Chapter 1: THE ABRAHAM FAMILY
1.1 The Abraham Family
Repetition in the record
Throughout the records of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his children
there is continual repetition in the manner in which the record
is written. This repetition is of both experiences (e.g. lying concerning
their wives: 12:13; 20:3,13; 26:7) and of the language used to describe
those experiences. Gen.39:1- 8 provides an example of this: "
Joseph was brought down to Egypt...the Ishmeelites, which had brought
him down thither...down to Egypt" (37:25). " The Lord
was with Joseph...and his master saw that the Lord was with him"
. " His master the Egyptian...his master" . " Joseph...was
a prosperous man...the Lord made all that he did to prosper"
. Potiphar " made him overseer over his house...from the time
that he had made him overseer in his house" . " All that
he had he put into his hand...over all that he had...the blessing
of the Lord was upon all that he had...he left all that he had in
Joseph's hand" . " His hand...into his hand...Joseph's
hand...to my hand" . This kind of linguistic device suggests
that the Spirit in Genesis is inviting us to observe the development
of theme and to note emphasis. The above example from Joseph's life
is one of many such sets of evidence.
The repetition of certain descriptions and common experiences in
the lives of Abraham's family members is to enable us to build
up a very clear picture of what they were like as people. We are
being enabled to get to know them as a family. This is necessary
for us if we are to realistically obey the New Testament commands
to see Abraham and the patriarchs as our spiritual fathers, to model
our daily walk upon them, to see in them the examples which should
dominate our lives and thinking. The way the record repeats their
similar experiences reveals certain family traits; the majority
of which are negative . This takes some appreciating.
Lifting Up The Eyes
The Hebrew phrase "to lift up the eyes" is used very
extensively about the Abraham family. Most Bible characters have
the term used at most once or twice about them; but the Genesis
record emphasizes this characteristic of this family. It's as if
we're being bidden to really visualize them as a family, and to
enable this we're even given an insight into their body language.
Consider the emphasis on the way this family had of lifting up their
Lot lifted up his eyes (Gen. 13:10)
Abraham lifted up his eyes (Gen. 13:14)
Abraham lifted up his eyes and noticed the Angels (Gen. 18:2)
Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place of sacrifice (Gen.
Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the ram caught (Gen. 22:13)
Isaac lifted up his eyes and saw camels coming on which Rebekah
was riding (Gen. 24:63)
Rebekah, as part of a marriage made in Heaven, lifted up her
eyes and saw Isaac at the same moment (Gen. 24:64)
Jacob lifted up his eyes and saw the vision of the speckled cattle
(twice recorded- Gen. 31:10,12)
Jacob lifted up his eyes and saw Esau coming (Gen. 33:1)
Esau lifted up his eyes and saw Jacob's family (Gen. 33:5)
Jacob's sons lifted up their eyes and saw the traders coming (Gen.
Joseph lifted up his eyes and saw Benjamin (Gen. 43:29)
Of course the classic epitome of this feature is when Abraham lifts
up his eyes to Heaven and is asked to count the stars, and there
and then believes God's word of promise that "so shall thy
seed be". Yet we , as Abraham's family, his children
by faith, are likewise asked [with the same Hebrew words] to lift
up our eyes to Heaven and consider the stars, and take
strength from the fact that their creator is our God (Is. 40:26;
51:6; 60:4). In passing, the way the Lord Jesus had of lifting up
His eyes was something which evidently struck the Gospel writers
(Lk. 6:20; Jn. 6:5; 11:41; 17:1 cp. the emphasis upon the eyes of
the risen Lord in Rev. 1:14; 2:18; 5:6; 19:12).
The weakness of the fathers
In my own thinking I've gone through at least three stages in trying
to figure out the Abraham family. Initially I felt that every one
of their actions was an expression of their faith in the promises,
any apparently negative behaviour (e.g. going down to Egypt, lying
about their wives) being explicable on the basis of prudence, men
doing their human part while God did His (this is the view of Robert
Roberts in The Ways of Providence ).
Reading Harry Whittaker's books on Abraham and Wrestling
Jacob I came to conclude that the occasional negative
behaviour was not morally justifiable; it was the down swing on
the oscillating pendulum of their faith, and that out of weakness
their faith was perfected by the end of their lives. This, of course,
makes them truly our spiritual fathers.
Continued reading of the records brought me to a third stage; it
is evident that the more sensitively we read the accounts, the more
insight there is into the human weakness of the Abraham family.
It is not just one or two isolated incidents that betray a possible
weakness of faith (e.g. Abraham doubting that the promised seed
would be born in 20:1-5). In almost every chapter of the record
there is evidence of weakness as well as strength
. The way in which faith triumphed over weakness is the great inspiration
to us. The way in which the literary and linguistic style of the
narrative forces us to tease out the weaknesses encourages our sense
of familiarity and identification with the Abraham family. The style
of the narrative also has the result of progressively opening up
the weaknesses of the family the more we study it. For example,
take a chapter like Gen.27 (re. Jacob's stealing of the birthright
and blessing). Ask the question (preferably to a group
of Bible students) 'How many weaknesses do we see in Isaac,
Jacob, Esau and Rebekah in this chapter?'. The list goes on and
on and on, particularly as allusions to other Scripture are discerned
(e.g. Rebekah and Jacob = Eve and Adam, dressing up in skins etc.).
In other words, the human weakness of the patriarchs and thereby
the intensity of their connection with us progressively
opens up. This is why the weaknesses are not explicitly labelled
in the narrative. A more complex literary style is employed which
encourages our close and progressive identification with the Abraham
The weaknesses of the patriarchs provides great inspiration to
our feeble faith when we consider how they are held up in such exalted
terms. The geographical record of Abraham's entry to Canaan describes him as appearing at certain key points in the land. Those same areas became the key points in the conquest of the land in Joshua's time- it was as if Abraham was seen as the example for all Israel. Thus the people pitched "between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai" (Josh. 8:9,14)- the very expressions found about Abraham in Gen. 12:8. Israel, natural and spiritual, are bidden look to Abraham
as the rock out of which they were hewn (Is. 51:1), to " walk
in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had...Abraham,
who is the father of us all" (Rom.4:12,16). Heb.11:4-32 contains
the record of faithful men, brought before us as examples to encourage
and inspire. Yet 15 of those 28 verses are devoted to the Abraham
family; this is quite some emphasis. The faith of Abraham is held
up in Rom.4:16 as the ultimate definition of the faith which will
characterize all those who attain salvation (see Greek text). The
Spirit of God puts Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on a pedestal upon which
no other mortals have been placed. This is undisputable. This makes
the fact that their weaknesses are so emphasized such a wondrous
encouragement! God really does stay with His weak , slow to learn
children; He is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and (this is stressed
statistically) of wayward, self-willed Jacob. Time and again throughout
His self-revelation, God reminds us that He was their God, the One
who stuck with them and out of weakness made them the strongest
in faith. Quite rightly do we sing and rejoice that the God of Bethel
is our God too.
The Abraham Family
And so now let's examine the Genesis record, noting the repetitions
and sensing the emphases:
- Abraham married an attractive woman, Sarah; their son Isaac
fell for good looking Rebekah; and their son Jacob married beauty
queen Rachel. Little wonder that they produced handsome Joseph.
This is quite some emphasis, considering the usual dearth of information
in this area in the Biblical record. Surely we are being invited
to picture a good looking family, with all the potential pride
and self assurance associated with this.
- Perhaps this has something to do with another theme: envy.
The Philistines envied Isaac (Gen.26:14); as (we can assume) Laban
did Jacob; Rachel envied Leah (30:1); Joseph's brothers envied
him (37:11; Acts 7:9). Family friction certainly stalked the generations.
Jacob against Esau, Isaac against Jacob, Ishmael against Isaac,
Sarah against Hagar, Joseph's brothers amongst themselves (Gen.45:24).
Envy of Israel by the world and friction within Israel has been
a continued characteristic (what similarities with spiritual Israel?).
Yet there was also a soft streak there; Esau and Jacob evidently
had a certain affection for each other and willingness to truly
forgive (Esau more so than Jacob!); Abraham truly cared for lot's
fate in Sodom on at least two occasions; and the brothers genuinely
cared for Benjamin and the grief of their father.
- There was a definite trait of energy and industrious activity
amongst them, indicated by the record of Rebekah running to respond
to the call of Eleazer to marry Isaac (Gen.24:18,20,28,58).
Laban too was spritely (Gen.24:29). And Abraham as an old boy
ran to meet the Angels, he hastened
into the tent, and personally ran unto the herd rather
than wave his wand at the servants (or the wife) to do it (Gen.18:2,6,7).
The way in which it is stressed that he got up early in the morning
gives the same impression (19:27; 20:8; 21:14; 22:3; the same
is said of Jacob, 28:18 and Laban, 31:55). The mixture of zeal
and business acumen is reflected in the way both Abraham and Lot
greeted the Angels in a similar, outgoing, gentlemanly manner
(19:1-3 cp. 18:1-6). Note how Rebekah immediately says "I
will go" (Heb. elek)- just as Abraham had been called
to "go" from Ur (lek, Gen. 12:1); "and
he went" (wayyelek, Gen. 12:4). This would seem
to suggest an undesigned similarity of character between the family
- This zeal partly accounts for the family's considerable wealth.
" Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year
an hundredfold: and the Lord blessed him. And the man waxed great,
and went forward, and grew until he became very great" (26:12,13)
is quite some emphasis of the same point. Eleazer commented on
Abraham's material wealth: " The Lord hath blessed my master
greatly; and he is become great (note the repetition)" ;
he then goes on to enumerate a long list of possessions:
flocks, herds, silver, gold, menservants, maidservants, camels,
asses. Truly " The Lord had blessed Abraham in all things"
(24:1). This suggests that the patriarchs' material prosperity
was a primary fulfillment of the Abrahamic blessing in their lifetime.
Peter interprets the blessing as the forgiveness of sins (Acts
3:25,26). The stress on their material blessings therefore points
forward to our spiritual riches of blessing in Christ. Even earlier
in Abraham's life, " Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver
and in gold" (13:1). Other references to Abraham's wealth
occur in 13:6; 14:23. Jacob too was blessed with material
wealth (31:16; 33:11 AVmg.). His parting with Esau because they
were both so wealthy (36:7) echoes the division between Abraham
and Lot and Abraham and Abimelech for the same reason (13:6).
The similarities between these incidents serves to emphasize the
wealth of the family. The prosperity of Lot in Sodom is also highlighted
(14:12 Heb.). Each of them seems to have accumulated wealth in
their own right in addition to inheriting it.
- Associated with this desire for the high life is the evident
problem these men had with women. One man, one woman was the declared
standard of God at this time. Adam, Noah, Noah's sons, Aaron,
Moses were all one man: one woman cases. The patriarchs having
more than one wife at a time sticks out like a sore thumb. Abraham's
apparently casual relationship with Hagar, Judah's use of a harlot
(apparently the sort of thing he often did), Esau's many carnal
wives, Dinah's love affair, Reuben's incest (49:4)...all this
creates a certain impression of weakness in this area. Joseph's
evil report regarding his brothers may well have featured news
of their playboy escapades while far away from usual family life
(37:2 = 1 Sam.2:23,24). The repeated way in which they lied about
their wives also indicates that they didn't take their marital
responsibilities as they should have (12:13; 20:3,13; 26:7).
- Another recurrent weakness is the attempts by the patriarchs
to as it were force God's hand when it came to which of their
children should continue with the covenant blessings. As Abraham used his handmaid to try to produce the promised seed (Gen. 16:2), so Jacob, Rachel and Leah did. God had
told Abraham clearly that the covenant would continue through
Isaac rather than Ishmael, and that circumcision was the sign
of that covenant; and yet Abraham remonstrates with God: "Oh
that Ishmael might live before thee!" (Gen. 17:18), employing
the idea of 'living before God' in a covenantal sense. When God
again repeats His purpose with Isaac, Abraham goes and circumcises
Ishmael, as if he was to still participate in the covenant God
wished to continue through Isaac (Gen. 17:23). The fact that Abraham's
circumcision of Ishmael is specifically recorded highlights his
insistence on trying to make God's promises fulfil as he
would like them to. Isaac did the same, insistent upon giving
the covenant blessing to Esau rather than Jacob; Jacob likewise
did something similar when he tried to reverse the blessing upon
Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:18).
- One of the strongest family characteristics was fear, almost
to the extent of psychiatric paranoia. Abraham (15:1; 20:11),
Hagar (21:17), Lot (19:30), Sarah (18:15), Isaac (26:7,24; 31:42,
53, Jacob (32:7,11; 46:3; 28:17; 31:31), his sons (42:35; 43:18,23;
50:21), Joseph (42:18). This is really some emphasis. Fear
and lack of faith are often associated (Dt.20:8; Jud.7:3; Mt.
25:25; Mk.4:40; Lk.12:32; Rom.8:15; Heb.13:6; 1 Jn.4:18; 2 Tim.1:7;
Rev.21:8). Again, this list is impressive. Yet despite their fear,
their lack of total certainty at times that God
would keep His promises , the patriarchs are held up as examples
of faith. If their fear had not been recorded, would the record
of their faith mean much to us? Unlikely. They had so much which
militated against a life of faith: by way of hereditary characteristic,
surroundings, past experience of life etc. Both Isaac and Jacob
feared they would die well before they did (47:9; 27:2); they
feared death in that their future was ever on their mind. Yet
evidently their fear was mixed with faith.
- Jacob's dishonesty was proverbial- Hos. 11:12; 12:2-6 charge
Israel with continuing the family characteristic of Jacob by being
deceitful and untruthful. Abraham and Jacob especially were characterized
by great dishonesty.
- It is possible to construct graphs of faith for Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob. Put time along the bottom and faith up the side.
Go through the records and give them a mark out of ten for faith
in each incident of the narrative. The graphs go up and down like
yo-yos, but steady out over time.
As we might expect, there is more than a hint that this industrious
family were tempted to get carried away with their materialism
due to their natural drive and acumen. We read of all the substance
that Abram had gathered in Haran (12:5); the Hebrew
for " gathered" implies an element of hoarding and materialism.
It only occurs in passages concerning the patriarchs, as if to
show that this was one of their characteristics. Gen.31:18 comments
on Jacob using his own wit and cunning to accumulate material
wealth: " he carried away all his cattle, and all his goods
which he had gotten , the cattle of his getting,
which he had gotten " . The humanness of all
this is strongly hinted at in 30:43: " The man
increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants,
and menservants, and camels and asses" . This list is identical
to that in 24:35 concerning Abraham. Jacob and Sons left Canaan
with " their cattle, and their goods, which they had gotten
" (46:6). Esau too piled up his possessions; 36:6 speaks
of his sons, daughters, servants, cattle, beasts, " and all
his substance which he had got in the land of Canaan"
. The way this Hebrew word for materialistic accumulation is used
only about the Abraham family ought to be seen by us as a flashing
light, pointing us to a definite characteristic in all of them.
Against this background we can better appreciate Abraham's faith
that he did now possess the land. He walked around in it with
the attitude of a stranger just passing through, although he was
probably the most powerful man in it. The record of his purchase
of Machpelah seems to exemplify this. Not only is the presence
of the children of Heth highlighted (23:3,5,7,10,11,12,13,16,18),
but the record of Abraham's words demonstrates his appreciation
that he was only passing through: " Intreat for
me to Ephron...that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which
he hath... for full money he shall give it
me for a possession...amongst you ...and Abraham
bowed down himself before the people of the land...and the field...in
all the borders round about (was) made sure" (23:9-17 AVmg.).
The mention of the borders really rubs it in. Not only was the
land promised to Abraham, but he was politically more powerful
than the children of Heth; he could have annexed it for himself
at ease. The children of Heth were willing to giver it to him
for free anyway (23:11). Yet the realization by Abraham of his
present position, the humility created by faith, shines through
the narrative. Zacchaeus is called a son of Abraham in that he
too repented of his self-centred materialism (Lk. 19:9).
Abraham's focus on material issues can be discerned from the
double description of how he pursued after his captured nephew
Lot, "and he brought back all the goods, and his brother
Lot, and his goods" (Gen. 14:16). Abraham's concern about
the "goods" is perhaps significant. And yet given this
mindset, it is to Abraham's credit that he utterly refuses to
take even a "shoe latchet" of the spoil lest it be said
that any man had made him rich- he knew that it was God
who had made him rich (Gen. 14:23), and Abraham wanted the world
to know that. I also note the way that Abraham speaks of how he
is the servant of the God who is the purchaser of Heaven
and earth, i.e. the land which God had potentially given Abraham
(Gen. 14:22- the Hebrew translated "possessor" in the
AV is usually translated 'buyer' elsewhere). Ps. 74:2 and Ps.
78:54 use the same word to describe how the land God gave Israel
had been "purchased" by Him. Perhaps there is here a
recognition by Abraham that God's gifts to us cost Him something.
He had meditated upon the promise of the land, and concluded that
God was giving him something which had cost Him. Perhaps this
may even indicate that Abraham had reflected that the promise
of the land was on account of God's willingness to purchase it
through the death of the "seed of the woman" promised
in Genesis 3... At the very least, we need to ask ourselves how
much we have meditated upon the implications of the same
Abrahamic promises which have been made to us. And we likewise
must avoid the assumption that because God owns all things, therefore
it's painless for Him to give them to us. Poor people often assume
that it's painless and effortless for a rich person to give them
something- but actually it isn't. And we need to perceive the
same about our wonderfully generous Father in Heaven. We are slaves
now, owning nothing, but then we will be gloriously free (Rom.
8:21). So this idea of owning nothing, not even ourselves, is
only true of this life; the day of release from slavery will dawn,
we will receive that true freedom and that true concept of personal
possession- if now we resign it. Abraham really grasped
this idea that we now can own nothing. He swore to Yahweh as "
the possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take from a
thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take anything
that is thine..." (Gen. 14:22,23). He knew that Yahweh is
the owner of all, and therefore he was not going to yield
to the temptation to increase what appeared to be 'his' possessions.
In Gen. 13:9, Abraham gives Lot the choice as to what land he
would like to live in. Lot was the orphaned nephew of Abraham-
such magnanimity would've been unheard of in those societies,
for the elder to give the junior dependent such a choice. The
elder in the relationship would've chosen the best for himself,
and that was that. It seems to me that Abraham's unusual attitude
in this matter was a direct outcome of his faith in the promise
that the whole land really would one day be given to him.
If we have the faith of Abraham... we won't fight for our corner
in this world. It'll be so much easier to 'let go' as
Abraham did, and take an attitude to material wealth and possessions
which is radically counter-cultural in our societies.
The way that Lot lifted up his eyes and looked around the land
is matched by the way in which God then bids Abraham to likewise
lift up his eyes and view the very same territory which Lot had
just chosen (Gen. 13:10,14)- and was told that the land which
Lot had chosen, along with all other land, would be Abraham's
eternally. When God told Abraham at this point "All the land
that you see, I will give it to you and your seed for
ever" (Gen. 13:15), He was alluding to what He had initially
told Abram back in Ur: "Get thee out... unto a land that
I will shew (s.w. "see" in 13:15) you"
(Gen. 12:1). It was as if God was saying: 'Well Abraham, this
is it. This is the land I told you about'- and yet the best of
it has now been given to Lot! The whole thing could have seemed
some kind of cruel, just as many of our life experiences do. Abraham
had given up all, made a long and dangerous journey, to receive
a land from God- and when he arrives there, the best of it is
given to his younger relative. But God's purpose was to focus
Abraham's faith upon the fact that he would eternally
inherit this land. And so it is with many of the twists and turns
of our lives which can appear nothing but cruel fate to the unbelieving
This tendency towards materialism is to be associated with another
tendency: to go down to Egypt when this was to their spiritual
detriment, to go out and see the daughters of the land and consider
marrying them (34:1), to use the harlots of the land on the quiet
(38:15). There was certainly a strong desire in that family for
the high life, for fast living. Lot's opting for Sodom and Esau's
marriages to a series of dumb blonds epitomize this. Abraham's
conscious choice of the barren uplands away from the cities, his
obedience to the command to leave city life and live as a nomad,
were therefore acts of faith that went right against his grain.
It could be that the way the Lord described Zacchaeus as a “son
of Abraham” (Lk. 19:9) may be suggesting that this man had the
characteristics of Abraham in that he quit materialism as a result
of accepting the Gospel.
If we summarize these characteristics we find an amazing similarity
with contemporary Christianity:
- Afflicted with potential pride
- Successful in this world
- Prone to materialism
- Envied by the world
- Prone to be attracted by the world, to have the occasional
fling on the quiet, yet by and large keeping a distance from full
scale involvement with them
- Moral / sexual weakness an especial problem
- Friction within the family
- Yet a high level of potential love, softness and forgiveness
to each other
- Fear / lack of faith in times of crisis
- Faith going up and down but steadily improving.
All of these characteristics can be seen in natural Israel. It
is to be expected that they will be in spiritual Israel too. The
Lord Jesus was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, he would have been intensely
Jewish as the seed of Abraham. He too, therefore,
would have been afflicted in the above ways- and gloriously overcame.
Quietly go through the above list of characteristics, and (perhaps
with the help of the book of Proverbs) reflect how each of them
would have been a problem for the Lord Jesus- and glory
to yourself in the way in which he overcame. In doing this is the
exhortation without words.