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James and the Trials of Abraham

The Bible chronicles the lives of the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah in Genesis 12-25. Since they lived to the ages of 175 and 127, respectively, the couple no doubt enjoyed long stretches of peace and tranquillity. However, in the concise account of Genesis, they seem to go from one challenging situation to the next, coping with famine, kidnapping, war, infertility, and the threatened loss of a long-awaited son.

It is no wonder, then, that the Sages of Israel summarize Abraham's life by a list of trials and testing. This tradition was already well established by the time of Jesus since we see it in the Book of Jubilees, a popular retelling of the narratives of Genesis and Exodus dating from the second century B.C.

"The Lord knew that Abraham was faithful in all his afflictions; for He had tried him through his country and with famine, and had tried him with the wealth of kings, and had tried him again through his wife, when she was torn (from him), and with circumcision; and had tried him through Ishmael and Hagar, his maid-servant, when he sent them away." Jubilees 17:17

The Bible is honest about the shortcomings of its heroes, and some of the trials Abraham and Sarah faced appear to be self-inflicted. Abraham twice endangered Sarah by identifying her as his sister, fearing that foreign rulers would kill him to obtain her (Gen 12:11-13; 20:2, 10-13). Similarly, Sarah's plan for Abraham to take a second wife (Gen 16) seems like bad judgment stemming from a temporary lapse in faith.

But no matter the source of each trial, the two maintained a firm allegiance to God, and both Jewish and Christian traditions single them out for their faith. The Book of Jubilees concludes that "Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life" (23:10; see also 17:17-18; 19:8). First Maccabees, literature from the first century B.C., asks, "Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?" (2:52) The New Testament book of Hebrews also emphasizes the faith of Abraham and Sarah in responding to difficult tests (Heb 11:8-12, 17-19).

For James the brother of Jesus, Abraham was a prime example of one whose deeds demonstrated his faith. He cites Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God's command as a striking instance of living faith (James 2:16-24). "You see that faith was active along with his works," James asserts, "and faith was completed by his works" (v. 23).

It is instructive to consider the epistle of James in light of the life of Abraham. Although James mentions Abraham explicitly only in chapter 2, it is likely that both James and his original readers would have thought about other incidents from Abraham's life in connection with the moral teaching in the letter.(1) Let's look at several examples.

James begins by encouraging readers to approach trials and tests with a positive attitude, since "you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness" (1:3), and one who steadfastly endures the tests will "receive the crown of life" (1:12). Because Abraham was said to have progressed through a series of ten trials (Jubilees 19:8), James was undoubtedly thinking of Abraham when he wrote these words.

James urges Christians to "let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (1:19). These admonitions have Abraham connections. When God directed him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham "rose early in the morning" (Gen 22:3), showing that not only was he obedient, but he obeyed quickly. In other words, he was "quick to hear." Jubilees 19:3-4 notes that later, when Sarah died, "he was found patient in this, and was not disturbed. For in patience of spirit he conversed with the children of Heth, to the intent that they should give him a place in which to bury his dead." In dealing with Sarah's death, he was "slow to speak" and "slow to anger."

In James 2:1-13, Christians are cautioned against showing favoritism toward the rich at the expense of the poor. Abraham illustrated this principle by showing prompt and enthusiastic hospitality toward three travelers who appeared at his tent, not yet knowing anything about who they were (Gen 18). If James has Abraham in mind in this passage, then his statement in verse 13 that "mercy triumphs over judgment" could be a reference to Abraham's merciful intercession on behalf of the cities of the plain (Gen 18:22-33).

In 4:1-10, James emphasizes the importance of undivided loyalty to God. There is an interesting tradition about Abraham that illustrates this quality as well. It explains that he rejected polytheism to follow the one true God by burning down the "house of the idols" in Ur (Jubilees 12). According to this legend, Abraham's iconoclasm wore out his welcome in Ur and forced a move to Haran.

James's admonition to "resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (v. 7) may also relate to Abraham. Another Jewish tradition states that Abraham's willingness to undergo circumcision had the effect of protecting him from the devil's influence.(2)

Two ideas from chapter 5 likely share a link to Abraham as well. James cautions against trusting in riches (5:1-6), which reminds us of Abraham's refusal to profit from an expedition to rescue his nephew Lot from the invaders who had kidnapped him (Gen 14). James deals with the efficacy of prayers for healing (5:13-15), an example of which is Abraham's prayer on behalf of the court of Abimelech (Gen 20:17-18).

For James and his original first-century readers, Abraham and Sarah modeled faithful obedience to God. He could point to much in their lives that was worthy of emulation. Their lives continue to inspire us today. We can also find encouragement in God's faithfulness to this couple that he called to be instruments of blessing to the world. They were not flawless, but with God's help, they grew in faith through the tests they faced. We can be confident that God will guide us through the trials of life and fulfill his purpose for us, just as he did for Abraham and Sarah.


(1) This idea is developed by David Instone-Brewer in his paper, "James as a Sermon on the Trials of Abraham," pp. 250-268 in The New Testament in Its First Century Setting, P.J. Williams, et. al., editors, Eerdmans, 2004.

(2) Instone-Brewer, p. 263.


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