|Image from thebooksoffoundation.blogspot.ca|
The first task when exploring this phrase, at least in my mind, is to familiarise ourselves with the story of Abraham (who starts out as Abram). You can read it in Genesis 11:27 to the end of Genesis 23. After this, the story switches to focus on Abraham's son, Isaac. It would be best if you took the time to read it yourself, but let me offer a very brief summary here. God called Abram (then aged 75) to engage in a covenant with YHWH. Here is the gist of it:
The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father's family; and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:1-3) Abram's wife, Sarai, was 65 years old at this time and they had no children. And being a nomadic people, neither did they have any land.
Abram sets out, taking his nephew Lot with him. Already he has failed to stick to the covenant (leave your relatives behind). As the story continues to unfold we can pick out a few recurring themes: 1) God reiterates his promises often, adding more details and reassurances as time goes on. 2) The second theme is one of worship. At many points along the way Abram builds an altar and worships God, often in response to reassurance of God's promises. 3) The third theme is that the good is mixed in with the bad. Abram does some things well and gets other things really wrong. There is faithfulness and trust intermingled with insecurity, fear, and wrong turns. Some of the missteps include passing off his wife as his sister in order to avoid trouble, parting ways with his nephew Lot who then gets in a lot of trouble (sorry for the horrible pun), going along with Sarai's idea to have a son by her maid, Hagar because at the 10-year mark in to the covenant, nothing was happening in the descendant department. This resulted in great grief for all parties involved and we see some pretty bad behaviour all around.
A side note here is that the pregnant Hagar is mistreated and runs away, finding herself alone in the desert. She calls out for help and God (El-Roi, the God who sees me) answers with a promise that she and her son will be okay.
At the 24 year mark of the covenant, still no land and no descendants are in sight, however God changes the name of Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations) and Sarai (princess) is changed to Sarah (mother of nations). And finally, at the 25 year mark, Sarah has a son and names him Isaac (laughter). The final installment in this story (in my truncated version) is the test of Abraham. Here we see God asking Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son (this practice was not uncommon in the pagan religions of the time). When Abraham does not hesitate to offer his son, an angel of God stops him. A ram caught in the bush becomes the sacrifice instead. To me, this story is not so much a test of Abraham as a revelation of who God is. God (in contrast to the demanding pagan gods) is a God who does not require the sacrifice of a son, but in fact, gives his own son as a sacrifice for the world. This story points to a God who provides (here we find the name YHWH Yireh = God Provides). At the end of Genesis 23 Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham negotiates to purchase a plot of land in Canaan (near Hebron) to bury her. He now has land as well as a son. It is the beginning of a great and grand story of a nation.
So who is the God of Abraham?
1. This is a God who calls people to a new life, a life of adventure. It means leaving what we know, being able to receive blessing, and then transmitting the blessing freely to others.
2. This is a God who makes covenants and binding promises and keeps them. Another side note here. There are basically three types of ancient covenants: 1) A Parity Covenant is between two equal parties. 2) A Suzerainty Covenant is between a greater power and a lesser power where the greater power places obligations and restrictions on the lesser power. 3) A Royal Grant is also between a greater power and a lesser power; here the greater power bestows free gifts (often land) and benefits on the lesser power for faithful and loyal service. Though much of the Levitical laws tend to read like a Suzerainty Covenant, I believe that they are all part of a Royal Grant type of covenant, a gift given by God, benefits which we could never hope to earn or merit. This is because God not only wants to reward faithfulness but also desires to cultivate it in us.
3. This is a God who keeps reminding people of his promises, adding details and answering questions and doubts.
4. This is a God who changes identities.
5. This is a God who is faithful, but this must be viewed over a long period of time. Don't look for instant fulfillment.
6. This is a God who is not deterred by human error, multiple detours, or seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
7. This is a God who makes things right and provides justice for the oppressed.
8. This is a God who gives himself.
The faithfulness of God is always unfolding in our stories. Let us not be impatient with God but instead, choose to participate in acts of faithfulness throughout the journey.