This is the great statement of faith about the patriarch concerning God’s promise to him. The Lord had just told Abraham that he would eventually have so many descendants that the number of them could be compared with the quantity of stars in the sky.
Part of the reason that this represented such great faith on the part of Abraham was that God made this promise when Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless and already very old—long past the normal age of child-bearing. Yet we read that despite these present realities, Abraham chose to believe God. So impactful is this statement, it is quoted by both Paul and James in the New Testament.
It is indeed a profound expression of faith, but as great as it is, it is also important to see that it is not an unshakable statement. It was not long after we read about Abraham’s great belief in God’s word that we see that a resolute statement of faith does not ensure that it cannot falter.
In the following chapter of the account, in Genesis 16, we read this: “After he had lived in Canaan for ten years, his wife Sarai took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to Abram to be his wife. And he slept with Hagar, and she conceived.” (1:1-4 BSB).
Notice that the text places this incident as occurring after Abraham had lived in Canaan ten years. When the aforementioned statement of faith was made about Abraham, he had already lived in Canaan a number of years, so this stumbling in his faith could not have happened very many months or years after his original expression of confidence in the promise of God.
How was it that the great faith that was expressed could so soon afterward stumble?
Does God Fulfill His Promise Illicitly?
Abraham’s life is one of the finest examples of anyone’s faith that we have in the Bible. In fact, Paul calls him “The father of all who believe—all who have faith” (see Romans 4:11). Given this strong assessment of his faith, we would not expect Abraham to resort to adultery in an attempt to accomplish the promise of God with his own efforts. But this was not the first time that he had hindered God in fulfilling his promise.
Some weeks ago I spoke of the time in the life of Abraham when he took his wife to sojourn in Egypt. Before they arrived in that place, Abraham told Sarah his wife that because of her great beauty, he was afraid that he would be killed so that Sarah could be given to the Pharaoh. He convinced her that in order to save his own life, she should tell everyone that she was the sister of Abraham, and not his wife.
Because of this lie and because Sarah was indeed a very beautiful woman, she was given to Pharaoh. We are not told how long she was with the Pharaoh, but it certainly was long enough that should Sarah have born a child in the months to come, even after they had left Egypt, the baby would have been considered the child of the Pharaoh.
We are not told Abraham’s mind in this entire affair, but I have wondered that since Sarah had been barren all the years of her marriage with Abraham, if he thought that if a pregnancy were to come from her time with Pharaoh, he would leave Egypt and begin building the great nation of descendants beginning with that child.
I have wondered this, because after his time in Egypt and after Abraham returned to the land where God had sent him, he was bemoaning the fact that he and Sarah had remained childless. As Abraham made this complaint to God, the patriarch said that as far as he could tell, it would not be any son of his that would be his eventual heir, but servant of his household, one Eliezer of Damascus.
God’s response to this was that Eliezer would not be Abraham’s heir, but “one who comes from your own body.”
It seems an unusual way to put it, and it seems that God was making very clear to Abraham, that despite any feelings of inability to impregnate his wife that the patriarch may have been having, his heir would indeed be his own child. His heir would not be Eliezer or any servant, or the child of the Pharaoh, but one that was a direct descendant of Abraham himself.
It was to this statement of God that Abraham expressed belief, and this belief was counted to him as righteousness. It should have settled it for Abraham, should it have not?
As we saw, it did not. We now see that Sarah also begins to have doubts about God’s ability to fulfill his promise. Perhaps she was the reason that they had not able to bear children. Perhaps that was why, after many years of marriage, they still had no child.
A Little Help from another Egyptian
Sarah had been given a number of gifts by Pharaoh when she and Abraham were in Egypt, among them a female maidservant, a young lady by the name of Hagar. It was now Sarah who decided that she must help God in fulfilling his promise of a child.
One day she timidly approached her husband and said to him, “The Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go to my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family by her.”
There must have been some discussion about this between the man and his wife, but we are told of none. We only read that “Abram listened to the voice of Sarai, so his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to Abram to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.”
When Hagar realized that she indeed was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress Sarah. This response of haughtiness from her servant was not one that Sarah expected, nor of course did she like it. “Hagar treats me with contempt!” Sarah said to Abraham.
After that Sarah began to treat her maidservant so harshly that finally Hagar could take no more and fled into the wilderness. It was there sitting by a spring alongside the road that she was found by an angel of the Lord. The angel convinced her to return to Sarah. The angel also told her that she was to bear a son whom she was to name “Ishmael.” This son, the angel told her would be “a wild donkey of a man, and his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him.
This child, despite the fact that he was the child of Abraham and “came from his own body,” would not be the fulfillment of God’s plan. This child Ishmael was merely the attempt of Sarah and Abraham to fulfill God’s plan by their own efforts.
Abraham was still actually named “Abram.” The name means “exalted father.” Abram may now have finally been a father, but not the father of the child of promise. Abram was eighty-six years old at the time.
Thirteen Years of Silence and a New Name
Thirteen years passed by. Thirteen years in which, as far as the Biblical record is concerned, there was complete silence from God. There were no words of confirmation of the covenant from God, no instructions on where to go or to live. As far as we are told, God spoke nothing to Abram during these thirteen years. Then (and it seems quite suddenly), Abram receives word:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty. Walk before Me and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.”
Then Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram, but your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.
The name change is significant, because it actually does mean “father of many nations.” God gave him this name as a confirmation of the promise that he was now about to speak. He continues:
I will make you exceedingly fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you.
I will establish My covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
And to you and your descendants I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as an eternal possession; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:1-8 BSB)
The Promise Repeated
It was a confirmation of God’s original promise to Abraham, all the way back to when he was still in Haran and when God first specifically called him to go to a new land. It is at that time that God said to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).
It was a confirmation of the promise that God again mentioned to Abraham when he entered the land. At that time, God said to him, “I will give this land to your offspring” (Genesis 12:7).
God again speaks of his promise to Abraham of descendants after Abraham’s nephew Lot had separated from him. At that time God spoke to Abraham, saying, “Now lift up your eyes from the place where you are, and look to the north and south and east and west, for all the land that you see, I will give to you and your offspring forever” (Genesis 13:14-15).
The again God confirms this promise after Abraham had returned from rescuing his nephew in the battle of the kings and the visit by Melchizedek. The Lord had Abraham look into the night sky, and then said to him, “Now look to the heavens and count the stars, if you are able.” Then He told him, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5). It was at this confirmation of the promise when the presence God appeared in a smoking and flaming firepot as he passed alone in the midst of the halved bodies of the sacrificed animals.
And now again, at Abraham’s age on ninety-nine, God again speaks: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you.”
No Longer a “One Sided” Covenant
But this time, something had changed. The covenant no longer was an oath that depended upon God’s actions only. For the first time in all of these repetitions and confirmations of the promise, God now requires something of Abraham to keep the covenant…and not only of Abraham, but of all his promised descendants. This now was a “two party” agreement, with both sides bound by an oath.
God tells Abraham, “This is My covenant with you and your descendants after you, which you are to keep: Every male among you must be circumcised. You are to circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and this will be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:10-11 BSB).
The act of circumcision is a delicate subject and one that is not easily discussed in our present-day culture. However, there are two points that I think important to draw out by this act that God was requiring of Abraham and all the males of his household. The first is that this was now a condition that was placed upon Abraham. It was a requirement, and if he should not follow these instructions, it would render the covenant null and void. God would no longer be bound to the agreement.
The second point about the act of circumcision is that it vividly illustrates the source of power in the fulfillment of the promise to produce a great nation. It goes right to the matter of how this promise is to be fulfilled. As we have seen, Abraham twice before had attempted to fulfill this promise by his own efforts. Even the great faith of Abraham stumbled in his confidence that the Lord could fulfill the promise of a son. Abraham and Sarah had been married many years, and they still remained childless.
The circumcision of Abraham perhaps had more than one meaning, but as much as any other significance, the act of putting a knife right to child-producing aspect of the body of Abraham was a statement that the promise of a child would not come through Abraham’s own viability, but through a miraculous act by God.
God also gave Abraham’s wife a new name at this time. She was previously known as Sarai, which means “my princess.” To mark the significance of the covenant, God now says that she should be known by the name “Sarah,” which has much the same meaning as Sarai, but in some ways has a broader significance since, as God said, “she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will descend from her.”
They Called Him “Laughter”
At these words of God about the couple having a child at their very advanced ages, Abraham fell facedown, just as he had done when God had given him the name of “Abraham.” However, this time as he was lying facedown before the Lord, we are told that Abraham laughed to himself and thought inwardly, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah give birth at the age of ninety?”
Abraham, still stumbling in his faith, thought he would give God a reasonable alternative. He said to God, “O that Ishmael might live under Your blessing!”
God would not have it. “Your wife Sarah will indeed bear you a son, and you are to name him Isaac…I will establish My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year” (Genesis 17:19, 21 BSB).
The name “Isaac” is also significant, since it means “laughter,” making reference to the fact that Abraham laughed at the thought of he and Sarah having a child at such an old age. Sarah herself, when she heard the news some days later, also laughed at the idea (Genesis 18:9-15).
Say what we will about Abraham stumbling in his faith, in the end, he obeyed. At ninety-nine years, he took a knife and was circumcised, along with Ishmael, his son by Hagar, and all the male servants of his household, which we know from the story of the war of the kings, was a significant number.
Abraham Stumbles Again
Abraham, the man we know of one of great faith, had a journey of faith that was far from perfect. In fact, in reading what next happened in the life of the patriarch after all of the confirmations by God, we might shake our heads in disbelief, and wonder why God continued with him. I cannot think of a single reason except to say that God always fulfills his covenant.
Abraham may have fulfilled his obligations of the covenant that he had with God—all the males of his household had been circumcised. Nevertheless, Abraham was still a long way from the completion of his journey of faith.
It must have been mere days or a few weeks after he had confirmed the covenant with God that Abraham leaves the area to again pitch his nomadic tent in the Negev—the southern lands. There he was in the territory of Abimelech, the king of Gerar.
As we read of Abraham’s actions in Gerar, they are almost unfathomable to us now. Just as he had done in Egypt, he said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.”
So again, just as the Pharaoh of Egypt had done, Abimelech king of Gerar also had Sarah brought to him. This time, however, God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman.”
Abimelech had this dream very soon after Sarah arrived at his home, before the king had relations with her. Certainly he would have had it been any longer. But God would not have it. There could be no question that the child that Sarah was to bear in the coming months would be that of Abraham, and not of some foreign king—not the Pharaoh of Egypt, and not the King of Gerar.
In the dream, Abimelech replied to the Lord, “Would you destroy a nation even though it is innocent? Did not Abraham tell me, ‘She is my sister’? Even she told me, ‘He is my brother.’ I have done this in the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.”
God acknowledged that Abimelech had done so with a clear conscience, and it was for that reason that God did not allow the king to sin in this way, and as we read in the text, not even allowing him to touch her. But then God warned him, “Return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet; he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, be aware that you will surely die—you and all who belong to you.”
Understandably, Abimelech was very upset with Abraham. “What have you done to us?” he asked him. “How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such tremendous guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done. What prompted you to do such a thing?”
Abraham’s response was…well, it was spineless. Abraham said to the king, “I thought to myself, ‘Surely there is no fear of God in this place. They will kill me on account of my wife.’”
A Faith that Grows
Earlier in Genesis, the writer made the statement that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (15:6). So impactful was this statement that it is thrice repeated in the New Testament (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). But as we can see, Abraham’s was not a faith that was mature from the very beginning. It was a faith that would repeatedly be tested and found deficient. It was a faith that had to grow.
Were the story of Abraham to end here, we would have to say that the events of Abraham’s life did little to demonstrate his loyalty and faithfulness. Instead, his story only demonstrated the dependability and faithfulness of God. Abraham’s faith stumbled time and time again, but God nevertheless continued with him. God had made Abraham a promise, and His faithfulness does not fail.
But the Lord was not done with building Abraham’s faith quite yet. Abraham greatest lesson of all was still to come.
You will notice that the Bible never attempts to ignore or to whitewash the wrong doings of the people that we are meant to emulate. The life stories of the people may be brief, but they are truthful and candid in their descriptions.
Abraham is one of these individuals. In the end, he is presented to us in the Scriptures as “the man of great faith,” but as we can see, his life was far from stellar. He was involved with schemes that we probably find unbelievably deceptive.
Nevertheless, it is in some ways refreshing for us to know the failures of this man of faith, because we know that our own lives are also far from stellar. It is helpful for us to know this because we can see that despite Abraham’s stumbling in his faith, God remained perfectly faithful through it all, lifting Abraham when he stumbled, then confirming and re-confirming his promise.
King David was another man of the Bible who, although God refers to him as “a man after my own heart,” also sinned greatly. Also in David’s life, it is the faithfulness of God that carries him, and is active in bringing his faith to maturity. David's experiences with God enabled him to pen these words:
The steps of a man are established by the LORD, and He delights in his way.
When he falls, he will not be hurled down, because the LORD is the One who holds his hand. (Psalm 37:23-24 NAS)
For Those Who Have Stumbled
Does this not encourage you? We all stumble at times, but if God is the one who is holding our hand, we can be certain that God will continue to lead us in growth.
Another man whose life is told to us in the Bible is Paul of Tarsus—the Apostle Paul. Neither was his earlier life one that we should wish to emulate, in fact, he called himself the worst of all sinners.
But he said it was for that reason God showed him mercy, so that “Christ Jesus might display His perfect patience as an example to those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16 BSB).
And here is what Paul wrote, speaking from his own experience: “[God] will sustain you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.” (1 Corinthians 8-9 BSB)
 1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22