The Story of Abraham – Hope for the Rest of Us!

One of the beautiful things about the Bible is that it does not present our heroes as epic figures who never fell. Rather it presents us with real human beings who struggle and eventually “get there.” As an example, I was talking the other day with someone who remarked, “Too bad we can’t all be strong in faith like Abraham.” Ah Abraham, the paragon of faith! Well….eventually but Abraham had some very bad moments in his journey that we ought not to overlook. Surely he became strong in faith but only after some pretty bad falls along the way. Consider some of Abraham’s struggles.

  1. Abram (He was only called Abraham by God later), was told, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you (Gen 12:1) And he does. At one level this is remarkable since God gave him no road maps etc. He just said, “Set out”  and Abram did,  trusting God would direct him. But note a little detail that I would argue amounts to a lack of total obedience: So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him (Gen 12:4) Oops, where did his nephew Lot get included? Now some many argue that this is no big deal, but for the record God did not mention Lot in his instructions. And sure enough,  Lot’s presence will cause trouble later on. There is always trouble lurking when we do not wholeheartedly obey God.
  2. Abram gets to the Holy Land and God shows him its beauty.He reconnoiters the land and eventually pitches his tent near Bethel, a name which means house of God. So there he is right where he ought to be, in the House of God, on the Land God had shown him (cf Gen 12: 5-9)  Only one problem though, there is a famine in the land. Will Abram Trust God who has called him to this land? He will not! He goes off to Egypt (Gen 12:10), trusting Pharaoh to feed him but not God. God never said, “Go to Egypt.” It is dripping with irony that Abram leaves a place called “Bethel” (house of God) to go to the house of Pharaoh.
  3. In Egypt Abram does something awful. His wife Sarai (only called Sarah later in the narrative) is very beautiful and Abram is worried that men will want her and thus kill him so they can have her. So Abram tells a lie and has her lie too, asserting that she is his sister. (Gen 12:11-13) He even goes so far as to allow her to be placed in Pharaoh’s harem! (Gen 12:14-16) This is all to protect his own hide and gain influence. Lets just make it plain, he pimps out his own wife. Pharaoh eventually discovers the lie and, suffering its consequences, denounces Abram (Gen 12:17-19).  In effect Pharaoh fears God more that Abram. It takes Pharaoh to get Abram to go back to were he belongs. So Abram returns to the Holy Land, to Bethel, not because of his faith but because of Pharaoh’s threats (Gen 12:19-20).
  4. Ok, so at least he’s back where he needs to be, in Bethel, right? Well now the Lot mistake manifests itself. Abram and Lot actually did quite well in Egypt and return with flocks that are so large that the Land cannot sustain them both together (Gen 13:1-8). Now notice, the Holy Land could sustain Abram but not Abram and Lot together. This inability of the Land to sustain them both goes back to the original disobedience of Abram in bringing Lot in the first place. Lot and Abram agree to part company and Lot picks the choicest of the land, which at that time was where the dead sea is now (Gen 13:8-12) Ok, end of problem right? Not exactly.  The text says that Lot “pitched his tent toward Sodom.” (Gen 13:12). Now you know where all that is going to lead. In the end it will be another distraction for Abram who brought Lot along when he should not have. Lot has bad judgement and has no business associating with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. All of this draws Lot into a big mess in which his family is corrupted. His Wife cannot turn her back on  Sodom and is killed, his daughters are also corrupted and later attempt incest with him (gen 19:30ff). All this is a distraction for Abram who should never have brought Lot in the first place.
  5. God promises Abram and Sarai many descendants. But both Abraham and Sarah falter in faith several times with regards this. Abraham’s first struggle comes when, after many years of promises from God, no child has yet been born. So, in effect he says to God, “Look, I know you got a little carried away by all this offspring talk  so I guess I’m going to have to settle on giving my inheritance to my steward, Eliezar.”  But God says, NO, not that one, but rather your own issue will be your heir. (Gen 15:1-4). Later, Sarah, also despairing that God can deliver  suggests adultery and that he sexually exploit Hagar her slave girl and have a child by her. And he does! (Gen 16:1-4) Ishamel is born and the ugliness begins between Hagar and Sarah (imagine that!) (Gen 16:4-6). God once again has to rebuke Abraham and remind Abram of his promises. Sarah, paranoid at Hagar’s newly exulted position as the mother of Abraham’s only Child not in jealous rage tells Abraham to commit an act of great injustice and to drive her into the desert with her child. He does! (Gen 18:23ff)
  6. God renews his promises to Abram and Sarai and changes their names by entering into a covenant with them (Gen 17:1-15). As God renews his promises for multiplied descendants Abraham falls to his faces and laughs (Gen 17:17). Later, Sarah laughs too (Gen 18:2). Finally Isaac is born (a name which means “He laughs”) which commemorates the struggle of Abraham ad Sarah to believe what God is telling them.

Do you see? Abraham’s journey was marred by some pretty ugly setbacks. But ultimately Abraham doescome to believe God and he receives the fruit of faith in His Son Isaac. God prepares one final test to strengthen Abraham’s faith (Gen 22). He tells him to offer his son in sacrifice. This time Abraham does not draw back. He sets out for Moriah to obey God. Isaac asks, “Where is the Lamb for sacrifice?” Abraham has finally made it to faith and he simply says to his son, “God will provide the Lamb.” (Gen 22:7-8). Abraham has arrived. He has come to trust God and knows that obeying God will not be without its reward. And God DID provide the lamb as you know.

But Abraham didn’t simply “have faith.” He had to get there by years of struggle, setbacks, and hard lessons. He had to learn that to obey God brings blessings. To disobey God spells trouble. He had to learn that God means exactly what he says and to trust him in all things. If Abraham, the great hero of faith had to go through all this to arrive at faith, maybe there is hope for you and me too. But we too are summoned to learn of faith and grow in it. We are called to obey more and more perfectly and to stop trying to improve on God’s plan. So the example of Abraham is not just a relief to those of us who struggle it is also a road map of what we must do. Faith has to grow and we have to let it.

Here’s an old gospel song that says, “A Saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.” Maybe there is hope for us too, if we get back up.

11 Replies to “The Story of Abraham – Hope for the Rest of Us!”

  1. This reminds me of an email that was sent round a while ago:

    The next time you feel like God can’t use you, just remember…

    Noah was a drunk.
    Abraham was too old.
    Isaac was a daydreamer.
    Jacob was a liar.
    Leah was ugly.
    Joseph was abused.
    Moses had a stuttering problem.
    Gideon was afraid.
    Sampson had long hair and was a womanizer.
    Rahab was a prostitute.
    Jeremiah and Timothy were too young.
    David had an affair and was a murderer.
    Elijah was suicidal.
    Isaiah preached naked.
    Jonah ran from God.
    Naomi was a widow.
    Job went bankrupt.
    John the Baptist ate locusts.
    Peter denied Christ.
    The Disciples fell asleep while praying.
    Martha worried about everything.
    Mary Magdalene was, well you know.
    The Samaritan woman was divorced, more than once.
    Zaccheus was too small. Paul was too religious.
    Timothy had an ulcer…
    Lazarus was dead!

    And God isn’t finished with you yet.

  2. **God prepares one final test to strengthen Abraham’s faith (Gen 22). He tells him to offer his son in sacrifice.**

    Thank you for making these crucial points Monsignor. Too often in discussions with others about this event, they read that God tested Abraham and come to the conclusion that God needed to test Abraham in order for God to know how deep his faith was. And, of course, that reading of the story is absurd. God knows everything, He didn’t need to test Abraham to learn what Abraham believed, He already knew.

    The test wasn’t for God’s benefit, the test was for Abraham’s benefit (and, by extension, for our benefit). It was, as you state, for Abraham to strengthen his faith, for Abraham to come to the realization, in very stark terms, just exactly how great his faith was, and how deep it needed to be — total faith, holding nothing back.

    And, at the risk of parsing the words here (and not knowing what the original language says), it is an important distinction to note that God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Rather, He asked him to offer Isaac in sacrifice. God did not change His mind at the last minute; from the very beginning, He did not want Isaac actually killed. Indeed, during that period in history, human sacrifice was a not-uncommon practice, and God intended all along to demonstrate His vehement opposition to that “abomination.”

    1. Thank you for your reflections. I agree with your first point and am just not sure about your second point. I too do not read Hebrew. However, I am a bit cautious about attempts to get God “off the hook.” or to shift the point of the reading to something beyond its traditional interpretation. I guess I’d need more evidence to accept that the passage was actually God demonstrating his opposition to human sacrifice rather than a dramatic move to quicken Abraham’s faith. I have no doubt that God opposes Human sacrifice I am just not sure that is the point in this passage. Perhaps you have some additional basis for this interpretation.

  3. Recently I gave a test to my third graders at our Catholic school on the story of Abraham. The test covered those aspects of the story appropriate for third grade sensibilities, including the destruction of Sodom and the death of Lot’s wife.

    The last question on the test was, “What did you learn from the story of Abraham?” One of my third graders answered, “Trust God–and never look back.”

    Out of the mouths of babes….

    1. While the scripture doesn’t have God saying that He would provide the sacrifice, Abraham says it to Isaac and he (Abraham) is, in a way, one of the carriers of God’s message. So, when Isaac is spared, a ram is observed with its horns caught in the brush the ram is sacrificed.
      However it is not stated that the ram is the sacrifice. Some translations state that God would provide a “lamb” as the sacrifice. Many centuries later Christ (God’s Son) was sacrificed by the will of God for the sake of Abraham’s descendants and, ultimately, for all humankind. Christ is also called the “lamb of God.” Does this mean that this test of Abraham’s faith was part of the lead in to the New Covenant? Abraham’s son was spared as a sacrifice to God but, God’s Son was not spared as a sacrifice to us.
      We may never know if this take on whether the two events tie together in this way since God’s ways are beyond our understanding and are a mystery. Which fits what I recall of the mysteries as were taught to me in Chatechism. All this is not an original thought of mine but, rather, what was part of a speakers testimony at a Christ Centred Twelve Step Recovery group in which we turn to God. Period. Not the “as we understand him” groups and all its resulting pagan, new age and other stuff which contributed to my departue from them.

      1. Yes, from the Christian point of view the phrase God will provide the Lamb is dripping with meaning. Indeed the whole passage is surely a good example of typology wherein we see a prefiguring of Jesus. Consider the data: a son who was promised, carrying wood on his shoulder up Mt. Moriah (where Jerusalem would later be built) where he will be offered in sacrifice, in obedience to God the Father. Hmm… sounds familiar, Christ the Son of the promise, carrying the cross on his shoulder, up the same hill of Moriah to be offered in atonement for our sins in obedience to his Father. Hence a Christian cannot and should not read the Old Testament merely as a Jew of that period would have understood it. We always read the OT in light of the New Testament . So I think we do “know” that the two events are tied together if we use a fundamental perspective that our faith provides.

  4. **I guess I’d need more evidence to accept that the passage was actually God demonstrating his opposition to human sacrifice rather than a dramatic move to quicken Abraham’s faith.**

    I don’t believe it was one or the other. Rather, there are multiple meanings here.

    In any event, I think it is consistent with what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in “The God of Jesus Christ” (p. 54) —
    A misunderstood theology has left many people with a completely false image, the image of a cruel God who demands the blood of his own Son. . . . But the opposite is true! The biblical God demands no human sacrifices. When he appears in the course of the history of religion, human sacrifice ceases. Before Abraham can slaughter Isaac, God speaks and stops him; the ram takes the place of the child. The cult of Yahweh begins when the sacrifice of the firstborn, which was demanded by the ancestral religion of Abraham, is replaced by his obedience and his faith — the external substitute, the ram, is only the expression of the deeper reality, which is not a replacement, but rather looks ahead to the future fulfillment. For the God of Israel, human sacrifice is an abomination; Moloch, the god of human sacrifices, is the embodiment of the false god who is opposed by faith in Yahweh. For the God of Israel, it is, not the death of a man, but his life that is the act of worship. Irenaeus of Lyons expressed this in the wonderful formula: “Gloria Dei homo vivens” (The living man is the glorification of God). And this is the kind of “human sacrifice”, of worship, that God demands.”

  5. Good day greetings in Christ Msgr. Pope , a very beautiful story of faith showed by Abraham, but for me the most that I admired of, and wanted to follow is the example of faith of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saying “Yes” to the Lord with no second thought but only ask how it will happen and then goes the beautiful story of salvation to all mankind. Peace to all of us and the love of God and His blessings be with us all.

  6. I realize that this comment is over two months later but, it has taken that long for me to grasp the awesome concept expressed by Iuzvimindarp. Abraham’s faith floundered as it grew but, he was a patriarch of people. Moses had his imperfections, such as fleeing the country after a rash act in his youth when he impulsively killed one of Pharoah’s overseers but he was a leader of people. St. Paul persecuted and, even caused the death of, some of Christ’s followers before being called to his task but; he was a leader and teacher of people.
    Mary, however, was the vessel chosen for God the Son to enter into our experience by the same process of birth which we use. It makes perfect sense to me that the person with the ultimate human expression of human faith was chosen.
    Her free will was honoured by asking and she immediately responded without thought as a girl leaping directly into her Father’s arms without hesitation but, rather, with total confidence that He would safely catch her,

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