Introduction — The Foundation
We must tread softly here, speaking with humility because God is present with us and he is listening But we also must speak confidently because we are responding to God’s self-introduction in his holy Scriptures.
One way of telling the biblical Story or Drama is to tell the story of God’s self-introduction. In fact, the story is all about God. One of the great contributions of the literary interpretation of the Bible has been the often repeated refrain: “This book is all about God” or “God is the chief Actor in this narrative.” Commentaries written before the early nineties of the twentieth century were not nearly as aware of this centrality of God in all of the narratives.
I am somewhat tentative in some parts of this development because not many have walked this way before. Some of the Old Testament biblical theologies have made a beginning. House has summarized the teachings about God in the various Old Testament books.1 But House is concerned with the details and I want to go behind them to the foundational principles of God’s self-revelation. Some others offer good studies of parts of what I want to do.2 The New Testament biblical theologies have largely ignored the doctrine of God. Dunn does have a chapter on God, but he stands almost alone in any specific treatment of the nature of the Living God.3 The Systematic theologies take a totally different approach. Perhaps I can blaze a different trail for someone else so that they in turn can do a better job.
Elohim — The Creator
The name “Elohim” well translated as “God” is born in the theophany of creation. Every time that we read this name in reference to the Living God of the Bible, we should remember this theophany. Elohim is the Creator with all that this great and unique act implies.
It might seem that this could not count as a theophany because there were no human observers until late on the sixth day. But human presence at a theophany is not absolutely necessary. Theophanies have their greatest power when inscripturated in the Bible. Then they become theophanies for every reader, not merely the original recipients.
The “Burning Bush” was not merely a revelation given to Moses. As described and interpreted by God it becomes a theophany for every regenerate reader of the Bible. Moses emphasized this strongly at the end of his life to a generation who had not been born when God appeared to Israel on Mount Sinai. I have already quoted this passage in my treatment of “Contemporaneity” as one of the characteristics of the Bible. But it bears quoting here also.
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain (at that time I stood between the Lord and you to declare to you the word of the Lord, because you were afraid of the fire…. (Deut. 5: 2-5).
At first reading, Moses’ words all seem like lies. God did make this covenant with their fathers. He did not make it with them as most were not born yet and the rest were too young. God did not speak to these listeners to Moses but to their
parents. Moses did not stand between the Lord and his present hearers for the same reason.
But when God inscripturated that theophany, it became his self-revelation to every reader of the Bible, to every living and contemporary generation. It was “not” to their fathers because they had died in the wilderness after breaking the covenant. It was with the new generation who had read Moses’ description in Exodus and were now hearing it again in this great sermon.
No human was there to watch the theophany of creation though the angels watched and sang God’s praises (Job 38:6-7). But God gave us something better. He wrote it down for us. Had we been there, the immense complexity of God’s work would have overloaded our senses. We would not have had a perspective to see it all. We would not have known what was most important.
But God tells us this story simply and clearly. Now we hear and see this theophany from his perspective. Now we know that it is primarily about God rather than the cosmos, the earth or the humans in his image and likeness. Now we know that he is laying the foundation for all of the inter-relationships between Him and ourselves, between ourselves and the cosmos, the earth, all of the other living creatures and each other.
When we read Genesis one and two we should read it as people who are there, watching and listening to this marvelous work of God, this wonderful audio-video picture of God at work, showing us who he is by what he does and how he does it.
God’s Theophanic Descriptions Of Creation
The foundational theophany of the entire Bible is God’s act of creation described in Genesis 1-2 and commented on in later passages, such as Job 38-41, Psalm 104, Isaiah 40, John 1, Colossians 1, Revelation 1 and many other passages throughout the Bible. 4
The Genesis Account
It is immediately obvious to any careful reader that God does not tell us everything that happened when he created the heavens and the earth. He has been very selective in what he has given us in this record. The many unanswered questions that we could ask make this clear. A comparison with the other records of creation in the passages discussed below bring out things that are not in the Genesis account.
This is not to imply that he is hiding something from us. Rather, he does not want us to get lost in descriptions that would detract us from his purposes in this account. In later accounts, he will add other things that are significant at that particular time. The purpose is not to give us full knowledge of beginnings. It is rather to begin to tell the story in the most effective way, and to distinguish this story from all other stories of beginnings.
An outline of Genesis one and two is appropriate here. There are many ways to outline this passage, and I lay no great claims for this one. It is certainly not unique, and has weaknesses, but no outline can ever be as good as the divine text.
I present this one as a guide for my discussion of this theophany, this first and foundational work of the Living God.
I. Creation of the heavens and the earth (1:1-2:1)
J. The creation of all things (1:1-2)
K. The heavens and the earth (1:1)
L. The earth was without form and empty (1:2a)
M. The Spirit was at work (1:2b)
N. The forming of the earth (1:3-13)
O. Day one — Light and Day (1:3-5)
P. Day two — The Sky (1:6-8)
Q. Day three — Dry land and vegetation (1:9-13)
R. The filling of the earth (1:14-31)
S. Day four — the sun and the moon (1:14-19)
T. Day five — Living creatures in sky and water (1:20-23)
U. Day six — Living creatures on the land (1:24-31)
V. The animals (1:24-25)
W. Adam and Eve in God’s image and likeness (1:26-31)
X. Completion (2:1)
II. The Seventh Day (2:2-3)
II. Creation of Adam and Eve (2:4-25)
Y. The generations of the heavens and the earth (2:4a)
Z. Creation of the man (2:4b-7)
AA. The garden (2:8-14)
BB. Man in the garden (2:15-25)
CC. Command to care for the garden (2:15)
DD. Do not eat of “The tree of knowledge” (2:16-17)
EE. A partner for the man (2:18-24)
FF. God’s determination to give him a partner (2:18)
GG. Naming the animals — no partner (2:19-20)
HH. Creation of Eve and marriage (2:21-24)
II. Naked and without shame (2:25)
As mentioned above, a thoughtful reader of these two chapters is filled with questions that are not answered in this text. These questions do not make us superior to God or his account of creation, but rather remind us that we ask a lot of unnecessary questions. God, who knew all that he did in this work of creation, has given us a marvelous summary of exactly the things necessary for our worldview, for our lives and for our godliness.
We do not need to know the time of creation. It is much more important that we know that it was “In the beginning.” We do not know why God used more than a single instant to create everything rather than using six days. We do not know why he uses whole days for each step in creation rather than a second. We do not know why he creates light on the first day and the sun and the moon on the fourth day. We do not know why he doesn’t spend more time telling us about the billions of galaxies and the size of space. A thousand other questions surface. God could have given a thousand pages to a brief summary of the story of this work of creation. But we did not need that. We needed exactly the content of these two chapters. He is the Creator and He is the Story teller. And He is the Master of both.
He tells the story twice: once from the perspective of the whole of creation, and once from the perspective ot the crown of that creation—Adam and Eve; one with a description of the six days and the other with a description of the last half of the sixth day. In between, he describes the seventh day as the day of rest after six days of creation and as a provision for Adam and Eve—”The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).
With a mention of the foundational fact that God’s act of creation included the entire cosmos, the heavens and the earth, God turns immediately to the earth. It was formless and empty like the other planets scattered among the galaxies. But he is going to do something unique and wonderful with this one. He is going to form the formless and fill the emptiness.
We are surprised to read of the darkness. If we have read the whole story, we know that darkness is the result of sin and rebellion against God. There is no darkness that is naturally outside of him in some kind of ontological dualism. If there is darkness, then there are creatures who have rebelled against him and have been cast out of the light into a place of darkness created for them. We are prepared for a creature who comes out of this darkness to tempt Adam and Eve in chapter three.
It is always important to read the whole story regularly so that we will be able to note the anticipations and reflections that we might otherwise miss.
God will not destroy this darkness now, but will create the light and divide the days into two parts: night; the realm of darkness and day; the realm of light. Darkness
and night will play a significant role in this Drama until it is finally excluded in the new beginning: “For there will be no night there.” (Revelation 21: 25 and 22:5).
This is the work of The Spirit of God who is mentioned here as a reminder that all of the works of forming and filling are accomplished by Him. We have now met the triune God: the Father speaks, the Son is the Word, and the Spirit is effecting creation from within throughout these six days. All of the work of creation is completed by the Spirit of God.
The first three days are the work of the Spirit of God in forming the earth. He creates the light and separates night and day on the first day. He separates the waters and creates the sky on the second day. He separates the waters and the dry land on the third day and creates the vegetation on the dry ground.
On the second group of three days the Spirit fills this formed creation. He fills the sky with the sun and the moon on the fourth day. He fills the sky and the waters with living creatures on the fifth day. He fills the dry land with creatures on the sixth day, culminating with the goal of the whole week—Adam and Eve, the human race.
With Adam and Eve we have conversation partners for the Living God. They are creatures in his image and likeness, word-shaped and story-shaped creatures who will stand on this new earth as God’s representatives and co-creators, producing a whole race of people, ruling all other creatures and turning this whole earth into a garden like Eden.
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array” (Gen. 2:1). God has finished the first telling of the story of creation. The story of the Sabbath concludes the first telling and introduces the second telling of this great theophany.
As a reminder of man’s creation out of the earth on the afternoon of the last day of creation, the second telling of the story begins with a phrase that will become very familiar in this book of Genesis: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth on the day that Yahweh created them” (Genesis 2:4).
This story begins with a description of the creation of Adam (and later of Eve) that is much more full and precise than that of the first story. This is fitting because the creation of man—male and female—though the culmination of the first telling of the story was still a part of a larger story. In this telling, the cosmos and the earth fade into the background and humans are central throughout.
Verses 4b through 6 picture a barrenness that reminds us of the “Formless and empty” of the first story. Rather than being followed by the creation of light, this story describes the creation of Adam with special emphasis again on the creative work of the Spirit of God.
The Lord God formed the man from the dirt of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7)
But Adam is a man without a suitable place, and verses eight through fourteen describe God’s creation of a garden for his place of residence. God brings Adam into this garden in verse fifteen and gives him the responsibility to “work it and take care of it” He provides food for him in the fruit of the various trees. But Yahweh God warns him not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil upon pain of death.
The rest of the chapter describes God’s description of a helper-partner for Adam. He is the only human being. He is alone is a very deep and disturbing sense. He has fellowship with God and all of the animals are out there, but none of them is suitable for him. God commands that he name all of the animals. He does that, describing their natures, and that is an important part of his being the king of all of the earth, but none are a suitable partner.
So, God creates Eve out a one of Adam’s ribs and brings her to him. He immediately recognized the fulfillment of his need and named her Eve. Because of the reference to “mother and father” when there were yet neither of them, this new relationship is not only the provision of a partner who fully shares the image and likeness of God, but a partner in the creation of new humans in the image and likeness of God in a marvelous work of being co-creators with God in the highest work of the creative days.
And everything was good. But if we read the next chapter we find out that the goodness was vulnerable to the invasion from the darkness, the tempter. If we read on to the end of the Story, we will find many more indications that this goodness was not yet perfect. The new heavens and earth will be much better (Revelation 21-22).
Out of this vulnerable goodness comes the plot of the whole story. Out of the creation comes all of the other works of God and also the new creation.
When we know this story so well that it is branded on our hearts, then it will impact the way that we read all of the rest of the Story. Our problem has been that we read this story of creation, use it to refute evolution and then forget it through the rest of our theology. We will never read the rest of the story correctly until we read it on this foundation
The name “Elohim” in the Hebrew, “Theos” in the Greek, and translated as “God” in English is born in this theophany of creation. Though the word has a large semantic range and can refer to false gods and even to humans at times, its fullest meaning is the Living God of the Bible who is our Creator and the Creator of all things other than himself. Other names and titles such as “El”, “The Most High God” and others are basically synonyms with “Elohim”.
When we read Psalm nineteen, we notice that the name for the Living God in verses one through six is “Elohim”.
The heavens declare the glory of God (ELohim);
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech:
night after nigh they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)
When David turns from the creation to the Torah in verse seven, he immediately uses another name for the Living God: the Lord (Yahweh), the covenant God. This transition is a good example of the way we must read and use the name for our Creator; ”God”.
With the name “Elohim” we always speak of the God of the cosmos, the whole world, all men and women. The Creator remains interested in all people and in all of his creation throughout his Story. The use of “God” is a regular reminder of this. It is too easy for us to develop a theology which is interested only in individuals or in one of the various peoples of God. God does not permit this parochialism.
Elohim is the primary name for God through the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Other names and titles are used, but never in a way that threatens the supremacy of this name of our great Creator. He is the one who keeps the family line alive against all of the attacks of Satan. He is the one who judges all men in the flood and the confusion of tongues at Babel. He is the one who makes a promise to all men and women about the coming Seed of Eve, Abel, Noah, and the rest. He is the God of Job and his friends. I will deal with Elohim our Creator much more extensively in the following chapter.
El-Shaddai — The God Of Abraham, Isaac And Jacob
Everything changes in Genesis twelve. God turns from his witness to the world through the chosen family and selects a nation for his own and to be a witness to the nations. At Babel, God had confused the languages of the world and the cultures and language groups move away from each other and form nations. Into this new world community of nations, God selects one man to be the father of a covenant nation, a people who will do what Adam failed to do, what his children failed to do and what the children of Noah failed to do.
This nation born of the progeny of Abraham is a complex people of God. The ideal is always that the nation as a whole and every individual in the nation exhibit the faith and obedience of Abraham. The reality is that the great majority of the people of Israel are unregenerate and unbelievers, disobeying God and living like their pagan neighbors. The only descendant of Abraham who fulfilled God’s expectations for the entire nation was Jesus Christ. Paul wrote about Him:
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture
does not say ‘and to seeds’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed’ meaning one person, who is Christ. (Galatians 3:15-16).
This sounds strange to us for we read “seed” as a collective noun that means all of the descendants of Abraham, and ours is a valid reading. But Paul’s reading is demanded by the context of the whole Story. We have been looking for one person since the promise of Genesis 3:15 and we do not find any perfect fulfillment until we read about Jesus Christ in the Gospels.
In the Story, “the seed of Abraham” may refer to (1) Isaac, (2) all of the his physical descendants, (3) that remnant in Israel who followed his faith, (4) all who followed his faith in the surrounding nations such as Ruth, and (5) the eschatological people of God — the Church. The immediate context and the context of the entire biblical Story will be our guide to the meaning in any particular passage.
The Creator will now reveal himself in a new way to this founder of a new nation. He will remain all that Elohim means, but will add to that a new name: “El- Shaddai” the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When God meets Moses at the burning bush, he introduces himself:
Do not come any closer, God said. ‘Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. (Ex. 3:5-6).
Later, when Moses’ request of Pharaoh had been rejected and had resulted in even more miseries, God came to Moses again.
God also said to Moses “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty (El-Shaddai), but by my name, Yahweh, I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give the land of Canaan were they lived as aliens.” (Exodus 6:2-4).
“El-Shaddai” and “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” are then synonyms describing God’s new self-revelation to the patriarchs.
Like the other names and titles of God this pair of names is born in a group of theophanies. The Creator, while remaining Creator, now adds to that the God who makes and keeps promises to his chosen ones, to those who trust Him. There are a whole series of descriptions of this new step in God’s great Story. It is repeated in one way or another to Abraham in (1) Genesis 12:1-3, (2) 12:6-7, (3) 13:14-17, (4) 15:1-20, (5) 17:1-27, (6) 18:1-15 and (7) 22:15-18. God promises his covenant blessings to Isaac in (1) 26:2-6 and (2) 26:23-24. He repeats these covenant promises, sometimes to Isaac and Jacob and sometimes through their blessings on their children (1) 27:25-29, (2) 28:1-4, (3) 28:10-15, (4) 32:22-32, (5) 46:1-4, (6) 48, and (49).
Many years ago I was struggling with Genesis twelve through fifty in the light of the way I had been told the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph—a story of their experiences with a moral attached. It slowly dawned upon me that these stories were not primarily about these men, but were marvelous stories about El-Shaddai, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were about a covenant with promises and the power and will of the Living God to keep those promises. When I learned to meet the promising God in those stories, I found a great blessing for myself and for those to whom I ministered.
Command And Promise
God came one day to a worshiper of false gods in Ur of the Chaldees and gave him a promise. He and his family left Ur and traveled to Haran where the illness of the patriarch forced them to stop for a while. It was there that the Creator came to Abram with a command and a promise.
Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and whoever curses you I will curse.
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Abraham listened to his Creator, believed him and obeyed his command. And God kept his promises to him, kind of…. Abraham was seventy-five and his wife was sixty-five when he entered the land. They were without children and were rapidly reaching the age when children would be physically impossible. Twenty-four years later, the impossibility had arrived and God had still not given them a child in fulfillment of the heart of all of his promises to them.
The next year, Isaac was born—a miracle child of doubt and laughter, but he was only one, and he was all that Abraham ever saw of the multitude of progeny that God had promised him. He never say saw grandchildren. Of course, there were other children; Ishmael and the sons of Keturah. But they didn’t count. They were not the children of promise. Only Isaac was a child of the promise. Only through him would all of God’s promises be fulfilled.
God promised this land of Canaan to his descendants: “The Lord appeared to Abram and said; ‘To your offspring I will give this land’” (12 7). He never witnessed the fulfillment of this promise. All that he ever owned of it was a burial plot and a field (Genesis 23).
We have been spoiled by all of the promises God has made to us. We forget that other gods do not make nor keep promises to their people. They do not make promises because they lose their freedom in the necessity of keeping those promises. They do not make them because they do not know whether they will want to keep the promises in the future. They do not make promises because they do not have the power to keep those promises.
But El-Shaddai is the promise making and promise keeping God. He is radically different from all other gods because he delights in making promises to his people. He delights in keeping those promises and he is always perfectly competent to keep those promises in the future that he controls.
I do not have time to tell the stories of all of these repetitions of the covenant promises that are listed above, but it is necessary to tell some in order to understand what God means when he introduces himself to us as El-Shaddai, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who loves to make and keep promises.
I Am Your Shield And Reward
When Abraham had been in the land for about ten years, he went through great danger added to the problem that none of the promises had yet been fulfilled. God came to him that year in a vision:
Do not be afraid, Abram
I am your shield
your very great reward. (Genesis 15:1)
This command and promise were not irrelevant to Abraham’s situation. They met him at the point of his deepest need.
Part of Abraham’s need and fear is the lack of a child. He responds to God’s meeting with him (after a long absence) with a either a suggestion or a plea—likely both.
O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus.? And Abram said, ‘”You have given me no children, so a servant in my household will be my heir” (15:2-3).
It is easy for us to be critical of Abraham. After all, it has only been a few minutes since we have read the first promise and he is impatient already? But, for him, it had been ten years, ten crucial years. The months had marched on without any good news from Sarah and the time is getting shorter.
God repeats his promise that he will give him a son from his own body. He even promises that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars. And “Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness” (15:6)
But Abraham had to believe God for more than that. It was not only the fact that no child was in sight yet. It was also the likelihood that Abraham wouldn’t be around next year at this time. He had just done a very foolish thing. He had just captured the loot and slaves from four kings from the Babylon area and they were angry.
The previous chapter described a battle between five kings from the Sodom and Gomorrah area and five kings from Babylon. The local kings had stopped paying tribute and the Babylonian kings had come west to re-establish their rule and to collect the tribute. They did both, thoroughly defeating the locals. They started back with joy at the total victory and an immense amount of plunder and slaves.
But a runner reported this to Abraham and mentioned that Lot was included among the captives. Though they had separated, Abraham considered Lot to be under God’s covenant of promise. He gathered a group of men and marched north to rescue Lot. We do not know the particulars, but it sounds like Gideon’s victory. With a small army of some three hundred men, Abraham surprised the Babylonian armies, scattered them, took their plunder and slaves and rescued Lot. It was a happy group that returned with this startling and impossible victory. They were honored and blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem. And they were rich.
But then reality set in. If these eastern armies had come over here to restore their rule and collect tribute, how much more will they come to find and destroy this little army that has embarrassed them and has stolen the spoils of their own great victory. They are the laughing stock of the world, and will continue to be until they destroy Abraham and his men. Abraham is a dead man in their eyes and in the eyes of the world. It is a time of fear and worry in Abraham’s household.
Into this time of fear and certain death, God comes with the welcome words: “Do not be afraid, Abraham, I am your shield.” (Genesis 15:1). It had been a while since God had spoken to Abraham and this new word of promise came at the perfect time. He did not know how God would stop those armies, but he believed the promise of God. And God kept his promise. Those armies never got back into the western arm of the fertile crescent in Abraham’s lifetime. We do not know what happened. They surely tried. But God himself stood between them and Abraham and He was immovable. It became a time of joy and confidence in Abraham’s household.
Sarah likely heard the news of Abraham’s great victory and the plunder that he had taken before Abraham arrived back at their tent. She may well have had great plans for all of that extra money, maybe a real home like the one back in Ur. At least it would be something better than this following of their livestock.
When Abraham arrived, she gave him a big kiss and began telling her plans for all of this new wealth. But Abraham had given it all away. It was not a pleasant home coming from that time on. But God, who promised to stand as a shield between Abraham and his enemies also promised to be “Your very great reward” (15:1). And Abraham believed God.
A thousand years later, David was running for his life from his son, Absolom and the armies of Israel. He had only a few hundred warriors with him. His chances of living another day seem very slight. But David claimed the promise of the God of Abraham whom he worshiped.
O Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
God will not deliver him.
But you are a shield around me, O Lord;
you bestow glory on me and lift up my head. (Psalm 3:1-3)
God’s promise to be a shield for Abraham was not only for him, but was a revelation of the kind of God he would be for all who trusted and served him. David claimed that promise and God was his shield. A few weeks later, Absolom was dead and David was back on the throne.
A century and a half after this, Elisha’s servant got up in the morning and found their village surrounded by a Syrian army. Frightened, he reported the danger to Elisha. Elisha remembered Genesis 15:1 and claimed that promise for himself.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed; ‘O Lord, open his eyes so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire around Elisha (II Kings 6:15-17).
Elisha does not pray for help, but for sight for his servant. He knows that God is there protecting them. His servant has forgotten the God of Abraham and needs to see the armies of God protecting them.
El-Shaddai does not always protect his people from all harm from their enemies. Sometimes physical harm is best for God and for his people. But, whether he gives physical protection or not, he is always our shield and reward. And God himself participates in a time when God seems to have failed to be a shield. In Gethsemane, the Son cried for another way, but accepted the will of the Father. And that will was the most terrible suffering ever experienced. But it only seemed that God had stopped being a shield. In reality, it was the ultimate victory over the enemies of God and of his people. God was the perfect shield for Jesus at the cross also. This is obvious if we live by faith, but frustrating if we live by appearances.
Thirteen years later God came to Abraham again. It was thirteen years of agony, fear and worry. Abraham had a child by Sarah’s servant and he had been a source of constant bickering between Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s time of child bearing had come to an end and all hope for a child had been lost. With that loss, all of the promises that God had made to them had proven false. Their hopes were crushed. They were not aware of any faith that somehow God could and would still keep the promises which were the foundation of their lives, their whole reason for leaving Ur and Haran.
After the promise discussed above and the great covenant ceremony of the rest of Genesis fifteen, Sarah did some poor exegesis. God had told Abraham not to worry about Eliezer becoming his heir, “But a son coming from your body will be your heir.” (15:4). She noted that this promise said nothing about her body. Perhaps God was waiting for them to become more creative. So she offered her servant to Abraham to bear a child for them. Abraham agreed with her interpretation of God’s words and a child was conceived. Both of them forgot that this passage had to be read in the context of all that God had said. God would not guide them to distort their marriage and guide them to follow contemporary practice.
Hagar and Ishmael became a bone of contention between Abraham and Sarah. Sarah was jealous and sent Hagar away before the child was born. But God sent her back (Genesis 16:4-15). Sarah will send both mother and son away for good a few years later (Genesis 21:8-21). The amount of space given to these accounts remind us of their importance and demand our attention.
Obviously, Abraham loved Ishmael, his firstborn and only son. Just as obviously Sarah hated both mother and son. Thirteen years of tension, accusations, arguments, and anger stand between the last verse of chapter sixteen and the first verse of chapter seventeen. Along with this came the guilt. Along with the guilt came the conviction that God had given up on them because of their sin.
Children were now a physical impossibility and they had forfeited all right to receive the promised blessings by their sin against God and their fighting with each other. They had stopped believing in the promises of God, at least as far as they were aware. They looked inside and saw no faith, only doubt and guilt. When God comes to them after this unbearably long time, they both laugh in unbelief at the repetition of the promise.
Abraham fell face down and laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of
ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’ (Genesis 17:17-18)
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent…. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure? (Genesis 18:10-15)
In the light of this, it is strange to read Paul’s evaluation of their hearts during this time:
Against all hope, Abraham, in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:18-21).
Faith is much deeper than our perception of it. Many are sure that they believe who really have no faith at all. Some have a deep faith of which they are unaware. The laughter of Abraham and Sarah demonstrate their lack of conscious faith. The fact that they stayed in the land spoke of a deep faith that underlay all of their decisions. Perhaps they talked together about returning to Haran or even to Ur. It sounded good, but both knew that they would never leave this land of promise. Paul looked behind the perceptions of Abraham and Sarah and saw the deep trust in God that wouldn’t permit them to leave the land.
In this time God came to Abraham again, after these thirteen terrible years, and announced that the promise of a son would be fulfilled shortly. (Genesis 17:15-16).
God introduced this great miracle with a self-description.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty (El-Shaddai); walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers” (Genesis 17:1-2).
About a year later God kept his promise.
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. (Genesis 21:1-3).
God gave Abraham a new name for himself—El-Shaddai. It seems impossible to find out what Shaddai meant. But in the context of the story, it is a synonym for The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It reminds us that the God who delights in making and keeping promises is entirely capable of keeping his promises. No Babylonian armies or dead wombs can stop him from keeping every promise that he makes. There are no impossibilities for El-Shaddai. The name is born in this theophany and in all of the promises and fulfillments to the patriarchs.
This has been a look at two of the sixteen times of promise to the patriarchs in order to understand this great and foundational revelation of El-Shaddai, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These two episodes are chosen because of the great summaries of God’s self-revelation at the beginning of chapters fifteen and seventeen. But these give a pattern for reading all of these stories as revelations of the God who delights in making and keeping promises and who is always entirely capable of keeping every promise that he makes, no matter how impossible the situation.
Some Sadducees came to Jesus during the final week before his death. They told him a little story about seven brothers who married a woman with none leaving any children. They then asked him whose wife she would be in the resurrection and waited expectantly. This story had always worked in their debates with the Pharisees. They were sure that Jesus would fail to answer their question also.
But Jesus surprised them—no surprise to us. He told them that marriage was not a part of our resurrection life, so their question was foolish. But he went on to challenge them further on the doctrine of the bodily resurrection.
But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead but of the living. (Matthew 22:31-32).
God said this to Moses at the burning bush some centuries after the death of the patriarchs. There are at least two conclusions that must be drawn from this. One of them is the one that Jesus made: Resurrection is necessary if this name for God is true after their physical death. God is the God of the living and life means not only the life of the soul after death but also of the whole person after the resurrection.
There is another conclusion that was not pertinent to Jesus’ discussion at that time, but is to us at this time. If God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he is to us now all that he was to them then. This is not merely history. It is a proclamation of the self-revelation of the Living God to believers at all times— to us, today, now.