The Faithless Elect: How Abraham, Pharoah and Abimelech can Inform Us When Christians Do Evil

Perennial Challenge for the Elect

The perennial challenge of the church is to relate productively to an economy of relational power in which it appears to be vulnerable.

If you read through the gospels we see a good bit of Jesus’ teaching is instructing his disciples on their use of their minority power in the world. Disciples are told to take the lesser seat. Disciples are told to forgive enemies. Disciples are told to turn the other cheek.

Many of Jesus’ adversaries similarly wanted Jesus to address issues of power thrust upon the Jewish community beneath the tyranny of Rome. Many flashpoints involving dietary laws, Sabbath observance and the like are actually discussions involving how a faithful people should live in an environment where they are not in charge.

Immoral Christians Make Christianity Unthinkable

The laundry list of the failures of Christian’s use of power continues to grow. Unfortunately what it tends to energize is self-righteousness of the opponents of Christianity. Perhaps this was what the Apostle Paul noted in terms of how the law brings death. Moralism within the human community seems to result in an endless cycle of finger pointing, blaming, criticism and defensiveness.

For many the list of Christian sins so undermines the possibility that the Gospel could be true, that they simply walk away from it with their snap judgment. They assume, as many Christians do, that the story of the Bible is simply a story of moralism.

What we begin to see in the story of Abraham (Abram) is that the interplay between election and morality is anything but simple. Right after Abram is chosen, called, and in fact responds, we find him failing morally even as compared with the pagans around him.

Elect to Be a Blessing

Abraham is told to be a blessing to the world, and that all of the families of the earth will be blessed through him. The text also has a protective curse promised by the Lord. What happens, however, when Abraham is not a blessing to his neighbors but a faithless chosen one?

Abraham is the father of nations, and many of the stories in Abraham’s story is a story of how he relates to the nations around him. The Abraham stories are clearly structured with repetitive themes, and the first type story told in the cycle with its echo is that of the sister/wife. The first deals with Egypt, the second with Abimelech.

Abram, Israel and Egypt

Abram’s dealings with Egypt are a pre-echo of the story of Israel and Egypt.

  • Abram and Israel (Jacob, Joseph, brothers) enter Egypt because of a famine in the promised land.
  • Abram fears that Pharaoh will practice familial assimilation through murder, which is what Pharaoh does to Israel by killing the boy babies and saving the sisters.
  • Yhwh intervenes by addressing Pharaoh with plagues.
  • Pharaoh casts out Abram and Israel and does so with plunder that enriches Abram and Israel.

At the same time Abram is no innocent victim here. After the amazing promises made by Yhwh we wonder if Yahweh and Abram can fulfill. Clearly Abram fails here but Yhwh comes through.

When Abram fails to be a blessing he becomes a curse. Abram is rescued from his faithlessness by Yhwh but the other nations is cursed by Abram’s faithlessness.

Abraham and Abimelech

If Abram and Pharaoh are a pre-echo Israel and Pharaoh, Abraham and Abimelech are a continuation of the story of Sodom.

We find Abraham again failing to be a blessing and the non-elect paying the price.

Abraham passionated pleaded the cause of sinful Sodom but now Abraham unjustifiably presumes the sin of Sodom upon Abimelech. Yhwh will reveal himself to Abimelech, not with the rich promises and electing grace he appeared to Abram with but with the kind of warning that Jonah delivers to Nineveh. Abimelech responds in a more faithful way than Sodom, or Lot, or perhaps even Abraham and challenges Yhwh with the same challenge Abraham does in pleading Sodom’s weak case. Robert Alter speculates that perhaps Gerar has been struck with civic impotence as a result of Abimelech’s semi innocent procurement of Abraham’s wife. Sarah apart from the promise becomes a barrenness bomb through the protecting curse of Yhwh. Abimelech shows himself Abraham’s moral superior by blessing him with even more wealth, a gift that demonstrates Abimelech’s virtue not Abraham’s merit.

Lent with Abraham

 The thesis of this Lenten series is that in the election of Abraham Yhwh begins a relationship with him that will result not only in Abram’s transformation but also in the world’s renewal. We often note that character is revealed when someone is given power, but character is also revealed when someone is confronted by power.

We become ardent self-salvationists often when we have some power and we attempt to marshal it against the threat of greater power. This is exactly what we see Abram doing in both stories. A lie is an ever present help when things are tough. He is willing to pursue his own wellbeing at his wife’s, and his calling’s expense and he does so twice.

What Power Do We Know?

John Calvin in his commentary on Genesis is frank about Abraham’s failure in both cases. Although Abraham believes, is elect, is chosen, and will certainly be Yhwh’s instrument, Abraham still does not fully trust in Yhwh or his power. Abraham crumbles before the known avarice of Pharaoh and unjustly presumes the corruption of Abimelech even after he has dared to question the justice of God.

In both stories it becomes clear that Yhwh is more than able to fulfill his promises in spite of Abraham’s unfaithfulness. We might imagine that the challenge of barrenness, famine, and ambition have everything to do with illuminating who we really are, what we really believe, and what we really want.

Holier Than Thou

As a WASPy church has lost cultural power the cultural war commonly devolves into litanies of blame and finger pointing. When parties have power they use it to advantage themselves and marginalize their adversaries. When parties lack power they play the victim card in our post-modern context in order to try to gain some leverage against their foe.

The irony of our post-modern context is that each use of power from above energizes victim power from below and the two parties continue in their spiral of mutual-self-destruction. How can the cycle be broken?

Moral Abimelech Told To Ask Abraham To Pray for Him

One of the strangest moments in these stories is where Yhwh commands Abimelech to ask Abraham to pray for him because Abraham is a prophet.

One of the things we see here is that prophets are not necessarily the moral superiors of those they are called to serve. Jonah similarly struggled with his mantel.

At the same time Abimelech’s moral superiority does not trump Abraham’s calling or role. We would hope that Abimelech’s moral superiority would in fact enable him to be humble enough to embrace where he is at so that he can in fact benefit from Abraham’s calling, and possibly in a way make it his own. What we are looking for in this is for the blessing promised through Abraham to flow in spite of Abraham’s failure as a prophet. It is in fact Abraham’s immorality in this instance, Abraham’s judgmental bias against Abimelech that will hopefully summon the strength of Abimelech’s moral character to rise to this occasion and bring shalom not just to this conflict but also to the world.

Deceptive Field of Morality as Basis for Election Identification

CS Lewis in Mere Christianity names an obvious football in the culture war. If Christianity is true then shouldn’t Christians be more moral and “nicer” than non-Christians? He uses two fictitious characters. Miss Bates and Dick Firkin.

Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works.

Why not?

The manager is going to put in new machinery: before Christ has finished with Miss Bates, she is going to be very ‘nice’ indeed. But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded. But this would be a fatal mistake. The truth is that in God’s eyes Dick Firkin needs ‘saving’ every bit as much as Miss Bates. In one sense (I will explain what sense in a moment) niceness hardly comes into the question.

You cannot expect God to look at Dick’s placid temper and friendly disposition exactly as we do. They result from natural causes which God Himself creates. Being merely temperamental, they will all disappear if Dick’s digestion alters. The niceness, in fact, is God’s gift to Dick, not Dick’s gift to God. In the same way, God has allowed natural causes, working in a world spoiled by centuries of sin, to produce in Miss Bates the narrow mind and jangled nerves which account for most of her nastiness. He intends, in His own good time, to set that part of her right. But that is not, for God, the critical part of the business. It presents no difficulties. It is not what He is anxious about. What He is watching and waiting and working for is something that is not easy even for God, because, from the nature of the case, even He cannot produce it by a mere act of power. He is waiting and watching for it both in Miss Bates and in Dick Firkin. It is something they can freely give Him or freely refuse to Him. Will they, or will they not, turn to Him and thus fulfil the only purpose for which they were created?

Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). Mere Christianity (pp. 211-212). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

How does this relate to Abraham and Abimelech?

There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God—it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.

Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). Mere Christianity (p. 213). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Even the protective curse upon Abraham that Yhwh has place gives opportunity for Abimelech to grow in what God had given him. The story anticipates the opportunity for  Abimelech to appropriate the blessing offered to Abraham. Despite Abraham’s immorality, Abimelech, Abraham’s moral superior in this story grows beyond Abraham by loving his enemy and being a blessing to the one who hurt him.

God Does the Unthinkable To End the Conflict

The human story is the story of conflict. In this story we see victims and perpetrators in a never ending struggle using the power they possess to advantage themselves at the expense of the other.

In this story Abraham uses the small power he has to disadvantage his own wife, and disadvantage those with more power than he has through a lie that jeopardizes the mission that God has called him to pursue. Abraham’s story is ours. Our election carries with it the character of God. We are called to live “your wellbeing at my expense” and when we fail to follow our calling and be a blessing to our neighbors, even the powerful ones, we bring a curse.

How is curse dealt with in the context of conflict? Power struggles are perpetuated because neither side will bless the other. Christ does what Abraham fails to do. Jesus does the unthinkable and fulfills what Abimelech is pointed towards.

Abimelech was forced to see that all of his power, and even all of his morality was a gift to him. If Abimelech could bless the imoral, elect Abraham and then gift him as the text showed. He was certainly on his way towards realizing something of the one who called him.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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1 Response to The Faithless Elect: How Abraham, Pharoah and Abimelech can Inform Us When Christians Do Evil

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