ABRAHAM, THE TRADITIONAL FATHER OF HIS RACE. -- Gen.12:1-8; 13:1-13; 16; 18, 19; 21:7; 22:1-19.
Hist. Bible I, 73-94.
Prin of Pol., 160-175.
Jehovah said to Abraham, Go forth from thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, to the land that I will show thee, that I may make of thee a great nation; and I will surely bless thee, and make thy name great, so that thou shalt be a blessing, I will also bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse, so that all the families of the earth shall ask for themselves a blessing like thine own. So Abraham went forth, as Jehovah had commanded him. -- Gen.12:1-4. (Hist. Bible.)
By faith Abraham when he was called, obeyed to go out into a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out not knowing whither he went. By faith he became a sojourner in the land of promise as in a land not his own, dwelling in tents, with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he looked for the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. -- Heb.11:8-10.
He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it -- Matt.10:39.
THE PROPHETIC STORIES ABOUT ABRAHAM.
Many Biblical scholars claim that the data point to variant versions of the different stories about Abraham. Thus, for example, there are two accounts of his deceptions regarding Sarah, one in 12:9-13:1, and the other in 20:1-17. The oldest version of the story they believe is found in 26:1-14 and is told not of Abraham but of Isaac, whose character it fits far more consistently. Similarly there are three accounts of the covenant with Abimelech (Gen.21:22-31, 21:25-34, and 26:15-33). The two accounts of the expulsion of Hagar and the birth of Ishmael, in Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:1-20 differ rather widely in details. In one account Hagar is expelled and Ishmael is born after the birth of Isaac, and in the other before that event. Do these variant versions indicate that they were drawn from different groups of narratives? The differences in detail are in general closely parallel to those which the New Testament student finds in the different accounts of the same events or teachings in the life of Jesus. They suggest to many that the author of the book of Genesis was eager to preserve each and every story regarding Abraham. Instead, however, of preserving intact the different groups of stories, as in the case of the Gospels, they have been combined with great skill. Sometimes, as in the case of the expulsion of Hagar, the two versions are introduced at different points in the life of the patriarch. More commonly the two or more versions are closely interwoven, giving a composite narrative that closely resembles Tatian's Diatessaron which was one continuous narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus, based on quotations from each of the four Gospels. Fortunately, if this theory is right, the group of stories most fully quoted and therefore best preserved is the early Judean prophetic narratives. When these are separated from the later parallels they give a marvelously complete and consistent portrait of Abraham.
THE MEANING OF THE EARLY PROPHETIC STORIES ABOUT ABRAHAM.
Read the prophetic stories regarding Abraham (Hist. Bible I, 73, 74, 79-81, 84-87, 90-92). Are these stories to be regarded simply as chapters from the biography of the early ancestor of the Hebrews or, like the story of the Garden of Eden, do they have a deeper, a more universal moral and religious significance? Back of the story of Abraham's call and settlement in Canaan clearly lies the historic fact that the ancestors of the Hebrews as nomads migrated from the land of Aram to seek for themselves and their descendants a permanent home in the land of Canaan. Abraham, whose name in Hebrew means, |Exalted Father,| or as it was later interpreted, |Father of a Multitude,| naturally represents this historic movement, but the story of his call and settlement in Canaan has a larger meaning and value. It simply and vividly illustrates the eternal truths that (1) God guides those who will be guided. (2) He reveals himself alone to those who seek a revelation. (3) His revelations come along the path of duty and are confined to no place or land. (4) For those who will be led by him God has in store a noble destiny. (5) Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. (6) Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Thus this marvelous story presents certain of the noblest fruits of Israel's spiritual experiences. Incidentally it also deals with the relationship between the Hebrews and their neighbors, the Moabites, across the Jordan and the Dead Sea, for Lot in these earlier stories stands as the traditional ancestor of the Moabites and Ammonites. It is evident that, like the opening narratives of Genesis, this story aimed to explain existing conditions, as well as to illustrate the deeper truths of life.
Similarly the story of the expulsion of Hagar, it is thought, aims primarily to explain the origin of Israel's foes, the nomadic Ishmaelites, who lived south of Canaan. In the inscriptions of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, Hargaranu is the name of an Aramean tribe. A tribe bearing a similar name is also mentioned in the south Arabian inscriptions. The Hagar of the story is a typical daughter of the desert. When she became the mother of a child, the highest honor that could come to a Semitic woman, she could not resist the temptation to taunt Sarah. In keeping with early Semitic customs Sarah had full authority to demand the expulsion of Hagar, for in the eye of the law the slave wife was her property. The tradition of the revelation to Hagar also represented the popular explanation of the sanctity of the famous desert shrine Beer-lahal-roi. Like most of the prophetic stories, this narrative teaches deeper moral lessons. Chief among these is the broad truth that the sphere of God's care and blessing was by no means limited to Israel. To the outcast and needy he ever comes with his message of counsel and promise. Was Abraham right or wrong in yielding to Sarah's wish? Was Sarah right or wrong in her attitude toward Hagar? Was Hagar's triumphal attitude toward Sarah natural? Was it right?
In the story of the destruction of Sodom Lot appears as the central figure. His choice of the fertile plain of the Jordan had brought him into close contact with its inhabitants, the Canaanites. Abandoning his nomadic life, he had become a citizen, of the corrupt city of Sodom. When at last Jehovah had determined to destroy the city because of its wickedness, Abraham persistently interceded that it be spared. Its wickedness proved, however, too great for pardon. Lot, who, true to his nomad training, hospitably received the divine messengers, was finally persuaded to flee from the city and thus escaped the overwhelming destruction that felt upon it. What was the possible origin of this story? (Hist. Bible I, 87.) What are the important religious teachings of this story? Were great calamities in the past usually the result of wickedness? Are they to-day? Do people so interpret the destruction of San Francisco and Messina? The great epidemic of cholera in Hamburg in 1892 was clearly the result of a gross neglect of sanitary precautions in regard to the water supply. At that date the cholera germ had not been clearly identified and there was some doubt regarding the means by which the disease was spread. Was sanitary neglect then as much of a sin as it would be now? May we properly say that the pestilence was a calamity visited on that city as a punishment for its sin of neglect?
Why did the prophets preserve the story of the sacrifices of Isaac? Compare the parallel teaching in Micah 6:6-8.
With what shall I come before Jehovah,
Bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
With calves a year old?
Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams,
With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give him my first-born for my guilt,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
Which is the most important teaching of the story: the importance of an unquestioning faith and obedience, or the needlessness of human sacrifice? Does God ever command any person to do anything that the person thinks wrong?
THE PROPHETIC PORTRAIT OF ABRAHAM.
In the so-called later priestly stories regarding Abraham (see especially Gen.17) he is portrayed as a devoted servant of the law, chiefly intent upon observing the simple ceremonial institutions revealed to him in that primitive age. With him the later priests associated the origin of the distinctive rite of circumcision. In Genesis 14 Abraham is pictured as a valiant warrior who espoused the cause of the weak and won a great victory over the united armies of the Eastern kings. Like a knight of olden times, he restored the captured spoil to the city that had been robbed and gave a liberal portion, to the priest king Melchizedek, who appears to have been regarded in later Jewish tradition as the forerunner of the Jerusalem priesthood. In the still later Jewish traditions, of which many have been preserved, he is pictured sometimes as an invincible warrior, before whom even the great city of Damascus fell, sometimes as an ardent foe of idolatry, the incarnation of the spirit of later Judaism, or else he is thought of as having been borne to heaven on a fiery chariot, where he receives to his bosom the faithful of his race. Thus each succeeding generation or group of writers made Abraham, as the traditional father of their race, the embodiment of their highest ideals.
The Abraham of the early prophetic narratives, however, is a remarkably consistent character. He exemplifies that which is noblest in Israel's early ideals. How is Abraham's faith illustrated in the prophetic stories considered in the preceding paragraph? His unselfishness and generosity? His courtly hospitality? Was his politeness to strangers simply due to his training and the traditions of the desert or was it the expression of his natural impulses? Was Abraham's devoted interest in the future of his descendants a noble quality? How are his devotion and obedience to God illustrated? In the light of this study describe the Abraham of the prophetic narratives. Is it a perfect character that is thus portrayed? Is it the product of a primitive state of society or of a high civilization?
THE TENDENCY TO IDEALIZE NATIONAL HEROES.
Is Shakespeare right in his statement that |The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones|? Why do men as a rule idealize the dead? Does the primitive tendency to ancestor worship in part explain this? Is the tendency to idealize the men of the past beneficial in its effect upon the race? What would be the effect if all the iniquity of the past were remembered? The tendency to idealize national heroes is by no means confined to the Hebrews. Greek, Roman and English history abounds in illustrations. Cite some of the more striking. Why are they often thought of as descendants of the gods? Compare the popular conception of the first president of the United States and his character as portrayed in Ford's |The Real George Washington.| The portraits of national heroes, even though they are idealized, exert a powerful and wholesome influence upon the nations who honor their memory. The noblest ideals in each succeeding generation are often thus concretely embodied in the character of some national hero. Compare the great heroes of Greek mythology with the early heroes of the Old Testament. Do these differences correspond to the distinctive characteristics of the Greeks and the Hebrews? Are these differences due to the peculiar genius of each race or in part to the influence exerted by the ideals thus concretely presented upon each succeeding generation? Is it probable that in the character of Abraham the traditional father of the Hebrew race was idealized? Is it possible that teachers of Israel, consciously or unconsciously, fostered this tendency that they might in this concrete and effective way impress their great teachings upon their race? If so, does it decrease or enhance the value and authority of these stories?
THE REASONS FOB MIGRATION.
In the early history of most countries there comes a pressure of population upon the productive powers of the land. As numbers increase in the hunting stage game becomes scarce and more hunting grounds are needed. Tribes migrate from season to season, as did the American Indians, and eventually some members of the tribe are likely to go forth to seek new homes. Later in the pastoral stage of society, as the wealth of flocks and herds increases, more pasturage is needed and similar results follow. Even after agriculture is well established and commerce is well begun, as in Ancient Greece, colonies have a like origin. In the England of the nineteenth century Malthus and his followers taught the tendency of population to outgrow the means of subsistence -- a tendency overcome only by restraints on the growth of population, or by new inventions that enable new sources of supply to be secured or that render the old ones more efficient. Emigration and pioneering are thus a normal outgrowth of a progressive growing people in any stage of civilization. What does the statement about Abraham's wealth in cattle and silver and gold show regarding the country from which he came and the probable cause of God's direction for his removal?
Immigrants and pioneers are usually the self-reliant and courageous, who dare to endure hardships and incur risks to secure for their country and posterity the benefits of new lands and broader opportunity. The trials of new and untried experiences and often of dire peril strengthen the character already strong, so that the pioneers in all lands and ages have been heroes whose exploits recounted in song and story have stirred the hearts and molded the faith of their descendants through many generations. In the light of later history what was the profound religious significance to his race and to the world, of the migration represented by Abraham? The Biblical narrative does not state the exact way in which Jehovah spoke to Abraham. Is it possible and probable that God spoke to men in that early day as he speaks to them now, through their experiences and inner consciousness? In what sense was Abraham a pioneer?
Was it for Abraham's material interest to migrate to Canaan?
THE PERMANENT VALUE AND INFLUENCE OF THE ABRAHAM NARRATIVES.
Scholars will probably never absolutely agree regarding many problems connected with Abraham. Some have gone so far as to question whether he was an historical character or not. Is the question of fundamental importance? Other writers declare it probable that a tribal sheik by the name of Abraham led one of the many nomad tribes that somewhere about the middle of the second millenium B.C. moved westward into the territory of Palestine. It is probable that popular tradition has preserved certain facts regarding his life and character. It is equally clear that the different groups of Israel's teachers have each interpreted his character and work in keeping with their distinctive ideals. Each individual narrative has an independent unity and the connection between the different accounts is far from close. Some of them aim to explain the derivation of popular names, as for example, Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, the sanctity of certain sacred places, as for example, Beersheba, the origin of important institutions, as for example, circumcision and the substitution of animal for human sacrifice, and the explanation of striking physical phenomena, as for example the desolate shores of the Dead Sea.
Some of these accounts, like the table of nations in Genesis 10, preserve the memory of the relationship between Israel and its neighbors. They preserve also the characteristic popular record of the early migrations which brought these peoples to Palestine, where they crystalized into the different nations that figure in the drama of Israel's history. The permanent and universal value of these stories lies, however, in the great moral principles which they vividly and effectively illustrate. The prophetic portrait of Abraham was an inspiring example to hold up before a race. The characteristics of Abraham can be traced in the ideals and character of the Israelites. They were unquestionably an important force in developing the prophet nation. He was, therefore, pre-eminently a spiritual pioneer. How far do these stories, and especially the accounts of the covenant between Jehovah and Abraham, embody the national and spiritual aspirations of the race? Are the Abraham stories of practical inspiration to the present generation? What qualities in his character are essential to the all-around man of any age? How far would the Abraham of the prophetic stories succeed, were he living in America to-day? Would he be appreciated by a majority of our citizens? Are spiritual pioneers of the type of Abraham absolutely needed in every nation and generation if the human race is to progress?
Questions for Further Consideration.
Are God's purposes often contrary to man's desires? Ever to man's best interests?
What qualities must every true pioneer possess?
What is the ultimate basis of all true politeness?
Who are some of the great pioneers of early American history? What were their chief contributions to their nation?
Is your own conscientious conception of your duty to be considered as God's command to you? Does he give any other command?
Does a high stage of civilization ennoble character or tend to degrade it?
Subjects for Further Study.
(1) Abraham in Late Jewish Tradition. Hastings, Dict. Bib. I, 16, 17, Ginsberg, The Legends of the Jews, I, pp.185-308.
(2) The Geological History of the Dead Sea Valley. Hastings, Dict. Bib. I, 575-7; Encyc. Bib. I, 1042-6; Kent, Bib. Geog. and Hist., 45-54; Smith, Hist. Geography, 499-516.
(3) The Original Meaning of Sacrifice. St. O. T., IV, 238; Hastings, Dict. Bib. IV, 329-31; Encyc. Bib. IV, 4216-26; Smith, Relig. of the Semites, 213-43, 252-440; Gordon, Early Traditions of Genesis, 212-16.
(4) A Comparison of the Motives that Inspired the Migrations of the Ancestors of the Hebrews and our Pilgrim Fathers. Cheyney, European Background of American History; Andrews, Colonial Self-Government.