A Walk Through the Old Testament, Part 3, Abraham

July 23, 2006



A Walk Through the OT, Part 3 (7/23/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Our walk through the Old Testament has taken us from creation and the Garden of Eden through Noah and the great flood, and we ended last week with the story of the Tower of Babel. Now we arrive at one of the most important figures in the Bible: Abraham.

Many scholars tell us that Abraham is a fictional character, that there was no such person who actually lived some 4000 years ago. But Abraham is with us still today, for he is considered the father of three great faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each of those three religions holds Abraham in special esteem. For now, I think we should go back and look at the story, allowing it to speak for itself.

The Bible tells us that after the flood the family of Noah spread out across the earth. One of Noah’s sons, Shem, moved east to the Babylonian city of Ur. Ur is located where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers empty into the Persian Gulf, in modern day Syria.

Abraham was a descendent of Shem. Abraham became a shepherd, and was renowned for his wisdom and virtue. Abraham was married to Sarah, who was a remarkably beautiful woman. The only thing lacking in their lives were sons and daughters, as Sarah was unable to bear children.
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Abraham is sometimes considered the first monotheist. He was the first person to understand the concept of there being a single God in the whole universe. That is why he is the father of the three monotheistic faiths. Abraham believed in the Lord, and when the Lord told him to leave his homeland behind and journey to a new land, Abraham did not question God. I’ll read the passage from the 12th chapter of Genesis:

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. 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 the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and his nephew Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran (HAY-run). Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran (HAY-run); and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

As Abraham arrives in what is modern day Israel, the Lord promises to give that land to Abraham’s descendents, even though the land is already filled with people—the Canaanites. To this day, that is why Israel is called “the Promised Land.” The Bible tells us that it was promised to the descendents of Abraham as he was passing through. Of course, this may have sounded like a hollow promise—this promising of the land to Abrahams descendents—since Abraham could not have children with Sarah…but I’m getting ahead of the story.

As I was researching for a way to tell the story of Abraham, I consulted several versions of the Bible, several Bible commentaries, and even some children’s Bible’s—they sometimes have a way of getting right to the point of a story. Well, this next little episode did not make it into the children’s Bible, and for good reason. It is another one of those X-rated Bible stories.

A famine hit the land as Abraham was wandering around Canaan, and he decided to take his wife and go to Egypt. I’ll read the story of what some have ungraciously called Abraham’s pimping of his wife:

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 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, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”

When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

Of course, when the passage tells us that Sarah was “taken into Pharaoh’s house,” that means she became one of his wives. But let’s give Abraham some credit for at least being lucky. When the Pharaoh finds out, he not only returns Sarah to Abraham, he lets Abraham keep all the servants and livestock he had accumulated while living his lie in Egypt.

They returned to Canaan, and the Lord came once more to speak with Abraham, assuring him that his descendents would one day rule over the land. Abraham has had enough of this talk of descendents, but the Lord assures him that his offspring will outnumber the stars in heaven. And Abraham believes the Lord. And this is what we now call the Abrahamic Covenant. God promises to provide countless offspring to Abraham, but tells him that all men of his tribe from that day forward must be circumcised in order to hold up their end of the covenant.

What happens next is another of those stories that is either omitted or given very short attention in our Sunday Schools and children’s Bibles. This is the story of Sarah and Hagar.

Abraham is married to Sarah, and they are both very old. They have never had children, so Sarah tells Abraham to impregnate Hagar—Sarah’s slave. Abraham does so, and she bears a son—Ishmael. Soon, the story gets a major twist. God promises Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child of their own, even though Sarah is 90 years old and Abraham even older. And God tells Abraham that through Sarah’s child a great nation will arise.

Sarah does indeed become pregnant, gives birth to Isaac, and it is through Isaac’s offspring that the nation of Israel arises. But what about Hagar? Well, once Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she convinces Abraham to send Hagar and her child, Ishmael, off to the wilderness to die. Abraham isn’t too thrilled with that idea—Ishmael is his son, after all—but after Abraham prays to God, God tells him to do as Sarah asks. God tells Abraham that a second great nation will arise through Ishmael. (And as an aside, even today, both the Arabs and the Jews consider Abraham the father of their faiths, with the Jews claiming to have descended from Isaac, and the Arabs claiming to have descended through Ishmael. But that’s another story!)

Obeying his wife and his God, Abraham gives Hagar some bread and a skin of water, and sends her off into the wilderness with Ishmael. He’s probably thinking to himself, “She’ll make it somehow. She’ll be just fine.” But he surely knows in his heart that she won’t last a week.

And as one would expect, the day soon comes when Hagar realizes she and Ishmael are about to die in the wilderness. She places Ishmael beneath a bush, and walks off a little ways, because she can’t bear to watch her child die. And then, Hagar lifts up her voice and weeps. God then calls to Hagar from heaven and says, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” God leads Hagar to water, mother and son survive, and the Arab nation arises though Ishmael’s offspring.

So Isaac and Ishmael are the two sons of Abraham, one being the father of the Hebrew people and the other being the father of the Arab people. For the most part, the Old Testament follows the descendents of Isaac. And next week we will look at Isaac and his descendents, which include Jacob, Esau, Joseph and the 12 brothers. But before we move on to Isaac’s descendents, we’ll conclude this week with one of the most horrid stories in the Bible, namely, the willingness of Abraham to make a burnt offering of his beloved son Isaac.

It is a simple story. The Lord tells Abraham to kill his son as a show of faith. And Abraham trusts the Lord and agrees to do so. He prepares to make a burnt offering of him, but just as Abraham raises the knife to kill his son, the Lord stops him, saying, basically, “Okay, you really will do whatever I command. You may let the child go.”

Honestly, I don’t know how to redeem this story. I can honestly say that if any of you hear the voice of God telling you to kill somebody, that is probably not the voice of God. Get some psychiatric help—quick! But we have to try to find something positive in this twisted tale, so I will turn to the one person I’ve read who almost—almost—redeems this story: Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard wrote a book called Fear and Trembling that deals exclusively with this story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard claims that this story is what makes Abraham the father of faith. For Kierkegaard, life is all about faith. He wrote much of his work as a rebuttal to those who thought the Christian faith made sense. There were some philosophers and theologians, such as Hegel, who believed that Christianity is a rational religion—that it makes sense. They believed that if you thought things through carefully enough, reason would ultimately lead you to God.

Kierkegaard said this type of thinking was entirely wrong minded. He said that if you take reason to its limit, you will hit a wall and fall flat on your existential face. You will be left diddling your lips and asking, “Why does anything exist? Why not nothingness forever? Why? Why?”

And he said you then would have to make a leap of faith. Kierkegaard’s famous “leap of faith” meant that you would fall to your knees in your helplessness and make a commitment to a God you know couldn’t possibly be there. And in this completely irrational leap of faith you would find your answer. You would have traversed the greatest distance in the universe—the distance between your head and your heart—and God would touch you at the very core of your being. It’s important to understand that Kierkegaard insists you cannot make this trip from head to heart with your rational mind—you need some help from God, and that help comes only through faith.

Kierkegaard, in his book Fear and Trembling, says that Abraham was the first to make this leap of faith. He asks us to imagine what Abraham was thinking when he took Isaac to the altar and prepared to cut his throat. According to Kierkegaard, we make a mistake if we think Abraham had it in the back of his mind that God was going to stop him before he killed his son. We miss the whole point if we envision Abraham saying to himself, “I know God will stop me before I slay my beloved son. Surely God will cry out before I do this terrible thing. God just wants to know whether I am obedient enough to do such a thing.”

No, according to Kierkegaard, Abraham had every intention of killing Isaac on that altar. But what about God’s promise? Hadn’t God promised Abraham that a great nation would arise though his offspring? How could a great nation arise through the offspring of Isaac if Abraham murdered him before Isaac ever had children?

And here’s the whole point, according to Kierkegaard. Abraham believed both things. Abraham believed that he was indeed going to kill his son on that altar. And Abraham believed that his son would still produce children that would grow into a great nation. But wait! That’s impossible! Abraham can’t have it both ways. If he kills his son there is no way that son would one day have children. But that is exactly what Abraham believed. God promised Abraham that he would have descendants through his son Isaac, and God ordered Isaac killed. It was irrational. It was unreasonable. It was impossible. And yet Abraham believed. Abraham trusted God to do the impossible. And that is why Abraham is the father of faith.

That’s a stretch, isn’t it! But Kierkegaard comes as close as anybody I’ve found to being able to redeem this strange and horrifying story of human sacrifice.

Well, the murder of Abel, the rape of Noah, the prostituting of Sarah, and Abraham’s willingness to murder his own son. It gives a whole new twist to the notion of “biblical family values” doesn’t it! We’ll continue our walk through the Old Testament next week. In the meantime, may we remember that human beings have not changed a lot over the past several thousand years. We all fall short of the glory of God. We all require God’s redemptive love in our lives. And God offers that love to us, freely. Amen.