The faith of Abraham (part 1)

For Stephen to answer the false charges brought against him — charges that will get him killed if he’s found guilty — he must tell a story.

But it’s not his own personal tale that he tells. Instead, he stands before the council and retells a story common to both him and his accusers: the story of the people of Israel.

And that story begins with Abraham.

Here’s how he tells it:

The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.’ Then he left the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God had him move from there to this country in which you are now living. He did not give him any of it as a heritage, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as his possession and to his descendants after him, even though he had no child. And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. (Acts 7:2-8, NRSV)

Stephen’s words are inspired by the Holy Spirit. In them, we learn some details that we don’t get in Genesis.

Genesis 11:31-32 tells us that Abraham’s father, Terah, took Abraham and Sarah (then still Abram and Sarai), and his orphaned grandson Lot from Ur to the land of Canaan. On a contemporary map, that’s a westward journey from roughly the northernmost tip of the Persian Gulf to Israel — with the vast Arabian Desert barring the way. Skirting the desert meant a long detour north along the Euphrates River to Haran, which lay a little over halfway through what would have been a trek of about 1,000 miles on foot. You can’t blame Terah for deciding to settle in Haran, leaving Abraham to complete the journey later.

We’re not told why Terah left Ur in the first place, and Genesis 12 makes it sound as if the Lord first spoke to Abraham in Haran. But Stephen tells us specifically that God appeared to Abraham sometime before Haran. Was that why the family left Ur?

Everyone on the Sanhedrin already knows the promise made to Abraham: God would make him into a great nation, bless him, and bless all the families of the earth through him (Gen 12:2-3). Stephen also mentions the promise of land, so crucial to the identity of a people who had been oppressed by foreign powers for generation after generation.

But notice how Stephen summarizes the story. God directed Abraham to leave Ur for Haran, and to leave Haran for Canaan. Abraham obeyed, traveled to Canaan and resettled there, in the very land where Stephen stood giving his defense before the Sanhedrin. God promised that land to Abraham and his descendants, even though Abraham was childless at the time. It was to be his inheritance.

Just not yet. Not for a good long while yet.

Abraham lived in the land that would eventually belong to his progeny, to the descendants that at that moment were nothing but a dream. Not one square inch of the land belonged to him; he lived there as a stranger. Moreover, Stephen says, God told him plainly that his descendants would have to endure four hundred years of slavery and abuse (cf. Gen 15:13).

Not everything that God promises is something we want.

And I can imagine that as Stephen spoke, some of the council members were thinking, The exodus has already happened, and the land still isn’t ours.

So, Abraham, God says, that’s the deal. These are my covenant promises. Want to sign up? Then confirm it through circumcision.

Stephen telescopes a good bit of history in the simple statement that “Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day.” God had promised Abraham a son, but Abraham waited decades for that promise to be fulfilled. And when it was, he circumcised him. He faithfully enacted the sign of the covenant. He enrolled the generations that would follow him in God’s covenant promises.

All of them. The slavery and the redemption. The promises he would never see come to pass in his lifetime.

The Bible enjoins us to have the faith of Abraham. As the apostle Paul argues, no one is saved by circumcision; Abraham’s obedience to God in that matter was a sign of the fact that he already believed that God could do what he promised, and such faith was counted by God as righteousness (Rom 4:20-22).

The question is: when we say we believe, what is it we think we’re signing up for? A story in which God protects us from suffering and injustice? In which we always get our just deserts? In which we receive our promised inheritance before we die?

For that is not the faith of Abraham, as we’ll see in the book of Hebrews.