In the first episode of the seven-part series ‘Great Characters of the Bible’, we meet the man who’s DNA is in all of us, at least spiritually, the man we call our father in faith, Abraham.
Episode 1 – Abraham – is available here:
- Episode 1: Abraham - Transcript
Episode 1: Abraham - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
So welcome to these podcasts where we’re going to focus upon the Bible. But not just the Bible understood as a message, because that’s not really what the Bible is. We are going to focus upon the Bible as a story, and the story filled with fascinating human characters. And we going to meet those characters and they’re going to come to meet us as they do from the stories of Scripture.
It’s an intensely human story, and it’s filled with vivid, vivid characters, intensely human, who tell us a lot about our humanity. Now, the Bible is the product of the ancient world and the ancient world did not have our sense, our modern sense of the individual. It’s really, Saint Augustine, with his confessions that brings to birth our sense of the individual.
In that sense, Saint Augustine invents autobiography. So, you don’t find that kind of thing in the Bible. But at the same time, you do find these intensely human characters, the ones we shall meet in these podcasts. Now, at the same time, though, they are portrayed in very vivid and colourful ways. They become theological symbols or archetypes. So, in other words, they bear a certain theological weight, as we shall see.
So, they’re not just individuals, but neither are they simply colourless theological ciphers or archetypes. There’s something in between. Now, in this procession of characters that we’ll explore or meet in these podcasts, there will be characters from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But that kind of distinction doesn’t quite work because even though there are characters whom we meet in the Old Testament, they have enormous resonance for the New Testament as well.
Figures like Abraham and Moses and David aren’t just Old Testament characters. They are found everywhere in the New Testament as well. So, characters that may seem exclusively Old Testament are in fact also in a different way New Testament characters. And similarly with the New Testament characters, the way they are presented, the way they come to meet us in the New Testament draws upon the Old Testament.
So, in that sense, they are also Old Testament characters. So, for the Christian understanding of the Bible, you can’t distinguish excessively between the Old Testament and the New Testament. There is one Christian Bible with its two parts that we sometimes call the Old Testament and the New Testament and the first of the characters that I want to introduce in this podcast is the man we call our father in faith, Abraham, and we know him to be, though that wasn’t in fact his original name, as we shall see in a moment.
But we meet the man whose DNA is in all of us, at least spiritually. That’s what we mean when we say or what we imply when we say that he’s our father in faith, we bear his DNA. So, in that sense, meeting him is meeting ourselves more deeply. So, who was this mysterious and crucial figure whom we call our father in faith?
Now, first of all, his name was Abram, A-B-R-A-M a name which means exalted father, really, ‘Ab’ means father, and ‘Ram’ means exalted. Now, eventually, God will give him a new name. And this giving of a new name is not uncommon at all in the Scripture. It designates usually a divine calling, and it certainly does in this case with Abraham.
Abraham itself means father of many nations. And this again refers to the promise that God makes to Abraham. So, Abram exalted father eventually becomes Abraham, a father of many nations. Now, originally, he comes from the place that we call Ur, which is in modern day Iraq. So, if you can picture the Middle East, picture Iraq, which is down in the southern part of what we call, rather, anachronistically, the Middle East.
He was a very successful businessman. So, you’ve got to think of a Middle Eastern businessman. In that sense, our father in faith wasn’t one of the poor at all. Now, he made his money as a trade up, traveling up north from Ur along the roads of what was called the Fertile Crescent. Now, this is a crucial piece of geography that we need to keep in mind. The Fertile Crescent is the fertile land that can sustain life that reaches from Ur down in modern day Iraq and goes north skirting around the desert area, which is the land of death. The Fertile Crescent goes north and then it turns down through modern day Syria and Lebanon and Israel, and even leads to Egypt. So, there you had what they call the Fertile Crescent. And there were traders like Abraham who travelled that Fertile Crescent and did very, very well in business.
So, a successful businessman; And if you’ve ever met Middle Eastern businessmen, and I have, in the Middle East and even in Australia, they are very, very good and even cunning operators. They’ve got a wonderful smile and they can get you to do just about anything and believe just about anything. So, he’s a shrewd, successful Middle Eastern businessman.
But there’s just one problem for Abraham. He has everything, but he doesn’t have the two things that mattered most in his culture, and that is a son and a land. Because in this culture you lived on beyond death, in your progeny, your children, and in your patrimonial land. Now, Abraham has everything, but he doesn’t have progeny, a son or land of his own.
So, in that sense, he appears as the human being who has everything but nothing. Because death will have the last word in his life. And this is our father in faith, this is the truth of the human being. The human being who may have everything, but in the end has nothing. If death has the last word.
Now, he has no child because his wife. She also has a name change she begins as Sarai and eventually will become Sarah. She is barren we are told. That we first meet Abram as he is and Sarai at the end of Chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis. Now, that’s an important chapter because it concludes a great narrative arc in the Scripture from Chapter 4 of the Book of Genesis to Chapter 11, where what the Bible does is give us the profile of sin.
God has created, brought order out of chaos. What sin does, according to these chapters of the Book of Genesis, this narrative arc, as I’ve called it. Is say that sin does the exact opposite. Sin brings chaos out of order. So, in Chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis, one story of chaos we have is the story of the Tower of Babel, where the world descends into a kind of chaos where no one understands anyone.
But the clinching metaphor of the world of sin comes at the very end of Chapter 11, where we are told Sarai was barren. She had no child. Now, whenever you get repetition in the Bible, you know it’s there for a purpose. And the repetition here is to underscore the barren womb of Sarai, because that’s the key metaphor for an understanding of what sin does to the world. The womb that is meant to team with life. In fact, is a dead womb that produces nothing. So that the sterile womb of Sarai at the end of Chapter 11 is the clinching metaphor of the world that sin produces. So here he is with no son, no land, a human being successful, true. But in his life, death will have the last word.
Now then, once we’ve struck this clinching metaphor of the barren womb, all of a sudden, in a world full of gods. God appears out of nowhere. At the beginning of Genesis, Chapter 12. And this God who doesn’t give himself a name. Simply says, and this is the first thing that Abraham hears from the God of the Bible. Go, go. It’s not an invitation. It’s a command. So, Abraham is called to leave the world that he knows with all its success and to set out upon another strange path which he doesn’t know. In order to have a son and a land. In other words, this God without a name who comes out of the blue makes an incredible promise.
I will give you a son and I’ll give you a land in. In other words, I’ll give you the very things that you do not have. Now, the one condition is for Abram is that he has to follow where God leads. Now, again, he is a very successful businessman. He’s used to doing deals, but God doesn’t give him any road map.
God doesn’t give him any GPS, just says you follow me. You take that risk, no deals. You take that risk. And I will give you the thing that seems impossible. Now at this point, the businessman must have thought, how could I know this? Should I take the risk? Is it worth it? Or should I just settle for what I have?
Even though death will have the last word in my life, we are told that Abraham eventually or immediately, in fact, says, yes, I will follow. I will leave all that is familiar and set out upon a path. And I don’t know where it’s going. But it’s worth the risk, if I have a son and a land, even those Sarai is barren and all the land is taken.
Abraham knows this, but still he is prepared to take the risk. Now God says, leave everything that you know. But in fact, Abraham doesn’t leave everything. We’re told that when he does set out on this strange journey to which God is calling him, he travels heavy. He brings a lot of his family, his clan, his possessions. So, he’s not leaving everything behind at all.
And we see here how Abraham has to undertake a journey that is not just physical, it’s certainly that; but a journey which is also spiritual. Abraham will have to journey into faith. At this point, right at the start of his story of following God. He’s not prepared to put all his eggs in one basket, to leave his family, extended family behind, to leave his possessions behind.
So he’s not taking the great risk. He’s hedging his bets. He travels heavy. Now, in the journey that unfolds from here, everything goes well. As long as Abraham follows God. Keeps his eye on God, who also knows where the journey is leading and keeps his ear on God. Even though this God who’s come out of nowhere leads Abraham into some very strange places.
For instance, he’s led at one point into a land where there’s famine. And Abraham is left thinking, Well, I’ve been betrayed. I’ve been let down. Why would this God of the Promise lead me into a place where there’s famine? I’m promised plenty. And here there is nothing. But if in these situations, Abraham takes over and decides to start calling the shots himself, in other words, takes his eye and the ear off God, that’s when things go off the rails.
And there are two classic instances of this in the story of Abraham. The first is in this land of famine. He says, now, look, this is crazy. I’m going to go down to Egypt. I’m going to start calling the shots and deciding the itinerary. Because down in Egypt, you could always get a feed and a job. So, Abraham decides to take over.
He’s going down to Egypt. He goes down to Egypt and he decides to pass Sarah, his wife off as his sister. Because, you see, Sarah is very beautiful, we are told, and he presents her to the Egyptians as his sister, not his wife. And in fact, she catches the eye of Pharaoh. And Pharaoh is very drawn to her. And because of Sarah, Abraham does very well, because of the beneficence of the pharaoh, showers him with gifts and Abraham thinks this is the way to go. This is the land of the Promise, and this is the blessing that I seek. But then you see Pharaoh discovers that Sarah is not Abraham’s sister, in fact, is Abraham’s wife, and is absolutely furious. So, Pharaoh takes back from Abraham all the gifts that he’d been given and boots him and Sarah out of Egypt, back on onto the strange path that God is opening up before Abraham.
So, you see how when he takes over, things go off the rails, even though he thinks he’s being smart, a real winner, not a loser. But in fact, God works even through Pharaoh to bring him back onto the strange path that God is tracing. A second instance where things go haywire once Abraham takes over. Is when having been promised that Sarah would have a child.
There is no child. So, at Sarah’s prompting, what he decides to do is to take the slave girl, Hagar, and see if he can have a child with her. So, we’ll take over now because God’s letting us down badly. Sarah is not having any children at all. So, he takes Hagar has a child by her, the slave girl. This is Ishmael.
But then the trouble starts within the family because Sarah is jealous of Hagar. And this jealousy leads to a dreadful conflict between the two women. So, it all goes off the rails and eventually Abraham has to expel Hagar and her child, her son Ishmael, from the clan, the family. And come back to the promise of God that it will be Sarah who will have the child.
Now, Sarah herself, when she first hears the promise that she’ll have a child next year. She thinks it’s a great joke. She laughs at the flap of the tent we’re told. And the divine messenger turns around and says, you laughed. And she says, I did not. He says, you did laugh. Well, twelve months later, she laughs on the other side of her face, quite literally.
She has the child, the son in her arms, and she calls the baby Isaac a name, which means laughter. So the laughter of cynicism turns to the laughter of joy. So the son is born against all the odds. And incredibly or almost incredibly, the promise seems true. But then you see, the God of the promise says to Abraham, I want you to take the boy, Isaac. And I want you to sacrifice the boy to me, the child on whom everything now depends. Abraham is called to sacrifice. Now, child sacrifice was very common in this world at this time. The logic of it was this. That you had to sacrifice your firstborn child in order to guarantee the ongoing fertility of the family or the clan.
In other words, it was opening the door to the possibility of more children. In other words, it was a recognition that the children came as a gift from God. So, you return the first born of those gifts in recognition of that fact. So, child sacrifice, which is horrific by our standards, was widely practiced in the ancient Near East, which is the world that produced the Bible.
So, Abraham has to decide, will he sacrifice the child or not? And in the unforgettable Chapter 22 of the Book of Genesis, you hear the story of Abraham and Isaac journeying towards the place of sacrifice. That’s really one of the great stories of all time. You can almost feel the tension between father and son, the son bearing the wood and asking at one point. But where is the lamb of sacrifice? To which Abraham replies, God will provide. So, the boy is bound in preparation for the sacrifice. Abraham raises the knife to perform the act of sacrifice, to kill the child. And just at that point, the heavenly voice comes saying, put the knife down. Abraham looks across and there caught in a bush is a ram. That becomes the sacrifice.
That is a turning point on this journey into faith that Abraham is on. That this God who may seem to let us down or betray us or lead us into situations that we never imagined. Is in fact, faithful to the promise that God has made. So, this is a crucial moment in that journey into faith of our father, in faith.
Eventually, Sarah dies and is buried. We are told in the area of Hebron, south of Jerusalem. And Abraham himself, though he dies later, is buried in the same place with Sarah. Which is why that part of the Holy Land around Hebron is still venerated as the land of Abraham and Sarah. And you can visit a shrine there which claims to be the tomb.
Abraham has an extraordinary post history beyond the stories that are told of him from Genesis 12 to Genesis 25. There is a particular theology of the covenant that God makes with his people attached to the figure of Abraham. Up until the exile, the Babylonian exile, the dominant theology of covenant was covenant understood as a contract. This was attached more to the figure of Moses, whom we will meet later on in another podcast.
The sense that if you do what God asked, God will do what He has asked, so that sense of contract. It all depended upon our obedience of the terms of the contract. Now, that was seen to break down hopelessly at the time of the exile because the prophet said the exile happened as a result of our disobedience. We’re never going to be perfectly obedient and therefore the contract can never work.
Through the time of the exile. Ancient Israel comes to a different understanding of the covenant that God makes with us that is attached not so much to Moses and the Ten Commandments, the terms of the contract, but to Abraham and the promise. So, in other words, the theology of covenant that depends not upon our obedience of the terms of the contract, but a theology of covenant that depends upon God’s fidelity to the promise.
And that’s a much more secure basis for the future, because our obedience is always a risky proposition. But one thing that is absolutely not a risky proposition is God’s fidelity to the promise. We may be unfaithful, but God is always faithful to the promise. So, through the time of the exile and beyond, Abraham becomes a very central theological figure in that sense. Because of the promise of God to which God is absolutely faithful.
And the response that’s required of us now is not perfect obedience, but faith. And we can, even when we sin, we remain believers. Our faith remains intact, even if we are disobedient. And this is where the whole understanding of covenant reaches a much more secure basis. And therefore, the future looks much more secure. So, Abraham, in the New Testament, he is found everywhere.
You see him in the Gospels, you see him in the letters of Paul. So, in that sense, he is never once upon a time. But in our own liturgical texts too, there are references to Abraham here, there and everywhere, and rightly so. So, this figure who comes to us from the Bible is, in that sense, a theological construct, if you like, but is also a vivid human character.
The Bible doesn’t like heroes. Abraham is no hero. He’s flesh and blood, just like you and me. But flesh and blood, called and caught up into the plan of God in the most extraordinary way. And in coming to know more of Him and to understand more of who Abraham is and why he matters. We come to understand more of what it means to call ourselves sons and daughters of Abraham, and to look to him as our father in faith.