Although a big chunk of the book of Genesis is devoted to Abraham's life, there is a great deal we don't know. For instance, 13 years go by between the end of Chapter 16 and the first verse of Chapter 17. The history in the Bible leaves out a lot. There must be a principle of selection, a way of determining what was significant in Abraham's life for later readers.
One suggestion, made by the late Noel Weeks in his book Gateway to the Old Testament, is that Genesis is highlighting the promises made to Abraham, but also how many of the circumstances of his life seemed to run contrary to those promises.
God gave Abraham great promises. He promised to make him great, and a great blessing (Genesis 12:1–3). God also promised to give Abraham a land and countless descendants (Genesis 12:7; 13:14–16). And yet, each of those promises seemed to be directly contradicted by almost everything that happened to Abraham.
God promised to give Abraham the land of Canaan, but it was already occupied (Genesis 12:6). Further, the next thing we read is that there was famine in the land and Abraham had to go to Egypt for food (Genesis 12:7–10). Even when he got back, there didn't seem to be room enough for him and his nephew Lot (Genesis 13). Then foreign kings invaded and kidnapped Lot (Genesis 14). Abraham had to negotiate and buy a plot of ground in the land God had promised him in order to bury his wife (Genesis 23). It certainly didn't seem like that promise had been fulfilled!
Abraham might have felt the same way about the promise of descendants. Years went by, and no son was born (Genesis 15:3). When he did have a son with a concubine, that son was ruled out as his heir (Genesis 17:19). When Abraham and Sarah finally did have a son, Isaac, he had to be surrendered to God's will (Genesis 22). Then Abraham heard that his brother had eight sons (Genesis 22:23). The fulfillment of the promise was delayed, interrupted, jeopardized and eclipsed.
Faced with situations that seemed to directly undermine the promise of God, Abraham had ups and downs, but didn't give up on faith. We sometimes become skeptical or cynical about the reliability of God's promises. But bleak appearances don't limit God. We don't have to pretend things look good when they don't; we just need to remember the God whose promises we hang on to.
Rev. Ruben Zartman has been the pastor at Ebenezer Reformed Church in Shafter since 2017.