Archive for June, 2017

Abraham Study: Ishmael and Isaac

June 29, 2017

I am a couple of weeks behind with the Abraham Study, so let’s catch up. Two weeks ago the chapter was about Ishmael, the son that Abraham had with Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant. Last week the chapter was about Isaac, the son that Abraham had with Sarah, his wife.

As the story goes, God promised a son to Abraham and Sarah; but they are old and Sarah gets impatient. They have recently lived in Egypt and acquired an Egyptian woman to serve Sarah, and Sarah decides that it is through Hagar that the son will be born. She seems to imagine that Hagar will give birth and just turn the baby over to Sarah to raise. Abraham is uncertain but when Hagar goes to him he sleeps with her and becomes pregnant.

This is where Sarah’s plan goes awry. Hagar now has status over Sarah because of her pregnancy, and the story indicates that she taunts Sarah with it. So Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away. Again Abraham is uncertain but does as Sarah asks. Hagar is sent into the desert, where God tells her to return. She goes back and Ishmael is born. Thus, he is the first born son.

Eventually Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac, the second son, is born. Conflict arises once again between Sarah/ Isaac and Hagar/ Ishmael and Sarah once again demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Abraham is uncertain once again, but God tells him to do what Sarah says.

It’s interesting to note that here the Jewish scriptures, known by Jews and Christians, have one story, but there are other stories about what happens to Hagar and Ishmael. Of course the Christian tradition has the story that Hagar and Ishmael are sent away into the desert, where they nearly die of thirst. But God hears their cries and gives them water and then promises that Ishmael will be father of a great nation.

The other story is quite different– Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca and settles them there and even revisits them later. In this version there is a continuing relationship between Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael.

How does this story and our understanding of Ishmael as firstborn son inform our understanding of Abraham? To begin with, it seems likely that Abraham has some real affection for Ishmael because he is the first born son. At that time birth order was quite important, and the eldest was the heir of the father. The story implies that Abraham was born because Sarah went against God’s intent and that Isaac was intended as heir to God’s covenant with Abraham rather than Ishmael (the Jewish/ Christian traditional reading. One way or another Hagar and Ishmael are taken care of by God.

At this point I find Abraham to be a rather ambiguous character. On the one hand he seems to have this one-to-one relationship with God; on the other hand, when Sarah tells him to send Hagar away he does it. Regretfully, perhaps, but he does it. This seems to be at odds with his reputation as a man of great faith who took up stakes and moved his family at God’s behest.

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael in the Jewish/ Christian scriptures. At one point Joseph is given to “the Ishmaelites” by his brothers. Islamic tradition views Ishmael as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. Over time the Ishmaelites became associated with the term “Arab”.  In Islamic tradition Ishmael seems to be seen as the link to Abraham and, as first son, a reason that Islam should be considered the ‘true’ or ‘primary’ religion; he is at least a partial source of division particularly between Jews and Muslims but also between Muslims and Christians.

For notes Bill Lindsay’s notes on the chapter about Isaac, click here.

 

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Abraham– Week 4: Call

June 12, 2017

We continue our Abraham study with the chapter entitled “Call”, about the beginnings of Abraham’s call to follow God. Once again, there are notes from co-teacher Bill that can be accessed here. If you’re reading along or following this blog I encourage you to add your own comments, and if you haven’t started reading the book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler it is well worth the read. It is available on Amazon and possibly through your local library as well!

This chapter addresses the question of what it means to be called by God, particularly as it pertains to Abraham and particularly as understood by Christians, Muslims and Jews. We can also glean form this discussion what it means to be called on a more personal level; for, as Abraham is called, so are we called as his descendants.

The call of Abraham teaches us, according to Mr. Feiler, that God hears the cries of all of God’s people. God heard the cry of Abraham, who at an advanced age had no heir; God responds with a promise of not only more descendants than there are stars in the sky, but also land that will be his and theirs. In order to receive this promise Abraham must leave his homeland and go… somewhere. God isn’t clear in the beginning where Abraham will go, only that he needs to go. And Abraham, trusting God, goes.

This is something new; Abraham is breaking tradition with his father who is a maker of idols. For Abraham, God offers no physical manifestation; neither does Abraham seem to need it. We might wonder how to put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes: is God the still, small voice in Abraham’s head? Is there an actual conversation? We have reported interchanges between God and Abraham, but is this a conversation as we humans understand conversation? And if not, what was it that convinced Abraham to go?

In Mr. Feiler’s book he describes the differences in emphasis between Christianity, Judaism and Islam regarding the understanding of Abraham’s call. For Jews, Abraham’s call began as a call to migration, a call that will lead him (and his descendants) to the promised land. Later the understanding becomes more spiritual in nature as the exile sends Jews on a different journey, a journey away from the land to a place where they are the other. Now the task, says Mr. Feiler, is to “go to yourself…find your roots.” For  Islam Abraham’s response to God, that he picked up and went to another land at God’s instruction, is the ultimate submission and obedience to God. For Christians the Abraham story represents a “hoping against hope” (as Paul puts it)– he didn’t disbelieve God’s promise even though he was of advanced age and “his body was as good as dead” (again, Paul). Feiler’s friend Father John says that “the lesson of Abraham is that you have to be willing to risk it all. You have to give up everything for God.”

As Christians we ask ourselves “what is God calling me to do?” We beleive that all of God’s people have gifts and abilities that we are to use to fulfill God’s work in the world. Frederick Buechner describes the place God God’s us to as that place in which a person’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. It may be that we are called, as Abraham was, to pick up stakes and move to a new land. It may be that we are called to a a new ministry in which we are the other, the outsider who must form relationships before we can accomplish any change in the world.

 

 

 

Abraham Study– week 3 “Birth”

June 8, 2017

I am behind a week in writing about our study Bruce Feiler’s book, “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.” Sometimes life intervenes! So this is from Wednesday, May 31 and I’ll be writing about last night’s (June 7th) discussion later in the week. The lessons for May 31, June 7 and June 14 are led by Bill Lindsay, so I am including his notes in the writing for these weeks. Thanks Bill!

The chapter for May 31, called “Birth” is the first of two in a section that are about the historical Abraham and the question of whether or not he really existed, if it can be proven, and if it matters. To me, this is part of a larger question that encompasses the whole of scripture– what do we know, what can we prove, and does it matter? For Christians, answering this question runs the gamut from Biblical inerrancy– every jot and tittle is true and authentic in its authorship (God, through Moses and others) to the idea that the Bible is just a good book which, because it can’t be proven, carries truths but isn’t true, per se. 

To many people the question of the truth of scripture is very important. Some will read the Bible stories about Abraham and believe he was a real historical character. Some will see that there is no physical evidence and understand Abraham as a mythical or composite figure, borne out of centuries of oral tradition and helpful as a anchor for the faith, but not a real, historical figure. Either way, even though Abraham isn’t provable– as Avraham Biran says in Feiler’s book, All we know about Abraham is in the Bible …  In the ground , there’s nothing… But remember , archaeology cannot prove or disprove the Bible . I follow Albright , the founder of our field , in that the Bible as a book of divine inspiration needs no proof . At the same time , you can neither do archaeology in biblical lands nor study the Bible without being aware of the discoveries . 

The Bible is a book of stories, a mix of oral tradition and written history– though maybe not “history” as we in the 21st century think of it. When we read the Bible and study the ancestors of the faith, we do so from a place and time so far removed from its happenings that it can be hard to process it, it can be hard to know how it applies to our lives today–if it even does.

And yet there are truths there. Abraham is a figure of faith that we can look to in order to understand our own. In Christian and Hebrew texts we come upon Abraham as an adult, with little background information other than his father’s name and the fact that they all migrated from Ur to Haran over a number of years.

Muslim texts have more detail. Abraham’s father carves and sells idols, and people worship him. He is of the polytheistic age and forced Abraham, who even as a young boy didn’t believe in the power of idols, to sell them. Abraham is reported to have mocked his father for worshiping idols; he was threatened with stoning and was reportedly thrown into the fire for his alternate beliefs but was saved by God.

Abraham is the first monotheist– the first to insist that there is only one God. Abraham is also the first, if we believe the stories, to be martyred. There is no question why this man, this Abraham, became so important to three major religions of the world and remains the ancestor to us all. So the question becomes for each of our traditions, how can we each honor him without dishonoring the faith traditions of the others?