Abraham’s story begins at Chapter 12. (At first, his name is Abram.) “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’” (Gen 12:1-3). Thus the story of a promised land, and a chosen people, begins with Abraham’s story.
Various stories about Abraham and his family are told in chapters 12-19 (I’ve mentioned a few in previous postings). One of the most famous of these stories is the Lord’s continuing promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child – a promise they find harder and harder to believe as they get older. In the meantime, Abraham has a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar. This child is named Ishmael. Sarah is unhappy not to have a child of her own. In chapters 17-18, the promise to Sarah is reiterated. Now they laugh out loud, because Abraham is now 100 years old, and Sarah 90, and “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen 18:11). But then Sarah does in fact have a child: Isaac (Gen 21:1-3).
The most famous story about Abraham is the story of how his faith was tested (Gen 22). After all of this time of waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to him (fulfilled in the birth of Isaac), then God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. In the Bible’s account of the story, we cannot see into Abraham’s emotional state. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, meditates at length on this story, and tells the story in various ways, trying to see into Abraham’s internal reaction to what he has been asked to do. What is he thinking as he walks up the mountain? Is he quietly assured that, although he was asked to do this terrible thing, yet he will not have to? Is he quietly trusting – or inwardly distraught? It is impossible to tell from the Bible version of the story. We are given no clues.
I very much appreciate Kierkegaard's meditations on this story and what it implies about the meaning of faith. How can we be sure we have correctly discerned God's will? Could God sometimes ask us to do something that goes beyond the bounds of what we generally regard as "ethical"? Do faith and ethics always correspond -- or not? Is it better to live ethically, or to be what Kierkegaard calls a "knight of faith"? Or would God never actually ask us to do something that goes against the ethical? These are hugely important questions.
At the last minute, it turns out that Abraham does not have to sacrifice Isaac after all. (Faith and the ethical come back together.) The Lord is very pleased with Abraham. Since Isaac is allowed to live, the rest of the promise now has a chance to be fulfilled. Isaac grows up, marries Rebekah, and has children. One of his children, Jacob, has 12 sons who are then regarded as the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.
So the story of Abraham and Sarah is a story of a particular couple, guided to a new land to settle and begin a line of descendants who are regarded as a special people, chosen by God. Abraham is admired for his faith: for living close to God, for being attentive to how God guides him, and what God asks of him. But God’s blessings are not limited just to Abraham’s family: “in you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
As I continue reading the Bible, I will continue to meditate on the recurring themes of a promised land, a chosen people, living in relationship to God, and the meaning of faith.
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