Possessed of a staggering promise, Abraham was puzzled as to the when and how. God told him: “I will make you into a great nation…I will give this land to your descendants” (Genesis 12:2,7). There was only one problem. Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless. Not only that, they were old. Abraham was 75 when God spoke to him and Sarah was a spry 65. Hardly the age when couples want to start a family.
No doubt Abraham and Sarah were excited nonetheless. Monthly they looked for the signs of a coming baby. Each month they were disappointed. Months became years. Years piled on top of each other. No baby. No descendants. Just a promise that seemed more like mockery than a source of hope.
Abraham came up with an idea to help God out. In the ancient world, trusted servants could be counted as family members and take the family name. The descendants of that servant could be counted as if they were blood relations. So, Abraham offered God the option of using his servant, Eliezer (Genesis 15:1-3). Nice try. But God made it known that Abraham would father the child.
The waiting began once more. The weeks became months that became years. Had God forgotten? Where was this child? After all, their old wrinkled bodies were looking no more ﬁt for childbirth or rearing children than before. It was then that Sarah hatched up an idea. If she could not be the mother, Abraham could at least be the father. So, she offered her handmaid Hagar as a concubine to bear a child to Abraham. Ishmael was born and with that Abraham and Sarah thought they had solved God’s problem for Him.
It didn’t turn out well at all. There was immediate friction between Hagar and Sarah resulting in Hagar and Ishmael being driven away (Genesis 16). And though God promised to bless Ishmael, he was not the child of promise. A baby was still in the works. But now Abraham was 86, his wife 76.
QUESTIONING GOD’S POWER
Before God dealt with Abraham about his descendants, He needed to deal with him about his divided heart. Abraham is heralded for his faith and, indeed, up to this point there is evidence of it. When told to leave his home of Ur, he left to become a wanderer. When God delayed fulﬁlling His promises, Abraham still clung to Him in spite of any questions he had. But he seemed to have struggled with his belief in God’s power. Twice when he thought he might be threatened, he lied about the relationship between he and his wife (Genesis 12:10-17; Genesis 20). And although he wanted to believe God’s promise regarding his child and the descendants that would come through him, he struggled with believing God really had the power to do it. Not unlike many people today who give lip service to trusting God but act as if God is too far away to make a difference in their world.
Then God spoke. “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am El-Shaddai— ‘God Almighty’” (Genesis 17:1). God had never before identiﬁed Himself as the Almighty. It was a statement to Abraham that He didn’t need Abraham’s assistance, that He knit the human body together in the ﬁrst place and knew full well how it worked, as well as how to overcome any difﬁculties that age or health had compromised. The God who set the galaxies in motion was not perplexed about a little old Middle Eastern couple who needed a baby.
With this afﬁrmation came a requirement. “Serve Me faithfully and live a blameless life” (Genesis 17:1). Most modern Bible translators have elected to use the term blameless for the original Hebrew word. But that is not a strong enough translation of what God was saying to Abraham. The King James Version uses the term “perfect” that back when it was published meant something different than it does now. When we say something is perfect we mean flawless but that is not what the word meant a few centuries ago. Dr. Jonathan Pennington offers that the original word is better translated, “whole, complete or even virtuous.” That includes the idea of being blameless but it is something more as well.
God is telling Abraham to live a whole life of devotion, a holy life. No more of this lying when you’re in a tight ﬁx. No more of this trying to manipulate events to make the outcome the way you want it. No more of this wavering. You may not be flawless but you can be complete in Him. Abraham had learned that his way, though painted with a religious brush, was not necessarily God’s way. For Abraham part of his problem was that he wasn’t quite ready to turn it all over completely to God.
That is precisely where many Christians are today. They know they should live a better life, that their faith should be stronger, that they ought to be living on the side of victory instead of skulking about in the shadow of defeat. God, through His Holy Spirit, will take the one who means to get down to serious business with Him and purify, empower and equip. God wants you to be complete, whole – wholly holy.
Soon after this encounter, the child came. Daddy was 100 and Mama was 90. They named him Isaac. That would be the only child the couple would have. But Isaac had two sons and then his son, Jacob, had twelve sons and those sons had many, many sons until the descendants were in the uncounted millions.
Where is the proof that Abraham’s heart was whole before God? We ﬁnd the story in Genesis 22 when God came and demanded the sacriﬁce of Isaac as a human sacriﬁce. Without question, Abraham and Isaac went together to the appointed mountain to obey. Fortunately, God rescinded the demand and Isaac lived. But this did not happen until Abraham knew through this test of faith that he was indeed whole and complete before God.
—Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee is the Editor-in-Chief and National Literary Secretary