The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob
By Malcolm Goodwin
In the introduction to this series I established the concept of person as having three elements which were exemplified in the introduction of God to Moses in the burning bush. I suggested that there was a referential element (I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham etc); that there was an existential element (tell them that “I AM” has sent you;) and a nominal element (“I am the LORD/Jehovah – this is my name…). This identification was part of answering the question “Who is God” that is central to the Biblical message. It is linked to the very character of God as being the God of promise, which was to climax with the birth of the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us.
In similar fashion, it was the question which Jesus was to ask of his disciples “Who do you say I am” and is the opening question of systematic theology. I compared this to the unstructured theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Call of Abraham
In continuance of that introduction, I wanted to expand the concept of “journey” and look at Abram’s journey as a reflection of God’s journey with his creation. We often overlook the importance of when Abram was called, and by that I don’t mean the year, but rather the stage of faith journey. This is what Luke reports Stephen to say about the Jews arguing about accepting Gentiles into the fold:
In other words, Stephen challenges the crowds baying for his blood, and is essentially asking “Why are you arguing about accepting Gentiles into the fold when our Father Abraham, while he was a pagan living in Mesopotamia, was called and used of God, and came from that group which we now call Gentiles?” You can imagine that this was not well received. Thankfully God is able to work ahead of us in whatever territory he is calling us into.
At the start of our study, I would suggest this point being made by Stephen is an important lesson for us to learn when thinking about how God can draw near to and use the Jehovah’s Witness on your doorstep. We might think they would make a wonderful Christian, or we might think they have no chance of being saved, depending on what time that doorbell is rung! But, that judgement call is not ours to make as to who is worthy of salvation; I find it wise to leave that decision to Jesus!
We should assume neither way, who is and who is not called, or who will be saved, but rather act in line with God’s will that all men shall come to know God. We can never know for certain how that will work out for any individual. Our task is to be faithful bringers of good news. Doing it like Jesus did…faithfully, winsomely, lovingly, hopefully, in fact all the “…ily’s” you can think of. Ours is to love and be the hands of Jesus helping those who enter onto our common path as we follow Jesus. We are fellow beggars pointing to the soup kitchen!
It was against these pagan and henotheistic times that God introduced himself to Moses, just as he had done with his forefather Abram. The journey into Monotheism that the Jew’s were to embark upon was continuing, and they would falter on that path long into their history, but God was still with them. It didn’t matter how many times that Golden Calf was dusted off, God chose to use their renowned past as a point of reference in explaining who he was. A faithful God in word and deed, no matter how unfaithful they were!
Henotheism is the belief that there is a panoply of gods with a senior all powerful God at the top of the hierarchy. This was the prevailing world-view at the time of Abraham. It existed long into Israel’s exile in Babylon where their journey with God and discovery of Monotheism was to continue and be enriched by their experiences in captivity.
In the introduction, I pointed out that Abraham was called out of Ur and settled in Haran before going on into the Promised Land. This, in and of itself, is a testament of journey. But it’s more than that. It’s more than mere geographical relocation. This is a significant mind shift, and the extension of trust in God in answering the call in the midst of terrible times. It was a big deal. When we are faced with a Jehovah’s Witness on the door step (or any other faith group), expecting them to just make the jump is not realistic – even if they are having doubts. We serve a God who journey’s with us, and expects us to journey with others as we are called. But we must recognise that it’s a journey that takes time and effort; … and trust…and, of course, someone willing to reach-out.
Nonetheless, even the geographical journey was epic! The Chaldeans were a seminomadic group occupying lower/southern Babylon/Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). They were very sophisticated, educated, and fierce worriers. Ur was in the most southern region. It was the Chaldeans who advised Nebuchadnezzar, who deported the Israelites from Israel into Babylon in 587/586 BCE.2 Abraham travelled some 1800 km/1100 miles to Haran (modern day Turkey) before further journeying into the Promised Land. Here is a link to the map on Bible-archeology.info illustrating the probable journey (see right)
The Gift of Hospitality
Along his journey, we learn in Genesis 18:6 that Abraham shows great hospitality to angelic visitors and shares his tent with these messengers at Mamre. This was a social imperative of the time; it was absolutely de rigueur. It was a heinous crime not to show hospitality. It was a matter of life or death and in modern day terms, this would have been the equivalent of upholding the Human Right’s law! Nowadays, hospitality and administration are not the sexy gifts of the spirit that we pray for, but they are at the heart of how God moves. Welcoming a Witness into your home should be more than entrapment! It’s a vehicle of grace and growth.
Thus far, I would suggest that the God of Abraham shows himself to be a God of calling, a God of journeying, and a God of relationship. Abraham’s story, from his perspective, is one of fear or faith. Sometimes he acts with great faith, stepping out on a long journey. And sometimes, as in Genesis 14, he recoils in fear. But, God is in relationship with him and is journeying with him. This is an important part of the relational element of identification established with Moses. It builds on previous history, demonstrates faithfulness, and is the basis on which the future promise was predicated.
The incarnation demonstrates that the very heart of God is identification with those for whom he will intercede. Jesus took on humanity and identified with us bodily; it is this that fuels his intercession at the right hand of the Father (Rom.8:31-39.) He will see this journey through to its eschatological end, where we will join the Great Crowd in heaven in unstinting and unbounded worship!
Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his only son Isaac, the child of promise, is a moment of faith, as is his rescue of Lot. Despite the fear, he is recorded in scripture as one of the great faithful’s of old. (Heb 11.) Although Isaac’s name may mean “he laughs,” scholars believe that linguistically this could be referring to God i.e. it is God laughing at an aged couple ridiculing the prospect of having a child then suddenly finding themselves becoming parents. [It’s like God is saying “look – no hands!”] Thus, the subtext to Isaac’s name is “I told you so” – God is a faithful God who holds true to his word.
This was part of the mind change that Abraham went through. Firstly, in moving from being a semi-nomadic henotheist to trusting in just one God calling him to follow and promising him a child of blessing, a whole nation and rich land to boot! Isaac, the fulfilment of promise, was to become the root of the family (Rom.9:7) and the son of freedom who was a living allegory of the covenant of freedom.
Against all odds, God was going to continue his journey, and Moses needed to understand this. All these themes of journey, covenant and promise are vast, but are part of the history that God points back to when introducing himself to Moses. They are the foundation of relationship and the basis of hope in the future promise that God will be effective in his journey with them.
In closing this section, we should remember Jesus’ point regarding the reference to being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Jesus, it was a sign of life. This God was still the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The one who is with us, and the one who journeys with us. (Mt22:32) After all, he was there…with them!
I will come back to the “God of Jacob” element in the next section as it rests comfortably with the subject of theophany which I discuss in the next part of the series.
aa Gk Men, brothers
1 Compare this with Gen 15:7 & Neh. 9:7 ; Abram is called “out” of Ur i.e. he was IN Ur when called. Gen.12:1 is a recapitulation of the call. Some commentators suggest that Stephen was recounting common misunderstanding in Judaism, but the texts don’t demand this.
2 Note, the subject of Nebuchadnezzar’s life and the deportation of the Israelites is something witnesses will argue about as it is related to their predictions and 1914 – though, since 2010 the “overlapping generation” debacle seems to have back-footed them on this subject!