And then we meet Abram (or Abraham depending on where you are in his story), and everything changes. The Abraham story comprises a full fourth of the entire book of Genesis. By the time we’re through reading about him early next week, we’ll have a feel for why James (Jesus half-brother and the leader of the church in Jerusalem) calls Abraham “the friend of God” (James 2:23). A few pointers may help you as you make your way through his story:
First, geography and names are critical. Abraham’s movement north (towards Haran and Mesopotamia) and south (towards the Negev and Egypt) tell us a lot. I understand the city and region names are unusual with letter combinations we don’t often see, but where Abraham is in relationship to other people is sometimes the point of the story. People come and go through Abraham’s life at an astounding pace, but they often loop back. A name raised in one place becomes and important actor in another. For example, Abraham’s daughter-in-law (Rebecca) is introduced to us several chapters before she marries into the family.
Speaking of marriage, remember that Abraham lived in a very different culture. His family will intermarry for several generations (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will all take brides from within their close family). It reminds me of the European nobility which almost intermarried itself out of existence. Sometimes this leads to unexpected consequences as in Abraham’s tendency to protect himself by claiming that Sarah was his sister (a half-truth) rather than his wife.
Finally, often individual narratives are interwoven across chapters. For example, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is told across a broad swath of Abraham’s narrative. To understand what happens there (or really anywhere in the Abraham story), we’ve got to follow the entire thread across the chapters.
I always find the Abraham story slightly surprising. I’m shocked at his multiple make-an-heir projects that often lead to calamity. Early in the story, Abraham (very much like us) seems to struggle with whether he can trust God. On the other side, one of the last big scenes in his story is the offering of Isaac. I’m shocked here at Abraham’s blind obedience, his trust that God will provide an offering and his promise to the servant that Abraham and Isaac will return after the offering. Measured by his growth across his life story, Abraham’s life has much to teach us about growing, changing and becoming “friendly” with God.