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The Faith of Abraham

An address by Fr John Slater

16 March 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

I said last week that the stories at the very beginning of the Book of Genesis - Creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel - are Babylonian stories picked up by the Jews during their exile in Babylon in about 550 BC. Hebrew scripture proper begins with Abraham, and the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph must have originated as tales told around the fireside during the people’s early nomadic history. It might have been as much as a thousand years before they were written down.

When they were written down they were given an interpretation which matched the more developed theology of the great prophets - Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Two things stand out in the story of Abraham. First there is his faith in God as someone with whom he had a personal relationship. For him, God is the Shield of Abraham, just as Isaac would call God the Kinsman of Isaac, and Jacob would call him the Mighty One of Jacob. God speaks to Abraham and guides his life-journey. There is something very distinctive about this personal quality of Abraham’s relationship with God, and in the form in which the story has come down to us, it may owe something to the preaching of Jeremiah who laid such emphasis on the responsibility of each individual standing alone before God.

Much of the religion of that time was about the blind forces of nature - sun and moon and stars and the fertility of the earth. To speak to God as if to another person was truly remarkable. Abraham is not likely to have been a monotheist in the sense of believing that there is only one God. But he does show a sense of knowing that one of the gods has chosen to have a personal relationship with him and to guide his fortunes.

The second thing which stands out in the Abraham story is his willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. He did, of course, have another son by the slave woman, Hagar - Ishmael from whom the Arabs claim to be descended. The circling of the Kasbah in Mecca at the annual pilgrimage is said to copy Hagar’s search for water when Abraham abandoned her and Ishmael in the desert. But to kill his son and heir would seem to put an end to God’s promises of the nation to which Abraham was to be the father. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was the measure of his faith in the personal God who had first made the promises.

So Abraham becomes a model of faith for the New Testament writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. It is likely, of course, that the story of Isaac’s not being sacrificed reflects a moment in the development of Hebrew religion when the earlier Canaanite custom of sacrificing first-born sons was finally rejected. This too may owe something to the preaching of the Hebrew prophets whose emphasis was that God required mercy not sacrifice.

Jews, Christians and Muslims all look to Abraham as the first believer in the particular God who made the Hebrews his Chosen People. A thousand years after Abraham’s time the Jews became truly monotheistic - something now shared by Christians and Muslims so that we can talk about a shared Abrahamic faith.

It does seem particularly hard to be saying this as the world stands at the brink of a possible war which many will interpret as a war by Christians against Muslims. When the world needs to renew its religious sense of what holds men and women together, religion itself has become the source of the deepest divisions among us. But I believe that religion could still become once again a source of unity and brotherhood. If Judaism and Christianity and Islam were all truly faithful to their deepest and best traditions of faith in the God of Abraham, perhaps the angel would again still the hand that holds the knife and thousands of children be saved from death. War is always a failure of diplomacy. Let us pray still for its success.
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