Abraham was as good as dead. Alleluia.
Still he believed what the Lord had said. Alleluia.
Sarah laughed when she heard the news. Alleluia.
“We’re gonna need diapers and baby shoes.” Alleluia.
How old was Abraham when Isaac was born?
There are a number of problems connected with this question and
answer. The least difficult is: Can we believe the answer that Abraham fathered
a child at 100 years of age? We know enough about how legends grow in the
telling to be comfortable with saying that’s probably an exaggeration—as long
as we’re not offended by the idea that the Bible could be a human as well as a
divine product. A more difficult question is: Did Abraham exist at all?
One very distinctive characteristic of the Jewish-Christian
religion is the belief that God acted in history. Our religion is not just
ideas about God and how God expects us to live but a story in which God is the
main character. So it seems it would be preferable to say Abraham really
existed and really was in some kind of contact with God, even if the details
are fudgy. The one about God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and
the one about Abraham trying to argue God out of destroying the city of Sodom
seem especially doubtful. But the prospect of locating a real Abraham in the
midst of a real history in which people were migrating from the vicinity of “Ur
of the Chaldees” up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and down to Egypt and
settling in Palestine is an inviting one for believers.
You can find this idea in old textbooks, along with claims that
some details of the Bible story reflect independently verifiable conditions and
customs of the place and time where the story supposedly took place. More
recent research has contradicted those claims. It’s also doubtful whether any
group of people, even in an oral culture, can retain a story over the 800 or so
years between the actual event and the time the story would have been written
down. Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion, says 200 years is about the
Believers can always bypass this difficulty by saying that God
gave either the storytellers or the writers some supernatural help so we end up
with a product that is actually beyond human ability to produce. That’s a
common enough view of what revelation is, but I think most Protestant and
Catholic scholars, except in fundamentalist circles, reject it. The idea is
that God works within, not outside of or against, the human and God-given
abilities of people. So I’m inclined to say that probably Abraham did not
exist, that his story is simply made up somewhere along the way that led to the
written word of the people of Israel.
That raises a third, even more difficult problem: If God acted
in history, as Jews and Christians still believe, then where in the Bible is
that history to be found? There are two answers. First, there is both story and
history in the Bible, it’s one of the businesses of scholars to tell the two
apart, and most scholars agree that this can be done, though imperfectly and with
varying degrees of probability. A historical core can be detected. Second, both
the made-up stories and the history as reported are attempts at interpreting
real history in the light of the faith of the people of Israel and, later,
That last point is a double-edged sword. It means there is
history involved throughout, but it also means that we never, even in the most
historical writings, get history pure and unaltered. It’s always history
interpreted, history colored (you might say doctored) by the demands of faith.
It’s exactly the way people all over, until fairly recently, have written and
told their histories. More modern examples would be the story of George
Washington and the cherry tree (a lesson written as history) and the story of
Paul Revere’s famous ride (history embellished into an inspirational lesson).
In the case of the Bible, we conclude: God was OK with that. “If that’s the way
people are,” God says, “I can work with it.”
So the Israelites’ story of salvation begins with Abraham, a
kind of historical fiction, if you will. As a religious story, it’s still quite
distinctive. It’s not a myth, taking place in some aboriginal or dream time. It
is set very deliberately in human history, around 8 or 9 hundred years before King
David (a verifiable historical figure). Here time, place, and particular
individuals and groups are all-important. Abraham is not just another symbol
standing for humanity in general, like those we find in the first 10 chapters
of Genesis. The story of Abraham leads through definite times and places to the
history of the Israelite/Jewish people and the Christians. The rest of the
world does come into the story. God says that by Abraham and his descendants
“all the families of the earth will bless themselves.” When parents bless their
children they’ll say, “May you be like Abraham and Sarah, Ruth, David,” etc.
That raises the most difficult problem of all. Why should the
rest of the world bless themselves in the name of these people or even Jesus?
There are other worthy heroes. Why not “May you be like Socrates, Buddha, or
Confucius”? God’s involvement in human history is particular, starting out in
one time and place and reaching out from there to include everyone everywhere,
but mostly, so far anyway, only as a hope and a prayer. It contradicts our
sense of fairness.
Intellectually its offensive, but I find it very much like human
love. There’s no such thing as love of everybody in general. It has to be
particular and reach out from there. I can warm up to a god who becomes
available in history, slowly, haltingly, ceding control over the process to
often-erring men and women. A god anyone could reach by reasoning from general
principles, independently of time and place—the way a scientific law has to apply
in every time and place—would be intellectually satisfying and interesting; but
I wouldn’t love such a God. And, anyway, it wouldn’t make a
very good story.
On to Joseph