Abraham (Genesis 12:1-25:11)
God called Abraham into a covenant of faithful service, as is told at the beginning of Genesis 12. By leaving the territory of his faithless extended family and following God’s call, Abraham distinguished himself sharply from his distant relatives who stayed in Mesopotamia and attempted to build the Tower of Babel, as was told at the close of Genesis 11. The comparison between Abraham’s immediate family in chapter 12 and Noah’s other descendants in chapter 11 highlights five contrasts.
First, Abraham puts his trust in God’s guidance, rather than on human device. In contrast, the tower builders believed that by their own skill and ingenuity, they could devise a tower “with its top in the heavens” (Gen. 11:4), and in so doing achieve significance and security in a way that usurped God’s authority.
Second, the builders sought to make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:4), but Abraham trusted God’s promise that he would make Abraham’s name great (Gen. 12:2). The difference was not the desire to achieve greatness, per se, but the desire to pursue fame on one’s own terms. God did indeed make Abraham famous, not for his own sake but in order that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). The builders sought fame for their own sake, yet they remain anonymous to this day.
Third, Abraham was willing to go wherever God led him, while the builders attempted to huddle together in their accustomed space. They created their project out of fear that they would be scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:4). In doing so, they rejected God’s purpose for humanity to “fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). They seem to have feared that spreading out in an apparently hostile world would be too difficult for them. They were creative and technologically innovative (Gen. 11:3), but they were unwilling to fully embrace God’s purpose for them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Their fear of engaging the fullness of creation coincided with their decision to substitute human ingenuity for God’s guidance and grace. When we cease to aspire for more than we can attain on our own, our aspirations become insignificant.
By contrast, God made Abraham into the original entrepreneur, always moving on to fresh endeavors in new locations. God called him away from the city of Haran toward the land of Canaan where Abraham would never settle into a fixed address. He was known as a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5). This lifestyle was inherently more God-centered in that Abraham would have to depend on God’s word and leadership in order to find his significance, security, and success. As Hebrews 11:8 puts it, he had to “set out, not knowing where he was going.” In the world of work, believers must perceive the contrast in these two fundamental orientations. All work entails planning and building. Ungodly work stems from the desire to depend on no one but ourselves, and it restricts itself narrowly to benefit only ourselves and the few who may be close to us. Godly work is willing to depend on God’s guidance and authority, and it desires to grow widely as a blessing to all the world.
Fourth, Abraham was willing to let God lead him into new relationships. While the tower builders sought to close themselves off in a guarded fortress, Abraham trusted God’s promise that his family would grow into a great nation (Gen. 12:2; 15:5). Though they lived among strangers in the land of Canaan (Gen. 17:8), they had good relationships with those they came in contact with (Gen. 21:22-34; 23:1-12). This is the gift of community. Another key theme thus emerges for the theology of work: God’s design is for people to work in healthy networks of relationship.
Finally, Abraham was blessed with the patience to take a long-term view. God’s promises were to be realized in the time of Abraham’s offspring, not in the time of Abraham himself. The Apostle Paul interpreted the “offspring” to be Jesus (Gal. 3:19), meaning that the payoff date was more than a thousand years in the future. In fact, the promise to Abraham will not be fulfilled completely until the return of Christ (Matt. 24:30-31). Its progress cannot be adequately measured by quarterly reports! The tower builders, in comparison, took no thought for how their project would affect future generations, and God criticized them explicitly for this lapse (Gen. 11:6).
In sum, God promised Abraham fame, fruitfulness, and good relationships, by which meant he and his family would bless the whole world, and in due course be blessed themselves beyond imagining (Gen. 22:17). Unlike others, Abraham realized that an attempt to grasp such things on his own power would be futile, or worse. Instead, he trusted God and depended every day on God’s guidance and provision (Gen. 22:8-14). Although these promises were not fully realized by the end of Genesis, they initiated the covenant between God and the people of God through which the redemption of the world will come to completion in the day of Christ (Phil. 1:10).
God promised a new land to Abraham’s family. Making use of land requires many kinds of work, so a gift of land reiterates that work is an essential sphere of God’s concern. Working the land would require occupational skills of shepherding, tent-making, military protection, and the production of a wide array of goods and services. Moreover, Abraham’s descendants would become a populous nation whose members would be as innumerable as the stars in the sky. This would require the work of developing personal relationships, parenting, politics, diplomacy and administration, education, the healing arts, and other social occupations. To bring such blessings to all the earth, God called Abraham and his descendants to “walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). This required the work of worship, atonement, discipleship, and other religious occupations. Joseph’s work was to create a solution responding to the impact of the famine, and sometimes our work is to heal brokenness. All these types of work, and the workers who engage in them, come under God’s authority, guidance, and provision.
Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 182-83.
When Abraham left his home in Haran and set out for the land of Canaan, his family was probably already quite large by modern standards. We know that his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot came with him, but so did an unspecified number of people and possessions (Gen. 12:5). Soon Abraham would become very wealthy, having acquired servants and livestock as well as silver and gold (Gen. 12:16; 13:2). He received people and animals from Pharaoh during his stay in Egypt, and the precious metals would have been the result of commercial transactions, indicating the Lord as the ultimate one to bestow blessing. Evidence that both Abraham and Lot had become successful lies in the quarreling that broke out between the herders for each family over the inability of the land to support so many grazing animals. Eventually, the two had to part company in order to support their business activities (Gen. 13:11).
Anthropological studies of this period and region suggest the families in these narratives practiced a mix of semi-nomadic pastoralism and herdsman husbandry (Gen. 13:5-12; 21:25-34; 26:17-33; 29:1-10; 37:12-17). These families needed seasonal mobility and thus lived in tents of leather, felt, and wool. They owned property that could be borne by donkeys or, if one was wealthy enough, also camels. Finding the balance between the optimal availability of usable pasture land and water required good judgment and intimate knowledge of weather and geography. The wetter months of October through March afforded grazing on the lower plains, while in the warmer and drier months of April through September the shepherds would take their flocks to higher elevations for greener vegetation and flowing springs. Because a family could not be entirely supported through shepherding, it was necessary to practice local agriculture and trade with those living in more settled communities.
Pastoral nomads cared for sheep and goats to obtain milk and meat (Gen. 18:7-8; 27:9; 31:38), wool, and other goods made from animal products such as leather. Donkeys carried loads (Gen. 42:26), and camels were especially suited for long-range travel (Gen. 24:10, 64; 31:17). The skills required to maintain these herds would have involved grazing and watering, birthing, treating the sick and injured, protecting animals from predators and thieves, as well as locating strays.
Fluctuations in weather and the size of growth in the population of the flocks and herds would have affected the economy of the region. Weaker groups of shepherds could easily become displaced or assimilated at the expense of those who needed more territory for their expanding holdings. Profit from shepherding was not stored as accumulated savings or investments on behalf of the owners and managers, but shared throughout the family. By the same token, the effects of hardship due to famine conditions would have been felt by all. While individuals certainly had their own responsibilities and were accountable for their actions, the communal nature of the family business generally stands apart from our contemporary culture of personal achievement and the expectation to show ever-increasing profits. Social responsibility would have been a daily concern, not an option.
In this way of life, shared values were essential for survival. Mutual dependence among the members of a family or tribe and awareness of their common ancestry would have resulted in great solidarity, as well as vengeful hostility toward anyone who would disrupt it (Gen. 34:25-31). Leaders had to know how to tap the wisdom of the group in order to make sound decisions about where to travel, how long to stay, and how to divide the herds. They must have had ways of communicating with shepherds who took the flocks away at some distance (Gen. 37:12-14). Conflict-resolution skills were necessary to settle inevitable disputes over grazing land and water rights to wells and springs (Gen. 26:19-22). The high mobility of life in the country and one’s vulnerability to marauders made hospitality much more than a courtesy. It was generally considered a requirement of decent people to offer refreshment, food, and lodging.
The patriarchal narratives repeatedly mention the great wealth of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen. 13:2; 26:13; 31:1). Shepherding and animal husbandry were honorable fields of work and could be lucrative, and Abraham’s family became very wealthy. For example, to soften the attitude of his offended brother Esau prior to their meeting after a long time, Jacob was able to select from his property a gift of at least 550 animals: 200 female goats with 20 males, 200 ewes with 20 rams, 30 female camels with their calves, 40 cows with 10 bulls, and 20 female donkeys with 10 males (Gen. 32:13-15). It is therefore fitting that at the end of his life when Jacob conferred blessings on his sons, he testified that the God of his fathers had been “my shepherd all my life to this day” (Gen. 48:15). Although many passages in the Bible warn that wealth is often inimical to faithfulness (e.g., Jer. 17:11, Hab. 2:5, Matt. 6:24), Abraham’s experience shows that God’s faithfulness can be expressed in prosperity as well. As we shall see, this is by no means a promise that God’s people should expect prosperity on a continuous basis.
Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 216.
Victor H. Matthews, “Nomadism, Pastoralism” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, eds. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 972.
John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 44.
Victor H. Matthews, “Nomadism, Pastoralism” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, eds. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 971.
T.C. Mitchell. “Nomads,” in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., eds. I. Howard Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996) 828-31.
T. C. Mitchell, “Nomads,” in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., eds. I. Howard Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996) 829.
Victor H. Matthews, “Nomadism, Pastoralism” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, eds. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, eds. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 972.
Julian Pitt-Rivers, “The Stranger, the Guest, and the Hostile Host: Introduction to the Study of the Laws of Hospitality,” in Contributions to Mediterranean Sociology, ed. John G. Peristiany (Paris: Mouton, 1968), 13-30.
The initial results of Abraham’s journeys were not promising. There was fierce competition for the land (Gen. 12:6), and Abraham spent a long time trying to find a niche to occupy (Gen. 12:8-9). Eventually, deteriorating economic conditions forced him to pull out entirely and take his family to Egypt, hundreds of miles away from the land of God’s promise (Gen. 12:10).
As an economic migrant to Egypt, Abraham’s vulnerable position made him fearful. He feared that the Egyptians might murder him to obtain his beautiful wife, Sarah. To prevent this, Abraham told Sarah to claim that she was his sister rather than his wife. As Abraham anticipated, one of the Egyptians—Pharaoh, in fact—did desire Sarah and she “was taken into Pharaoh’s house” (Gen. 12:15). As a result, “the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues” (Gen. 12:17). When Pharaoh found out the reason—that he had taken another man’s wife—he returned Sarah to Abraham and immediately ordered them both to depart his country (Gen. 12:18-19). Nevertheless, Pharaoh enriched them with sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants as well as camels (Gen. 12:16), and silver and gold (Gen. 13:2), a further indication that Abraham’s wealth (Gen. 13:2) was due to royal gifts.
This incident dramatically indicates both the moral quandaries posed by great disparities in wealth and poverty and the dangers of losing faith in the face of such problems. Abraham and Sarah were fleeing starvation. It may be hard to imagine being so desperately poor or afraid that a family would subject its female members to sexual liaisons in order to survive economically, but even today millions face this choice. Pharaoh berates Abraham for taking this course of action, yet God's response to a later, similar incident (Gen. 20:7, 17) shows more of compassion than judgment.
On the other hand, Abraham had received God’s direct promise, “I will make of you a great nation” (Gen. 12:2). Did his faith in God to make good on his promises fail so quickly? Did survival really require him to lie and allow his wife to become a concubine, or would God have provided another way? Abraham’s fears seem to have made him forget his trust in God’s faithfulness. Similarly, people in difficult situations often convince themselves that they have no choice but to do something they regard as wrong. However, unpleasant choices, no matter our feelings about them, are not the same as having no choice at all.
Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 216.
When Abraham and his family reentered Canaan and came to the region around Bethel, the friction that erupted between the herders of Abraham and those of his nephew Lot posed Abraham with a choice regarding the scarcity of land. A division had to be made, and Abraham took the risk of offering Lot first choice of the real estate. The central ridge of land in Canaan is rocky and does support much vegetation for grazing. Lot’s eye fell to the east and the plain around the Jordan River, which he regarded as “like the garden of the Lord,” so he chose this better portion for himself (Gen. 13:10). Abraham’s trust in God released him from the anxiety of looking out for himself. No matter how Abraham and Lot would prosper in the future, the fact that Abraham let Lot make the choice displayed generosity and established trust between him and Lot.
Generosity is a positive trait in both personal and business relationships. Perhaps nothing establishes trust and good relationships as solidly as generosity. Colleagues, customers, suppliers, even adversaries, respond strongly to generosity and remember it for a long time. When Zacchaeus the tax collector welcomed Jesus into his home and promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold those he had cheated, Jesus called him a “son of Abraham” for his generosity and fruit of repentance (Luke 19:9). Zacchaeus was responding, of course, to the relational generosity of Jesus, who had unexpectedly, and uncharacteristically for the people of that time, opened his heart to a detested tax collector.
The story of Abraham and Sarah’s generous hospitality to three visitors who came to them by the oaks of Mamre is told in Genesis 18. Seminomadic life in the country would often bring people from different families into contact with one another, and the character of Canaan as a natural land bridge between Asia and Africa made it a popular trade route. In the absence of a formal industry of hospitality, people living in cities and encampments had a social obligation to welcome strangers. From Old Testament descriptions and other ancient Near Eastern texts, Matthews derived seven codes of conduct defining what counts for good hospitality that maintains the honor of persons, their households, and communities by receiving and offering protection to strangers. Around a settlement was a zone in which the individuals and the town were obliged to show hospitality.
1. In this zone, the villagers were responsible to offer hospitality to strangers.
2. The stranger must be transformed from being a potential threat to becoming an ally by the offer of hospitality.
3. Only the male head of household or a male citizen of a town or village may offer the invitation of hospitality.
4. The invitation may include a time span statement for the period of hospitality, but this can then be extended, if agreeable to both parties, on the renewed invitation of the host.
5. The stranger has the right of refusal, but this could be considered an affront to the honor of the host and could be a cause for immediate hostilities or conflict.
6. Once the invitation is accepted, the roles of the host and the guest are set by the rules of custom. The guest must not ask for anything. The host provides the best he has available, despite what may be modestly offered in the initial offer of hospitality. The guest is expected to reciprocate immediately with news, predictions of good fortune, or expressions of gratitude for what he has been given, and praise of the host’s generosity and honor. The host must not ask personal questions of the guest. These matters can only be volunteered by the guest.
7. The guest remains under the protection of the host until the guest has left the zone of obligation of the host.
This episode provides the background for the New Testament command, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).
Hospitality and generosity are often underappreciated in Christian circles. Yet the Bible pictures the kingdom of heaven as a generous, even extravagant, banquet (Isa. 25:6-9; Matt. 22:2-4). Hospitality fosters good relationships, and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality provides an early biblical insight to the way relationships and sharing a meal go hand in hand. These strangers reaped a deeper understanding of each other by sharing a meal and an extended encounter. This remains true today. When people break bread together, or enjoy recreation or entertainment, they often grow to understand and appreciate each other better. Better working relationships and more effective communication are often fruits of hospitality.
In Abraham and Sarah’s time, hospitality was almost always offered in the host’s home. Today, this is not always possible, or even desirable, and the hospitality industry has come into being to facilitate and offer hospitality in a wide variety of ways. If you want to offer hospitality and your home is too small or your cooking skills too limited, you might take someone to a restaurant or hotel and enjoy camaraderie and deepening relationships there. Hospitality workers would assist you in offering hospitality. Moreover, hospitality workers have in their own right the opportunity to refresh people, create good relationships, provide shelter, and serve others much as Jesus did when he made wine (John 2:1-11) and washed feet (John 13:3-11). The hospitality industry accounts for 9 percent of the world gross domestic product and employs 98 million people, including many of the less-skilled and immigrant workers who represent a rapidly growing portion of the Christian church. Even more engage in unpaid hospitality, offering it to others as an act of love, friendship, compassion, and social engagement. The example of Abraham and Sarah shows that this work can be profoundly important as a service to God and humanity. How could we do more to encourage each other to be generous in hospitality, no matter what our professions are?
Abstracted from Victor H. Matthews, “Hospitality and Hostility in Judges 4,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 21, no. 1 (1991): 13-15.
World Travel and Tourism Council, Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2012, World (London: 2012), 1.
When Abraham and Sarah entered the country of King Abimelech, Abimelech inadvertently violated the rules of hospitality, and as restitution awarded Abraham free grazing rights to whatever land he wanted (Gen. 20:1-16). Subsequently, a dispute erupted over a certain well of water that Abraham had originally dug but Abimelech’s servants later seized (Gen. 21:25). Seemingly unaware of the situation, when Abimelech heard of the complaint he entered into a sworn agreement initiated by Abraham, a treaty that publicly acknowledged Abraham’s right to the well and therefore his continued business activity in the region (Gen. 21:27-31).
Elsewhere we have seen Abraham give up what was rightfully his to keep (Gen. 14:22-24). Yet here, Abraham doggedly protects what is his. The narrator does not imply that Abraham is again wavering in faith, for the account concludes with worship (Gen. 21:33). Rather, he is a model of a wise and hard-working person who conducts his business openly and makes fair use of appropriate legal protections. In the business of shepherding, access to water was essential. Abraham could not have continued to provide for his animals, workers, and family without it. The fact of Abraham’s protection of water rights is therefore important, as well as the means by which he secured those rights.
Like Abraham, people in every kind of work have to discern when to act generously to benefit others, and when to protect resources and rights for the benefit of themselves or their organizations. There is no set of rules and regulations that can lead us to a mechanical answer. In all situations, we are stewards of God’s resources, though it may not always be clear whether God’s purposes are better served by giving away resources or by protecting them. But Abraham’s example highlights an aspect that is easy to forget. The decision is not only a matter of who is in the right, but also of how the decision will affect our relationships with those around us. In the earlier case of dividing the land with Lot, Abraham’s willing surrender of first choice to Lot laid the ground work for a good long-term working relationship. In the present case of his demanding access to the well according to his treaty rights, Abraham ensured the resources needed to keep his enterprise functioning. In addition, it seems that Abraham’s forcefulness actually improved relationships between himself and Abimelech. Remember that the dispute between them arose because Abraham didn’t assert his position when first encountering Abimelech (Gen. 20).
When Sarah died, Abraham engaged in an exemplary negotiation to buy a burial plot for her. He conducted the negotiations openly and honestly in the presence of witnesses, taking due care for the needs of both himself and the seller (Gen. 23:10-13, 16, 18). The property in question is clearly identified (Gen. 23:9), and Abraham’s intended use as a burial site is mentioned several times (Gen. 23:4, 6, 9, 11, 13, 15, 20). The dialogue of the negotiation is exceptionally clear, socially proper, and transparent. It takes place at the gate of the city where business was done in public. Abraham initiates the request for a real-estate transaction. The local Hittites freely offer a choice tomb. Abraham demurs, asking them to contact a certain owner of a field with a cave appropriate for a burial site so that he could buy it for the “full price.” Ephron, the owner, overheard the request and offered the field as a gift. Because this would not have resulted in Abraham having permanent claim, he politely offered to pay market value for it. Contrary to the staged bargaining that was typical of business transactions (Prov. 20:14), Abraham immediately agreed to Ephron’s price and paid it “according to the weights current among the merchants” (Gen. 23:16). This expression meant that the deal conformed to the standard for silver used in real estate sales. Abraham could have been so wealthy that he did not need to bargain, and/or he could have been wishing to buy a measure of good will along with the land. Additionally, he could have wished to forestall any questioning of the sale and of his right to the land. In the end, he received the title deed to the property with its cave and trees (Gen. 23:17-20). It was the important burial site of Sarah and later Abraham himself, as well as that of Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah.
In this matter, Abraham’s actions modeled core values of integrity, transparency, and business acumen. He honored his wife by mourning and properly caring for her remains. He understood his status in the land and treated its long-term residents with respect. He transacted business openly and honestly, doing so in front of witnesses. He communicated clearly. He was sensitive to the negotiating process and politely avoided accepting the land as a gift. He swiftly paid the agreed amount. He used the site only for the purpose he stated during the negotiations. He thus maintained good relationships with everyone involved.
John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 55.