To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.
Abram believed that. God came to him and said, "I want you to pull up stakes and head out into open country. Don't worry about your destination. I will fill you in on the details as you go along." Abram would have had every reason to say, "Wait a minute, Lord. You do not know what you are asking. I have a good life here in Haran. I am respected in my community, have a good income, many fine friends. My wife is happy here. My father is buried here. And on top of that, I am 75 years old. You do not know what you are asking."
But God had a plan for Abram. The Lord told him, "I will make you into a great nation."
Of course, Abram could have objected further. "What do you mean `a great nation?' Up till now, you have not even made me a great family. Here I am 75 years old; my wife is 65. We do not have any children at all, much less enough to populate a nation. Gee, Lord, maybe you are thinking of somebody else of the same name. You cannot mean ME! No, I do not want to move. I will just stay right here in Haran."
Of course, to his eternal credit, Abram did NOT say that. He did as God instructed, pulled up stakes, and began that adventure of faith that eventually did result in the founding of three great religions. Abram became the paradigm of the adventurous, faithful spirit.
Abram was a generous fellow - when there was a land dispute between his family and the family of his nephew Lot, Abe gave Lot first choice and was content to take the leftovers. Abram was a compassionate fellow: when he learned that God planned to destroy Lot's new hometown, Sodom, Abe interceded on the city's behalf - he actually argued with God in an attempt to save Lot's neighbors, sinful though they might be.
Not long into this family saga, a famine arose in Canaan. But Abram, despite all his vaunted faith, was not so sure now, and in danger of starvation, he-and-his headed for Egypt and hoped-for relief. As they came near the border, Abe said to Sarai (which was her name before it too was changed), "Listen, you are one good-looking lady. If these Egyptians figure we are husband and wife, after seeing you, and wanting you, they will kill me to get to you." As Genesis has it, "Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you." (2) So that is what they did: word comes to Pharaoh about this foxy newcomer, he buys her from her so-called brother for his harem, Abe not only is spared but makes a huge profit - as the scripture says, "sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels." BUT, Pharaoh and his household suddenly began to experience one disaster after another. He traced their onset back to the arrival of Sarai, investigated, found out the deception, and confronted "Brother" Abram: "What have you done to me?" he said. "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!"
So Abram and Sarai and company made their exit, not only with their lives, but with all that booty as well, including one slave girl whom we hear a good deal about later. Genesis now calls him "very wealthy." (3)
Soon we meet Abram the conquering warrior. (4) It seems that some of the local kings put together a military alliance to subdue their neighbors (probably over mineral rights); in the process of the skirmish, Abe's nephew Lot was captured. Word came to Abram about the situation, he hastily put together a mini-army, dashed off to do battle, and quickly routed the enemy and rescued Lot and everyone else. Desert Storm #1.
After things settle down again, our hero's heavy-duty faith begins to waver a bit, and he commences wondering about this great guarantee of beaucoodles of descendants considering the fact that, at this point, he has not even ONE. God speaks to him in a vision, the promise is reaffirmed, (5) and, sure enough, Abram DOES finally become a father...although not in the way one might normally expect. He becomes the father of Ishmael through the good offices, not of his wife but of her Egyptian servant girl Hagar.
As you Bible scholars recall, since having children in ancient society was insurance of survival in old age, childlessness was a disaster. So Abram's childless wife, Sarai, in an effort to fulfill her conjugal responsibility to provide offspring, offers her husband the services of Hagar as a surrogate (which might make us blanch in our day and age, but was a perfectly acceptable practice in that culture). So the deed is done and Hagar gets pregnant.
Now things get sticky. Hagar thumbs her nose at Sarai and her barrenness - mean. Sarai hates that, comes to Abram, complains that this is all his fault anyway, and insists that Abe run Hagar off. But Abe wimps out and tells Sarai to handle it herself, which she does by treating Hagar so terribly that the young maid splits. As the story unfolds, the Angel of the Lord sees Hagar's predicament, comes to her in her distress in the wilderness, tells her to return to Abram and Sarai, have the baby, and know that God will bless him. She does, and brings forth Ishmael.
You probably remember the rest. Even though Abram has a son and an heir now, there is still a lot of tension in the family because the baby came from a slave girl instead of his wife. God comes to our hero again:
This is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram [which means Exalted Father]; your name will be Abraham ["Father of many nations"], for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.OK. Ishmael is here. Then God drops a bomb:
"As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. [Both names come from a root meaning Princess. Sarah would have been understood as "great princess" or "princess of many."] I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."New names. But what is this about another baby? Really? After all, by now he is 99 years old; Sarah is 89. But we know what happens. Isaac is born. Sadly, Abe allows Ishmael and his mom to get run off by the jealous Sarah once more. Then there is that horrible story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah as a test of faith. Sarah finally dies at the age of 127; Abraham marries again (at around 140 years of age) and has another half-dozen kids. An active senior citizen, eh? He finally dies at the age of 175, "old and full of years."
There are lots of stories in the Bible about Abraham, but it has been suggested that those stories comprise only about one percent of the stories that are actually out there. There are stories about his boyhood that Genesis never mentions, even one about being cast into a fiery furnace because of his objection to idols - he comes out unscathed, of course, protected by the God of heaven (just like young Daniel).
In September, 2002, Father Abraham was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, a claim to fame that not every Biblical hero can make. The attention was inspired by a best-selling book entitled, Abraham: a Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (6) by Bruce Feiler which raises the question of why can't the 12-million Jews, 1-billion Muslims, and 2-billion Christians - half the population of the globe - get along better, especially when one realizes that all three religions share the same family tree? If all three trace their roots to Father Abraham, and we do, maybe there is something in the life, faith and piety of Abraham that could inspire a greater harmony and peace between us.
The author traveled to the Middle East and talked with spiritual leaders of each faith tradition. All agreed that reconciliation was indeed possible, but all agreed as well that the task would not be easy. All looked back to Father Abraham as part of their heritage, but it should be noted that each tradition has recast the Abraham story to suit themselves, a process described as ancient identity theft.
"So what is the message of Genesis after September 11?" Feiler asked Hanan Eschel, one of Israel's most respected archeologists.
"If you ask me, it's a question of modesty," he responded. "Why do religious people act the way they act? It's because of a lack of modesty. It's what happened in Jerusalem with Christian cults planning to blow up the Temple Mount to make way for the messiah. It's what happened in Israel with the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after he made peace with the Palestinians. Some people read the text and suffer from a lack of modesty. They really believed they had all the answers."
He continued, "I think the same thing has happened with Islam. The Koran says that the people who believe in Muhammmad should rule the world, yet they found out that the world is not functioning the way it's written in Scripture. It can't be a mistake in theology, so it must be a mistake in history - and this mistake must be temporary. The minute you get this notion in your head, you're allowed to change it. You're allowed to act for God.
"What I'm trying to do, especially in this part of the world, is to teach people to be more modest. To explain to them that they don't have all the answers. If you'll be modest, you'll probably understand the text better, and there's much less chance that you'll do awful things in the name of God."
"So can you find a basis in the Abraham story for modesty?" Feiler asked. Eschel smiled. "You can take the story of Abraham and teach people they don't have all the answers...we don't have all the answers. We don't know our destination. And we certainly don't know everything about God." (7) It would be wonderful if we could all learn that, like our famous forebear, we are works in progress with a long way to go in this life of faith.
In 1977 Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, announcing before the Israeli Knesset the brave initiative that would become the 1979 Camp David peace accords, invoked, "Abraham--peace be upon him--great-grandfather of the Arabs and the Jews." Sadat noted that Abraham had undertaken his great sacrifice [of his son] "not out of weakness but through free will, prompted by an unshakable belief in the ideals that lend life a profound significance." Clearly Sadat was hoping that both sides would approach Arab-Israeli relations in the same spirit. The accords went through, although this time a sacrifice was completed. Sadat was assassinated in 1981. (8)
On the last Sunday in March 2000, Pope John Paul II shuffled down the plaza of the Western Wall, reached out a trembling hand to touch its stones, and, as is the custom of Jewish visitors, tucked a note to God into a crevice. The pope's pilgrimage, the first ever by a pontiff to the Jewish state, was celebrated with days of interfaith prayer, delicately worded diplomatic niceties, and, as might be expected, some squabbling. The visit is probably the highest point yet in the history of dialogue among the monotheistic religions. His written prayer, which was later removed and placed in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's Holocaust museum, reads as follows:
God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. And asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant. (9)"The LORD said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.'"
Perhaps, if we allow him to be, Father Abraham can be a blessing in this contentious 21st century in ways that no one would have ever thought. Who knows? That is part and parcel of the adventure of faith, an adventure that Abraham knew well. Let it be, Lord. Let it be.
1. Psalm 31:15
2. The story is found in Gen. 12:13-20.
3. Gen. 13:2
4. Gen. 14:1-24
5. Gen. 15:7-21
6. New York : William Morrow, 2002
7. Feiler, pp. 134-135
8. David Van Biema, "The Legacy of Abraham," TIME, 9/30/02
9. Feiler, pp. 199-200