Faith in Genesis

This post is on the study of faith in the book of Genesis. Although the word “faith” (and forms of it) is only found two times in the NASB, faith is a major theme. The reader sees the history of creation demonstrating God is the one Creator God, while man lacked faith in the Creator God and has fallen to sin and deceit from Satan, ruining the perfect relationship with God. The story of redemption starts from man’s (Adam’s and Eve’s) act of sin (1:1-4:26). Yet the patriarchs put their faith in God’s promise of descendants, land, and a world-wide blessing that is passed through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, with God overcoming all their faults and shortfalls to uphold His promise (5:1-50:26).

Dr. James Allman teaches that faith has four components. The first is a knowledge of the character of God and the plan of God. The second part of faith is assent – accepting the knowledge is true. The third part is love commitment because loving God involves commitment. The last, and most significant part for understanding faith in Genesis, is risk. In a love relationship, one must risk their own understanding and agenda in exchange for loving God and trusting Him.

The characteristics the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch attribute to faith fall right in line with Dr. Allman’s definition: “trust, reliance, obedience and loyalty.” This definition is also gleaned: “Faith in the narrower and more explicit sense is a response to these promises, believing that they will come true…Faith in a broader sense, or perhaps we should say in a more fundamental sense, is a response to God himself, especially to his invitation into a bonded relationship in which he would stand by the patriarchs…”

The Lexham Bible Dictionary defines faith similarly: “reliance upon and trust in God; a central emphasis of Christianity.”

Victor P. Hamilton looks to Romans (4:17-20) where Paul is looking back at Genesis (specifically Abraham) to define faith. Hamilton extracts these nine characteristics and gives some commentary:

  1. It is theistic: “in the presence of God in whom he believed” – a God who gives life to the dead (resurrection) and calls into being things that do not exist (creation). This is precisely what God must do with the womb of Sarah and the loins of Abraham, both of which have lost their capacity to procreate. He must create or resurrect their life-producing power.
  2. It is suprarational: “in hope he believed against hope.” Faith is not against reason (i.e., irrational), but does surpass reason.
  3. It is purposeful: “that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told.”
  4. It is intelligent and realistic: “he did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body.” Facts are faced, not avoided. But such facts never become dominating or intimidating.
  5. It is unwavering: “no distrust made him waver.” Abraham did not hold faith; faith held him.
  6. It is well grounded: “concerning the promise of God.” It is not faith in faith, or faith in feelings, but faith in God’s promise.
  7. It is worshipping: “as he gave glory to God.”
  8. It is assuring: “fully convinced that God was able.”

To continue with relating Abraham to faith, the New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition says, “His whole life gives evidence of a spirit of trustfulness, of a deep faith.” This sounds nice, but I believe he modeled the concept of faith both positively and negatively in Genesis. Starting with the negative: Abraham tells his wife to tell the Egyptians she is his sister and not his wife (Gen 12:10-20). Yes, Abraham was fearing for his life because he thought they would kill him for his wife, but he had a breakdown in faith here. He knew the plan of God was to provide for him a people, a land, and a blessing (12:1-3). What Abraham should have known and accepted as true is that he cannot have “people” or decedents if he was killed before having them. Furthermore, he is not committed enough and willing enough to risk his own understanding and agenda to let God keep his promise. “Moreover, Abraham’s culpability is enforced by the fact that he is silent throughought [sic] the whole episode.” He and Sarah are both silent. When Sarah is “taken” (Gen. 12:15), Abraham says not a word.

As if this incident was not bad enough, and something to regret and turn away from, Abraham does it again with the Philistines in chapter twenty. He tells Sarah to lie again and tell the king she is his sister and “make herself vulnerable for her husband’s sake, notwithstanding the fact that God has told Abraham that his covenant with Abraham is through Sarah (17:15-16; 18:10), and has announced that she will give birth to the promised Isaac (17:19).” Apparently, none of this dissuades Abraham from letting Sarah go with the king. This is because he continues to lack faith. It is a sign that he either does not believe God’s promise, he is not committed to God’s promise, or he is not willing to take enough risk to see if God will hold true to His promise.

Another negative example of Abraham’s faith relates, even more obviously, directly to the promise of God. Perhaps one can argue Abraham wasn’t a bright enough guy to connect the dots to God’s promise in the situations above (which is a weak argument), but when Sarah is having trouble getting pregnant there is no excuse not to think about God promising him descendants. In this example, Sarah is the initiator of unfaithfulness, but I still charge Abraham with the weak faith as well. In chapter sixteen Sarah grants Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate because of their fertility challenge. Rather than objecting and reminding Sarah of God’s promise, Abraham lacks faith and gives in. Although, Victor P. Hamilton does make an objective defense of Abraham and Sarah in this situation in his book Handbook on the Pentateuch: “Possibly their mistake is seeing the promise of God not as a privilege, but as an obligation. Instead of saying ‘We’re going to have a baby!’ they say, ‘We’ve got to have a baby!’ And whenever one sees the fruit of God’s promises as something to be achieved rather than received, all sorts of options present themselves.”

Another character that is a similar example of taking God’s plan into her own hands is Rebekah. Later in the life of her husband Isaac (Abraham’s son), she plots the trickery of Jacob pretending to be Esau to hoax Isaac into blessing him in chapter twenty-six. What is odd and similar here is Rebekah receives a message from God in 25:23 that “the older will serve the younger.” So she possibly believed God and his plan, but could not leave it to God’s agenda and relied only on her understanding and timing. She was not willing to take a risk and displayed a lack of love for and trust in God. Hamilton ponders on the incident and suggests theories as to why Rebekah would do this, such as “Fear? Uncertainty about whether she would be believed or not? Fear that Isaac would discredit her? Her only way, she thinks to guarantee that the prophecy will be fulfilled over Isaac’s possible objections? Because her favorite is Jacob?” Regardless of what the reason is, it is clear she lacked complete faith in God in this incident.

Shifting to the positive examples of faith in Genesis, leading with an appropriate quote from Hamilton regarding Abraham: “Those who adamantly reject God’s will for their life find that their decision is honored. But those who at least stumble and fall forward in the direction of God’s will find a divine resource and promise from God.”

Looking closely at Genesis chapter twelve as the first positive example, one can conclude God’s voice comes out of nowhere and Abraham simply obeys in faith. Verse one states “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’” This is Abraham’s first recorded interaction with God. There is no record of him and God having a prior relationship. No exchanging pleasantries and getting to know each other. God just speaks and then verse four states “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him;”, and it is as simple as that. Abraham is leaving all that makes life stable, and a family to protect him without even asking “God is that you? If so, please tell me about yourself.” He is trusting in faith that God is going to protect him without receiving any sort of “What? When? How?” Even the “where” that was provided was vague: “the land I will show you.” Imagine the amount of faith it would take you to trust a voice that comes out of nowhere, tells you to do something, and leaves so many questions unanswered? What is astonishing here is he has plenty of excuses, but he responds so faithfully. Abraham shows three parts of Dr. Allman’s definition of faith here and amazingly skips a portion of the first part. As emphasized before, he does not know the character of God yet. He does know an incredibly small amount of what could be called a “plan”, but it comes out of nowhere and he trusts Him anyway. He practices the other parts of Dr. Allman’s definition of faith beautifully here. He accepts the plan as true, without hesitation. There is no record of him talking it over with anyone first or asking God to speak to him again to make sure he is not hallucinating. The text just says, “So Abram went.” He proves commitment and risk as well because as is aforementioned, he leaves behind his family and protection and just goes. He does not consider his own understanding and agenda, thus taking a risk.

Another example of Abraham positively modeling the concept of faith is in Genesis chapter thirteen when Abraham and Lot were experiencing strife: “the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s.” Keep in mind Abraham is Lot’s uncle and head of the clan. He could have simply resolved this problem by declaring his authority over him and choosing whose land would be whose, catering to his own agenda and relying on his own understanding. But that is not what Abraham did. Instead “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.’” Abraham let Lot pick which land he wanted first. Hamilton gives a great commentary on this saying “But what if Lot chooses the land that God is going to give Abraham? Maybe Abraham needs to be more self-assertive, more insistent on his rights. The matter, however delicate, can be left in God’s hands. No move by Lot can thwart the promise of God.” Hamilton helps make Abraham’s faith clear. He knew God’s plan, believed His plan, was committed to it, and again took a risk by letting go of his own agenda and understanding and let Lot choose first.

Tying into the trust in God’s promises, even more, the Dictionary of the Old Testament emphasizes the faith of Abraham in Genesis 15:6 “because it highlights the two-way dynamic of the covenant relationship… The episode and immediate context of this exercise of trust and recognition of trust relates to God’s specific promise of innumerable descendants, but the incident is embedded within a relationship between God and Abraham that began back in Genesis 12.” In verse five, God repeated the promise of descendants, thus Abraham’s faithful response: “Abram believed that God would indeed give him the family of descendants as promised.” The Dictionary of the Old Testament claims at this pivotal point is when “the narrator brings the context of promise, and the entire story line, as well as the concept of covenant, into play. The audience is expected to hold the whole story in mind.”

Then, likely the most known story of Abraham’s faith occurs in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two. God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” And “Abraham got up and loaded his donkey.” Notice again Abraham did not ask any questions. He did not question God with “You want me to do what?!” or “Which mountain? Can’t you be more specific?” The text says “Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.” Again no questions asked from Abraham, no pleading with God, just obedience. Abraham again knew God’s character and plan by this point. He believed in God, was committed to Him, and was obviously willing to take the risk of sacrificing his own son. This proved great faith that is unimaginable.

Even in chapter twenty-four when Abraham had his servant look for a wife for Isaac, Abraham showed boundless faith. Abraham gave his servant instructions to go to Abraham’s own country and relatives to get a wife for Isaac. Abraham’s servant had a question though. He wanted to know what to do if the woman is unwilling to come back with him. Abraham’s response is “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring  I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.” It is clear from his response that Abraham had tremendous faith in God. Again he knew God’s character and plan, believed it, was committed to it, and was willing to take a risk – the risk is stated in the next verse: “If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine.”

Another character who modeled this concept of faith positively in Genesis is Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph. With Joseph, Dr. Allman argues his dreams supply him with the knowledge of God’s plans. They are what fuel and carry Joseph’s faith in his life. Although the dreams may be the main anchor of his knowledge of the plans of God, Dr. Allman suggests he may have even more knowledge than the text tells us. Because Joseph was a shepherd in a family of shepherds, he may have heard family stories of his relatives Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob around the campfire at night. That would have bolstered his knowledge of God and His plan. Even still, the dreams are what the text focuses on, and what we know sustains Joseph’s faith through his life.

He needed that faith too because early on in Joseph’s life, his brothers became jealous of him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. After overcoming a long season of slavery, he was employed by the pharaoh and eventually the pharaoh’s wife tried to seduce him. His response was not “How can I sin against my master?” It was “How can I sin against my God?” This shows he believes in the promises of God and the character of God. He knew the Lord was with him. He could have easily used this situation for manipulation or for blackmail and used it for his own agenda. He could have taken advantage of the opportunity to use this as a way of climbing the proverbial ladder in Egypt, but he had faith in God and remained loyal and committed to Him. Nonetheless, he was imprisoned for a false accusation of raping the pharaoh’s wife. Resulting incorrect incarceration could have been another hindrance to his faith in God. Yet he does not let slavery or prison toss his faith but instead lets the plan and character of God anchor his faith. He lives for the plan and character of God in a deep love commitment to Him and he believes them tremendously. Because of God’s continual blessings, Joseph eventually becomes the number two man in Egypt, only second to the pharaoh. Joseph’s way to prosperity was through slavery, imprisonment, and hate from his brothers. To borrow Dr. Allman’s words “Joseph could trust God for anything.” The Dictionary of the Old Testament points out “If Genesis 12:1 is one end of the thread of explicit promise in the patriarchal stories, Joseph’s words to his brothers before he dies is the other: ‘God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob’ (Gen 50:24 nrsv). This faith utterance speaks of the specific promise of a land, linking back to Genesis 12:1. It also speaks more fundamentally of a God who stands by, who is committed and who steps in as protector-rescuer.”

In the examples used thus far, faith is mostly polarizing. Abraham either lacked faith at times or he had it at times. From what we can tell from the text, Joseph had it all the time. As black and white as faith appears to be, there are examples of some grey in between as well. For example, in Genesis 28:20-21 Jacob takes a vow. With this vow, he puts his faith in God only with conditions: “Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God…’” He has faith, but it requires something from God. It is conditional. Therefore, his faith does not have all the elements, such as loyalty, trust, risk, and commitment. With conditions, there is no loyalty because Jacob will only follow God if He gives him what he wants. There is no trust because he should not need conditions to follow God. That is the opposite of trust. There is no risk either. Jacob is clearly focusing on his agenda and his finite understanding by adding conditions. The Dictionary of the Old Testament states “Clearly, then, ‘faith’ is not one single thing or of one single hue in the patriarchal stories… A vow oscillates between a devout promise and an attempt to strike a bargain.” So as much as I’d like to paint a black and white picture of faith, I must acknowledge there is some level of ambiguity and grey as well. Perhaps a better understanding is accepting that there is a faith spectrum where people like Joseph are on the far end that represents extreme faith, and people like Abraham and Jacob are somewhere in between ends in their respective places on the spectrum.

In conclusion, again faith is a major theme in Genesis and is displayed in both positive and negative ways throughout the book. These examples from Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph are not standalone examples of faith. The message of faith saturates the entire book from beginning to end.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allman, James. “Genesis Lectures” (video of lecture). Accessed Summer 2019. https://online.dts.edu/courses/7347/modules/items/238160

Friedrich, Keil Carl and Delitzsch, Franz. Commentary on the Old Testament. vol. 1. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

Gupta, Nijay K. “Faith,” ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2015.

Mathews, K.A. Genesis 11:27–50:26. vol. 1B. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Morris, L.L. “Faith,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al. New Bible Dictionary. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Ryrie Study Bible. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2011.

Sheriffs, D.C.T. “Faith,” ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

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