Recently I’ve been making my way through the book of Genesis. It’s not the first time, but it is the first time since taking a course on how to interpret the Bible.
This time around, I’m realizing that this course has really affected how I interpret accounts like Abram and Sarai (and their desire for a son).
For example, a year ago, I might have taken this passage to mean that God will give me the strongest desires of my heart so long as I am patient to receive them. Just as Abram and Sarai received the son that they so desperately desired, so I will receive whatever it is that I am waiting for given time. You know the feeling...
- That dream job you've been praying and working towards for years? It will certainly come with time.
- The roles of wife and mother you feel as though you are meant to fulfill? It will most definitely come with time.
- The desire to be and feel purposeful with your career, friendships, spare time, etc.? It will come with time.
Now, is it sometimes (maybe even often) true that God gives us the desires of our hearts? YES. yes yes yes. (Yes.) See Psalm 37:4.
We’ll come back to this list of possible “heart’s desires” at the end. But for now, we must consider that God does not promise to always give us exactly what we want.
So let’s consider our new lens for interpretation which we talked about in the last post: We must determine what a passage meant to its original audience in order to discern what it means for you and I today.
Now let me give you a brief synopsis of Genesis 12-21 (the story of Abram, Sarai, and God’s promises to them).
the life of abram: A crash course
In chapter 12, God lays out his promise to a man named Abram. The promise has three parts:
- God will give Abram land.
- God will make Abram into a great nation.
- God will bless Abram so that he and his descendents will then be a blessing to other nations.
This is a big deal because Abram and his wife are already old...and they have no children. They think they have no hope in carrying on their line.
God reiterates his promise multiple times, at one point declaring that Abram’s descendants will be more numerous than “the dust of the earth” (Genesis 13:16).
Still, Abram doubts. He says, "'O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?' And Abram said, 'Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir’” (Genesis 15:2-3).
Once again, the Lord assures him, “This man [Eliezer of Damascus] shall not be your heir, your very own son all be your heir” (Genesis 15:4b).
God then made a covenant with Abram (Genesis 16:12-20) as if to say, “Abram, you can trust me. I will follow through on my word.”
Abram believed God, but—as I’m sure we can all understand—trust can be hard to hold on to with the passing of time.
So when the years move by and Abram still has no son, he heeds the advice of his wife (who is pretty positive that she’s not having a child at her age) and marries his wife’s servant, Hagar (Genesis 16). The hope is that he will have a son through her to carry on his line. He does…and this son is named Ishmael…but this wasn’t the means by which God planned to fulfill his promise.
In the next chapter, God gets ultra-specific. There will be no misunderstanding him this time around: Abram will have a son by his wife, Sarai.
The thought is so incredulous at this point…both Abram and Sarai laugh when they hear the news (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). But fast forward to chapter 21, almost fifteen years after the birth of Ishmael, Sarah conceived and bore a son named Isaac — just “as [the Lord] had promised” (Genesis 21:1b).
making sense of the story
Now let’s consider what this story would have meant to its original audience and what it therefore means for you and I today.
So first, who’s the author of Genesis? Traditionally, that title goes to Moses. (He actually is believed to have written the Pentateuch—the first 5 books of the Bible—not just Genesis.)
His audience? Moses wrote to the Israelites—otherwise known as the descendants of Abraham (aka Abram).
Moses wrote the Pentateuch as a historical account so that the Israelites would know (and never forget) their roots.
This nation had an unlikely beginning though a man and wife who were promised a son in their old age. For decades they waited, until finally the woman conceived and bore a son. And so God's promise was fulfilled.
This wasn’t just a super cool Israelite ancestry fact to whip out in an ancient get-to-know-you circle. ;) It was a testament to the faithfulness and “promise-keeping nature” of their God. God promised Abram a son and he followed through on that promise.
That’s what this passage meant...
And this is all good and theological, but that’s not always helpful until it's practical. What does God’s faithfulness to Abram and Sarai have to do with you and I?
Three main things come to mind:
- Our part in God’s story of redemption.
- God’s understanding of time.
- God as a promise-keeper.
GOD’S STORY OF REDEMPTION
Remember the third part of the covenant? (How God would bless Abram so that Abram and his descendants would then be a blessing to other nations?) Abram most likely didn’t realize the extent of the “blessing” that would come through his offspring.
Israel was meant to be a blessing to the nations…and they were, to an extent. But they didn’t do it perfectly. This part of the covenant is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah.
Jesus came through the line of Abraham (yep…the same Abraham we’ve been talking about) and through Jesus, God’s grace proves itself as having no bounds. Anyone can believe and be saved. While sin separates us all from communion with God, the Messiah paves a way for that relationship to be rebuilt.
By God fulfilling his promise to Abram, God wasn’t just granting Abram the desire of his heart, he was making it possible for all of humankind to live underneath the umbrella of God's grace.
Which brings me to the second point —
GOD’S UNDERSTANDING OF TIME
As you know from the story…the fulfillment of God’s promise didn’t happen fast—at least in human terms. Of course, this was difficult for Abraham (patience doesn’t come easy to most of us). But in the end, this ‘waiting period’ did not nullify God’s promises.
This proves true in our lives as well. Sometimes we will experience times of waiting. And it is hard, no doubt.
But we can hold on to this: God is still present in the waiting. God is still faithful in the waiting. God is still good, even when we are asked to wait.
GOD AS A PROMISE KEEPER
I’ll be honest, the knowledge of God’s redemption and faithfulness is comforting and gives me so much hope, but it doesn’t take away the desires of my heart—and it probably doesn’t take away yours, either.
So let’s talk this through. The truth is, I can’t read the story of Abraham and say that God will no doubt give me my dream job, my perfect family, and my definition of purpose.
Because he hasn’t necessarily promised me these things. They might come (and there is nothing wrong with pursuing these things!!) but they aren’t promised through this passage of the Bible.
So here’s what we can learn from this story:
Though I don’t know the specific direction of my life, I know for a fact that my God is a promise-keeper. He will keep the promises he has made. So what are these promises? The New Testament tells me that the Lord has my best interest at heart (Matthew 7:7-12), he works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28-30), he has given me his Spirit to serve as my comforter and guide (Matthew 28:18-20).
As for the specifics of my life story, that’s where wisdom and discernment come into play. Just because God hasn’t promised that I will land my dream job right outside of college doesn’t mean that I will never have a good job…or a job that I like…or even that specific job—maybe right out of college, maybe 5, 10, 15 years down the road. And God doesn’t ask that we sit around and wait for good to come to us...you and I can pray for the desires of our hearts and make decisions that move our lives in the direction of the desires of our hearts, as long as we are listening for God’s wisdom and guidance along the way.
Always rest in the knowledge that God will follow through in the promises that do apply to you. As you live out your life story and pursue God’s direction as you go, know that he is with you, he is for your good, he will serve as your comforter and guide (and so much more).
that's all for now
You guys...the message of the Bible is not dead. It applies to you and I today. I hope you see how taking the time to understand what a passage meant can be so helpful in discerning what it means.
Interpreting the story of Abram and Sarai through this lens stops me from holding God to promises that he hasn’t made. It refocuses me on God's character and reminds me of what he has promised me. It encourages me to walk faithfully in obedience to my God, for he has been so faithful in blessing me. It reminds me of the ultimate hope which I receive from God’s story of redemption.
Oh how I hope this post was an encouragement to you today.
As always, thanks for being here.