The promise God made to Abraham that” I will make of you a great nation” was not fulfilled immediately. When God made that promise Abraham had no children. God miraculously fulfilled His promise by giving him a son, Isaac, when he was 100 years of age by his wife who was also well beyond the age of childbearing. It did not matter that Abraham didn’t understand how God was going to keep His promise – all that mattered was that he believed that God would do it!
The faith of Abraham was proven by God when he was commanded to offer his son as a burnt offering to God. Even though God was asking for the life of this “son of promise,” Abraham still believed that God would fulfill the promise to make of his descendants a great nation. He didn’t understand how God would do it, but he trusted Him nevertheless. When Abraham raised his knife to take Isaac’s life, God stopped him, saying, “now I know that you fear God.” (Genesis 22:12). It was this kind of faith that caused Abraham to give glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:21-22).
In Abraham there is found the ideal of faith which the nation that came from him was expected to follow and which people to this day who wish to please God must imitate. It is a faith that does not insist on being in control or in knowing the “why” of whatever God commands, but trusting that God is in control and that everything will work out according to His purpose. This is one of the hardest things for humans to do.
The place God chose to give to the descendants of Abraham was in a strategic location. It was in the “fertile crescent,” that narrow strip of land that stretched in a rough semi-circle from the Mesopotamian basin down along the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and into the Nile valley of Egypt. They were to occupy that portion that lay along the trade routes between what came to be known as Babylon, Persia, Assyria and points farther to the north and west. From this location they were to exert an influence in the nations they came into contact with in representing God to the rest of the world. Centuries later it would be the central hub from which the “good news” of man’s salvation would radiate out.
Israel was to be a “holy nation” unto God – that is, they were to be separated from the idolatrous people of the land. God later told Moses to tell the Israelites,
“…if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5-7).
As a fledgling nation, they could not develop a sense of identity as God’s people in the midst of the idolatrous people of the land. So through His providential intervention, God brought them into Egypt for a period of 400 years. Through a series of divinely guided events, Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, went to Egypt ahead of the rest of the families where he rose to a position of prominence in that land. In time of a severe famine, he saved his family by allowing them to buy grain and then by bringing them to live in Egypt.
They settled in the fertile alluvial plain of the Nile delta where they continued to tend their flocks and herds much as they had done in the land of the Canaanites. Near the end of the 400 years they lived in Egypt they had grown into a sizable population. Recognizing them both as a threat and as a resource to be exploited, the ruling Pharaoh who had forgotten Joseph’s contribution in saving his land enslaved them, forcing them to build the store cities, Pithom and Raamses (Exodus 1:11).
Thus forged in the furnace of oppression and cruelty that was Egypt, Israel becomes a nation of such size and power that they would be, with God’s help, able to compete and overcome the idol-worshiping people of Canaan. Under the leadership of Moses, God brought them out of the land of Egypt and from their enslavement there with an overwhelming demonstration of His power. First He brought against the Egyptians a series of ten plagues, demonstrating His reality as against the imaginary gods of the land. After enabling them to escape Pharaoh’s army by miraculously opening the Red Sea and allowing them to cross over, they entered the wilderness of Sinai, where, because of unbelief, they would remain for the next 40 years.
This time of waiting was not to be wasted. God would use it to hone and discipline this rough bunch of pilgrims, teaching them about Himself and through that bringing them to understand who they were and what He expected of them.