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by Dr. Jeremy Holmes (’99)
Associate Professor of Theology, Wyoming Catholic College
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture & Concert Series
September 23, 2022
The New Testament says the most astonishing things about the patriarch Abraham. Scripture preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham (Gal 3:8), and Abraham rejoiced that he was to see Jesus’ day (John 8:56). The people of Israel are to be saved specifically because they are the children of Abraham (Luke 19:9), and yet God is able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones (Matt 3:9). The coming of Christ is the fulfilment of “the oath which [God] swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:73). The dead who escape torment in Hades take refuge in the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:23), and in the kingdom of heaven the saved will sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even now, Abraham is living (Matt 22:32), and indeed, Abraham is the father of us all (Rom 4:16). Nor does this high view of Abraham stop with the New Testament. In both the traditional calendar and the new calendar, the Roman Catholic Church commemorates Abraham as a saint on October 9, and in the east the icon of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is brought out for veneration on the second Sunday before Christmas.
This evening I want to think with you about the life of this great saint so that we can begin to understand the exalted position given him by the gospels, St. Paul, and the Church’s liturgies.
The key to understanding the story of Abram is to see it not as a free-standing whole, but as the continuation of a story that is already under way by the time chapter 12 opens. Why does the story of Abraham happen right where it does? Why is the call of Abram the next logical event in the story of Genesis?
Inevitably, we have to begin with a review of what has happened so far. In the beginning, God creates a good world and creates man in his own likeness to rule over it on his behalf. However, the first man and woman succumb to the serpent’s temptation, and this kicks off the crisis that will drive the rest of the story, not only up to the story of Abraham but through it and beyond.
It will be worthwhile to consider this moment closely. What exactly did Adam and Eve hope to accomplish by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? The serpent urged them to eat it because, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God made man in his likeness, so it is strange that the serpent tempts him to grasp at likeness to God; but the serpent claims that man can have likeness to God on his own terms, not on the terms dictated to him by the Creator. Man need not be limited to ruling on God’s behalf: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The strangest thing about the serpent’s outrageous claim is it turns out to be true: just four verses later we are told that “the eyes of both were opened,” and before the end of the chapter God Himself is described as witnessing that “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. …” What is this “knowledge of good and evil” that Adam seized?
When I ask my students this question, someone always says that Adam and Eve were like very young children, who don’t know the difference between right and wrong, and that eating the fruit gave them the ability to distinguish between good actions and bad actions. But someone else in the room always points out the obvious difficulty …
When I ask my students this question, someone always says that Adam and Eve were like very young children, who don’t know the difference between right and wrong, and that eating the fruit gave them the ability to distinguish between good actions and bad actions. But someone else in the room always points out the obvious difficulty: our story clearly indicates that Adam and Eve sinned a big one, but they could not have sinned at all if they were unable to distinguish between right and wrong. We have to admit that Adam and Eve had at least enough grasp of right and wrong to choose between them.
My students’ next guess is equally predictable: someone will say that Adam and Eve only knew evil in the abstract, not by experience, but by disobeying God’s command they did evil and so came to know it experientially. Appeal is made to the biblical idiom by which a man “knows” his wife through intimate experience of her. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is thus the tree of the experiential knowledge of good and evil. The problem here is that God says, “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. …” Does God know evil by the experience of doing it? It does not seem so. Moreover, since Adam and Eve experienced God’s goodness prior to their sin, this theory would seem to imply that the so-called “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was in reality just the tree of the knowledge of evil.
What can we say, then? I would suggest that our only option is to see Adam’s new “knowledge” of good and evil as analogous to his knowledge of the animals. Over the course of chapter one, God named the earth and the sky and the sea, and he declared seven times over that his creation was good. But in chapter two, God brought the animals one by one to Adam to see what he would call them: “and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” Adam’s act of naming seems to be an exercise of the dominion God gave him over the animals, a manifestation of his authority. Thus, by seizing the fruit, Adam claimed authority to name good and evil, to determine which things shall be called good and which things shall be called evil. God said it would be evil to eat the fruit; Adam declares that it is good. Although he has no power to change the natures of things, he has arrogated to himself the authority to name them, and in this he does in fact ape God’s actions. He has seized a divine prerogative. He has “become like God.”
As a result of their misdeed, Adam and Eve are ejected from the Garden of Eden and condemned to die. Their children, inheriting the curse, introduce murder, and things go from bad to worse, until “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:11). So God undoes creation by allowing the waters above and the waters below to come back together in a great flood that wipes out the evildoers, leaving only Noah’s family alive. At this point, God swears he will never again destroy the earth with a great flood; that is to say, he will not seek to fix his broken creation by undoing it and killing all the bad guys.
But it soon becomes evident that the curse on the human race has survived the flood along with Noah’s family. The imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is still evil: Noah curses his son and his son’s descendants, and then comes the tower of Babel, where mankind decides to take the whole situation into its own hands by disobeying God’s command to fill the earth. God foils their plan by scattering them.
The burning question at this point is: if the problem of man’s curse is ongoing, and if men can’t fix the situation themselves, and now wicked and disobedient men are scattered over the whole earth, then what is God going to do, since he has just sworn off killing all the bad guys? His creation is still ruined, but he has tied his own hands by promising not to uncreate it.
This is where God calls Abram. So presumably, God’s call of Abram is the first move in a plan to resolve the conflict caused by the sin of Adam. After their sin, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden into the east; when Cain sinned and was driven away, he went further east. But when God calls Abram, he calls him from the east back to the west, from Ur to Palestine. The direction has changed—but what does the change in direction signify? Our task this evening is to find out.
Abram is first mentioned toward the end of the genealogy of Shem in Genesis 11, but effectively his story begins with the opening verses of chapter 12:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
There are seven promises, some of which seem to overlap with others. Over the course of the story there are many scenes in which the Lord states one or more of the promises: here in 12:1-3; again at 12:7; then 13:14-17; most of chapter 15 is a single scene in which the Lord reiterates promises; next is 17:1-8; then 18:17-19; and finally, 22:16-18. For those of you counting, that makes seven scenes in which the Lord gives or repeats the seven promises.
Why the emphasis on the number seven? For this we skip ahead briefly to the story of Abraham’s covenant with Abimelech in chapter 21. After discussing the terms of the covenant, in 21:28 Abraham sets seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. Abimelech asks him, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs which you have set apart?” Abraham replies that by taking the seven lambs, Abimelech will become a witness for Abraham that he dug the well where they are standing. Verses 31 and 32 conclude: “Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. So they made a covenant at Beersheba.” Translation doesn’t bring out the verbal connection Abraham is making here: the Hebrew verb “to swear an oath” has the same consonantal base as the Hebrew word for the number seven, so where our translation says that Abraham and Abimelech “swore an oath,” one could just as well say that they “sevened.” The place where they swore this oath was therefore called Beer-sheba, which can mean either “well of the oath” or “well of the seven”. In other words, the number seven plays such an important role in Abraham’s story because this is, fundamentally, a story about the Lord swearing an oath to Abraham and so making a covenant with him.
There are three scenes in Abraham’s story where the Lord raises one of the seven promises to the status of a covenant: chapter 15, which elevates the promise concerning land to the status of a covenant, using the word “covenant”; chapter 17, which elevates the promise concerning descendants to the status of a covenant, again using the word “covenant”; and chapter 22, which elevates the seventh promise, concerning a blessing to the nations, to the status of a covenant, this time using the word for “oath.” In this, the last of the seven scenes where the Lord states the promises, the Lord declares to Abraham, “By myself I have sevened. …”
These three covenant oath scenes give us the primary division of the text for Abraham’s story. Stories are about conflicts or challenges to be overcome, so when you attempt to say what a story is about, the first thing you must figure out is the central conflict. What we will find as we get into Abraham’s story is that, since this is a story about the promises, Abraham’s major conflict or challenge has to do with trusting God’s promises, and the story is about how Abram changes to become Abraham, the “father of faith,” as we remember him. This general conflict subdivides according to the three covenant scenes: In the first part of the story, Abram’s difficulty focuses on the fulfillment of God’s promise concerning the land; in the second part, it rotates around Abraham’s struggle with the promise concerning descendants; and in the last and shortest part, Abraham’s conflict has to do with the promise concerning a blessing for the nations. How this is so will become clearer as we get into the details.
We return to the first line of the story: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Abram’s response is both impressive and puzzling: “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.” On the one hand, Abram sets out into the unknown without question, or at least without any question that we are told about. On the other hand—having been told to leave behind both his kindred and his father’s house—he brings his nephew Lot along. Was Abram not ready to part with all kindred? Or did Lot beg to come, and Abram just didn’t have the resolve to refuse him? In any case, without giving away too much of the story to come, I will say right now that Abram will never have occasion to be glad of his decision to bring Lot. That name will be bad news from this point forward.
Abram reaches the land of Canaan and passes through it from north to south, receiving along the way another assurance from the Lord that “to your seed I will give this land” (12:7). But already the call to go to the land is conflicted, because the land suffers from a severe famine. So Abram keeps heading south until he reaches Egypt. As he draws near to that powerful kingdom, he gives the following command to his wife, Sarai:
I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account. (Gen 12:12-13)
Abram feels that he is between a rock and a hard place, with the famine behind him and the Egyptians in front of him, so he devises a half-truth to save his life. At least, saving his life is half of his motivation: the other half is “that it may go well with me because of you”.
All works out according to Abram’s plan. The Egyptians are in fact struck by Sarai’s beauty, and things do go well for Abram on her account. Sarai is taken into Pharaoh’s house as his wife, and for her sake Abram receives sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels—tremendous wealth. Right away, one is struck by Abram’s willingness to get rich off of handing his wife over to another man. Given that he has no children, and given that God has promised him children, should he have simply trusted that God would keep him alive through the sojourn in Egypt?
In any case, God does rescue Abram from the awkward situation he has created. Plagues descend on Pharaoh and all his house, and Abram is sent packing with his wife and all the wealth he has accumulated, back to the promised land. (It is interesting to note that Abram did not strategically return to the promised land because the famine had ended, but returned when the Egyptians forced him to go. Was his trip to Egypt necessary in the first place? God did not tell him to go to Egypt.)
The wealth accumulated in Egypt soon becomes a source of strife, as Abram’s herdsmen and Lot’s herdsmen find that the combined flocks are too big to graze in the same place. Magnanimously, Abram offers Lot a deal:
Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen; for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left. (Gen 13:8-9)
As things turn out, Lot chooses the Jordan Valley, so Abram stays in the land God has shown him. It is an odd moment in the story, when Abram has been commanded by God to go to a certain place but gives Lot the choice over who gets to stay there. In any case, the Lord guides things to a good end, and the text tells us that Lot’s separation from Abram was the occasion for God to reiterate to Abram the promises concerning land and descendants.
But Lot’s exit from the story is temporary. Five kings in the Jordan Valley rebel against their overlord, Chedorlaomer, and he and three other kings swoop in to restore order. The four kings route the five kings and depart with plunder—including Lot and all his possessions. When word reaches Abram, he and his allies pursue the four kings far into the north, execute a stunning surprise attack, put all four kings to flight, and recover the plunder—including Lot and all his possessions.
On his return, the five kings go out to meet him—and a mysterious sixth, who was not part of the battle, Melchizedek the king of Salem. We are told that Melchizedek is “priest of God Most High,” and Abram gives him a tenth of all the plunder. This gift is all the more striking because when the king of Sodom tells Abram to keep the plunder for himself, Abram refuses. It turns out that he has sworn an oath to “God Most High”—the very title of Melchizedek’s God—that he would accept not so much as a thread or a sandal strap from the king of Sodom. The high respect paid to Melchizedek stands out in clear relief next to Abram’s obviously low opinion of Lot’s local ruler.
The story to this point feels like one thing after another, without a common thread, but the following scene reveals what the focus has been all the while. When the Lord appears to Abram, Abram complains that God has not yet given him any children, so the Lord brings him outside and says, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your seed be” (Gen 15:5). There follows Abram’s finest moment yet: “And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). But if Abram is at peace concerning descendants, he still struggles with the promise concerning the land. Immediately after Abram’s righteous belief concerning descendants, the Lord promises “this land to possess,” and Abram responds not with faith but with a question: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” For Abram, this is the conflict.
The Lord responds by orchestrating a numinous covenant ceremony at nightfall, and in “dread and great darkness” Abram hears the following words:
Know of a surety that your seed will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. … And they shall come back here in the fourth generation. … To your seed I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Gen 15:13-16a, 18b-20)
Everything Abram has experienced to this point in the story prepares him to understand this prophecy. What will it look like for his descendants to sojourn in a land not theirs? What does it mean that God will bring judgment on that nation and bring Abram’s descendants out with great possessions? Abram can recall from his own life that he sojourned in Egypt, his wife was a captive, the Lord brought plagues on Egypt, and Abram was driven out in haste from the land loaded down with gifts from the Egyptians. What will it look like when his descendants return to the promised land and take it from the ten peoples listed in God’s covenant oath? Abram can recall his battle to defeat the four kings who defeated the five kings. God does not mention that his descendants will fail to subdue the land completely until the eventual rise of a powerful king who will unite the people under himself, but Abram has already met and honored a tenth king, Melchizedek the king of Salem, later to be known as Jeru-Salem. Abram’s story to this point is a story about the promise of the land, and it culminates in a covenant regarding the land.
The next sentence announces a new theme: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children.” (Gen 16:1) The focus has moved to the question of descendants. Up to this point in the story, Abram has been the only developed character: Pharaoh spoke one line, Melchizedek spoke one line, and the king of Sodom spoke one line, but only Abram’s voice has been sustained and developed. Sarai was a silent pawn in Abram’s scheme in Egypt, and Lot has been mostly passive and entirely silent. Now that Abram has obtained peace concerning his descendants and received reassurance concerning the land, other characters step forward with their conflicts, the most important of whom is Sarai. Her struggle with sterility develops and complicates Abram’s conflict concerning descendants: He has faith that God will keep the promise, but 10 years have gone by, Sarai shows no signs of coming through with the desired offspring, and God has never specified clearly that Sarai will herself be the conduit.
Sarai suggests a plan to overcome the difficulty. She presents to Abram her Egyptian maid named Hagar—one of those maids that Abram acquired by loaning Sarai to Pharaoh for a while—and proposes that Hagar serve as her surrogate. “And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.” (Gen 16:2b) The tables are turned: Now Abram is passive in Sarai’s scheme as he “hearkens to the voice of Sarai,” a phrase we have not heard since Gen 3:17, where God said to Adam, “Because you have hearkened to the voice of your wife. …”
Sarai simultaneously introduces us to Hagar and produces Hagar’s conflict, which has to do with her status in the tribe. Is Hagar disposable property, a handmaiden picked up as booty from Egypt, or is she the mother of the future chieftain? Is she at the bottom of the social order, or at its top? Legally, her offspring belongs to another, but biologically, she is the mother of Abram’s son. So where does that leave her? “When she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress” (Gen 16:4). Sarai makes a brief effort to shift the agency in this story back to Abram—“May the wrong done to me be on you!”—but Abram doggedly maintains his passive role: “Behold, your maid is in your power, do to her as you please.”
Sarai does to Hagar as she pleases, which would result in Hagar’s early exit from the story but for an angel who appears to stop her with divine promises. He says that her son, Ishmael, “shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.” Reassured by this brilliant future for her son, Hagar returns to camp.
Thirteen years go by, and Ishmael remains the heir apparent. It seems that the conflict concerning descendants has resolved. But then comes the plot twist: God appears to Abram to raise the promise concerning descendants to the status of a covenant: “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4)—as though Abram still needs reassurance! As though the question of descendants were still up in the air! God goes further, changing Abram’s name to Abraham, simultaneously symbolizing Abraham’s claim to the promise and God’s claim on the one he has power to name, swearing “to be God to you and to your seed after you.”
The surprises continue to pile up, as this covenant differs from the last one: “As for you,” God says, and it turns out that this time there is a stipulation that Abraham must follow. He is to circumcise his children, and all his children are to circumcise their children, and those are to circumcise their children, and so on forever; and anyone who is not circumcised will be excluded from the covenant. Abram journeyed to the promise land in order to receive the covenant concerning the land, but that covenant contained no further mandate for him. The covenant concerning descendants comes with a job for Abraham, who now must instruct his children and instruct them to instruct their children to keep to the way of the covenant.
Then comes the greatest surprise of all: “As for Sarai your wife,” God says. There is a place for Sarai in the covenant plan! Abram and Sarai were wrong to suppose that her role was optional. They were wrong to suppose that God’s promise needed their guiding help, that the descendants would come on their terms rather than on God’s. Now, the Lord changes Sarai’s name to Sarah and declares that she herself will bear Abraham a son.
Abraham falls on his face, outwardly to show respect but privately to hide his laughter at the very idea. Silently, to himself, Abraham mocks the new plan: “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?” Outwardly, he maintains his show of respect: “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” When God assured Abram of his descendants in chapter 15, “he believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; but it is hard to let go of a solution that has seemed good for 13 years, and hard to renew that righteous belief in the face of physical sterility. It is hard to trust God on God’s terms, when His terms seem impossible. God has allowed the situation to develop to the point that belief is a greater challenge, and Abraham’s initial response is not reckoned to him as righteousness.
God’s reply to Abraham is firm: Sarah will have the child, and the child’s name will be Isaac. Then he distinguishes sharply between being blessed and bearing the covenant: Ishmael will be blessed, but Isaac will bear the covenant. To be a child of Abram’s flesh is one thing, to bear the covenant of Abraham is another. Docile now, Abraham circumcises his entire household. For the remainder of the story, we will not hear a word of doubt from Abraham.
Without a transition or a break the story moves into the mysterious visit of the three men. Abraham sees them and somehow knows to offer them urgent and hasty hospitality, and the three visitors turn out to be the Lord himself. As they visit, the Lord says, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen 18:10).
It turns out that Sarah is listening at the door, and she laughs to herself at the very idea that she could have a child. In what must be a jump moment for the eavesdropper, the Lord immediately demonstrates His awareness that she was listening and that she was laughing: “Why did Sarah laugh?” (Gen 18:13a). Awkwardly exposed and suddenly afraid, Sarah denies the accusation but cannot shake the mysterious visitor’s all-knowing confidence. Given that her name has changed, Abraham has clearly communicated to Sarah the contents of God’s promise concerning her children., but she did not take him seriously. Perhaps she takes him seriously now.
But Sarah is left behind as the mysterious visitors set out toward Sodom, with Abraham accompanying them for a while. Alone with Abraham, the Lord reveals the purpose behind His visit:
Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:17-18)
The Lord asks Himself, as though musing out loud, whether he should keep His plans secret from Abraham. The reason this is a question, it seems, is that Abraham is going to have descendants by whom all the nations will be blessed. Why should Abraham’s descendants imply that perhaps God should reveal His plans to Abraham? The Lord continues by answering His own question. Should He hide His plans from Abraham?
No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him. (Gen 18:19)
The reason the Lord should reveal His plans to Abraham is that Abraham is tasked with charging His children after him to keep the way of the Lord. Where was Abraham given this task? It was in the scene where His name was changed to Abraham, the scene of the covenant of circumcision.
The new task that accompanied that covenant turns out to have given Abraham a right to know something about the Lord’s plans for the future. Why is that? In the broader sweep of things, in which Abraham’s story is one moment in a grand narrative that extends well beyond the book of Genesis, it is because God’s plan to bless the nations, that is, to counteract the curse on Adam’s descendants, relies on Abraham’s descendants, and Abraham is responsible to some degree for seeing that those descendants play their role. If Abraham is responsible for God’s future plan, then he has some right to know about that plan.
In the narrower view of this particular episode in Abraham’s life, it turns out that Abraham has some claim on knowing about God’s plans because they concern Lot: Lot, the kinsman Abraham brought with him when he had been told to leave all family behind; Lot, the only character aside from Ishmael who has a claim to be Abraham’s heir. God’s plan includes the possibility of killing Lot:
Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know (Gen 18:20-21).
Abraham responds to this news as God knew he would, namely by interceding on behalf of the wicked cities. First, he argues that God should not destroy the cities if there are 50 righteous men in them, on the principle that the righteous should not be destroyed with the wicked. Then he works the number down: What about 45? What about 30? What about 20? “Oh let not the Lord be angry,” Abraham says, “and I will speak again but this once. Suppose 10 are found there.” The Lord is not angry; in fact, the Lord revealed His plans precisely so that Abraham would step into the role of intercessor: “For the sake of 10 I will not destroy it.” This conversation ended, “the LORD went his way … and Abraham returned to his place” (Gen 18:33).
Abraham no doubt spent a fitful night by the oaks of Mamre as he wondered what would happen to his nephew. What drama was unfolding in Sodom and Gomorrah? He had begged the Lord down to sparing the whole for just 10 righteous men—but were there even 10 in those wicked cities? “And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD, and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace” (Gen 18:27-28). The morning’s red and yellow and orange rays filter through the rising ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the narrow view of this particular episode in Abraham’s life, the point seems to be that Lot has exited the story. As for the broader sweep of things, Abraham has seen for himself the consequences of sin, and he understands both how important it is that his descendants keep to the Lord’s covenant and how much the nations of the earth need the intercessor that Abraham, and by implication his descendants, has become.
But we have been seeing all this from Abraham’s limited point of view. After our text describes that dismal sunrise, the next sentence says, “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt” (Gen 18:29). Despite appearances, Abraham’s intercession was not without effect. While Abraham sleeps in his tents, we the readers accompany the two angels into the valley and watch the drama he could only wonder about.
If there are not 10 righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah put together, there is at least one man whose character is not wholly depraved. Lot offers the two visitors hospitality, and when they propose to sleep on the street he urges them strongly, presumably knowing the danger to anyone who sleeps outside in Sodom. When the danger pursues them even to Lot’s door, he takes the generous but dubious step of offering his own daughters to the crowd: “Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men. …” (Gen 19:8) This only angers the crowd, at which point the angels reveal themselves by bringing the crowd’s physical sight down to the level of its moral sight, and then they urge Lot to get himself and his family out of town.
Here we begin to see the limitations of Lot’s character. Unable to persuade his sons-in-laws-to-be to flee the city with him, he lingers even when the angels urge him out. Eventually they grab him and his wife and his daughters and physically drag them out of the city and urge them again, “Flee for your life!” But Lot still delays, saying he can’t flee so far, and he begs them to spare the little city of Zoar—just to spare a tiny bit of this wicked civilization where he has grown so comfortable—and in exasperation they grant him even this. “The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar,” we are told, so even as Abraham stood in sorrow, watching the sun rise through billowing smoke, Lot was staggering into Zoar to find refuge. His wife didn’t make it: She carried Lot’s dillying and dallying one step further, looked back, and perished.
Ironically, Lot is afraid to live in Zoar, the town he saved by his pleas. We are not told why he is afraid. Does he think the inhabitants will turn out to be as violent as those of Sodom? Does he worry that the Lord may renege on the deal and destroy Zoar after all? In any case, he ends up sheltering in a cave with the two daughters he had offered to the crowd that fateful night. It turns out that his daughters are more or less what one would expect from women who grew up in Sodom, and Lot becomes a passive player in their nighttime scheme to get children. From this ill-starred progeny descend the Ammonites and the Moabites, enemies of Abraham’s descendants to such an extent that Moses forbade any Ammonite or Moabite to enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the 10th generation (Deut 23:3).
With Lot out of the way both for Abraham and for the reader, the story moves on—and yet it seems as though we move back in time. Abraham journeys toward the Negeb, i.e., the southern part of Canaan, and he comes to a foreign people and tells them that Sarah is his sister, and the local ruler takes Sarah into his house. Haven’t we seen this before? It so closely resembles the incident in chapter 13 with Pharaoh that many scholars suppose that we have here variants on one story, a single story included twice. But as we read on, we realize that this is no clumsy mistake: We are supposed to notice the parallels between the stories so that we will ask ourselves about the differences.
Right away, the new context causes us to realize what Abraham had really done back in Egypt: All along, the promised descendants were to come through Sarah, so by allowing her to be taken into Pharaoh’s house he had endangered the promise. He does so again here, still seeming to think that he needs to practice this deception in order to protect his life, but events turn out very differently. In Egypt, God smote Pharaoh and his house with plagues without warning, but here He reveals himself to command the local ruler, Abimelech, to return Sarah to Abraham: “for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you.” The difference between last time and this time is that Abraham has changed: Now he is a prophet with an intercessory role, as we saw in the preceding episode concerning Sodom. God had closed up the wombs of all the women in Abimelech’s household, so Abraham prayed for him and all the wombs in Abimelech’s house were opened—all of them:
and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as He had promised. And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son … (Gen 20:18b-21:2a).
Keeping in mind that our chapter divisions are not original but added later, the transition from the opening of the wombs of Abimelech’s wives and servants to the opening of Sarah’s womb is smooth. In chapter 13, Abram returned from Egypt to the land; here in chapter 21, Abraham emerges from Abimelech’s house into the conception of his son.
This part of Abraham’s story concerning the promise of descendants opened with Sarai taking the lead, and it closes with Sarah taking the lead. After her old idea and God’s new gift have coexisted for several years, she sees Ishmael playing with Isaac and says to Abraham: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” Abraham is very displeased by this demand because he is still attached to his son Ishmael, but it turns out that, while Sarai led him astray by suggesting that he seize the blessing on his own terms, Sarah is helping him purify his notion of “seed.” God himself intervenes to support her:
Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your seed be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.
Abraham’s understandable love for his offspring and the woman by whom he got offspring is misplaced. This time he should hearken to the voice of his wife, because there is a vast difference between being the bearer of the covenant and being the physical descendant of Abraham. Through Ishmael too will come many descendants, and for those descendants there will presumably be a land, but not even the divine promise of land and descendants makes Ishmael the bearer of the covenant. Abraham’s struggle to this point in the story, the struggle to have sufficient and sufficiently pure faith in the promises of land and descendants, is not yet enough. There will have to be a third part to the story.
As this second part comes to its close, we see Abraham at peace with the neighboring people, even swearing a covenant of peace with Abimelech. He sojourns there for many days, no longer wandering the land or fighting with local rulers. With his faith in the promises mature and tranquil, he is at peace both externally and internally. In the first part of the story, Abraham got himself into difficulties by his own actions—bringing Lot, going to Egypt, dissembling about his wife, and so on—while in the second, Abraham allowed himself to be led into difficulty by his wife, but here at last he has ceased to be the source of his own problems.
So it is that the third part of the story is about God unilaterally plunging Abraham into the most harrowing situation he will ever face: “After these things, God tested Abraham.” This is not a test to find out whether Abraham is faithful, but the final push to perfect his faith: “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Abraham makes no response. He does not object, argue, laugh, or cry. Hebrew narrative typically does not state a main character’s interior thoughts or motivations directly, leaving the reader to discern them from his outward speech and actions, but this short episode seems to avoid giving us anything that could be a clue to Abraham’s condition. We have seen Abraham in conversation with God before, and he has objected, argued, or laughed, so his silence here does speak: It tells us that Abraham has changed over the course of his life. But we are given no further clues as to whether Abraham felt numb, or afraid, or disoriented, or whether his mind turned to after the deed and what he would tell Sarah, or whether he began to ponder the very nature of this God he has followed for most of his life. We just see his obedience: “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. …”
However, the test itself contains a couple of clues as to why this would be hard for Abraham. The LORD told him, “Take your son—your only one, whom you love. …” Most generally, this is hard because Isaac is his son: For a father to kill his son with his own hands seems inherently repugnant, morally wicked, contrary to the natural love of parent for child.
More particularly, Isaac is Abraham’s only son—or is he? What about Ishmael? The point has already been made that the covenant will only continue through Isaac, and in fact the most difficult thing Abraham has done up to this point in the story was to give up his son Ishmael. But that turned out to be a mere warm-up. Now he is to take the only son of the promise, the son on whom rides Abraham’s entire hope for the future, and not merely send him away but kill him. Abraham has struggled over the course of his life to believe in the promises; now he is asked to throw them all away.
If these are the interior obstacles to Abraham’s obedience, what must he do to himself in order to go through with the deed? Does he have to give his heart a murderous bent, learning quickly to hate his own son in order to carry out the killing? Must he turn to nihilism, detaching his heart once and for all from all hope, to throw away the covenant? Is God’s test intended to make Abraham a monster?
To obey without destroying himself, it seems that Abraham has only one path. On the one hand, he cannot reject the deed as evil, because that would be disobedience; on the other hand, he must not force his heart to embrace the deed as good, because that would deform his conscience. Rather, he must simply leave it to God to judge the deed: He must relinquish any effort of his own to declare the deed good or bad. God alone declares what is good and what is bad.
As regards the covenant, on the one hand Abraham cannot cling to the covenant stubbornly and refuse to obey; on the other hand, he must not despair of God’s promises and conclude that God is a liar. Rather, he must simply leave it in God’s hands how the promises will be fulfilled, relinquishing any effort to have the promises fulfilled on his own terms and according to his own lights.
Abraham must walk backward through the sin of Adam. Where Adam arrogated to himself the power of naming good and evil, and seized God’s blessings on his own terms, Abraham must undo these dispositions in his own heart.
In other words, Abraham must walk backward through the sin of Adam. Where Adam arrogated to himself the power of naming good and evil, and seized God’s blessings on his own terms, Abraham must undo these dispositions in his own heart.
Abraham rises early, saddles up, gathers Isaac and servants, cuts wood, and departs. Hasn’t he already done the deed in his heart? Why prolong this torment? No doubt Abraham has some intention already, but in this early stage of action an intention is like freshly poured concrete: It has the correct shape, but it hasn’t hardened yet. It needs to weather through self-doubt and anxiety. Over the three-day journey to Moriah, Abraham has time to turn the thing over from every angle, to ask himself every imaginable question.
The tensest moment comes when Isaac asks him about what they are going to do: “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” It is one thing to intend the deed, quite another to say it out loud. Speech tries intention. Abraham’s reply is enigmatic: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Do we have here a glimpse into Abraham’s secret hope, that somehow this whole thing will be averted at the end by the miraculous provision of a lamb? Or does Abraham mean to recall how God miraculously brought forth Isaac, apparently for this destiny? Either way, the tender addition, “my son,” suggests that his heart is not steeled against Isaac. One can almost hear the addition, “whom I love.”
Even when an intention has hardened in its shape, it remains directed at an unreality until the moment of the deed. “To sacrifice Isaac” remains a mere thought, perhaps a vividly imagined thought, until the moment of action is at hand. Now all questions are over, all hope of intervention has been abandoned, and the deed itself in all its horrible particularity receives the will’s final command. This moment, as Abraham raises the knife, is when he finally and fully gives over all authority and all hope to God, walking backward through Adam’s sin.
And this is the moment God points to when he says, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son. …” What oath could God only swear in response to such a deed?
I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your seed shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice. (Gen 22:16-18)
Much of this we have heard before. God has already elevated the promise concerning descendants to the status of a covenant, and God has already promised that those descendants will possess the land of their enemies. Notice that these promises, taken by themselves, are good for Abraham’s descendants and no one else; these promises do not make Isaac any different from Ishmael. Only now, when Abraham has undone within himself the sin of Adam, does God take His covenant oath that through those descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Abraham’s life is the first step toward overcoming the curse.
The description of this hope is very general: the nations “will be blessed” or “will bless themselves.” But we have seen before that God teaches Abraham not only through words but also through the events of Abraham’s life. His experiences in Egypt and in Canaan prepared him more than he could know to grasp the promise concerning the land, and his experiences with Lot and Ishmael prepared him to understand the promise concerning descendants and what it entails. The case is similar here: If Abraham wants to understand what blessing the nations will receive, he can do no better than to consult his own feeling of being blessed by receiving Isaac back from the dead. If he wonders what his “seed” will do to bring about this blessing, he could have no better guide than his own heart, the heart of a father who was willing to sacrifice his only son, his beloved. By rejecting Adam’s attempt to seize likeness to God, Abraham has become like God.
As a result of this covenant concerning the blessing, the other covenants take on meaning as well. The promise of land responds to mankind’s expulsion from Eden: As man was driven from a land, now he is brought back to a land. The promise of descendants therefore has to do with a nation that will be given back again the blessings lost by Adam, and their task will be somehow to mediate these blessings to the rest of mankind. This nation will be mankind-in-miniature, a microcosm of the whole, so that the restoration wrought in this nation will abound for the whole world.
In this epic plan of salvation, notice that Abraham’s agency is not simply physical, but moral. The thrust of his entire story is that God took a man who was good but not great and led him, step by step, to heroic virtue so that he could be the “father” of this future nation not just physically but spiritually. By God’s gratuitous aid, Abraham’s meritorious choice secures the covenant that creates this nation, and the same choice makes him the model for that nation to follow. Physically, he is the father of Ishmael’s lineage, but God wanted him to father the promised seed by faith.
This is why those of Abraham’s line are to be saved specifically because they are his children, and it is also why his children include more than just his biological descendants. This is also why God took care to prepare Abraham to understand the promises through his life experience, so that even if today we can recite many more propositions about Christ, few Christians grasp Christ better than Abraham did at the level of connaturality. The gospel truly was preached to him beforehand. This in turn is why Abraham took hope with him to the realm of the dead, and all the faithful to die in future ages would be received into the space of hope created by his faith. Finally, this is why the Church celebrates Abraham as a saint, a model and intercessor for us all.
Holy Abraham, pray for us.
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