A mysterious ancestor of the great monotheistic faiths


People of the Book – Abraham

This week’s entry was the first person to come to my mind as I began thinking about a list of names for this series, “People of the Book.” Abraham is a fascinating figure, especially in light of current world politics and history, both religious and secular. It is to this rather mysterious ancestor that the three great (and sometimes rivalrous) monotheistic siblings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam trace their theological bloodlines. Thus, Abraham must de facto manifest an incredible and lasting significance in the manner in which we perceive ourselves as his descendants and the heirs to his covenant with God. Let us briefly examine pertinent dimensions of his unique biography and vocation.

Tradition in all three faiths holds that Abraham’s father made and worshipped idols (cf. Joshua 24:2, and Sura 19 of the Qu’ran) and that Abraham felt called to experience a relationship with God divorced from the mediation of such figures and trappings. In St. Paul’s words he came to know and love the Creator rather than the creature. He felt (or perhaps suffered) that unrelenting tug of the heartstrings when God immediately and irrevocably breaches the walls of comfortability and familiarity we have erected brick by brick in every self-serving decision over the course of our lives, that distinct moment when we no longer believe in God or learn about him, but know him and his will for us directly.

“Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you…. So he left, as the Lord had told him” (Gen 12:1-4). Stunning in its simplicity, but far-reaching in its consequence. Do we have the courage and commitment to discipleship to live up to such a standard?

Abraham’s travails are many and well-documented: his kinsman Lot’s capture and subsequent battles for his release, the barrenness of his wife Sarai, his self-circumsicison (at the age of 99!), his advocacy for the safety of the people of Sodom. God’s increasing demands of trust and fidelity are matched only by his overabundant generosity. The climax of the almost frightening ferocity of this interaction takes place after God has finally fulfilled the longing of Abraham’s heart and given him a son through Sarah in her old age, an occurrence so ridiculously unexpected that the boy’s name, Isaac, reflects the utter surprise in the couple’s reaction to the news — from the Hebrew yishaq, “laughter.”

God once again ratchets up the tension of the seemingly now-settled narrative, demanding that Abraham take his only son, which Scripture describes alternately as what is most “uniquely precious” and “beloved” to him, and offer him as holocaust offering to God. Abraham obeys, lays the wood for the sacrifice upon the boys innocent shoulders, and leads him up a hill to a death he does not deserve (An astute Catholic’s spiritual antennae should be twitching here). Abraham gives that which he finds most dear, and thinks he cannot live without, to God to do with as he pleases. As the prayer of St. Ignatius will centuries later reiterate, “Thine was the gift, to thee I all resign.”

God intervenes and stops Abraham from performing the sacrifice, instead telling him to search the nearby thickets where he finds a ram, caught by its horns in the brambles and thorns. This animal instead is sacrificed to God as an offering. We see here once again how God molds and uses history to offer us “types,” the way an author uses images and characters, to foreshadow more crucial events which are to follow.

The patristic authors saw in both Isaac and the ram “types” of the Suffering Servant who was to innocently die as a ransom for a debt he did not owe. And while modern sensibilities are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the notion of animal sacrifice (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” see Hosea 6:6, Mt 9:13), the bringing forth of bread and wine to the altar in the Eucharistic celebration reflects this offering of things dear to us, and our very persons themselves, to be offered, transformed, and perfected by God.

The allegorical and multivalent tale of Abraham continues to inform three faiths in the wondrous blessings and promises of God which remain held out for all of us if we have the courage to use the gifts we are given, including our very life itself, as a service to others. “Thine was the gift, to thee I all resign.”

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.