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According to Genesis 15:6, Abram did not buy righteousness with his faith. Rather, God gave Abram righteousness, which means right standing or acceptability before God. The biblical message is clear and consistent in both testaments: the curse of condemnation and death that rests on everyone because of Adam’s sin (Rm 5:12–21) cannot be removed and exchanged for righteousness through any amount of good deeds that one might do. The exchange can be effected only by God as a free act of His grace in response to a person’s faith (Hab 2:4; Rm 1:16–17; 4:1–25; Gl 3:6–9).
What matters in this exchange is not the quality or degree of faith but rather God’s grace; faith is not a means to earn acceptance with God. The apostle Paul considered Abraham a model of transforming faith even though the content of Abraham’s faith was different from Paul’s. Abraham simply trusted God and His promise to give him a son and then other descendants. Presumably Abraham would have supplemented God’s promise here with that of Genesis 12:1–3, trusting that his offspring would be vast not only in number but also in significance, bringing blessing to the world. The content of Abraham’s faith was not inconsistent with that of Paul, only less specific. Also, Abraham believed what God would do, and Paul believed what God had done.
Finally the New Testament explains that faith itself cannot purchase or serve as the foundation for acceptance with God. Only the cross of Christ can purchase our salvation. But since the eternal and timeless God is sovereign over events, He could apply the work of Christ to Old Testament believers in response to their faith, even though they had no specific knowledge of Christ.
17:5, 10–14, 15, 21 Throughout the Bible God’s plan is clarified in successive parts, sometimes over an extended period. This gradual unfolding of His purpose in history is called “progressive revelation.” In this case the revelation of the Abrahamic covenant began 24 years earlier (12:1–4). It has been restated and clarified (13:14–17; 15:17–21) and, at this point, becomes even more specific. The renaming of Abraham and Sarah, the giving of a sign for the covenant, and the statement that Sarah would physically bear the son of the promise, as well as the date of birth for the child, represent a further expansion of the revelation.
17:9–14, 23–27 Many peoples of Old Testament times practiced circumcision, so it is of religious significance not only in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, as Jr 9:25–26 and Rm 2:28–29 make clear, what set apart the circumcision related to the Abrahamic covenant was its expectation that the people would be “circumcised in heart” (i.e., trusting the Lord and obedient to the commitment represented by the outward sign of circumcision).
17:17 In ordinary human experience 90-year-old women do not have babies and 100-year-old men do not father them. The birth of Sarah’s child prefigures other remarkable births that reveal God’s intervention in the human scene, including the birth of John the Baptist and the virgin birth of Christ. As Mary is told, “nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).
17:18, 20–21 Abraham’s prayer concerning Ishmael in v. 18 did not go unanswered. Just as there were 12 tribes of Israel, there were 12 tribes of Ishmael (v. 20; 25:16). The difference between the two was God’s sovereign choice of Isaac’s descendants as His covenant people (17:21).
18:1–19:2 At first glance, the identity of the persons with whom Abraham (chap. 18) and Lot (chap. 19) interacted may seem confusing. There are references to “the Lord” (18:1, 10), “three men” (18:2, 9) and “two angels” (19:1). The best explanation is that both the Lord and angels took human form (i.e., appeared to be human beings). Of the three, the Lord conversed with Abraham (18:1, 10–33), while the two angels (19:1) continued on to Sodom, where Lot responded to them (19:1–2) in a manner similar to the way in which Abraham had met the three men in 18:1–4), implying that their appearance remained human.
18:9–14 An ironic play on words occurs in chapters 17–18. Abraham laughed when he heard that Sarah and he would have a child at their advanced ages (17:17). Sarah laughed when she found out the timing of the baby’s birth. They laughed at the human impossibility of this happening (v. 12). Ironically, God named the miraculously conceived child Isaac,” which means “laughter.” The only sin involved in these episodes, however, was that Sarah, out of fear of the Lord, lied about her laughter (v. 15).
18:20–21 It is possible to misunderstand these verses in two ways: (1) that God is distant from His creation; and (2) that God is not all-knowing. God already knows the wretched spiritual state of Sodom (Ps 139:1–12), which has “come up” to Him in His transcendence (i.e., existence over and beyond the created universe). However, because God is also fully immanent (i.e., personally involved with His creation), this passage speaks of His “coming down” to “see” the sinfulness of Sodom for Himself. There is an echo here of the story of the tower of Babylon; when the people thought to raise up a tower into the sky, God “came down” (Gen 11:5) to see what they had done.
18:23–32 The negotiation between the Lord and Abraham does not imply that man is able to manipulate God in order to change His mind. Rather, it demonstrates God’s desire to be merciful, contrasted with mankind’s wickedness and addiction to evil behavioral patterns. God is willing to forego stated judgment, as evidenced by His relenting after the repentance of the people of Nineveh in response to Jonah’s preaching (Jnh 3:10). However, unlike Nineveh, not even the minimal number of 10 righteous people could be found in Sodom (Gn 18:32; 19:12–13). A broader issue here is the meaning of being “righteous.” Even though the grossly wicked behavior of the people of Sodom is in view in the immediate context, the preceding account of Abraham’s life emphasizes that the basis of his righteousness was faith in God’s promises (15:6).
19:4–8 The term “sodomy” is derived from this passage. It is widely held that the severity of God’s judgment of Sodom had to do with the prevalence of homosexuality there. This view is disputed by some, notably some religious homosexuals. Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters (vv. 7–8) probably indicates a pervasive environment of sexual sin. Nevertheless, God had already said that Sodom’s sin was “extremely serious” (18:20) and homosexuality is the sin spotlighted in the text (v. 5). Paul also makes clear that a tragic part of the downward spiral of mankind’s sinful rebellion against God, which incurs His wrath, is homosexual behavior (Rm 1:26–27).
19:11 God sometimes protects His people through blinding those who threaten them, as here (cp. 2 Kg 6:18). He also reveals Himself to people by imparting physical (Jn 9:5, 25) or spiritual (2 Kg 6:16–17) sight.
19:12–29 The theological theme of this section is similar to that in the latter part of chapter 18: God’s mercy and compassion are revealed despite justly deserved judgment. In this case, the angels interact with Lot and compassionately adjust their original instructions in accord with Lot’s physical limitations (vv. 17–22). Still, the proclaimed judgment arrived as soon as Lot’s family was safe (vv. 23–24). Even then, Lot’s wife was lost because she disobeyed the express command not to look back at the destruction (v. 26).
19:24–25, 27–29 The truth of this entire chapter has been questioned due to a supposed lack of related archaeological evidence. A plausible explanation for that absence is that the locations of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the other cities of the plain are now under the Dead Sea. Possibly, as the result of geological upheaval (earthquakes are not uncommon in that area), the south end of the Jordan River rift was blocked. This created a body of water so thick in mineral content that it has not been feasible to carry out significant exploration of the deep bottom of the south end of the Dead Sea.
19:30–38 This explanation of the origins of the Moabites and Ammonites should not be taken as approval of the incestuous advantage Lot’s daughters took of their father. The narrative merely describes what happened. Even in the family tree of the Messiah in Matthew 1:2–16, three of the four women mentioned (i.e., Tamar, Rahab, and “Uriah’s wife”) had questionable moral backgrounds. Providentially, the Lord used them in spite of the stigma attached to their names.
20:1–16 Three aspects of this episode have been thought troublesome: (1) that Abraham would fall into the same error he committed in Egypt in 12:10–20; (2) that Sarah would be taken into Abimelech’s harem at her advanced age (17:17); and (3) that Abraham would rely on the shaky half-truth of Sarah being his half-sister (20:11–13). The first and third of these problems are related. Abraham had told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister (12:13) and, though forced to leave Egypt when the deception was discovered (12:18–20), he left a much wealthier man than he had come (12:16; 13:2). Thus, it may have appeared to Abraham that God blessed his deception. As to Sarah’s age, it is significant that beauty is not mentioned as the reason for taking her into the king’s harem, as it was before (12:14–15). The likely reason for taking her was her wealth, since, as Abraham’s presumed “sister,” she would have had some control over the family’s vast holdings. It is worth noting, in addition, that in upper Mesopotamia where Abraham came from it had been common for a wealthy man to legally adopt his wife as his sister, thus enhancing her social status.
20:17–18 People in modern Western culture tend to think of pregnancy in terms of technological issues like birth control or fertility drugs. The Bible reminds us that, ultimately, it is God who opens and closes wombs. The theme of women being unable to conceive, then later being able to bear children, is a recurring motif in chapters 12–50. It sets the stage for other remarkable births in the unfolding of God’s historical purpose (see note on 17:17).
21:1–2 Sarah apparently became pregnant while the events of chapter 20 were taking place. Thus, while the wombs of all the women of Gerar were closed (20:17–18), Sarah’s had been opened miraculously at a very advanced age.
21:9–21 It may appear, at first glance, that God cannot make up His mind on how Abraham and Sarah should treat Hagar and Ishmael. In 16:9–10, after Sarah’s attempt to expel the pregnant Hagar, the Lord ordered her to return to Sarah. In 21:11–12, He orders Abraham to listen to Sarah and send Hagar and Ishmael away. By this time, however, Ishmael is not the unborn baby of a defenseless pregnant woman, as in chapter 16. He is a teenager and the older son—the normally recognized heir—of Abraham. In addition, God’s pledge that Ishmael would be the father of a nation (v. 13) implies that He would protect him, which proved to be the case (vv. 17–20).
21:22–33 The most obvious reason for the odd placement of this passage is as an update for the events of chapter 20. However, it cannot be mere coincidence that both 21:9–21 and 21:22–33 have to do with the need to provide water in the vicinity of what became known as Beer-sheba. Thus, these are side-by-side examples of God’s providing for the weak and the wealthy.
22:2 If it seems barbaric to command Abraham to offer his beloved son, Isaac, God did not ask any more than He would do in sacrificing His beloved Son for the sins of the world (Jn 3:16).
22:2, 5 Since God ordered Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (v. 2), some have charged that Abraham lied in telling his servants, “The boy and I will … come back to you” (v. 5). However, Heb 11:17, 19 clarifies that Abraham’s response to God’s test of his faith was to believe that, if necessary, the Lord would raise Isaac from the dead.
22:12 God certainly “knew” beforehand what Abraham would do in this predicament (Ps 139:1–6). The language here simply indicates that it was a test or demonstration of Abraham’s complete loyalty to God.
22:15, 17 To note that God blesses Abraham because of his obedience does not alter the fact that God’s covenant with Abraham is unconditional—based on God’s promise rather than Abraham’s fulfillment of some obligation. But a covenant is, first of all, a relationship between persons—in this case, human and divine. Within that framework, obedience always brings about divine blessing and disobedience always results in the enactment of a curse, or judgment.
22:20–24 The purpose of this passage is to update the status of Abraham’s family, which had stayed in Haran when he went on to Canaan (11:27–31). It also prepares for the marriage of Isaac to Rebekah, the granddaughter of Nahor, Abram’s brother (11:27; 22:20–23).
23:1–20 It may appear that this chapter is overly sentimental in relating Abraham’s negotiation of the burial plot price for his beloved wife, Sarah. But its significance goes deeper. This is the only land that Abraham ever owned in Canaan, the one piece of property that served as an earnest of Israel’s eventual possession of the land. Although Ephron the Hittite made as if to “give” Abraham the field (v. 11), the price he eventually extracted from him (“400 shekels of silver,” v. 15) was an inordinately high price for that time. This field is also where the patriarchs Abraham (25:9–10), Isaac (35:27–29), and Jacob (49:29–32; 50:12–13) were buried.
24:2–4 Abraham was not an ethnic elitist in seeking a wife for Isaac from outside Canaan. Rather, the sinfulness of the peoples of Canaan (15:16), especially their idolatry, was repugnant to the Lord and thus to Abraham, the man of faith (15:6).
The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 29–40.