Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
The Old Testament story of Abraham is one of my favorite stories in the Bible, for a number of reasons. The historical figure of Abraham, incredibly, shapes global foreign policy to this day. As the father of all three of the world’s major monotheistic religions, Abraham continues to affect world history as much or more today as he did in 1700 BC. Thomas Cahill, in his book “The Gifts of the Jews”, argues the point that no one in Western culture can have a thought in his or her head which is not profoundly affected by the life of Abraham. Abraham is the first recorded “man on a mission”, or man with a defined purpose in life. As Westerners, we have trouble making sense of this statement. Of course my life has a purpose, everyone’s life has a purpose. Life is purposeful. We can no more imagine a universe where human life has no purpose than a fish can imagine a life without being wet. We are immersed in the notion that life has purpose. Even the most ardent atheistic supporter of life as a culmination of random molecular events can enjoy improving his golf game, raising a family, or arguing against the existence of a loving, wise creator.
Abraham had a purpose. Like Chevy Chase and John Belushi in “Blues Brothers”, he was “on a mission from God.” Literally. He was a well off guy, living his life in the ancient middle east, when God called to him. Remember, this was prior to monotheism , Judaism, or any other prism through which we view God today. He was called, and he said “Here I am.” God told him to leave his place of comfort, and go build a people, a nation, the chosen people. And he simply obeyed. “Here I am.” There were no ten commandments, because Abraham had not yet founded the nation that would be taken into slavery in Egypt and freed by Moses to wander in the desert. There was no Jesus (that he knew of), because the nation of Israel had not yet risen, fallen, and been put under Roman rule. There weren’t yet even prophecies of a messiah, concepts of sin or forgiveness, or any other carrot or stick to motivate Abraham.
But Abraham obeyed. In the child-like innocence described by an obscure Jewish rabbi named Yeshua the Nazarene 2000 years later, Abraham simply obeyed God. By doing so, he entered into the first covenant between human kind and its creator. Abraham had a purpose.
Prior to Abraham, the middle east followed the cyclical world-view of the Sumerians. A world view similar to Greek mythology, the seasons went round and round, and the gods played out their dramas in the heavens. People were simply the pawns of the gods, existing to live, die, appease, and fear. No one life had any particular purpose. Abraham changed all that. After Abraham, life had purpose.
This incredible figure is widely described as the father of faith. Revered by Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, his life is held as the ultimate earthly example of faith. God had made a promise, a covenant, that Abraham would be the father of a nation, the chosen people of God. He was promised a son, even in his old age. That son, that coveted, long awaited son, was Isaac. After calling on Abraham to leave his home, his comfort, his life, and move into a foreign land, God calls on Abraham again. The stakes are even higher this time. God tells Abraham to take Isaac, to hike for three days to Mount Moriah, and sacrifice his son. No reason given, no “if you do this, I’ll do that.” Just do it. Abraham’s response: “Here I am.” He just does it. If you know the story, God calls off the execution at the last moment, provides an alternate sacrifice, and Abraham’s faith is credited to him as righteousness.
This horrific, murderous story is unpacked in one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read, “Fear and Trembling”, by Soren Kierkegaard.
This book, really almost a pamphlet, was written by the philosopher credited with founding the field of existential philosophy. Though existentialism is now viewed as an atheist philosophy, Kierkegaard was in fact a Christian. The book looks like you could breeze through it in an afternoon, but it takes me weeks to get through. Kierkegaard was nearly driven mad by the idea that an all knowing, all loving, all powerful God could ask his humble servant to do something as unethical as murder his son. Though Abraham’s hand was held back at the last moment, in his heart he was ready to murder his son in obedience to a God he barely knew.
We think of faith as something lovely, warm, and reassuring. Abraham’s life shows us that a life of faith may call us to behaviors seen as strange, unethical, or even on the edge of sanity. Kierkegaard’s unblinking look at the story of Abraham reveals faith as a radical, uncompromising, and life changing path.
But notice what Abraham says to his servants: “We will come back to you. God’s covenant with Abraham includes the promise that Isaac will go on to be the father of a great nation. Abraham was a wise and successful man: he knew that sacrificing his son would preclude him from becoming the covenanted father of God’s chosen people. But he didn’t need an explanation, he strode forward with child-like obedience and the resolve of a warrior. He knew he could obey God, and against all odds, God would fulfill his promise. The message is no less than this: faith means abandoning all you know is right and good, in obedience to God.
I’ve gotten to know another Abraham recently. There’s a man, about my age, who wanders around Kijabe. Abraham is schizophrenic in a place with limited resources for mental health care. He lives with his twin brother in a nearby town. His twin brother is also schizophrenic, and so severely mentally ill he can barely speak. Abraham wanders around, collecting sticks to trade for food or cigarettes at the nearby shops. If you meet him on the path, he’ll ask for 10 shillings ( 12 Cents) or some food.
A few years ago, Abraham’s family collected the resources to take him to a mental health facility in Naivasha. He was turned away, as they didn’t have enough medicine to treat him. He was referred to a better supplied facility in Nairobi, where he lived for a time. Unfortunately, the hospital didn’t have the resources for both medicine and food. Abraham’s family travelled from Kijabe to Nairobi nearly every day to bring him food, but eventually this was too great a strain on the family’s resources, and they were forced to bring him back home.
So now, Abraham wanders far from his home, with faith that God will fulfill his promise to care for us:
God’s promise is that he cares for each of us individually. We can convince ourselves that we’re self-reliant, but ultimately we have little more control over our destiny than my friend Abraham. I don’t know Abraham well enough to know if his reliance on God’s provision is faith or simple necessity. I’m not sure he has any choice.
I got to know Abraham because he started hanging out on our porch. At 7,200 feet elevation, it gets cold here, and it’s been raining really hard. I looked out the window, and he was sitting outside our patio door on a chair,trying to keep out of the rain. His shoes and pants have large holes, and his jacket was soaked. This raised a very minor Abraham-esque dilemma for me. On the one hand, Jesus’s instructions are clear:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Who better exemplifies “the least of these” than Abraham? On one hand, God’s instructions here are clear. This mentally ill man is Jesus. In God’s mystical reasoning, helping Abraham is the same as serving Jesus. On the other hand, I’ve got a family to protect. I’ve got little children. I’ve got a wife who is sometimes home alone when I’m at the hospital. I’ve got a patio I’d like to be able to relax on by myself. It might be irresponsible, even unethical, maybe even a little insane, to embrace Abraham. At the very least, it might be inconvenient. I started weighing the pros and cons of giving Abraham some food, some chai, some warm clothes. Sure God’s instructions are clear, but what about my family? I started thinking that if I fed him, he would likely start coming around more, hanging out, and that might not be safe or desirable.
Then it occurred to me that this is the way you think about a stray dog or cat. This man, this child of God, this unique creation, this representative of Christ, occupies the same part of my brain as a stray animal.
Faith is a tough road, and maybe not a place for the completely sane or ethical.
Some of the hardest and most dangerous words to say are “Here I am.”