Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Patriarch


Over 4 billion people on this Earth, as of the beginning of the 21st century, claim Abraham as their spiritual progenitor: for 15 million Jews, Abraham is the first of the patriarchs of Israel who received God's promise of a great nation; for 2 billion Christians, following the lead of St. Paul, Abraham is the father of the faith of the followers of Christ; and for 1.2 billion Muslims, he is "Khalil" (God's friend) and founder of the dynasty of Muhammad through Abraham's first son Ishmael. For all of them, Abraham is the semi-mythical first personality of ethical monotheism, the individual whose earnestness and loyalty first defined the concept of intimacy with God.

The Book of Genesis and Jewish legend combine to fill in the details of Abraham's life. Born in Ur of the Chaldees (present day southern Iraq), according to Jewish legend Abraham had adopted his one-God view as a youth: placed in charge of his father Terah's idol shop, Abraham supposedly took an axe and smashed all the idols in the shop but one, placing the axe in the remaining idol's hands. His father, angered at the suggestion that the remaining idol smashed the others, sputtered, "You know these idols can't move!", to which Abraham supposedly replied, "If they can't save themselves, then we are superior to them -- so why should we worship them?"

During the collapse of the Babylonian empire, Terah and his family fled to Haran (southeastern Turkey), where God first spoke to Abraham, telling him to leave behind everything he knew to trek "to the land that I will show you . . . And I will make you a great nation." Faithful in the notion that God was not a regional phenomenon but instead could be found everywhere, Abraham headed south with his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and a large retinue, through Damascus to Shechem in Canaan, where God said "To your seed I will give this land." Abraham built an altar to the Lord there, but finding the Canaanites to be idol worshippers, Abraham retreated to the high country.

Within a short time, drought drove Abraham to Egypt for food; fearing that the Pharaoh would covet the beautiful Sarah and have Abraham killed, however, Abraham asked Sarah to pose as his sister. As Abraham had predicted, the Pharaoh was taken with Sarah, brought her into his home and gave Abraham gifts. To save Sarah from the Pharaoh, God intervened by afflicting the Pharaoh and his house with the plague (somehow letting the pharaoh know that Sarah's presence in the house was the source of the Pharaoh's ill-fate), and admonished Abraham for his lying for personal gain.

By the time Abraham left Egypt, however, he was a wealthy man, and realized that he might find himself in dispute with his nephew Lot over the lands in Canaan needed to support their wealth; but rather than pursue the dispute, Abraham played peacemaker and allowed the younger man to choose his lands first. Lot chose the green river valley of the Jordan, settling in Sodom (he didn't fare well); Abraham settled at Hebron, becoming a force in local political affairs, and was told by God that he and his descendants would have all the lands he could see in every direction.

Thus far, with Abraham having reached his 80s, God had focused on his promises to provide Abraham with land, but had not addressed the matter of his progeny. Sarah had mourned her infertility for many years and gave Abraham her servant, Hagar, as his concubine, by whom he produced a child, Ishmael. Thirteen years later, however, angels came to Abraham and told him that God was going to give him a son by his wife Sarah. The 90-year old Sarah laughed at the news, but soon thereafter gave birth to Abraham's son, Isaac, whereupon God commanded Abraham to circumcise his children as a sign of their covenant.

God had one more test for Abraham, however: he commanded that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham painfully but dutifully prepared to do so, taking the boy to Mount Moriah and raising the blade of his knife to Isaac's neck. God stopped Abraham's hand at the very last moment -- giving him not only an injunction against human sacrifice and expressing the profound meaning of fatherhood, but also honoring Abraham's attentive faith in Him.

Abraham was said to have died at the age of 175, and was buried with Sarah in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Legend leads to the conclusion that God had of course correctly predicted that within centuries, Abraham's children would have all the lands between Egypt and the Euphrates; Muslim, Jew and Christian alike all live there, a dysfunctional family still paying for their father's foibles. Perhaps in family, there is hope, although it is also true that familial wounds slash deeper than any other.

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