The story begins somewhere between 3500 and 4000 years ago, with Abraham, or Ibrahim, honoured by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Once thought by some to be legendary, Abraham has become an increasingly believable figure as archaeology has revealed more about the sophisticated, civilised society in Mesopotamia – the ancient Middle East – from which he is said to have emerged, and to have migrated to Palestine at the call of the one God.
It’s with Abraham that the Old Testament’s story of faith begins in earnest. The account describes how God made Himself known to Abraham, rewarding trust with a series of promises that looked forward to the far distant future. The book of Genesis claims to record the words of the first such promise:
"I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
(Genesis ch. 12 verses 2,3)
The fortunes of peoples and powers throughout the ages to depend on how they treated Abraham and his descendants? Sounds a little presumptuous and far-fetched – until you look at history, and see how uncannily true the words of Genesis have proved to be, time after time after time….
Later promises go on to foresee a special relationship between God and Abraham’s descendants, a relationship that would last forever. Abraham’s descendants were to be given the land that Genesis calls Canaan – the land of Palestine: Israel. The land, God told Abraham, was to be theirs “as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you”. And through one of these descendants, the promises reiterated, blessing would come to all nations.
None of the promises guaranteed that Abraham’s descendants – Israel, taking the name of Abraham’s grandson - would remain loyal to God throughout their history. Far from it: they strayed far from the faith of Abraham, as other Old Testament writings anticipated they would. But the reliability of God’s words was not to depend on Israel’s faithfulness: instead, the promises were to be irrevocable, their accuracy and fulfilment the proof that God is in control of the ultimate destiny of people and nations.