THE AGE OF PATRIARCHS
Part I: ABRAHAM AND THE 3-FOLD PROMISE
Biblical Period 2
Lesson #4
The Biblical Forefathers: Abraham and Isaac
[Greek from patria, meaning family or clan and arche, meaning ruler]

Beloved Heavenly Father,
You spoke to the Patriarchs and through the stories of their lives You have spoken to us.  You have reminded us of the importance of Covenant commitment and faithfulness and You have reminded us of Your faithful love even at those times when human weakness kept these men from fulfilling the promises they made to You. Help us in our weakness, Lord.  And give us the confidence to known that what is impossible for man is possible for God!   Send Your Holy Spirit to guide us in our study as we learn about the men You called and the plans You made for the redemption of the world.

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"It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going.  By faith he sojourned in the Promised Land as though it were not his, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise."
Hebrews 11:8-9

Readings for this Biblical period:

God calls Abram

Genesis 12:1-9

Abram's tithe to Melechizedek

Genesis 14:17-24

God's Three-fold Covenant with Abram
Covenant #3 part 1

Genesis 15:1-21

The Birth of Ishmael

Genesis 16: 1-15

Abram becomes Abraham/ part 2 of

Abraham's Covenant   

Genesis 17: 1-27

The Theophany at Mamre        

Genesis 18: 1-15

Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis 18:16-19:38

The Birth of Isaac and the banishment  

of Ishmael

Genesis 21:1-21

The Binding of Isaac and

Part 3 of Abraham's Covenant

Genesis 22:1-19

Abraham's Covenant continues with

Isaac and Jacob

Genesis chapters 24-32

Jacob's name is changed to Israel/       

Joseph & the 12 Tribes in Egypt

Genesis 32:22-32; 37:1- 47:31

The Blessing of Joseph's Sons/

The Prophecy of Jacob-Israel  

Genesis 48:8- 50:26

After the Fall of our first parents the curse of double death [spiritual and physical] resulted in exile from the Garden of Eden, barring them from continual communion with God the Father and access to the Tree of Life.  Their sin caused them to lose the family bond of divine son-ship and to be exiled or "cast off" from the protective presence of God in the Garden.  The penalty is identical to the penalty that will be established in the Law of the Sinai Covenant for profaning the "Sabbath rest" which states in Exodus 31:14 that to be put to death [double death] is to be cast off from the midst of one's people/family: "You will keep the Sabbath, then; you will regard it as holy. Anyone who profanes it will be put to death [double death]; anyone who does any work on that day will be outlawed from his people."   Only through the covenant and the reestablishment of communion through sacrifice can human fellowship with God be restored.  

God calls Abram

Sacred Scripture lists 10 generations from Adam to Noah and 10 generations from Noah to Abraham.  We do not know if these are literal generations or if the number 10 represents perfection of order--God ordained generations of the faithful line of the "sons of God".

Genesis chapter 5 lists 10 descendants from Adam, through his son Seth, to Noah.  With the death of Abel and the exile of the firstborn son, Cain, Seth, the third son, becomes the "re'shiyt" or firstborn; the heir of the promises of the Covenant with Yahweh.  It is through the line of Seth that the "sons of God" will be preserved.  The list of the descendants of Noah's righteous firstborn son Shem, functions in the same way.  The toledoth of Noah draws the line of the "faithful seed of Adam" from Noah, through Shem, to Abraham, cutting off the "unfaithful" line of Ham/Canaan [see Genesis 10:26-30].  These genealogical lists not only mark the "line of promise" but will lead to the "promised seed", Jesus the Messiah, and will link the Old Testament to the New Testament in the "toledoths" [generations] of Joseph and Mary in Matthew chapter 1:1-17 and in Luke chapter 3:23-38.

Another genealogical list precedes Genesis chapter 12 and the call of Abram.  The purpose of this list is not so much to connect Abraham with the preceding events as the other genealogies have done but to provide the background for understanding the events that follow.  This list, however, only includes 8 names.  It is only as the narrative unfolds that we discover that the holy line will split once again in the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael [Genesis 16:15] and Isaac [Genesis 21:3] and that the faithful seed of Adam will continue through Isaac's son Jacob.  Isaac and Jacob are the two missing names that will complete the list of 10 generations.

Please read Genesis 12:1-9
Just as in the judgment of the sinful in the narrative of the Great Flood when Noah and his family were called to salvation, now the call of Abram comes after the judgment and dispersion of the nations at Babylon [Genesis 11:1-9].  Abram's call, like Noah's, is God's gift of salvation to the faithful amid the chaos of judgment, a reoccurring theme in the Bible.  Abram's name means "exalted father" but Yahweh will give him a new name to reflect his status as the father of God's holy people: Abraham means, "father of a multitude".

Genesis 11:31-32 informs the reader that Abram, his father Terah, Abram's nephew Lot, and Abram's wife Sarai [pronounced sah-rahee'] all left Ur of the Chaldeans to journey to the Land of Canaan.  But before continuing on to Canaan they stop in Haran [on the modern border between Syria and Turkey] and settled there for a time.

Question: When God first called Abram was he called out of Ur or out of Haran?  See Genesis 11:31; 12:1; 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7; and Acts 7:2-4.
Answer: At first it seems unclear where Abram is residing when God calls him, but Ur of the Chaldeans, and not Haran, was the place of Abraham's birth, therefore when God commands Abram to leave his "country", or "native land" the reference is probably to Ur.  The location of God's call becomes clearer in Genesis 15:7 where God tells Abram "I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this country as your possession."  That God called Abram out of Ur is also the view of the writer of the book of Nehemiah in 9:7 and St. Stephen in his homily before the Jewish Sanhedrin [Law Court] in Acts 7:2-3 where he states that "The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham, while he was in Mesopotamia before settling in Haran...."

The city of Ur, located near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, was the New York City of ancient Mesopotamia.  It was one of the capital cities of the ancient Sumerians, the first great Mesopotamian culture. By Abram's time the Sumerians had lost their influence and Ur had become a Babylonian city-state, however, when Abram lived in the city Ur was regarded as one of the greatest cities of antiquity.  It was one of the most powerful, sophisticated and influential cities of Mesopotamia, acknowledged as a center of learning and culture, with a population of about 200,000 people.  The Chaldeans of Ur, as descendants of the ancient Sumerians, became the inheritors of a vast reservoir of knowledge preserved from the first great civilization.  The priests of Ur were highly respected for their knowledge of Astrology.  Ur was, in fact, the world's central location for the study of astronomy and astrology.

The last time we heard of Canaan was in Genesis chapter 9 when God cursed Canaan, denied him an inheritance and gave a covenant blessing to Shem, the firstborn son of Noah.  A firstborn son received a double-blessing.  He received the inheritance of the land as well as the power and authority over the family.  Shem was given that power and authority and now Abraham, his descendant, will be chosen as the righteous father of the holy people of God.

Question: In Genesis 12:1-3 God promises Abram 3 blessings if he will leave his homeland and go to a land selected by God. What are the 3 blessings promised in Genesis 12:1-2 when Yahweh reveals to Abram "I shall make you a great nation, I shall bless you and make your name [shem in Hebrew] famous; you are to be a blessing!" ? These promises will become the 3 parts of a Covenant God will form with Abram in Genesis chapters 15, 17, and 22.  How can these 3 blessings be summarized? For clarification of these Covenant blessings promised to Abram see Genesis 15:18; 17:3, 6 & 7; and 22:18.
Answer: Promises:

  1. "I shall make you a great nation": Genesis 15:18 "That day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram in these terms: 'To your descendants I give this country, from the River of Egypt to the Great River [Nile to Euphrates]".  This promise is repeated in Genesis 17:6-8, and 22:17.  =Abram is promised land/ a kingdom,
  2. "I shall bless you and make your name [shem] famous": Genesis 15:4-5 and in Genesis 17:4-8 Yahweh promises Abram: "And I shall grant a covenant between myself and you, and make you very numerous..." (verses 6-7) "I shall make you exceedingly fertile. I shall make you into nations, and your issue will be kings.  And I shall maintain my covenant between myself and you, and your descendants after you, generation after generation, as a covenant in perpetuity, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.."  Also see Genesis 22:17. Abram is promised descendants, and
  3. "You are to be a blessing!" : Genesis 22:18 "All nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command." Abram's obedience will result in a world-wide blessing.

These promises will become the 3-fold Covenant with Abram and his "seed" in chapters 15, 17 and 22, a period that covers approximately 40 years. 

Question: Are any of these promises/Covenant blessings fulfilled in Abraham's lifetime?
Answer: No.  Numerous descendants, dominion over the land, nations, and kings, will be partially fulfilled after Abraham's death in the formation of the nation of Israel and the conquest of the Promised Land but all three blessings/ covenant promises will only be completely fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, descendant of Abraham through His mother Mary.

Question: How are these covenant blessings of Abraham perfectly fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah?
Answer:

  1. Land: Jesus established the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a kingdom we, as his heirs, have inherited as a royal priesthood of believers in the New Covenant.  We took possession of this covenant promise on Pentecost Sunday ca. 30 AD when God the Holy Spirit came down in fire on the New Covenant Church praying in the Upper Room in Jerusalem.  Today, all nations of the earth have Christians living in them.
  2. Numerous descendants: All New Covenant believers, through the blood of Christ our Savior, have become Abraham's children and these children come from every nation on the earth: St Paul in his letter to the gentiles and Jews of the New Covenant Church in Roman wrote about God's covenant promises to Abraham in Romans 4:16 "That is why the promise is to faith, so that it comes as a free gift and is secure for all the descendants, not only those who rely on the Law but all those others who rely on the faith of Abraham, the ancestor of us all (as Scriptures says: 'I have made you the father of many nations').  Abraham is our father in the eyes of God, in whom he put his faith, and who brings the dead to life and calls into existence what does not yet exist."  In Romans 9:6-8 Paul refers to God's instructions to Abraham in Genesis 21:12 that spiritual descent takes precedence over physical descent:: "It is not that God's promise has failed.  Not all born Israelites belong to Israel, and not all the descendants of Abraham count as his children, for Isaac is the one through whom your Name ["shem" in Hebrew] will be carried on.  That is, it is not by being children through physical descent that people become children of God; it is the children of the promise that are counted as the heirs."
  3. Worldwide blessing: In Galatians 3:6-9 and verse 29 Paul writes about the fulfillment of both the promises of descendants and worldwide blessing:" Abraham, you remember. Put his faith in God, and this was reckoned to him as uprightness.  Be sure, then, that it is people of faith who are the children of Abraham.  And it was because Scripture foresaw that God would give saving justice to the gentiles through faith, that it announced the future gospel to Abraham in the words: 'All nations will be blessed in you.  So it is people of faith who receive the same blessings as Abraham, the man of faith." And simply by being Christ's, you are that progeny of Abraham, the heirs named in the promise."  And continuing in verse 29 Paul writes: And simply by being Christ's you are that progeny of Abraham, the heirs named in the promise."  In this last verse Paul is referring to the 3-fold promise of the Covenant with Abraham.

Something to think about: The promises of Abraham's 3-part Covenant would not be perfectly fulfilled until the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, approximately 2,000 years after Abraham.  If it took 2,000 years for the promise of Abraham's Covenant to be fulfilled does it seem so strange that we have been waiting almost 2,000 years for the promise of the Messiah's return?

Question: In the first blessing God promises Abram that He will "make your name famous". You may remember where it was in Genesis that others expressed this same desire to "make their name famous"?
Answer: It was the boast of the people who built the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. 

Real "success" in life is based not on our own achievements and in "making a name for ourselves" but on those works that come from allowing the works of God to work through us.  The builders of the Tower of Babel are only known for their failure but Abram's name will be known as the father of a holy nation, the nation of Israel and the Old Covenant Church from which the Messiah will come.  With Abram and Sarai God has selected another "holy couple", and this holy couple in their faithfulness will parent a holy nation.

Question: How old is Abram when he leaves for Canaan with his wife, nephew, and retainers?  See Genesis 12:4.
Answer: 75 years old. He settles with his wife, his nephew Lot, his herds and people in the Negeb desert after having passed through Shechem, and Bethel.

It is interesting that only 3 sites are mentioned.  Coming from the north [Haran is on the modern Turkey-Syrian border], Abram will pass through all the land of Canaan in 3 journeys. 

In the first journey he visits Shechem, located in the middle of what will become the Land of Israel, where Yahweh appears to Abram to promise him that his descendants will inherit this land.  In response to this promise Abram builds an altar to Yahweh marking God's "conquest" of the land and sanctifying the land to Yahweh [see Genesis 12:6-7].  Shechem will become a significant site of covenant renewal for the future Israelites.  Next Abram moves to the area to the east of Bethel ["house of God"] between Bethel on the west and Ai on the east.  This time Abram builds an altar and "calls on the name of the Lord" [Genesis 12:8] offering up holy liturgy in Yahweh's name.  Finally Abram travels south toward the Negev and comes to Hebron where he will later purchase the field of Machpelah [Genesis chapter 23].

Later in chapters 33-35 Abram's grandson Jacob will return to these 3 sites and all 3 sites will become important in the conquest of Canaan led by Abraham's descendants Joshua and the sons of Israel [Joshua 7:2; 8:9; 8:30; Joshua chapters 10 and 11; Joshua 24:23-26].  Abram's 3 journeys through the land prefigure the Conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua.  The journey demonstrates that the deeds of the Patriarchs prefigure those of their descendants and that the conquest of the land had already been accomplished in a symbolic way in the time of their ancestor Abram [Abraham] when God first gave them the Promised Land.

The 3-fold Promise is threatened:

Abram has been called by God to be the future father of a holy people but Abram is far from the image of a "perfect" man.  During a severe famine Abram seeks refuge in Egypt [Genesis 12:10-13:4].  In a repeat of Adam's fear to protect his bride Abram allows his beautiful wife/half-sister [Genesis 20:12] Sarai, posing as his sister, to be taken into Pharaoh's harem. Even though God's promise in 12:1-3 seems to be threatened by human weakness God always remains faithful to His word.  God intervenes and safeguards the promise.  In a dream Pharaoh receives the information that he has unknowingly taken another man's wife and being a good man, the Egyptian pharaoh returns Sarai to Abram along with numerous material possessions.  But we should not think that Abram has benefited from his sin; it is obvious that the gift of the Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, will be a gift both Abram and Sarai will come to regret.  Abram will repeat this cowardliness with King Abimelech [Heb. = "father-is-king"] of the Philistines with the same results [Genesis chapter 20].  God will intervene and Sarai will be returned. 

Abram becomes the most powerful ruler in Canaan:
In Genesis chapter 14 four Kings from the east invade and conquer the cities of five kings of Canaan.  The Kings of Sodom and Gomorrah are defeated and Abram's nephew Lot is captured [Genesis 14:10-12].  Abram and his 318 fighting men defeat the armies of the 4 Kings, rescue Lot and free the other captives [Genesis 14:13-16].  Abram is now the most powerful ruler in the region.

Please read Genesis 14:17-24 Abram's tithe to Melechizedek

Question: After Abram's return from battle he is met by two kings.  Who are these kings?
Answer: Melchizedek Priest-King of Salem and the King of Sodom.

Abram meets these kings in the Valley of Shaveh, literally in Hebrew, the "valley of the oath".  Notice this is another connection to the number 7, to swear an oath is "to 7 oneself" in Hebrew, and both covenants and covenant renewal are established and passed on to the next generation by "oath-swearing".   This valley is also mentioned in 2 Samuel 18:18 and according to the 1st century AD historian Flavius Josephus it lay within a quarter mile of Jerusalem.

Melchizedek is the Priest-King of Salem.  The place name "Salem", which means "peace" in Hebrew, is identified in ancient Jewish tradition and by many of the Fathers of the Church as the ancient name for Jerusalem, a city located on Mt. Moriah in central Canaan. Psalms 76:1-2 also seems to make this connection: "God is acknowledged in Judah, his name is great in Israel, his tent [dwelling place] is pitched in Salem, his dwelling is in Zion..."  Melchizedek is not a name but is instead a title or throne-name meaning "King of Righteousness" [melech = king; zedek = righteousness].  

Question: There is a contrast in Abram's response to these kings.  How does the Priest-King of Salem respond to Abram and how does Abram, the most powerful king in the region having defeated all the other armies, respond to the Priest-King of Salem? 
Answer: Abram humbles himself before the King of Salem who offers Abram bread and wine as a priestly act [Genesis 14:18] and in blessing Abraham acknowledges that it was the "Most High God", in Hebrew "El-Elyon, creator of heaven and earth" who delivered the enemy into Abram's hand [Genesis 14:19].  In response Abram acknowledges the King of Salem's priestly and kingly authority by paying a tithe of 1 tenth of all his accumulated wealth during the conflict.

Question: Who is the "Most High God" Melchizedek represents as a Priest-King?
Answer: It must be Yahweh because Abram acknowledges no other God.

Question: How does Abram respond to the powerful king of Sodom's offer of friendship and alliance?
Answer: His offer is rejected.

Melchizedek is the king of the same Jerusalem where Yahweh will choose to dwell in His Holy Temple, but at this time Melchizedek is a priest of the Most High before the Levitical priesthood was established.  Psalms 110:1-4 represents Melchizedek as a figure of David: "Yahweh declared to my Lord, 'Take your seat at my right hand, till I have made your enemies your footstool.'  Yahweh will stretch out the scepter of your power; from Zion you will rule your foes all around you. Royal dignity has been yours from the day of your birth, sacred honor from the womb, from the dawn of your youth.  Yahweh has sworn an oath he will never retract, you are a priest for ever of the order of Melchizedek."  Melchizedek's priesthood was superior to the Sinai covenant's Aaronic priesthood because instead of being an hereditary office Melchizedek was appointed by God to worldwide sovereignty and perpetual priesthood, prerogatives of the Messiah. This Psalms passage is the most frequently quoted and referenced Psalms in the New Testament.  Jesus quotes this Psalms in Matthew 22:44 and St. Peter will quote this Psalms and apply it to Jesus in his homily on Pentecost Sunday in Acts of Apostles 2: 34-35 [also see Hebrews 1:13]. 

The sacred writer of the Book of Hebrews wrote that the passage in Psalms 110 was a prophetic passage about Christ who would come to serve as both our King and our High Priest [see Hebrews chapter 7:1-3, 11-19]. The Fathers of the Church also taught that Melchizedek is himself a figure or "type" of the Messiah whose priesthood comes directly from God and not by virtue of heredity.

Question: What is the symbolic significance of the gift of bread and wine that God's righteous priest-king brings to Abram?
Answer: It can be seen as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist.  As God's priestly representative the King of Salem brings this symbol of the Eucharist to the man God has selected to be the father of a nation that will bring forth the Messiah. 

Question: Who is this Priest-King who acknowledges the One True God and to whom Abram, the most powerful man in the entire region acknowledges as priest as well as king?  Who is this man who carries God's priestly and kingly authority?
Answer: The identity of this man is one of the great mysteries of the Bible. According to Jewish tradition this priest-king of Salem is Shem, the righteous firstborn son of Noah through whom God has continued His Covenant. The modern Jewish Tanach [Old Testament] includes a notation of this tradition in the footnotes [see the Tanach (Stone edition), note on page 29), and it is also found in the 1st century Targums, the Aramaic commentaries that accompanied the Old Testament text (i.e., Babylonian Talmud, N'darim 32b). Also see The Jewish New Testament Commentary, page 679). There is biblical precedent in Solomon's name change from Jedidah (Yedidyah = "beloved of Yahweh), the name given him at his birth by the prophet Nathan, and the king name he was known by, Solomon (from the Hebrew word for "peace"). There is also historical precedent: kings in the ancient Near East (and most kings) took a throne-name other than their birth name (i.e., the Egyptian pharaohs).

Both St. Ephraim in the 4th century AD and St. Jerome in the 5th century AD acknowledge Shem's link to Melchizedek:

You may recall that Shem is the first man identified in Scripture as "God's man", and Shem is also the righteous "firstborn" son of Noah with whom God's Covenant with Noah continues.  In Genesis 9:26 he is identified as "Blessed be Yahweh, God of Shem".  Abram/Abraham is his descendant!  Genesis 11:10 records that "When Shem was a hundred years old he fathered Arpachshad, two years after the flood.  After the birth of Arpackshad, Shem lived 500 years.."   Shem lived to be 600 years old. If you calculate the age of Shem from the toledoth of Genesis chapter 11 you will discover that Shem was 390 years old when Abram was born.  Genesis 17:24 records that Abraham [his name is changed by then] is 99 years old when Ishmael is circumcised at age 13.  At that time Shem would be a healthy 489 years old-- still alive after the events of Genesis chapter 14.  If Shem is Yahweh's Covenant representative it makes perfect sense for Abram to acknowledge his leadership and to pay a tithe.  Abraham died when he was 175 [Genesis 25:7]. At that time Shem would have been a venerable 565 years old, outliving his "son" Abraham and dying in his 600th year!  St. Ephraim wrote: Shem lived not only to the time of Abraham, as Scripture says, but even to the time of Jacob and Esau, the grandsons of Abraham.  It was to him that Rebekah went to ask and was told, "Two nations are in your womb, and the elder shall serve the younger.  Rebekah would not have bypassed her husband, who had been delivered at the high place, or her father-in-law, to whom revelations of the divinity came continually and gone straight to ask Melechizedek unless she had learned of his greatness from Abraham or Abraham's son. Abraham would not have given him a tenth of everything unless he knew that Melchizedek was infinitely greater than himself.  Would Rebekah have asked one of the Canaanites or one of the Sodomites?  Would Abraham have given a tenth of his possessions to any one of these?  One ought not even entertain such ideas. St. Ephraim, Commentary on Genesis.

Shem's age

Descendants

100 years

Birth of Arpachshad

135 years

Birth of Shelah

165 years

Birth of Eber

199 years

Birth of Peleg

229 years

Birth of Reu

261 years

Birth of Serug

291 years

Birth of Nahor

320 years

Birth of Terah

390 years

Birth of Abraham

490 years

Birth of Isaac

565 years old

Death of Abraham

600 years old

Death of Shem

Shem outlived Abraham

Question: The Fathers of the Church saw Melchizedek as a "type of Christ".  What parallels can you see between this righteous King of Salem and Jesus of Nazareth?
Answer: Both Melchizedek and Jesus serve Yahweh as:

  1. A righteous firstborn son. 
  2. served Yahweh as priest and king.
  3. Melchizedek rules in Salem /Jerusalem, and Jesus rules in the heavenly Jerusalem 
  4. Priestly offering of bread and wine; Jesus = Eucharist 
  5. Receives tithes & offerings 
  6. Higher order of priesthood than the Sinai Covenant Levitical priesthood: Melchizedek's priesthood, like Jesus' priesthood, is based on his firstborn son-ship not on heredity through the line of Levi as will be the Levitical priesthood of the Sinai Covenant.

Biblical references to Melchizedek: Psalms 110:4; Hebrews 5:5-10; 6:20; 7:1-17 [7 times in Hebrews].  Also see references to Shem as Melchizedek in the footnotes of the modern Jewish Tanach; in the 1st century BC and AD Aramaic Targums found at Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls: Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave I; Fragment Targum Jerusalem II; Palestinian Targum; Targum Neofiti, all of which identify Shem as Melchizedek which was a common belief from a time very early in Old Covenant Church and was commonplace in the 1st century AD [see Horton, The Melchizedek Tradition, page 114].  Catholic scholars also taught in this tradition: St. Ephraim in the 3rd century; Jerome in the 5th; Medieval scholars like Alcuin, Sedilius, Scott, Aimon d'Auxerre, Lombard, Nicholas of Lyra, and the ex-Catholic scholar Martin Luther who wrote: On the basis of the general conviction of the Hebrews it is assumed that this Melchizedek is Noah's son Shem..... I gladly agree with their opinion" [Luther's Works II, page 381].

Question: If Abram had indeed become the most powerful ruler in the Land of Canaan why didn't he just subdue all the other Canaanite kingdoms and take the land for himself?
Answer: In this aspect of God's promised blessings, at least, Abram is submitting to God's plan.  In the case of God's promise of descendants, however, Abram and Sarai will not be so obedient.

Question: What is the significance of Abraham paying a 10th of everything we had acquired as a tithe and receiving a blessing from Melchizedek?  What are the last two occasions prior to this event in Genesis when a blessing was given and received?
Answer: The last blessings are mentioned in Genesis chapter 12 in God's three-fold promise to Abraham and God's blessing on Shem in 9:26-27.  The passage which reads Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem!  Let Canaan be his slave.  May God expand Japheth, so that he dwells among the tents of Shem...can also be translated "so that Shem dwells (serves) His tent", which would mean Shem would serve the "tent" or "tabernacle" of God, as His priest.  The paying of the tithe and the blessing show Abraham acknowledges Melchizedek's authority.

Concerning Melchizedek-Shem's blood connection to Abraham and the action of both paying a tenth tithe and receiving a blessing, St. Ephraim saw this as a prefigurement of the Levitical priesthood.  St. Ephraim, 4th century doctor of the Church wrote: Through Abraham, who gave him the tenth part, the house of Levi, which had to be generated by him, took the tenth part in him.  The Levites, even though they took the tenth part, did not take it from strangers but received the tenth part from themselves; in fact, they took the tenth part from their brothers, the sons of Abraham.  Therefore, Abraham, to whom the promise of priesthood was made, gave the tenth part to Melchizedek, who was not inscribed in the Levitic generation. And to Abraham it had been promised that all nations would have been blessed in him.  So why did he need the blessing of an uncircumcised man?  Does not this show and prove that, if Abraham had not been inferior to Melchizedek, he would not have demanded to be blessed by him? And so the mortal sons receive the tenth part, and in the same manner Melchizedek, who was mortal, lived at that time to be a witness for Abraham, for the indisputably true Melchizedek's blessing destined to the seed of Abraham.  Ephraim, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews.

God's Covenant with Abram Part 1

Please read Genesis 15:1-21

In Genesis chapter 15 Yahweh reminds Abram of the 3-fold promise and Abram brings up a major obstacle to those promises being fulfilled.

Question: What does Abram see as a major problem that must be solved before the promises can be fulfilled?
Answer: He and his wife have no children.

Question: What promise does God give Abram in Genesis 15 verse 5?
Answer: Abram's descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky!

Question: What was Abram's response to God's renewal and clarification of this promise?  See Genesis 15:6
Answer: "Abram put his faith in Yahweh and this was reckoned to him as uprightness."  Yahweh acknowledges Abram's act of trust and faith in God's promise is an act worthy of reward [see [Psalms 106:31].  St Paul and St. James will both reference this text in Genesis chapter 15:6 to prove that righteousness depends on living and active faith.  Paul expresses this active faith as "obedience of faith" in Romans 1:5 and as faith not dependant on "works of the Law" [Romans 3:27-28].  In Romans 3:38 Paul wrote: "...faith is what counts, since as we see it, a person is justified by faith and not by doing what the Law tells him to do."  Paul is not saying that our "works", the "works of God working through us" which is the definition of active faith, has no value.  He is instead contrasting the Law which was engraved on stone and only served to condemn men and women of their sins with faith that comes from an interior Law, written on human hearts and which works through love [Galatians 5:6].  In Romans 8:2 Paul will call this interior Law, the Law of the Holy Spirit.  St. James emphasizes that it is this living active faith that is pleasing to God because faith without the deeds of love toward our fellow man and obedience to God is dead faith [James 2:17 & 26]. 

There is no contradiction between Paul's teaching and James' teaching.  St. Paul is anxious to dismiss the view that a human being can earn salvation without having faith in Christ.  One cannot come to salvation through "works alone"; this would be a condition of self-made sanctity usurping the sovereignty of God.  We are not just called to be "good" we are called to be "supernaturally good".  These are not our "works" or deeds but are the works of God working through us.  James teaches that salvation cannot come from "faith alone" because faith cannot be separated from deeds.  James uses Abraham's obedience to God in Genesis chapter 22 as an example: "Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar? So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by what he did.  In this way the Scripture was fulfilled: 'Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name "friend of God'. "  James is teaching that works/deeds demonstrate the existence of genuine faith.  [James 2:21-23].  See CCC# 2001

In Genesis 15:7 Yahweh restates His promise to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan. 

Question: Abram has faith in God.  An example of his faith is that he did set out on faith from Ur of the Chaldeans to come to the land God had called him to go to, but does Abram have perfect, unshakable faith?  See Genesis 15:8.
Answer:  No, his faith is not perfect or unshakable. Abram is obedient but his faith needs strengthening and so he asks God for a sign.  Abram asks: "How will I know I will possess it?" Abram's question is a request to help his unbelief.  Faith, like salvation and justification is an on-going process not a one time event.

Question: Abram is an imperfect man of imperfect faith....why would God choose such a man and what lesson is there for us in God's choice?
Answer: The answer is that God can take perfectly ordinary, imperfect men and women and if they will trust Him enough to yield their lives to Him, He can used them in extraordinary ways!  They don't need perfect faith...they just need faith enough to trust and be obedient to God's call.

In response to Abram's request Yahweh seals the covenant promise with a very bizarre ritualistic ceremony in which Abram will sacrifice his wealth in animals.

Question: What does Yahweh require Abram to do?
Answer: He is to bring three of 5 different animals: cattle, sheep, goats, pigeons, and turtle-doves.  These animals will be the only kinds of animals that will be offered up in sacrifice to Yahweh, here in this passage and in the sacrificial system of the Sinai Covenant.  The Hebrew word translated in most English translations as "a three-year old" is "meshuleshet".[may-shu-lay-shet], which can be translated as "the third born", or "three years old", or "part of a triplet" meaning 3 of a kind, or of triple-A quality. Whatever the original intention of the word, the significance of the 3ness indicates fullness, importance, and perfection, and to Christians suggests a connection to the Trinity.  

Three of the kinds of sacrificed animals [the calves, sheep, and goats] Abram is commanded to split down the middle and place each half opposite the other.  He guards the sacrifice until sundown.  Sundown is the beginning of the next day. As Abram falls into a deep sleep, reminiscent of Adam's deep sleep on the sixth day of Creation, Yahweh gives Abram a prophecy in Genesis 15:12-16.

Question: What are the various points of the prophecy?  When will the prophecy be fulfilled?
Answer: The prophecy will be fulfilled at the time of Joseph son of Jacob [Israel] and during the Exodus experience:

The reference to the Ammonites [sons of Ammon] in Genesis 15:16 refers to an Aramaean tribe who were descendants of Abram's nephew Lot [Genesis 19:38] through an incestuous union with Lots daughter.

In this covenant ritual both parties, Abram and God, will pass between the parts of the sacrificed animals and call down on themselves the fate of the victim should the covenant be violated. 

Question: How is Yahweh's presence in this ritual manifested?
Answer: The smoking fire-pot passing between the animal pieces is in essence Yahweh Himself swearing an oath of fidelity to the covenant.
The word used in Hebrew for "firepot" is "tannur" which is an archaic term in Hebrew for "oven".  It is an oven in the sense of a brazier of the sort used for burning incense in a Catholic Mass.

Question: In what other ways will the presence of Yahweh be manifested in smoke or fire?
Answer: The smoking firepot represents Yahweh's presence in the same way the burning bush will for Moses [Exodus 3:2] and the pillar of fire for the children of Israel in the Exodus experience [Exodus 13:21], and the smoke of Mt. Sinai [Exodus 19:18].

The purpose of the "cut" animals becomes clear in the words used in Genesis 15:18: "Yahweh [concluded] made a covenant with Abram..."  The Hebrew verb "krt" [translated "made" or "concluded"] means "to cut". A covenant with Abram was literally and symbolically "cut"-- a covenant sealed in blood.

Question: In Genesis 15:8 Abram asked God "How can I know that I shall possess it?" In Genesis 15:18-21 God answers that question.  What is His answer?
Answer: This covenant will have a human historical continuity and a cultural tradition that is to be transmitted from generation to generation.  Yahweh is telling Abram that He is establishing a relationship not just with an individual but with a nation!

Question: What is the extent of the land promised?
Answer: From the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates River, with dominion over all the people who live between these two rivers. This is covenant promise #1: the land.

Questions for group discussion:

Question: Abraham's and Sarah's adventures in Egypt in Genesis 12:10-29 has meaning beyond their actions and prefigures Israel's later experiences there.  How many similarities do you see between what happens to the first parents of the Children Israel and the experiences of the people of Israel in Egypt?  Read Genesis 12:10-29 and compare with Genesis 42:1, 2, 5; 45:18-20; 47:4; Exodus 1:8-14; 12:35-36.
Answer:

1)      Famine sends both Abraham and Sarah and the Children of Israel into Egypt.

2)      Initially they are treated well

3)      Then they face persecution [Sarah is forcibly taken into the Pharaoh's harem and the Children of Israel are enslaved].

4)      In response to the persecution God brings judgment by sending plagues against the Egyptians which compels one Pharaoh to release Sarah back to Abraham and the other Pharaoh to release Israel from bondage.

5)      Both Abraham and the Children of Israel depart Egypt richer than when they first came into the country.

Question: What prophecy made to Abraham concerning his descendants will be fulfilled when the Children of Israel have their Egyptian experience?  See Genesis 15:13-14

God not only prophesied the events of the Exodus experience but had the physical father of Israel walk the same ground in preparation for the defining moment in which the promise of a nation from the seed of Abraham would emerge.

Resources and recommended reading:

  1. Many Religions--One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, [Ignatius Press, 1999].
  2. Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating, [Ignatius Press, 1988].
  3. Dictionary of the Bible, John L. McKenzie, S.J.,[Bruce Publishing Company, 1965].        
  4. Tanach, edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman,  [Mesorah Publications, Ltd,, 1998].
  5. Jewish Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, [William Morrow, Inc., 1991, 2001].
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church
  7. The Navarre Commentary: The Pentateuch, [Four Courts Press, 2001].
  8. Swear To God, Scott Hahn, [Doubleday, 2004].
  9. Genesis, St. Augustine, [New York City Press, 2002].      

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2008 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.