- Abraham, the Faithless Moral Superhero
Why do we admire Abraham1 so much? The standard answer is that Abraham's faith in God is very great. Now in the context of Genesis, "faith in God" does not mean "belief in God's existence." Polytheism, not atheism, is the adversary in Genesis. Nor does "faith in God" mean "believing in order that we may come to understand God"2 or "believing because we cannot fully understand God"3 or "believing despite what we understand about God."4 To minimize anachronism and controversy I shall work with a minimalist reading of "faith in God," a meaning shared by all interpretations. On every plausible conception of faith, if Abraham has faith in God, then he trusts God's word. In Genesis "faith in God" means at least, "trusting that God will keep His promises."5 But Abraham does not display this sort of faith. I shall argue that Abraham actually displays a lack of trust in God throughout his whole life. To show this I shall review the events of Abraham's life, assessing his level of faith in God at each point.
Abraham leaves his father's house when God promises him numerous offspring (15:1–4).6 However contrary to the usual view, this is not evidence of extraordinary faith. People migrated a lot in the ancient world. After all, Abraham's migration to Canaan is actually the completion of a journey begun by Abraham's father, Terah. Although he got sidetracked and settled in Haran, Terah began the trek from Ur to Canaan without God's urging (11:31). If Terah could uproot himself [End Page 344] and begin the journey without being moved by faith, then we need not invoke faith to explain Abraham's journey, either.7
When Abraham arrives in Canaan, God promises that Abraham's offspring will possess the land of Canaan (12:7). Together, these two pledges, great nation in the promised land, constitute God's covenant with Abraham.8 But when famine strikes, Abraham lacks the confidence to remain in the land that he has been promised.9 Instead, Abraham abandons Canaan. Of course, God has not explicitly pledged, "You will get to Canaan and remain there while your children and grandchildren occupy the land," but surely that is how Abraham understands Him. Thus, Abraham's departure is a sign that he does not trust God to enable him to weather the famine.
Prefiguring the Israelites, Abraham and his clan descend into Egypt to gain food during a famine. Sarah is taken into bondage, and then extricated by a plague-wielding God. Finally, Abraham and his clan leave Egypt substantially richer than they came (12:10–20). Upon Abraham's return from Egypt, God finds it necessary to reiterate His promises (13:14–16). This is the second of several repetitions, each more forceful than the last. The repetitions are puzzling. Why does God repeat His promise so often to Abraham? He states the promise only once to Isaac and twice to Jacob, after all (25:2–4, 28:13–14, 35:11–12). My explanation is that God repeats the promises again and again to Abraham because Abraham keeps doubting them. In particular, God repeats His promises when Abraham returns to Canaan because the decision to flee to Egypt indicates a lack of faith.
Next Abraham's nephew, Lot, relocates to Sodom. When Lot is captured during a war, Abraham rescues him. After Abraham declines a reward from the king of Sodom, God promises to reward Abraham richly. But Abraham replies bitterly, "O Lord God, what can you give me, seeing that I shall die childless . . . Since you have granted me no offspring my steward will be my heir" (15:2–3). I take Abraham to be saying to God, "You haven't even begun to make good on Your previous promise to provide me with numerous offspring. In fact, it looks like I'm going to suffer the disgrace of having to leave my estate to a mere servant when I die. So I am skeptical of Your new promise of a rich reward." God replies by...