Abraham’s life. Let me show you.
God called Abram (who was later called “Abraham”) while he was living in the city of Ur of the Chaldees, as Stephen informs us in Acts 7:2–3:
The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. “Leave your country and your people,” God said, “and go to the land I will show you.”
In Genesis 12:1–3, the call of Abram to go “to the land I will show you” (v.1) had happened earlier, in Ur. In the original language of the Old Testament, the pluperfect tense was used: “The LORD had said to Abram…”
I can understand Abram’s hesitancy. Leaving everything behind, to go and live in tents in a wild and untamed land, wasn’t too appealing to a civilised and wealthy man. So he didn’t. He went to Harran instead. Harran was another nice city like Ur.
Abram stayed in Harran for many years. Why didn’t he simply obey God and go to Canaan? This doesn’t have the hallmarks of a man with great faith?
We see hesitancy, doubt, and fear, even into Abraham’s old age
When Abram finally arrived in the Promised Land, he was disappointed to find that it was in famine. When you live off the land, famine threatens your life and the life of those whom you love. How would he survive?
Instead of having faith in God, Abram left Canaan and went to Egypt. There in Egypt, he landed in even bigger trouble, when he found that the king of Egypt wanted Abram’s wife for himself! Again, he takes matters into his own hands, and he lies about who Sarai is, saying that she is his sister. When Pharaoh takes Sarai, God afflicts him, and Pharaoh realises the truth. It is Pharaoh, a completely pagan king, who rebukes Abram for lying and for deceiving him! (Genesis 12:10–20)
In Genesis 15, although God had promised him a son, Abram took matters into his hand and nominated Eliezer, his servant, as his heir (v.2). That doesn’t sound like something a great man of faith would do, does it? So God told him that his plan was no good, and that he himself would give him a son (vv.4–5).
In Genesis 16, Abram participates in his wife Sarai’s plot to let him sleep with her servant Hagar, so that they could have a child that way. It was another human plan! It was another display of a lack of faith! God was so disappointed with Abram that he told him to have himself circumcised as a permanent reminder not to trust in flesh, but to trust instead in God. (Genesis 17:9–14, 22–27)
Genesis 20 seems like a rewind of Genesis 12. Same story, different king. It’s true that God keeps bringing us, again and again, to the same situations in our lives, so we can grow in the areas we most need to grow. By now, Abram was very old. In fact, he was almost 100 years of age. Yet he still hadn’t learned to trust in God!
Eventually, when Abraham was 100 years old, the Lord fulfilled his promise and Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah (as Sarai was later called). It almost seems that the Lord fulfilled his promise despite Abraham’s faith.
The only clear response of faith that one can find in Abraham’s story is when the Lord tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to offer his son as a sacrifice.
Abraham responded without hesitation although, in the end, the Lord himself provided a sacrifice. (Genesis 22:1–19)
Abraham never gave up
Despite this apparent lifetime of failure, Abraham “was called a friend of God”. (James 2:23)
The Lord himself said of him that Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions. (Gen. 26:5.)
The faith of Abraham wasn’t so great, but God’s faithfulness was
Obviously, “believing in God” and “faith” do not mean what we usually think they mean. Apart from the one episode at the end of Abraham’s life, we see little evidence of the kind of quality that we would normally call faith. Instead, we see hesitancy, doubt, and fear, even into Abraham’s old age.
However, there is something else we see in Abraham’s life. Despite his many failures, he is always receptive to the voice of God, and to his work in his life. Abraham never gives up. Despite his stumbles, Abraham always comes back to his relationship with God.
In the end, the story is much more about God’s grace than about the faith of Abraham. Yet if we are going to talk about Abraham’s faith, perhaps the best way to understand such faith is “endurance”.
On the one hand, God had to put up with a lot from Abraham. Yet, more importantly, Abraham always stuck with God, through all his mistakes.
That was the faith of Abraham.
Article supplied with thanks to Dr Eliezer Gonzalez.
About the Author: Dr Eli Gonzalez is the Senior Pastor of Good News Unlimited and the presenter of the Unlimited radio spots, and The Big Question. Sign up to his free online course Becoming a Follower of Jesus to learn about Jesus and his message.