Abraham, Father of Our (Faltering) Faith
Some people become Christians and never look back. They never struggle with their faith and never return to their old sins. I’m not that type of Christian. I got saved before college, but that didn’t stop me from struggling with drug and alcohol addiction for many, many years. Sometimes my sobriety would last a few weeks, sometimes a few years. But a leap off the wagon always seemed to lurk there in the back of my mind, calling to me like an old friend. One of the reasons I love the Old Testament so much is that its people have similar struggles. Noah gets drunk just after God rescues him in the ark and Abraham makes a series of stunningly bad decisions in his own narrative. But God remains faithful through it all.
Abraham demonstrates enormous faith in chapter 12 by leaving everything he’d ever known—his family, his social safety net, his community, his livelihood. But in that same chapter he makes his wife lie about being his wife because he’s afraid of Pharaoh. Rather than risk his life—or trust God to preserve it—he lets her enter a powerful ruler’s harem, that is, a bevy of women devoted to fulfilling Pharaoh’s sexual appetites.
To summarize, Abraham offered his wife as a sex slave to not one but two other men because he feared for his own life.
God rescues Sarah despite Abraham’s cowardice and a few chapters later we see Abraham once again showing faith and faithfulness by saving his nephew Lot from certain death and then giving a tithe to Melchizedek, that Old Testament type of Christ (see Hebrews 7). In Genesis 15 God meets Abraham again to cut a covenant with him, repeating the promises he gave in chapter 12. And then in Genesis 16, Abraham accepts Sarah’s offer of Hagar, her slave, as a surrogate mother to bear a child for Sarah.
This arrangement was intended to give Abraham an heir, which after all God had promised, but neither Abraham nor Sarah seem to give a thought to how the slave Hagar would feel about having sex with Abraham and bearing his child. What’s more, when friction predictably arises, Abraham’s solution reveals a callousness similar to what we saw when he offered up Sarah as a sex slave to another man: “Here, your slave is in your power; do whatever you want with her.”
Hagar flees, but in her flight meets the God-Who-Sees. Hagar returns at God’s behest, carrying with her a promise that God would prosper her child, Ishmael. The narrative jumps ahead more than a decade and then recounts another encounter between Yahweh and Abraham (Genesis 17), which is followed by yet another encounter with Yahweh and a few other men (spoiler: they’re not humans; Genesis 18). Abraham once again shows his faith and faithfulness and rescuing Lot once again by famously bargaining with Yahweh for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18–19). Then in Genesis 20 Abraham offers up his wife for the second time to enter the harem of a powerful ruler.
To summarize, Abraham offered his wife as a sex slave to not one but two other men because he feared for his own life. He himself took his wife’s slave as a surrogate to bear a child for him and his wife, even after Yahweh had promised that he would have a son. The narratives don’t tell us how Sarah and Hagar felt about the arrangements, apart from the abandonment and desperation Hagar felt. But being humans ourselves we can imagine—and many have experienced—what it would be like to be handed over for sexual gratification or reproductive gain.
Abraham is indeed the father of our faith and the New Testament holds him up as an example of what it looks like to trust the Lord at all costs. But Abraham was a complex person who often wavered in faith and did great harm to Sarah and Hagar—vulnerable people in his bet ab for whose health and well-being he was responsible. That complexity, that wavering of faith, that failure to always love well brings me great comfort because I know what it’s like to be a follower of Christ who looks for satisfaction at the bottom of bottle.
I know what it’s like to be a Christian who tries to manipulate people and circumstances to protect myself instead of trusting God to care for me. I know what it’s like to hurt the people closest to me. And yet, despite Abraham’s and my and your faltering faith, God loves us. God didn’t abandon Abraham. And God didn’t abandon me. And God hasn’t and won’t abandon you. It’s not who he is; Abraham’s story makes that plain as day.