Abraham: The First Missionary

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the July 11, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’” Genesis 11:3-4, NIV

If we are to give credibility to the biblical account, at some point after the events described in the story of Noah and the Ark, men spread out upon the earth with some heading eastward to what may have been the fertile plains of the Euphrates delta. There they began to build a city and in conjunction, a great brick tower. Memories of this tower may have been the impetus for the later proliferation of ziggurats in the Mesopotamian culture, and perhaps even the pyramids of Egypt. This project apparently became possible because of the size of the labor force and ease with which men could communicate their ideas because all being descended from Noah, all spoke a common tongue.

According to the account, God became concerned about the power that men had and confused their speech into various languages so that their goals could not be realized. Perhaps this story was intended to explain why, if only Noah and his family survived the flood, were there so many different languages? If it was really an attempt by a Luddite God to thwart human innovation, it would seem only a temporary one as any time a sufficient number of individuals speaking a common language could come together, they would be able to resume their colossal achievements. History is replete with examples of that very thing happening over and over. There are the aforementioned Pyramids of Egypt, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Roman Colosseum, the Parthenon, and several other wonders. We see the trend echoed even today with the constant one-upmanship between countries to erect the tallest buildings, buildings that actually soar above the clouds in several cases.

Strangely, the Babel story also presents another problem. For a God who is eager to present His message to the world, why make it more difficult by confusing the primary means of doing so, word of mouth? It might be argued that this limitation contributed to keeping the teaching about the God of Israel bottled up primarily in the Levant until the time of Jesus, when we have the famous Pentecostal pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the resultant break down of the wall of language that limited the spread of God’s message for mankind.

When God called Abraham to follow Him, he did so in the context of a post Babel civilization. Abraham’s family had apparently not traveled far from Babel as they lived in Ur, in the same fertile plain,[i] and when Abraham was sent out later from Harran, he was sent to dwell among those who communicated with the same Semitic language family he was accustomed to. This was at least nine or ten generations after Noah. When God called Abraham after so many generations, it raises several questions. Was God only concerned about the descendants of Shem? Is that why Abraham only traveled in areas of Semitic culture? Or did God call others, who were speaking some of the other languages and had dispersed farther afield?

The Bible is primarily intended to be a history of one branch of the Semitic line, that of Abraham. So not only are we not informed of what God might be doing elsewhere, we are told little of what happened to the Semites between Shem and Abraham beyond acknowledging that they existed. We are told that Abraham’s family members were idol worshippers before Abraham received his call.[ii] In that context, he traveled with them to Harran. Then when his father, Terah, died, he left for Canaan per the Lord’s direction. We can see echoes of Abraham in Gideon, the Judge, whose father was an idolater, yet God called him to rise up in His name and deliver Israel.[iii] God is apparently not averse to working with idolaters to bring about reformation and revival, so it may be hard to believe that He was doing nothing outside of the family of Abraham to save mankind. Nonetheless without a record of those efforts we are left with Abraham.

Some might consider Abraham a strange choice for a heroic figure. In some ways he is more of an anti-hero. While he is called out of Harran and promised to become the father of a great nation, he sees his and Sarah’s biological clocks ticking away with no heir in sight. Impatient more than faithful, he chooses to have a child by another woman so that he will finally have an heir. From this impatience sprang all the centuries of conflict between the descendants of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, and those of Ishmael, the son he had by Hagar. Yet even in this stumbling comes a valuable lesson. That lesson is shared much later in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians where Hagar represents man’s attempts to find righteousness through his own works, and Isaac is representative of coming to God through faith in Him rather than our own works.[iv]. Sadly, the episode with Hagar brought great grief to the household. It not only provided a child, Ishmael, but it highlighted where the fecundity problem might be. If Abraham was able to father a child with Hagar then he was not infertile. This became a very bitter pill for Sarah.

Since this ancient account places the ability to have children in the hands of God, a persistent belief even present in the time of Hannah and Samuel, one cannot help but wonder what God had against Sarah. Was there a lesson she needed to learn that took almost her entire life to discover? Was it because she lacked the faith of Abraham, or his humility? The Bible does not tell us. Perhaps there are hints in her willingness to go along with Abraham, even when he was wrong. Twice she allowed him to represent her as his sister and not his wife.[v] Interestingly, the second event appears to have occurred when Sarah was over ninety years old if the sequence of events is to be taken literally. If we consider Sarah’s death to have occurred at age 127,[vi] then even with such a long life, she was well past middle age. One wonders at why King Abimelech, who probably could have had his choice of women, would have chosen to take a woman so “long in the tooth.”

Again if we see the sequence of events as literal, Isaac’s paternity can become questionable. After many decades with Abraham without a child, Sarah is taken into Abimelech’s harem, and after she is released, she is pregnant and when her pregnancy is completed, she gives birth to Isaac. It would perhaps be strange if no one questioned his paternity under the circumstances, especially when we consider how even today, two thousand years after His birth, some question the paternity of Jesus. This very issue may have fueled the controversy between Sarah and Hagar and their sons. Those questions would only serve to strengthen Ishmael’s claim on the inheritance. Little wonder in that circumstance that Sarah would choose to rid herself of the competition for the patrimony.

In the final analysis, it becomes apparent that a central message to be gleaned from all of this is that Abraham and Sarah were not much different than we are today. Their family heritage was spiritually compromised with idolatry. Sarah and Abraham had an unstable relationship with the truth. They both slept around, conforming to the sexual practices of the idolaters around them as much as necessary to avoid confrontation. Now some, who perhaps venerate Abraham a great deal, may feel offended at these words. However, there is a purpose to all of this. It helps us to understand that no one is righteous. Abraham, like us, was a sinner, and as a sinner, his hope of salvation rested not in living a life of perfection and obedience. It rested instead in a deep abiding trust in God’s leading, and a belief that in the end, God would make everything alright. He would provide the righteous sacrifice that would make our salvation possible.[vii] This Sacrifice, the Lamb, Jesus Christ, is what makes it possible for Abraham to be listed in the memorial of faith found in Hebrews, chapter eleven.

While there is no record that Abraham, “the missionary,” ever preached that message to anyone, yet his life demonstrated it, and in that, we all might be missionaries of the Gospel. We need only answer the call to repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit, and our lives will change as dramatically as Abraham’s did when he left Harran.


[i] Genesis 11:31

[ii] Joshua 24:2

[iii] Judges 6-8

[iv] Galatians 4:21-31

[v] Genesis 12:10-20, Genesis 20

[vi] Genesis 23:1-2

[vii] Genesis 22:8



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