Defining faith would appear on the surface to be a simple task, but a cursory effort might result in a misleading or weak definition. Since many evangelicals have called the Holy Bible among other things, a story of a people of faith, it would not only seem reasonable to build a definition of faith from the Scriptures, but it would certainly be a perfect definition of faith. The faith of saints throughout the years such as Adoniram Judson, Polycarp or Hudson Taylor certainly help define how to live out faith. Indeed, the stories of God’s people through time not only build this definition but encourage and sustain our faith today. Genesis, literally in the beginning, begins the story of a people of faith and in itself offers an excellent definition of faith through both positive and negative examples as these people interact with one another and ultimately interact with God.
Concepts of Faith in Genesis
Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. This assurance and conviction was developed on the basis three things, trust, obedience, and experience. First, the trust in God for His sovereignty and plan for their lives is amazing since they had no Scripture or church history to reflect upon. These saints worked on a principle that God wills, we obey, and we trust Him. Secondly, the obedience to abide by His commands even when it did not seem reasonable. No doubt that many of us have our faith tested when things seem unreasonable. Is it reasonable in the year 2004 to sell everything you have and move halfway across the world to start a church and shepherd twenty-five people? It is reasonable with faith. Thirdly, the experience of God’s involvement in their lives through provision and fulfilled promise. No doubt that many evenings in the days before Scripture, a father would sit around a fire at the end of the day and tell stories to his children about how God touched their lives and the lives of their forefathers. Since trust begins faith, obedience applies faith, and experience strengthens faith, the saints in the book of Genesis can help us see these principles in action.
It is easy for us in 2005, to look at Adam and Eve wondering why she listened to the serpent and why Adam took the fruit from her. Perhaps, it would be more beneficial for us to focus on this episode as a first lesson in faith. After all, we can say with relative certainty that many sins are born out of a lack faith. Credit card debt and gluttony could be indications of a lack of faith in God’s provision. While we look at both the positive and negative examples of faith, we are careful to understand our own faults in these areas. Scripture blesses us with not only correct models of behavior but negative behavioral models as well.
Contrast of Faith in Cain and Abel
It would seem reasonable to begin with a look at two opposing examples of faith that have similar beginnings and experiences, namely Cain and Abel. Other than their birth, we are only told that these brothers worked, Abel as a keeper of the flocks and Cain as a tiller of the ground.[i] They each presented an offering to the Lord, Abel of firstlings and fat portions to which the Lord was favorable and Cain of fruit for which the Lord had no regard. W.H. Griffith Thomas writes:
“At any rate, we may fairly say that these two aspects represent two attitudes today, the attitude of the man who responds to God’s revelation and submits to His will, and the attitude of the man who will only come to God on his own terms, refusing to do what does not suit him or commend itself to his judgment.”[ii]
In other words, Griffith Thomas is suggesting that the context of this statement represents a sacrificial offering in faith by Abel and an offering lacking faith by Cain. From this story, we can glean the idea of offerings and attitudes, mutually working together. So many in the church today will only give their offerings and tithes on a conditional basis both positively and negatively. Two extremes might be giving in such a way that one understands that everything belongs to God and they have faith that God will use their sacrificial offerings in His way and in His time, the other extreme would be not giving because a person does not feel that the offering will be used in a way that is pleasing to them. These two extremes give us an idea of two levels of faith, the dependence and trust in God and the lack of faith in God’s plan.
The Faith of Noah
Genesis 6:9-12 introduces us to the faith of Noah, defined by three attributes that he was righteous, blameless and he walked with God. Verse 9 refers to “in his time” indicating the contrast between Noah and the men of his day who were corrupt and violent.[iii] Noah represents an excellent example of obedience in faith through his unquestioning of God’s direction and steadfastness to carry the building of the Ark. It would be safe to assume that task when first presented seemed not only unreasonable but extremely difficult with the limited means and provisions that Noah would have had at his disposal. No one would challenge Noah’s faith if he asked himself questions such as, where will all the animals come from and how will they be fed, or who will provide the wood and labor. We can rest assured that the men of his day also mocked him for undertaking such an enormous project. The faith to endure this project is one of the greatest examples we can find in Scripture.
Another unique aspect of Noah’s faith is the patience exhibited while in the ark. J.G. Murphy suggests that when the dove Noah sent out returned with an olive branch it represented a symbol of peace.[iv] Certainly we can assume that the return of the earth to its former status had to not only affirm God’s word to Noah, but give him a sense of peace that his obedience to build the ark and patience to endure the time in the ark were in concert with God’s plan.
The Faith of Abraham
Three experiences of Abraham’s life, the call to sojourn, the land division with Lot and the sacrifice of Isaac, point to deep faith through acquired spiritual maturity. While God chose Shem’s line over Japheth and Ham was no surprise to Him, it certainly must have been surprising to Abraham. Abraham was told to simply leave everything behind and entrust himself to God’s guidance. The goal of the migration is “a land,” about which Abraham knows only that God will show it to him.[v] In addition, the separation with Lot in Genesis 13 demonstrates Abraham’s faith in God’s provision. He not only relinquished his right as Lot’s senior, but faithfully acknowledged the “right or the left” as God’s will. This reminds us of James 4:15 regarding if the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” It is certainly no stretch to compare this situation with all of the great missionaries who God called to enter unknown territory. John G. Paton was called by God to the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu, an unknown territory inhabited by cannibals. The faith of Abraham had to be inspiring to Paton and give him the faith to follow God. Even a missionary today, while going to a known territory, must have a strong faith to leave everything behind and follow God’s call, not knowing what will happen. The experiences of former missionaries are a testimony to this faith building experience.
As a father, one of the most heart-aching passages in Scripture, is in regards to the sacrifice of Isaac. While parting with any of my three, soon to be four children, is incomprehensible, Abraham is asked to offer his “only son.” Charles Horne observes: “The form of this statement was deliberately calculated to impress upon Abraham the cost involved in obedience to God’s command. Jehovah was asking Abraham to offer his dearest possession, [that is] to give his best.”[vi]
Horne is correct to emphasize that a man with as many possessions and power as Abraham had one possession greater than any other, his only son who was not given to him until he was one hundred years old. Genesis 22:5 presents an incredible statement by Abraham when he states, “I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham knew that through Isaac, his descendents would be named but that God was commanding him to sacrifice Isaac. While unable to reconcile these two things, he obeyed without question.[vii] This is one of the most powerful examples of faith recorded in the Scriptures. When Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide,” he was making a monumental statement of faith. Trust in the Lord’s provision was at the core of Abraham’s faith. Not just faith that the Lord would provide land or faith, but incredibly that God provided a sacrifice to save son. How overwhelmed should we be that God did not withhold His own Son for us.
The Faith of Sarah
Hebrews 11:11 tells us that Sarah received the ability to conceive by faith. This appears to troublesome due to two events in her life. The first in Genesis 16 where she convinced Abraham to have a child with her maid servant Hagar, because the Lord had prevented her from bearing children. The second, in Genesis 18 when she laughed off the notion of her conceiving at her age, on the word of the three men who had visited Abraham. We can assume that in the first example, based on human experience, Sarah undoubtedly felt she was incapable of conceiving at any age but certainly not at her advanced age. In the second example, the presence of the Lord may have not been as evident to Sarah, as it was to Abraham indicated in Genesis 18:2 as he bowed himself in worship. Her reaction of laughing to herself at hearing of her soon to be conception and her denial of laughing are very understandable human reactions, but she must have finally realized that she was speaking with One greater than this world as shown in verse 15 when the Lord saw her heart. J.G. Murphy suggests it at this beautiful simplicity in the whole scene that Sarah received faith and strength to conceive.[viii] Most likely, she acknowledged the Lord’s presence and felt blessed that she would realize the promise of Genesis 17:19 that she would bear a son named Isaac. This is an excellent illustration of how experiences can work against our faith. We can only imagine the other women chiding her for thinking that such an old women who had never been able to conceive could now suddenly have a child. What an awesome statement by our Lord in Genesis 18:14 that there is nothing too difficult for the Lord. I have seen this numerous times regarding short term mission trips where people will say that time and/or money were preventing them from participating. Then, all of the sudden, they are given an extra week of vacation, a surprise check for $1000 appears or their religious visas, previously denied are miraculously approved. The recognition that nothing is impossible or too difficult for the Lord is a huge step in strengthening faith.
The of Faith of Joseph
There are some incredible attributes of Joseph that guide us toward an attitude of faith which are very impressive, particularly for such a young man. These attributes include, the forgiveness of his brothers, the refusal to be tempted by Potiphar’s wife, the tenacity to bloom and prosper as a slave and prisoner and the confidence to lead a people on the faith in God given dreams. Genesis 50:20 summarizes his faith in the extraordinary statement to his brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” W.H. Griffith Thomas notes the similarities in the last days of Joseph and his father Jacob with there assurance for the future of God’s plan for his people. The faith of his childhood was still working powerfully in his life indicating the faith he had learned from his father.[ix] This presents a daunting responsibility to parents with the realization that children will build their faith on the foundations of their parent’s faith. It is very interesting that Joseph’s foundation of faith was built when he was sold into slavery at seventeen. His faith sustained him in all of his experiences while cut off from his father and other family. This should speak to us that our children typically leave home at eighteen to face uncertainties, trials, and temptations. We should pause every once in awhile and ask ourselves four questions. Do our children see that we trust God? Do our children see that we are obedient to God? Do our children see that our experiences are building our faith in God? Are our children demonstrating the attributes and attitude of Joseph?
Through the trust, obedience and experience of the people in Genesis, faith is defined as utter dependence on God to provide for our spiritual, physical and emotional needs. A lack of faith can result in not only lack of provision but a broken or impaired relationship with God. The Scriptures certainly present two extremes in faith that also show two attitudes, one being total dependence on God and His plan and the other a faith only in themselves. The lessons of faith in Genesis should cause us to be in awe, not of the people but the God in whom their faith rested.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Griffith Thomas, W.H. Genesis: A Devotional Commentary. Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946
Murphy, J.G. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1868.
Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.
Horne, Charles M. Men of Faith: Studies in Genesis, Chapters 22-41. Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1964.
Walvoord, John F., Zuck, Roy F., Editors. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1985.
[i] Gen. 4:2 NASB
[ii] W.H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1946), 56.
[iii] J.G. Murphy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1868), 187.
[iv] J.G. Murphy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1868), 197.
[v] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 159.
[vi] Charles M. Horne, Men of Faith: Studies in Genesis, Chapters 22-41 (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1964), 1.
[vii] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, Editors, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1985), 65.
[viii] J.G. Murphy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1868), 316.
[ix] W.H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1946), 486-487.