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Verse 7: Abraham

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? 


100 years.


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 limit.


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, Christians.


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