This is from the view of a Hebrew slave freed from Egypt.
Many years after Shem died, he had a descendant named Abram who married his half-sister, Sarai.
How would Abram have people remember him if his wife couldn’t have children?
One day, God spoke to Abram to make a covenant with him (Gen 12:1–8).
He said, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.”
How could God make him into a great nation without children, especially when he was already 75 years old and Sarai was 65?
Abram took his wife and his nephew Lot and did what God told him to do: he left.
When he got to the land called Canaan, God promised to give that land to Abram’s offspring. Abram built an altar in Bethel (“house of God”), calling God’s name.
Then he moved to the desert. There was even less rain than they usually had.
Needing to find food, the family moved to Egypt, where the Nile River still allowed farmers to grow crops (Gen 12:10–13:2).
So, he told Sarai to say that she was Abram’s sister.
When the pharaoh saw Sarai, he gave Abram sheep, cattle, donkeys, camels, and slaves for her. But God made the pharaoh and his family very sick to show how angry he was.
When the Lord showed pharaoh why this was happening, he sent Sarai and Abram out of Egypt. Abram was now a rich man.
He moved back to Bethel. However, Abram and Lot had too many animals for the land (Gen 13).
So, Abram told Lot to pick which land he wanted. Lot chose the rich land near the Jordan River.
After that, God told Abram that his offspring would own the land as far as Abram could see in every direction.
Meanwhile, nine kings had a great battle, five kings against four. Lot and all his people and everything he had were captured.
Only one man escaped. (Gen 14:11–20).
He told Abram what happened, so Abram took the 318 men in his household and rescued his nephew.
On the way home, Abram met Melchizedek, a priest of God and the king of Salem.
He shared bread and wine with Abram and gave him this blessing, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth. Praise be to God Most High, who gave you victory over your enemies.”
In return, Abram gave Melchizedek one-tenth of everything he had, just like we will give the people who serve at the tabernacle one-tenth of our crops when we live in Canaan (Num 18:21).
When the King from the evil city of Sodom offered to let Abram keep all riches he had captured from the other kings, Abram refused it (Gen 14:21–23).
Soon after that, Abram had a vision. God said to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen 15:1–6, NIV).
What is it like to have God be your reward? How does this promise fit with Ps 37:4?
That seems like a great promise, but Abram complained that God had not given him a child. In fact, one of his servants was going to get all Abram’s riches.
The Lord said Abram would have his own child. Just like we cannot count the stars, no one would be able to count Abram’s descendants.
Abram believed what God said, and God counted that faith as righteousness.
Abram then asked God how he could know that God would do what he had promised (Gen 15:8–11).
The Lord told Abram to cut a cow, a goat, and a sheep in half, and to bring two birds also. Abram made two rows from them with a walkway in between.
Here in the Ancient Near East, I know that the animals show what will happen to a weaker person who does not keep the covenant a stronger person made with him.
One powerful king said to a weaker one, “[As] this calf is cut up, thus Matti‘el and his nobles shall be cut up.”
Another strong king said, “This spring lamb…has been brought to sanction the treaty between Ashurnirari and Mati’ilu…If Mati’ilu sins against this treaty, so may, just as the head of this spring lamb is torn off, and its knuckle placed in its mouth, [so may], the head of Mati’ilu be torn off, and his sons [be torn off]. This shoulder is not the shoulder of a spring lamb, it is the shoulder of Mati’ilu, it is the shoulder of his sons, his officials, and the people of his land. If Mati’ilu sins against this treaty, so may, just as the shoulder of this spring lamb is torn out…the shoulder of Mati’ilu, of his sons, his officials, and the people of his land be torn out.”
As I’m listening to Moses, I think that God will make Abram walk between the cut-up animals.
What he says next shocks me: Abram fell into a deep sleep, the kind that only God can bring (Gen 15:12–18).
The Lord said his offspring would be slaves in another country for four-hundred years. Then, God would hurt that nation until they let Abram’s offspring leave with their wealth.
Finally, they would return to live in all the land of Canaan. The Lord was talking about us!
Even more surprising, Abram never walked between the animal pieces. God made sure he could not do that.
Instead, a lit fire pot and torch—meaning God himself—went between the animals.
The Lord was saying that he would be the one in trouble if he did not keep his covenant with Abram. I have never heard of the stronger king making that kind of promise to a weaker person.
Ten years after Abram moved his family, Sarai was thinking about God’s promise (Gen 16:1–6). She hadn’t gotten pregnant. Maybe God had a different plan?
In Assyria, close to where they she and Abram had lived, another marriage contract said this, “Laqipum took (in marriage) Ḫatala…If within two years she has not procured offspring for him, only she may buy a maid-servant and even later on, after she procures somehow an infant for him, she may sell her wherever she pleases.”
Sarai decided that would fix their problem of not having children and help God at the same time.
So, she told Abram to have sex with her Egyptian slave Hagar. Sarai would adopt a child through her. Abram agreed that was a good idea.
When Hagar knew she was pregnant, she hated Sarai and didn’t treat her with respect.
Sarai got very angry and complained to Abram, saying it was all his fault. Abram told Sarai to do whatever she wanted to Hagar.
She hurt Hagar so badly that the slave ran away into the desert.
I can’t imagine being so afraid of my master that I would run into the desert. How could anyone, especially a pregnant woman, live there alone?
God saw her and sent help (Gen 16:7–13). The angel of the Lord called Hagar by name and asked her what she was doing. He told her to go back and humble herself to Sarai.
Then, he gave Hagar a promise of too many descendants to count and told her to name her son Ishmael, which means “God hears.”
However, he also said that her son would not live in peace with his brothers.
Hagar did something very surprising. She—a slave—gave the Lord a name. That’s what powerful people do to weaker people. Hagar called him, “the God who sees me.”
Then, she went home.
Thirteen years after Ismael was born, the Lord met with Abram again to add to their covenant agreement (Gen 17:1–14).
First, God changed his name to Abraham, which means “father of many.” Many nations and kings would come from Abraham’s offspring. They would live in all of Canaan and the Lord would be their God forever.
But this time there was a condition: every male in his household, both sons and slaves, had to be circumcised. From now on, God would cut off any man who did not have his foreskin removed.
At the same time, God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and said Sarah would have a baby. She, too, would have many nations and kings come from her.
Abraham was one hundred years old, and Sarah was ninety, so Abraham fell down laughing.
He asked God to bless Ishmael. God agreed but said that this covenant was with Sarah’s son and that they must name him Isaac. That means “he laughs.” On that same day, Abram circumcised every male of his, including himself (Gen 17:15–27).
I know about circumcision from living in Egypt. Ouch!
People did it to show that they were part of a group of people who served the gods.
I heard about one man who was circumcised at the same time as one hundred twenty other men. They gave their flesh as an offering.
In Egypt and the Ancient Near East, a woman usually has the same religion as her husband, so only the males need it.
Soon after that, the Lord himself, along with two angels, came to Abram. Abram ran out to meet them and asked them to wash their feet and stay for a meal.
While they ate, one of them told Abram that he would return in a year and Sarah would have a son.
She was listening from her tent and laughed because she was so old. He asked why she was laughing, saying “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Sarah was afraid and said she hadn’t laughed. But she really did (Gen 18:1–15).
Main points to remember:
- Sarai couldn’t have children
- God promised to make Abram a blessing for all nations if he would leave his land and go where God told him to go. Abram went.
- Abram told Sarai not to let the Egyptians know she was his wife. After some time, God rescued her by making the pharaoh’s household sick.
- Lot picked what looked the best for himself, but it got him into trouble
- Melchizedek was a priest and a king who gave Abram bread and wine. Abram gave him a tenth of what he had. In some ways, Melchizedek was much like Jesus (Ps 110; Heb 7:4–17).
- God promised to be Abram’s shield and his reward
- Abram believed what God said about having descendants, and God counted that faith as righteousness.
- God wouldn’t let Abram walk through the animal parts. He did it himself to show he would keep his covenant promise.
- Ten years later, Sarai still didn’t have a child. She decided to adopt one through her slave.
- God saw Hagar in the desert and promised her son would have many descendants who would not get along with their brothers.
- Hagar, an Egyptian slave, gave God a name, “The God Who Sees Me.” The Lord cares deeply about people who are low in society.
- God told Abraham to circumcise every male at least fourteen years after the Lord saw Abram’s faith as righteousness. That shows that God accepts us by faith and then we do good works to please him in return.
Discuss how you can apply what you have learned here to your life and ministry.
Image via Wikimedia Commons This sixth century AD mosaic shows three different sacrifices: Abel with a lamb, Melchizedek with bread and wine, and Abraham with Isaac.
 Franz Rosenthal, “Treaty between KTK and Arpad” in ANET, 660.
 Erica Reiner, “Treaty Between Ashurnirari V of Assyria and Mati’ilu of Arpad” in ANET, 532–533.
 Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 444.
 John A. Wilson, “Circumcision in Egypt” in ANET, 326.