Abram’s faith in these chapters is very down to earth. Maybe we read about it in the light of what St Paul says in Romans 4:1-12, and read that in the light of what we think Paul is talking about there… So we think of his faith in God’s promise, and his ‘righteousness’ from God as being to do with eternal life when he dies. But while it’s pretty clear from the rest of the Bible that Abraham is indeed eternally alive with God, that’s not in view here.
What Abraham believes is the promise of solid, flesh-and-blood descendants. Behind his willingness to set out and see where God takes him is the trust that he won’t remain childless – that all this effort won’t come to nothing when he dies. God has promised, and Abram trusts that he will keep faith with Abram’s faith.
Second-guessing God? Not a great idea
It’s not easy to keep believing in God’s promises, though, as the years go on and nothing seems to be happening about them. Sarai remains childless, and she sees Abram’s pain as well as her own. So she finds what she thinks is a solution – that her slave Hagar should bear Abram’s child in Sarai’s place. It was probably never going to go well, and the recriminations and victimisation start quickly – and Abram doesn’t exactly shine in his treatment of Hagar after the event. And it’s not just the story of a single family dispute – when we remember that the Jews trace their ancestry to Sarai’s still-to-appear-in-the-story son Isaac and the Arabs to Ishmael, then it looks like we’ve got the seeds here of a conflict which the world is still suffering.
The problem is that Abram and Sarai have tried to move God along a bit through something that Seemed A Good Idea At The Time – but which went against God’s will and promise. When we lose patience with God and try to do his work for him, in ways that go against conscience, wisdom or what we’ve seen him do in the past, we’re on shaky ground. Even where our actions have the best of intentions, they have a nasty tendency to spiral out of control.
Actions have consequences – but God doesn’t give up on us.
Abram has to live with the consequences of his action – and as I’ve said above, in some ways so do we. But the good news is that God doesn’t give up on Abram or withdraw his promise. He renews it with another new covenant in 17:9-14, though I think Abra(ha)m may have preferred to stick with the old one, at least in the painful short term… (I like John Ortberg’s idea of Abraham’s response – ‘what is the sign of the covenant!? Noah got a rainbow! Can’t I have another rainbow?’). And God gives Abram and Sarai new names that are about their future.
When we mess up, God doesn’t magically take away the consequences. But he doesn’t give up on us either. We have the chance to start again. And again. And again… It’s just as well.