Tonight I had the pleasure of giving the final reflection in the Lent Study Programme at St Martin-in-the-Fields. In this year's course we studied Meg Warner's book Abraham: A Journey Through Lent, where the final chapter considered 'Abraham - The Legacy':
Meg Warner writes in the final chapter of our Lent book that with Abraham's death, we are in a position to explore his legacy. Abraham grew during his life, both in maturity and in faithfulness to God. Over time he seems to have 'become' the special person God chose him to be. His obedience has long-term consequences which apply not just to Abraham and his immediate descendants but to the whole world. That is his legacy, and I want to briefly explore three aspects of that legacy now.
First, that the maturing of Abraham’s relationship with God included learning to be in conversation, in dialogue, in debate and in argument with God, in order that Abraham could find God for himself and actually embody God’s characteristics and interests. We see this most dramatically in Genesis 18. 16-33 where Abraham argues and negotiates with God in relation to saving people who live in Sodom. God chose Abraham to “direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just”. Abraham throws that phrase, “what is right and just” back in God’s face in the course of their argument – “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” - “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?". Through their debate, God teaches Abraham to argue passionately for what is right and what is just. As he learns to do so, Abraham becomes more able to do what is right and just with his children and household.
The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, says that the legacy of this is that there then began that ‘dialogue between Heaven and Earth which has not ceased in 4,000 years’; a dialogue in which God and human beings find one another. Only thus, he suggests, ‘can we understand the great dialogues [found in Scripture] between God and Abraham and Moses and Jeremiah and Job.’ As with those key figures in scripture, arguing or debating with God in prayer can also be a vital and vitalizing part of the maturing of our relationship with God.
A second part of Abraham’s legacy relates to the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Here the key to understanding its legacy is the realisation that child sacrifice was the norm in the religions of the day and that the reason Abraham obeys God so unquestioningly may have been because, horrific and distasteful as it seems to us, there was nothing at that time unusual about the idea that the gods required human sacrifices in order to be appeased. The stories in Genesis about Abraham are foundational stories for the People of Israel. Imagine for a moment that you want to create a foundational story for a group of people that will change their understanding of sacrifice from the understanding with which they have grown up to one which is completely different from the religious practices of all the people that surround them. What kind of story might you tell? It may be that you would tell a story in which the person founding this new nation is taken all the way to the brink of child sacrifice and then dramatically and suddenly pulled back from taking that step.
The legacy of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the philosopher and anthropologist René Girard has suggested, is that Israel developed a system of animal sacrifice that continued until shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion, Girard suggests, was both about God identifying himself with all the victims – the scapegoats – who have been sacrificed down through the centuries and also, because in Jesus God himself was scapegoated and sacrificed, the ultimate demonstration of the reality that, as Hosea first stated and Jesus then repeated, God requires mercy, not sacrifice.
The final area of legacy that I want to briefly explore is in relation to the common origins of Jewish, Christian and Muslim peoples; all descended, as Meg Warner reminds us, from one ancestor, Abraham. In his book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence Jonathan Sacks examines our common origins in the story of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac and gives us a reading of these stories which ‘is an ingenious and often moving turning upside down of a rhetoric of “chosenness.”’
Sacks notes ‘the extraordinary length to which the text goes to insist that Ishmael will be blessed by God.’ He notes too that because of the way the story is written ‘our imaginative sympathies are with Hagar and her child’. ‘That is what gives the story its counter-intuitive depth’. Further, he notes that Isaac spends time at Beer Lahai Roi, the place of Hagar in the desert, and that Ishmael and Isaac are together when Abraham is buried. Finally, he makes us aware of a Rabbinic tradition based on these aspects of the story to the effect that Keturah, who Abraham marries after the death of Sarah, is actually Hagar returned to Abraham by Isaac as his wife.
Sacks concludes his chapter on the story of Ishmael and Isaac by saying this: ‘On the surface, the story of Isaac and Ishmael is about sibling rivalry and the displacement of the elder by the younger. Beneath the surface, however, the sages, heard a counter-narrative telling the opposite story: the birth of Isaac does not displace Ishmael. To be sure he will have a different destiny. But he too is a beloved son of Abraham, blessed by his father and by God.’
The futures of the two brothers diverge, ‘but there is no conflict between them, nor do they compete for God’s affection, which encompasses them both.’ ‘This reading becomes all the more powerful when, in the Midrash, it is extended to the relationship between Judaism and Islam.’ ‘Brothers can live together in peace’ this counter-narrative implies and Sacks notes that it perhaps ‘needed the twenty-first century, with its ethic and religious conflicts, to sensitise our ear to the texts’ inflections and innuendoes’ and to then grasp this aspect of Abraham’s legacy.
Through this Lent Course and Meg Warner’s book, we have seen Abraham undertake a significant journey. The whole way along the journey he struggled with his faith in the God who had chosen him so unexpectedly. At the same time as all of those struggles, Abraham appeared to grow in his responsibilities and in his relationship with God, so that by the end of the journey he had become the person God chose him to be – a true patriarch, whose faith and obedience had consequences for everybody around him. In a similar way, we can benefit from struggling with these three aspects of Abraham's legacy, as they constantly need claiming and reclaiming, both in our individual lives and our world, particularly because of the ways in which populism and nationalism are currently being used to shape politics and social structures.
T. Bone Burnett - Every Time I Feel The Shift.