Reading the Old Testament – Abraham

ABRAHAM, SARAH, AND THEIR SONS

Genesis 12 – 23

This collection of stories about Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12 – 23) belongs not only to 14 million Jews in the world but also to nearly a half of human race; Christians, Muslims, as well as to Jews. All of them consider Abraham and Sarah as their spiritual parents. Christians and Muslims make up 3,2 billion people, hence almost a half of the world’s population belong to the tradition that Abraham and Sarah started. However, as I repeatedly said, it is important for us not to think of the Genesis as a history of factual truths, but as stories telling us our fundamental and spiritual truths that make up our personality. They shaped our identity as the people of the Book and children of one God..

Abraham probably lived around 1850 B.C. There must have been many stories told about Abraham and Sarah at Jewish dinner tables or by the camp fire. Some of them must have contained pieces of historical facts. But they probably contained also gossips and rumours, true and/or false, good and bad, whispered between friends and neighbours as well as read publicly in synagogues. All of them were recounted to make specific points, good or bad; cruel or merciful. This is why the accounts of the Genesis are “holy” not “scientific.” Preserving historical facts was least of interest for those who participated in the determination of which books should be included in the Bible. When you read the Bible you must ask, “What is the point of the story,” in stead of asking, “Did this really happened?” Facts were beside the point.

So what are the points of the stories of Abraham and Sarah? There are many stories, some good and inspiring, some utterly horrible, but why were they preserved and became the part of the Holy Bible?

Here I make a few points to set up the background:

The image of God is evolving. In the beginning, God of the Bible had seeds of the belief similar to ours, but not always. Imagine, it’s a horrible god who told Abraham to kill his only son to prove his loyalty. Don’t hesitate to express your outrage in such a story. Hebrew (Jewish) people recorded the progress of their search for the true God. It is a history of the evolving idea of God. People didn’t know any better, so in earlier times they thought God was possessive, jealous, vengeful, tyrannical, etc. As you read through the Old Testament, the idea of God evolves gradually and reaches its height in the books like Isaiah where God is loving, universal (loves everybody regardless of nationality and race), wants peace and harmony among all creatures, even to the point of sacrificing himself (Isaiah 65 and following) for the sake of love. Don’t be afraid to express your disagreement or dislike. We make the same spiritual journey with the Hebrew people (Jews) in search of the true God. Here are some other thoughts that came to my mind as I read the stories of Abraham and Sarah.

1. Abraham packed everything up and moved on (Chapter 12: 1 & 4) from a comfortable settled life in Ur to Haran (Iraq), and into the unknown thus began the notion of “moving on.” Hundreds of servants and thousands of animals! He was a minor king. Civilization always progresses when people migrate. It is not only about physical and geographical move but also changes that happen to ideas. We question accustomed habits and ways of thinking when we move, and try new ideas. That’s how civilization has progressed.

2. Abraham and Sarah became the ancestors of the chosen people. God told them that their offspring will be special people and multiply to fill the world. This is how the Jews came to believe they are a special people. That is how they become proud of their identity. However, you have to realize that almost every nation of the world has the notion of being the special or only people. Chinese think that they are the centre of the world (the middle kingdom is the meaning of the name “China”). The Inuit in the North and the Bantu in Africa also believe that they are the only people. The word Inuit simply means “people.” The word Bantu also means the same. I believe that it is good that every nation consider themselves special, because they are, so long as they don’t become ethnocentric and self-centred. Everybody is special and blessed by God.

3. Abraham’s relationship with God introduces the notion of “Covenant.” (Chapter 17) One of the special manners in which to be related to the Almighty Creator is “covenant.” Our relationship with God is not one way. It is a two way traffic: God acts and we react, we pray and God answers. We don’t just sit and wait whatever God does for/to us. Entitlement requires responsibility.

4. The sign of the blessing from God in the covenant relationship was procreation (baby making). God promised Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of a great nation, countless number of people to fill the earth, like the stars and grains of sand. Making babies was the most important purpose of human race for millennia. The reason was: babies and mothers died devastatingly in large number until recently. Medical science and technology (and improved diet) are slowing down the rate of the infant/mother mortality drastically, thank God. In one hundred years, life expectancy doubled. But as the result, we face a totally different situation. There may be too many people (7 billion) and people live far too long. Is this the time to make a paradigm shift to rethink of reproduction and longevity. They no longer may not be the primary purpose of our lives? Quality of life is. Even the idea of eternal life may need re-examination.

5. Because procreation was of paramount importance in ancient times, the symbols of the covenant relationship were such things as circumcision (Chapter 17) that might help the process of baby making or prohibition of acts that might interfere with procreation. This is one reason why male homosexuality (19) was termed as against God’s law. In many places where climate is hot and clean water scarce keeping penises clean is difficult (in Africa), circumcision has been a part of their custom for a long time. Homosexuality and masturbation were considered to be waste of God given blessing, thus abomination. For the same reason, lesbianism is not the issue and is totally ignored.

 

Some minor point, Abram means a noble father. Abraham means the father of multitude of people. Sarai means a noble woman, and Sarah means a princess.

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