Cycle 3: Abraham and His Sons (Genesis 11 to Exodus 1)

This is now the third sermons in our Bible Overview series. Three more to go after this, and we will have travelled through the entire bible!

That hardly seems possible. But, once we realize that the bible is actually one huge story made up of six repeating smaller story cycles, the big picture begins to make sense, and we are able to move pretty quickly through the whole bible without getting lost in the details or losing sight of the main point, which is: the Search for Eve’s Son, the Messiah who will crush the serpent’s head and finally transform earth into the paradise it was meant to be.

The steps of each story cycle are printed here in our worship guide. As you can see, we have already travelled through the Adam Cycle and the Noah Cycle. Adam’s cycle showed us what happens when the cycle is broken. Noah’s cycle showed us what happens when the cycle is completed properly. So now we know what we are looking for as we get into Abraham’s Cycle today.

First, a brief review:

God made a deal with Adam. If Adam kept building a safe space for himself and his family — a garden — then eventually the whole earth would become a safe space, where God would live with his children forever. Adam failed. He lost his safe space. One son — Cain — rejected his father’s God, and his descendants went from bad to worse. The other son — Seth — remained faithful to his father’s God, and his descendants were blessed by God for a while…but they eventually joined with Cain’s line. And all mankind became so ambitious and so powerful that earth was in danger of destruction.

So God destroyed mankind with a flood before mankind could destroy the earth. But! he brought one man and his family out of that destruction.

That was Noah. So God made a deal with him. If Noah built a safe space for himself and his family — a giant boat — then God would save him from the coming judgement. Noah was obedient! He build the boat, and God saved him.

But then Noah went above and beyond: he sacrificed some animals to God as an act of faith that God would continue to provide for him. God responded by making an eternal covenant with Noah and all his children: he promised to turn the earth into an eternal safe space from judgement! And that covenant came with a sign: a rainbow, which would serve as a visual reminder of God’s covenant.

So all that was new: we did not see the eternal covenant/covenant sign part in Adam’s story, because…Adam never got that far in the cycle.

But then the next part was same-same: one of Noah’s sons — Ham — rejected his father’s God, and his and his descendants went from bad to worse. The other son — Shem — remained faithful to his father’s God, and his descendants were blessed by God for a while…but they eventually joined with Ham’s line and started to build a massive city and tower in order to maintain centralized control.

As we finished last week, we found mankind on the same track as before. Nothing has changed. If God does not do something, mankind will eventually grow powerful enough to destroy the earth.

That is the set up for Cycle Number Three: Abraham and his Sons.

So the Abraham cycle begins in Genesis Chapter 11 with a problem: mankind is just as corrupt and ambitious as before. They just aren’t strong enough yet to do any real damage — except to each other.

So what does God do? He makes sure they cannot grow that powerful again — at least, not for a long, long time. He confuses their languages, creating different nations that now cannot get along with each other. He had told Noah and his sons to expand, fill the earth. Ham, the rebellious son, refused, and began this centralized building project, and Shem — the good son — joined him! But now, because of God’s curse on their languages, they are finally forced to be obedient, and mankind is scattered across the earth.

This is judgement and chaos, just like the flood was in Noah’s cycle.

And just like with Noah’s cycle, God brings one man and his family out of that destruction.

That man’s name is Abram. At the beginning of Genesis Chapter 12, God shows up and makes a deal with him. If Abram leaves that mess, that confusion of nations and languages, and moves to a new country, then God will turn Abram’s family into a new nation, a new kind of nation, a nation that will actually help all the other nations get back under control. It is all right here, beginning in 12:1, the Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. [2] I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. [3] I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Now, what is God’s plan here?

Well, remember, God’s original plan was for mankind to turn earth into a paradise where God and man can live together forever. We discovered during Noah’s cycle that this is still God’s plan. We also learned from Noah’s cycle that mankind is still corrupt.

Therefore, God has to cure mankind’s corruption before mankind can cure the earth of its wildness. That is the plan.

And God has just revealed his plan to this man Abram: if you are obedient to me by leaving this place of judgement and moving to a new land, I will use your genetic code to cure mankind’s corruption. I will turn your kids into a new nation in that new land, and that nation will help cure all the other nations on earth.

So, it says in verse 4, Abram went, as the Lord had told him, [5] and set out for the land of Canaan, and arrived there. And if we look a few verses later, Abram makes a sacrifice to God, just like Noah did.

Wah! Finish a’eady ah?

That was fast! I guess we can all just go home now.

Well…no. Abraham’s cycle is an expanded version of Noah’s cycle. Abraham’s cycle follows the same steps as Noah’s cycle — but within Abraham’s cycle there are several micro-cycles.

It is just like how the bible is one big story made up of six developing story cycles: Abraham’s life is one big story made up of several developing story cycles. Some day, when we look at the life of Abraham in detail, we will follow those micro-cycles. But this time through we will just focus on the main cycle.

So Abram has been obedient, he has left the place of judgement. Now God has to keep his part of the deal: turn Abraham into a nation.

But there is a new problem for God to solve: Abram and his wife have no kids. No kids, no great nation.

So now what?

God shows up again, several years later, in Chapter 15: [1] After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

[2] But Abram said, “Ummm, Sovereign Lord, it is nice that you say so. But you see, I don’t have any kids. So it sort of looks to me like you are not going to keep your promise to start a new nation through my genetic code.”

But in verse 4 God says, “Dude, don’t worry, I promise you that you will become a great nation.” Verse 5: God took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

[6] Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

So Abram’s faith continues to grow. He believed God enough at the beginning to leave his homeland and travel to a new one. But then, as the years passed with no kids, Abram’s faith got a little shaky. He began to wonder if he heard God right the first time. But here, again, as God speaks, Abram believes, and God thinks in his heart, “Good: that is what I’m looking for.”

Then, a few years after that, God shows up a third time in Chapter 17: [1] When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty ; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. [2] Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Ah, here we go! Now God is finally getting into the details of the deal he wants to make with Abram. The first step was Abram leaving his homeland to go form a new nation. Now we get to find out how that new nation will happen.

So God says here, “Walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” And we just found out what that means back in Chapter 15: God wants Abram to continue to believe him and obey him, and God will continue to credit that to him as righteousness.

If Abram continues to believe and obey, God will fulfill his covenant with him and turn him into a great nation.

And over the next few verses, God outlines the details of the covenant. First he talks about his part of the deal, [4] “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. [5] No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. [6] I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. [7] I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. [8] The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Wow! God is talking about an eternal covenant: an eternal nation, an eternal safe space. What did Abraham do to deserve that? Where was the sacrifice part of the story?

Well, there have actually been several sacrifice cycles in Abraham’s story by this point, but none of them are The Sacrifice that triggers God’s eternal covenant. And we know this because here God keeps saying, “I will do this, I will do that.” God has already seen Abraham’s faithfulness, so he is confident that Abraham will finish his part of the deal. But we are not there yet. God is just saying at this point, “Don’t worry, I will make an eternal covenant with you and your kids.”

Okay. That is what God is promising to do in the future…if Abraham does what now?

[9] Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. [10] This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. [11] You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. [12] For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. [13] Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. [14] Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

What just happened here? What does this mean?

Confusing, right?

But not so confusing if we remember Adam’s cycle and Noah’s cycle.

God made a deal with Adam: “I’m giving you a safe space — a garden. If you take care of it, I will live there with you forever. But if you leave my safe space, you will die.”

God made the same deal with Noah: “You build a safe space — a boat — and I will live there with you, and save you and your kids from judgement forever. But if you leave my safe space, obviously you will die (by drowning).”

Now, God is making the same deal with Abraham: “You build a safe space — a circumcised family. If you do this, your people will be my people, and I will be their God forever. But if anyone leaves my safe space by refusing to circumcise his sons…they will cease to be my people, they will fall under judgement, they will die.”

So this is the deal God just made with Abraham: if Abraham circumcises himself and every male in his household, and if every generation after this also continues to circumcise every male in their households…then God will use Abraham’s genetic code to cure mankind’s corruption forever. Abraham’s kids will grow into a new nation in a new land, and through them all the other nations on earth will be saved from judgment.

Pretty cool, right?

There is one other development we should notice here also: the covenant sign. God gave Noah a covenant sign: the rainbow, which would be an eternal reminder of God’s mercy, God’s plan to redeem mankind. Now God has just given Abraham a covenant sign: circumcision. And by comparing these two signs we can see that the concept of the covenant sign is developing:

Noah’s covenant sign is done by God. But Abraham’s covenant sign is done by Abraham.

Noah’s covenant sign is a reminder of God’s plan to save mankind, and everyone who sees it is safe from that kind of judgement. Abraham’s covenant sign is also a reminder of God’s plan to save the nations — but it also marks out the borders of God’s safe space.

In other words, it is not just a sign but a seal. To put it in modern terms, we could say that circumcision was God’s signature on Abraham’s body, saying, “This man and his children belong to me.” Those who have been physically “signed” by God can look at that sign and know they are in God’s safe space: Abraham’s family. But those who have not been “signed” by God are outside God’s safe space. And the only way to get in is by doing that covenant sign!

— or is it?

Earlier we were told Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Abraham is saved by faith. He is already in God’s safe space.

So why does he need to circumcise then? Why is circumcision so important that God says, “If you don’t do it, you will fall under judgement”?

We will come back to that later.

Anyway, as the story goes on, Abraham is obedient. He circumcises his whole household. And God begins to keep his part of the deal: he gives Abraham a son in Chapter 21. And we are told that [3] Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. [4] When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him.

So far so good! Abraham is busy building the safe space God commanded him to build.

Now, if Abraham’s cycle is following the same pattern as Noah’s, what should happen next?

The Sacrifice.

And guess what happens in the very next chapter? [1] Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

[2] Then God said, “Take your son , your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

What? God spent all this time promising to give Abraham a son who would become a great nation — and now God says, “Sacrifice the boy.”

What kind of God is this?

Well, that is the question God wants to answer here: “What kind of God am I? Am I the same as all the other gods around here, who demand first-born sons as sacrifice? Or am I different?”

God is testing Abraham’s faith and obedience. He is also testing Abraham’s understanding of who God is. See, in Abraham’s homeland it was common for the gods to ask fathers to sacrifice their first-born sons. That is how horrible the land of Babel was under the rule of Satan and the sons of Ham. God wants to completely deliver Abraham from that kind of horrible religion.

So, God plays the part Abraham expects him to play: he asks for Isaac as a sacrifice. But his purpose is to test Abraham’s faith, and shatter Abraham’s understanding of religion — so that God can rebuild it properly.

Well, Abraham passes the test. He is obedient. He takes his son Isaac and does exactly what God commanded. And: [9] when they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. [10] Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

[11] But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

[12] “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

[13] Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. [14] So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

Abraham has just learned that his God is the opposite of every other god. Every other god — every other servant of Satan — demands that parents sacrifice their children on the altar of their ambitions. But Abraham’s God offers a free exchange program. He says, “You dedicate all your sons to me by circumcising them. But then, instead of demanding that you sacrifice them to me, I will provide a sheep for you to sacrifice in exchange.”

In the next cycle we will see this exchange program written into the Jewish law: God demands every first-born son to be dedicated to him — but then the father is allowed to sacrifice a sheep instead of his son. And we don’t realize this, but that Jewish law was amazingly advanced for the time. In all the other nations around there, fathers lived in constant tension, never knowing when or if their gods would suddenly say, “Hey, I want you to sacrifice your first-born son to me.” Jewish fathers never had to worry about that. Their law was a constant reminder to them that their God was different. Other gods took first-born sons in payment for blessing on the rest of the family. The Jewish God gave the first-born sons back! — and then blessed the family anyway.

But then, why did Abraham call that place “The Lord Will Provide”? Why not, “The Lord Has Provided”? Is Abraham seeing some future significance to this moment that we cannot see? What is the Lord going to provide that he has not already provided?

We will come back to that later.

So Abraham performs the sacrifice. What is the next step of the cycle supposed to be, if it really is following Noah’s cycle?

The Covenant.

And sure enough: God responds to Abraham’s sacrifice with an eternal covenant. [15] The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time [16] and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, [17] I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, [18] and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

God confirms his eternal covenant with Abraham. Because Abraham was faithful to God, and sacrificed his son Isaac — through the sheep exchange program — God responds by saying, “Okay! I am going to use your genetic code to cure mankind’s corruption. Your kids will grow into a new kind of nation living in a new kind of land, and their nation will help cure all the other nations on earth.”

Wonderful. Wonderful!

But the cycle is not finished yet. What are The Results?

Sadly: the same as before.

Adam’s sons were divided into rebellious and obedient: Cain and Seth. Noah’s sons were divided into rebellious and obedient: Ham and Shem. Abraham’s sons become divided into rebellious and obedient: Ishmael and Isaac. Then, out of Isaac: Esau, and Jacob. And then the rest of the book of Genesis goes on to show us how the sons of Jacob, even though they are part of the obedient line, gradually lose faith in Abraham’s covenant. They gradually stop circumcising their sons. And when a famine comes, instead of trusting God to provide for them they leave the safe space God promised to Abraham — the land of Canaan — and they move to Egypt.

And, by the way, Egypt was settled by one of the sons of Ham.

So there is a poetic symmetry to Abraham’s cycle. At the beginning of the cycle, the sons of Shem had joined the sons of Ham in building the city of Babel.

Here, at the end of the cycle, the sons of Shem have once again joined with the sons of Ham, this time building cities in Egypt. It goes well at first! — and then the sons of Ham decide to enslave the sons of Shem, the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But its even worse than that. As Genesis ends and Exodus begins, we discover that — four hundred years later — the sons of Ham have decided to wipe out the sons of Shem.

What is God going to do? The sons of Abraham have not kept their part of the covenant; they do not deserve to be saved. Is God going to save them? Or is he going to let them go?

This ends the Third Cycle, and sets us up for the fourth.

All right. We’ve discovered that even though Abraham’s cycle is longer and more complicated than Noah’s, it is still the same basic cycle. Which leads us to wonder, as always: what does this mean for us?

Well, first of all, the basic applications of the first two cycles still apply. First: we cannot save ourselves, corruption is inevitable — but God can save us! And second: we cannot be like Noah — but we can join his family by getting on the boat.

Abraham’s cycle tells us the same: we cannot be like Abraham. Abraham was specially chosen by God to save mankind. Noah saved mankind by building a boat. Abraham saved mankind by building a family. So the application of this cycle is just as simple as before: join Abraham’s family by getting on the boat.

Except that the boat this time is circumcision. If you want to join Abraham’s family, you have to be circumcised.

Some of you guys are feeling a prickle of sweat on your forehead. And you’re thinking to yourself, “Next week I’m going to Kingdom City.”

Well, before you do that, let me tell you the good news!

We do not live in Abraham’s cycle, the third cycle. We live in the sixth, the New Testament cycle. The sign and seal of God’s covenant is no longer circumcision. So wipe away the sweat. Relax. Come back from Kingdom City.

The sign and seal of God’s covenant is now baptism. No blood required!

Now, how did that happen? How did bloody circumcision become bloodless baptism? We will see that develop over the next three cycles. But for now we are simply going to notice that the seeds of this change were planted right here at the beginning.

Remember how we left two questions unanswered earlier. The first question was: since Abraham was saved by faith, why did he have to circumcise? The second question was: what is the Lord going to provide that he has not already provided?

As we answer these two questions we will begin to see why circumcision had to change to baptism.

So, first question: since Abraham was saved by faith, why did he have to circumcise?

Two reasons. First, circumcision is the outward sign of an internal faith. Internally, Abraham already believes his family is God’s family. Externally, the act of circumcision confirms that he believes his family is God’s family. Second, circumcision is a kind of sacrifice. Noah taught us that an eternal covenant requires blood shed in sacrifice. When Abraham circumcised his son Isaac, he shed only a little bit of his son’s blood — but that little bit of blood was Abraham’s promise that later on, if God asked for it, he would shed all of Isaac’s blood. Circumcision was like a down-payment on the sacrifice to come later.

But then, to Abraham’s shock, God did not require him to shed Isaac’s blood. Instead, God provided a sheep. So Abraham named the place, “The Lord Will Provide.” Which led us to the second unanswered question: what is the Lord going to provide that he has not already provided?

Well, Abraham knows that his son Isaac is much, much more valuable than just one sheep. Which leaves two possible options: either the sheep is just a temporary payment, God is going to show up later and say, “Okay, now it is time for full payment: sacrifice your son,” or the sheep is a down-payment, a promise that someday God is going to provide full payment for Isaac’s life-blood.

Abraham named the place “The Lord Will Provide” because he believed Option B: one day God will provide full payment for Isaac’s blood.

Now, let’s follow Abraham’s reasoning for one more step: what is the only thing on earth that is valuable enough to be exchanged for one first-born son?

Another first-born son.

So actually, when Abraham named the place “The Lord Will Provide”, that was his way of saying, “One day, God is going to provide his own first-born son to be sacrificed in exchange for mine.”

Now, let’s put these answers together:

Abraham was saved by faith alone. However, circumcision was an outward sign of that faith and a down-payment on the first-born son that Abraham owed God.

But God has long since paid that debt with his own first-born Son. So let me ask you, friends: once the entire debt has been fully paid, why would you continue to make payments? I am no financial genius, but even I know that something has gone wrong if the bank keeps demanding down-payments after the loan has been fully covered!

Therefore: circumcision is no longer needed! Blood down-payment is no longer needed!

But we do still need an outward sign and seal of belonging to God’s family, because we are physical creatures, and forgetful. Therefore: baptism. Bloody circumcision has become bloodless baptism.

So what is the application for Abraham’s cycle? Simply this: join Abraham’s family. How? Step One: believe God’s promise that he will provide his first-born as a sacrifice. Step Two: get circumcised, fathers and sons together, as a sign that your family is God’s family, that God lives with you.

But we don’t live in Abraham’s cycle. So what is the application for us, in the New Testament cycle? Simply this: join Abraham’s family. How? Step One: believe God’s promise that he has already provided his first-born son as a sacrifice. Step Two: get baptised, parents and children together, as a sign that your family is God’s family, that God lives with you.

Jesus’ disciple Peter actually said it best. When people asked him how they could join — really join — Abraham’s family and be cured of the corruption of the nations, this was Peter’s answer: “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” — that means God will live with you, within you. And: “this promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

It really is as simple as that.


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