Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac
Genesis 15:1–6; 18:1–15; 21:1–8
Genesis 15:5-6; 18:11–14a; 21:1–8
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Retell the facts of God’s promise to Abraham for offspring.
2. Explain the significance of the miraculous conception of Isaac.
3. Identify one area in his or her life to trust in God’s care more fully.
How to Say It
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Sept. 10—Listen! (Isaiah 51:1–5)
Tuesday, Sept. 11—Abraham Believed (Genesis 15:1–6)
Wednesday, Sept. 12—Abraham Doubted (Genesis 17:15–22)
Thursday, Sept. 13—Abraham the Host (Genesis 18:1–8)
Friday, Sept. 14—Sarah’s Laughter (Genesis 18:9–15)
Saturday, Sept. 15—Sarah’s Joy (Genesis 21:1–8)
Sunday, Sept. 16—The Faith of Abraham (Hebrews 11:8–12)
Is anything too hard for the Lord?
Why Teach This Lesson?
There’s a certain irony I’ve heard about that occurs in corporate meetings: managers who are quick to spend millions of dollars are more deliberate and cautious when the sums drop to thousands of dollars. One explanation for this is that most of us can’t properly conceive how much a million dollars is, but since we can understand what a thousand dollars is, we spend it more carefully.
Don’t we fall into this problem in faith issues as well? I can say, “God made the universe” without hesitation. I can affirm this anytime, anywhere, with no doubt. But when I stop to think about how I need God’s provision for my life, I may hesitate. I ask questions such as, “Will God help me through my current financial dilemma?” Your learners ask themselves this kind of question as well. Such a question requires that they put their faith to a real, concrete test.
Your learners’ faith needs to grow beyond knowing that God created the heavens and the earth. It needs to grow to the assurance that God works even on the level of the individual person. That’s what this lesson is about.
Genealogical research attracts much attention these days. Many people yearn to know more about their ancestors and thus their origins. Countries such as the U.S. and Canada are heavily populated by people whose ancestors immigrated. Such folk may try to reconstruct lost information about their family trees from the country of their ancestors’ origin.
The quest to regain a connection with the past often yields fascinating stories and details. The resources now available on the Internet have allowed people to do armchair research without visiting courthouses to look at records or tramping through cemeteries to squint at gravestones.
Genealogy is an important subject in the Bible because God’s promises often extend over many generations. This week’s lesson studies a genealogy that almost ended before it really began.
B. Lesson Background
Perhaps the most important ancestor in human history other than Adam is Abraham. Jewish people trace their ancestry back to him through his son Isaac. Many Arabic people see Abraham as their father through his son Ishmael (next week’s lesson). While the combined numbers of the Jewish and Arabic people are impressive, Paul taught that Abraham is the father of all Christian believers (Romans 4:16). The book of Genesis tells the story of how God chose Abraham and his wife Sarah to be the ancestor couple for his covenant people.
It is difficult to date the time of Abraham exactly, and even more difficult to understand what society was like in his time. We describe these times as the period of the patriarchs. Abraham was the father/leader of an extended family and household that included several hundred people. They tended large flocks of animals for their livelihood. This forced them to be seminomadic, as they periodically had to move operations to new grazing areas. The Bible tells us that Abraham lived 175 years—an unusually long life by today’s expectations (Genesis 25:7). One educated guess is that he lived 2167–1992 bc.
Abraham first appears in Genesis as Abram, the son of Terah (Genesis 11:31). They were citizens of Ur, a large, sophisticated city in Mesopotamia. Terah, Abram, and their families left that life to travel westward to Canaan. Terah died in Haran, about halfway to the final destination (Genesis 11:32).
At that time, the Lord called Abram to continue the trek to Canaan, giving him a list of promises and blessings. Two of the most important were (1) that Abram would be the father of “a great nation” and (2) that through him “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). This was the beginning of what we call the Abrahamic covenant.
The key to God’s covenant with Abraham was his descendants: those who would prepare the way for God’s chosen Messiah, Jesus. Yet Genesis records that Abraham and Sarah were not blessed with a child for many, many years. How this major problem was overcome is the marvelous story of this week’s lesson.
I. Counting Stars (Genesis 15:5, 6)
Genesis records six occasions during which God appeared to Abraham in order to make or reinforce covenantal promises. These are Genesis 12:1–3, 7; 13:14–18; 15:4-5, 13–18; 17:1–8; 18; and 22:1–18. Genesis 15, which records the third of the six occasions, begins with God’s appearance to Abraham in a vision. Abraham is reminded that the Lord is his “shield” and “very great reward.”
Abraham is troubled by this because he is childless and part of God’s promise to him involve a large number of descendants. He sees no alternative but to leave his considerable wealth to his chief employee, Eliezer of Damascus (see Genesis 15:2, 3). Yet he quickly learns that this is not God’s plan.
A. Unfathomable Heavens (v. 5)
5a. He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.”
Abraham does not have a telescope. Even so, about 5,000 stars are visible to the naked eye. But just try counting them as you look at the night sky! It is almost impossible since it’s hard to remember which ones you’ve already counted and which ones you haven’t as you number them off.
Modern technology doesn’t seem to make the job much easier. Some researchers estimate that our galaxy, the Milky Way, has 400 billion stars. One educated guess is that the total number of stars in the universe is something like the numeral 1 followed by 22 zeros.
These numbers boggle the mind, and the estimates are just that—estimates. We would not be able to count accurately the stars on a very clear night by hand and naked eye, and scientists come up with estimates that are rounded off in the billions. They cannot count the stars either. (That 400 billion estimate of the number of stars in the Milky Way used to be 200 billion!)
The bottom line is that the number of stars is uncountable. It is a figure known only by the creator of the stars.
5b. Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
This is not just Abraham’s own, immediate offspring, but the many generations that will proceed from them. All of these are considered as Abraham’s seed. Abraham undoubtedly considers this to be a great gift. God promises a marvelously open-ended blessing to his chosen vessel, Abraham.
Visual for Lesson 3
Keep this chart posted all quarter to give your learners a chronological perspective.
B. Faithful Abraham (v. 6)
6. Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Abraham’s earlier attitude could be expressed as, “Don’t tell me about thousands of descendants; just show me one!” He undoubtedly has difficulty imagining a large progeny when he does not have even a single child. Yet when God illustrates his promise by means of uncountable stars, Abraham no longer questions. He believes. He trusts that God will keep his promise.
This is a simple act of faith, but it has enormous consequences. Because of his faith, God considers Abraham to be a righteous man. This is the first clear statement in the Bible of the principle of justification by faith. Abraham does not earn God’s favor by his deeds. To the contrary, he is given the status of a righteous person by his faith.
As we will see, this is the faith coming from (and resulting in) an obedient heart. Abraham is willing to trust God and follow his directions. The affirmation of this verse is so important that it is repeated in Romans 4:3, 9, 22; Galatians 3:6; and James 2:23.
If you’re a baseball fan, you may know the name of Fernando Tatis, but few others do. In the history of Major League Baseball, only 12 players have hit two “grand slam” (bases loaded) home runs in a single game, and Tatis is one of them. But Tatis stands alone in the record books as the only player to hit two grand slams in the same inning!
It happened in the third inning of a game played on April 23, 1999. The first three batters got on base, and Tatis came to the plate and hit a home run. Later, two batters walked and another got on base on an error, loading the bases. After Mark McGwire flied out with the bases loaded, Tatis came to bat and hit his second grand slam of the inning, gaining for himself a unique place in the record book. This obviously was not a good day for the opposing pitcher!
Abraham’s place in the record book of history is also unique. He stands alone as the common (or claimed) spiritual ancestor of billions. Abraham casts his shadow across 4,000 years of history. Ballplayers sometimes say, “You gotta believe!” That, in essence, was the secret of Abraham’s greatness: “Abram believed the Lord; and he [the Lord] credited it to him as righteousness.” It is still as true now as it was 4,000 years ago: without faith, we cannot please God. —C. R. B.
II. Counting Years (Genesis 18:11–14a)
We noted earlier that the Lord appears to Abraham six times in Genesis. The setting now before us is the fifth of those six. Abraham’s heart of obedient faith is now to be put to the test. God does not make Abraham’s son appear out of thin air. The appearance of a son will involve both Abraham and his wife, Sarah.
What Do You Think?
What are some ways that you have you seen God use elderly people to accomplish his will and advance his kingdom? [Use Exodus 20:12; Proverbs 23:22; 1 Timothy 5:1-2; and 1 Peter 5:5 to enhance your discussion.]
A. Abraham and Sarah Limited (vv. 11, 12)
11. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.
At this time Abraham is about 100 years old, and Sarah is 90 (see Genesis 17:17). Physical change has affected their bodies. Sarah has stopped her monthly cycles. People of the ancient world knew, as we know today, that a woman in this stage of her life no longer becomes pregnant.
12. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Sarah has been a woman of faith, having followed Abraham when he left Haran (Genesis 12:4-5). At this point, however, her faith falters. Not only does she doubt her body’s ability to achieve pregnancy, she doubts her husband’s ability to impregnate her.
So Sarah laughs the laugh of derision in her heart. Her chuckle is not from happiness. It is from lack of faith.
B. The Lord Not Limited (vv. 13, 14a)
13. Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’
What Do You Think?
What was a time when you doubted the promises or provisions of God and even laughed at the seeming absurdity of the situation? How did things turn out? How did you grow spiritually as a result?
This skeptical laugh in Sarah’s heart does not go unnoticed by God. The Lord is well aware of the seeming impossibility of a pregnancy for Abraham and Sarah.
14a. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
The reader of Genesis 1 knows that God created the heavens and earth. Thus to read that God can give a child to an elderly couple seems a small matter compared with what we already know to be true. If we have believed what we read, we can easily answer the question Is anything too hard for the Lord? by responding, “Nothing is too hard for [him]” (compare Jeremiah 32:17, 27).
We are reminded of another woman, a very young woman, who will be confronted with a miraculous pregnancy many centuries after the time of Abraham. She will question this too, because of her virginity. She will then be reminded that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). She will give a simple response of obedient faith: “I am the Lord’s servant.… May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).
III. Counting Blessings (Genesis 21:1–8)
Sarah’s laugh of derision eventually gives way to faith, since a footnote to Hebrews 11:11 tells us that, “By faith even Sarah, who was past age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.”
A. Promised Son Is Born (vv. 1, 2)
1, 2. Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.
God is present in Sarah’s life to fulfill his promise, and the result is a miraculous pregnancy. This is not a virginal conception, for that is a unique event in human history. But this is still a supernatural event—a conception, gestation, and birth that science cannot explain.
What Do You Think?
How does Genesis 21:1-2 help ensure a proper view about God and time?
Somehow, God reversed the effects of aging on Sarah. Thus a woman who is some 40 or 50 years past the natural childbearing state is allowed to be as fertile as a 20-year-old wife for the case of this single pregnancy.
B. Promised Son Is Named (vv. 3–5)
3. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.
In a wonderful bit of irony, the boy is named Isaac, which means, “he laughs.” This is no longer the laugh of derision or doubt. It is now a laugh of joy.
In this case, God’s promise-keeping has the providential side effect of giving an elderly childless couple the joy of their hearts. They have the son they must have asked for in prayer for many years.
4, 5. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
God previously had established the circumcision of all the males in Abraham’s household to be the primary sign of his covenant with Abraham. Accordingly, Abraham had applied the circumcision knife to all the men and boys, including his son Ishmael and himself (Genesis 17:23-24).
We can imagine the joy that Abraham now feels. He is able to apply this sign of the covenant to the one who will fulfill the promise of a multitude of descendants for him.
C. Promised Son Brings Joy (vv. 6–8)
6. Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
We see a side of Sarah here that should endear her to us. Her original laughter of contempt is reevaluated, and now she is able to see the humor of her situation. She has abandoned any bitterness she may have harbored for her years of childlessness. She is not embarrassed to laugh out loud so anyone who hears can share with her, for her laughter springs from a deep joy that God has given to her.
What Do You Think?
What was a time when you experienced an “Isaac moment,” a time of joyous laughter at God’s provisions? What led up to that moment, and how did things turn out? How was your faith increased?
Laughing for Joy
“Did you hear the one about … ?” So goes the opening line of countless jokes. Most of us enjoy a good joke, and if the story is told well, it doesn’t even have to be plausible to make us laugh. Some people like side-splitting, belly-laugh-producing jokes; others prefer subtle humor. Whatever our preference, laughter is good medicine. In recent years science has established that laughter is good for our physical, mental, and emotional health. A good laugh relaxes muscles, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and enhances the function of the immune system. It even reduces pain.
Sarah’s decision to name her child Isaac—meaning “he laughs”—was especially poignant. At first, Sarah laughed at God’s “ridiculous” announcement. That was a laugh of derision, and it’s hard to see any “good medicine” in it. It was a scornful laugh that originated in the pain of barrenness.
But by the time her child was born, Sarah was laughing for joy. This was a laugh of thanksgiving for a promise fulfilled. If we see God as Sarah came to see him, we will also find our lives filled with delight. Think about it: When was the last time you laughed with joy over something marvelous that God did in your life? —C. R. B.
7. And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Sarah’s situation is startling: an elderly woman nursing a baby who has an old man as the father. It is absurd from a worldly standpoint, but marvelous from the standpoint of faith. Sarah’s joy for having a son is mingled with her pleasure at giving her faithful husband this child.
8. The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.
The rate of infant mortality in the ancient world is very high. Perhaps 25 percent of live-born babies do not live to see their first birthday. There is nothing more tragic than the death of a baby, but many societies have done things to protect parents from part of the pain this loss can bring. In some cultures, for instance, babies are not named until they are several years old. The idea in that practice is to lessen attachment to the infant in case of early death.
In Abraham and Sarah’s world, it is a time for celebration when a baby is weaned. This is because weaning is a fairly reliable sign that a child will live to adulthood and not become a casualty of a childhood disease or birth defect.
What Do You Think?
What are some appropriate and inappropriate ways we can respond when we see God fulfilling promises and working his will?
So they celebrate! The first step in becoming the father of a large nation has now been taken. God has kept his promise, and Abraham’s faith has not been in vain.
A. The Importance of Abraham
The promises to Abraham focused on two points: (1) Abraham’s posterity was to be made a great nation and be given the land of Canaan as a possession (see Genesis 17:8), and (2) in Abraham (and through Christ) all the families of the earth were to be blessed (see John 8:56–58; Galatians 3:16).
In this light, Genesis 12:2-3 can be seen as the theme of the entire Bible: God would make a great nation of Abraham, and God would bring blessing to the nations through Abraham and his offspring. We as Christians believe that Abraham is the “father of the faithful” and that Jesus is the true child of Abraham. Everyone in Christ is part of the offspring of Abraham.
Paul’s writings are very important for forming our self-understanding as Christians. Paul was a Jewish Christian, and he was extremely knowledgeable about the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament. Paul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). We may be surprised, then, when we learn who Paul thought was the primary hero of the Old Testament. We may expect this person to have been Moses, the great lawgiver and founder of the nation of Israel. Indeed, Paul had great respect for Moses. But Paul’s “leading man” was Abraham. This is because Paul understood Abraham to be the primary example of the person of faith.
In the fourth chapter of Romans, Paul lays out a devastating argument against the necessity of circumcision for Christians. This amounts to a repudiation of the whole idea of being considered righteous because of keeping the Jewish law, an idea that was being debated in the first-century church.
Paul notes that Abraham was reckoned as righteous because of his faith (Romans 4:3–5; compare Genesis 15:6). But in a nice piece of detective work, Paul also notes that this reckoning occurred before Abraham was circumcised (Romans 4:10–12; compare Genesis 17:24). Abraham’s right standing with the Lord was not the result of works, but the result of his faith.
This may seem like a complicated argument from the ancient world that has little relevance for us today. But such a conclusion would be to miss Paul’s point. It is because of this system of “righteousness through faith” (as opposed to “righteousness through works”) that all Christians are saved.
We cannot earn our salvation. It is a gift, given freely by God to those who believe in his Son, Jesus Christ, as they follow the biblical plan of salvation. It is this mighty truth that allows Paul to say, “those who believe are children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).
B. Abraham and You
To be a Christian means to be a person of faith. Today’s lesson teaches the story of two faithful people, Abraham and Sarah, and how they acted faithfully in spite of various “facts of life.” Abraham’s heart trusted that God would provide a son even when his mind told him this was impossible. May we examine our own lives and be resolved to live as people of faith, fully trusting God for our current lives and for our eternal future.
Thought to Remember
Abraham is still a model of faith.
God of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, we trust in you to be our shield and our protector. We trust in you to be our rewarder and the guide for our future. May we, like Abraham, be counted as righteous in your eyes because of our faith. We pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, amen.
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007