the Father of Multitudes
Men’s Breakfast April 2003
| Good Morning. Greetings from
my father, Abraham. Yes, Abraham is the spiritual father of Christians,
Jews and Muslims – and possibly Hindus and Buddhists as well. That
would make Abraham the spiritual father of most of humanity. The story of
Abraham is the story of how humanity came to know and begin to understand
the existence of one creator god who remains very interested in his creation
and the creatures who inhabit it. As any good story, this one begins, "Once
upon a time…”
Once upon a time, in the year 1812 B.C. – that’s 3,815 years ago – a boy named Avram was born into the family of Terach, an Iraqi idol dealer. Iraq was then called Mesopotamia. Terach lived in Cuthah, a town near Babylon or modern Baghdad. He was a notable figure in the local power structure. Nimrod, the king of the region was warned by omens that Abram’s birth would be a threat to the established order of things, so Abram’s mother hid him in a cave until he was 13 years old. Well, wait, you ask. This isn’t in the Bible, is it? Right. The Bible details Avram’s life from age 75 on. We know about these earlier years, and later details, from other sources. The other sources are both Jewish and Muslim. Christianity, accepting and building on Judaism, did not add much to our knowledge of Abraham, but the Muslim and Jewish sources fill out our story. The principal Jewish sources are the Talmud which encompasses Oral Torah, the Midrash, the Mishnah, and others. It’s a codification of oral tradition, scripture commentaries and scholarship by great teachers including the medieval trio Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Rashi, a trio nicknamed Rambam, Ramban and Rashi. Talmudic study is the millennia-long written exploration of the Bible and tradition by Jewish sages. The Islamic sources are the Hadith, which is a compilation of additional writings and oral tradition ascribed to Mohammed. The Jewish sources do not contradict the Bible, but expand on it. The Moslem sources are generally in close enough agreement, with a few key differences of emphasis and interpretation, plus a few additions.
Back to our story. Avram, as the boy was named, was a good, smart pagan boy, and helped out in his father’s idol shop. As he grew, he thought about the idols he was selling. Reasoning it through, he arrived, like any teenager, at a different view from his father. One day while Avram was managing the store in his father’s absence, he harangued his father’s best customers about the stupidity of their buying and worshiping dumb lumps of wood, metal and clay. Then Avram smashed the idols in stock, all but one, the biggest. He put the hammer in this big idol’s hand. When Terach came back he asked what madman smashed the idols. Abram explained that a woman had left a little offering of flour for the statues. But one idol said, “I will eat first.” And another one said, “I will eat first.’ At which point the biggest idol among them got up, took a hammer and broke the rest. Terach said, “Do you think you’ll fool me? These idols don’t know anything.” Abram replied, “Do your ears not hear what your mouth has just said.” Dad’s answer is not recorded.
Their relationship grew strained. Terach informed on his son to Nimrod’s inquisition, and at 48 years of age, Abram was arrested. Remember the Tower of Babel? The classical sages added up years and calculated it was during Abram’s lifetime – precisely at age 48. This tower was Nimrod’s attempt to unite the world in Paganism. He wanted to create the idea of one, false god for people to worship instead of their worshipping the sun, moon, water, etc…which are all God’s creations. Abram thought this an unspeakable blasphemy and he publicly cursed the work. You know the story. God confounded their language and the work stopped. Sounds like American Airlines management and labor relations. This, and Abram’s refusal to endorse idolatry, led to Nimrod’s subjecting Abram to the limestone kiln fire, which Abram miraculously survived. The Talmud tells that the angel Gabriel interceded for Abram, and God saved him. This fiery furnace episode is common to both Islamic and Jewish sources. Traditional sources add that Nimrod wanted Abram’s family to witness the burning as a lesson. Haran, Abram’s brother figured if Abram survived, he would announce for Abram’s god. If Abram burned up, he would announce for idolatry. Witnessing the miracle, Haran declared for Abram. His opportunistic announcement pleased neither God nor Nimrod, and he got tossed into the kiln and crisped. The significance of brother Haran’s death lies in his children. His son was Lot, Abram’s nephew. And one of Haran’s daughters was Yiscah , identified by tradition as Sarai, whom Abram later married. Yiscah means “looker” in both senses. Sarai was a seer as well as extraordinarily beautiful. The Talmud says, “Everyone gazed at her beauty.” She was ten years younger than Abram, and so 38 years old at this time.
Abram was then banished to the hinterlands by Nimrod. Tradition has it this was the moment of setting out for their ancestral home of Haran in Southeastern Turkey. Haran, the place, was at a major crossroads of trade. Genesis credits Abram with “making souls” here. The Talmud says he who teaches a person about the Lord is considered as if he had “made” him. Here, the reference is to leading a person from Paganism to Monotheism, which is in a sense, bringing a person from a “less than full human being” state, to a “fully human” state. It is in this sense that we describe Abram as “The Father of Humanity.” There were certainly earlier monotheists, first Adam, then Enoch, then Noah, then Shem, the son of Noah. Abram, however, was the first Evangelist of Monotheism. As we’ll see, he spent his lifetime positioning himself in places where he could practice both hospitality and evangelism. Thus, living at this major crossroads in Haran served God’s purpose for Abram.
Notice that Abram had not yet received any communication from God. He was evangelizing out of reason and love for God alone. He remained at Haran for 27 years. One night he had a vivid dream in which God spoke to him, “Lech Lechah!” And the promise as related in Genesis, “Go now, for yourself, from your land and from the place of your birth, from your father’s house, to a land which I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you and magnify your name and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” God did not tell him where to go, just to go. You think moving is hard now? Here he is at 75 having been a missionary all his life, and God tells him to pick up and go, without telling him where.
So, Abram takes Sarai, his nephew Lot, and his entire household numbering 72 people, and sets out. They crossed the Euphrates, headed towards Damascus, then entered Canaan, a rich land with figs, grapes and wine in abundance, with honey and olives, barley and emmer, and cattle. Abram prayed, “May my portion be in this land.” They stopped at Shechem, near modern Nablus. Here, Abram had a vision, not a dream. The Bible says, “The Lord appeared to Abram.” The words he heard, “To your offspring, I will give the land.” Joyful, he built an altar and prayed to God.
But his joy was short-lived. Soon he had premonitions of famine. He did not second guess God. Instead he gathered everyone up and headed for Egypt. Sarai was still a looker, and Abram knew Pharaoh’s men would abduct her for the Egyptian seraglio, and kill him as her husband. So he hit on the ruse of presenting her as his sister rather than his wife. Sure enough, her beauty was so great the Pharaoh himself took an interest, and she was abducted and taken to the palace. Sarai met his “marriage” proposal with silence. Being a man, he took that for consent. But as he approached her, an angel afflicted Pharaoh and his courtiers with very uncomfortable pains which made sex, well, just not possible. Tradition says ten times Pharaoh tried, ten times the angel asked Sarai if he should strike the Pharaoh again. Ten times she said yes. Pharaoh finally wised up to what was happening and demanded Sarai and Abram get out of town. But either from a sense of justice or prompted by God, Pharaoh assessed himself a great fine, and paid Abram and Sarai money, camels, cattle. And he gave his own daughter, Hagar, to Sarai as a servant.
Abram returned the way he had come. Now, the side story of Lot, his nephew. They both had great flocks. A dispute between their shepherds soon devolved into an argument between Lot and Abram. Abram gave Lot a choice; “Separate from me and go left or right, and I will go the other way.” Lot chose the then lush greenery of the Sodom valley, leaving Abram to head for the hills. Abram was still responsible for Lot, as his uncle, and he had a sense of foreboding.
Soon, bad news. An army of four kings had captured Lot and put him in a cage as a trophy. Abram organizes his 300 students and shepherds into a little fighting force to rescue Lot. But he gives them a choice of going or staying home. All stay. So much for the draft. Abram and his servant Eliezar ride off alone. In a supernatural victory, the two men slaughter the enemy and rescue Lot. Right after returning with the captives and the spoils, Abram is met by the mysterious Melchizedek, who gives him gifts of bread and wine, then blesses both Abram and God most high. Abram presents a tithe to Melchizedek. Christian tradition is mystified by the identity of this mysterious person. But Jewish tradition identifies Melchizedek as none other than Shem, the son of Noah. Thus, the staff of monotheism passes from Adam to Enoch to Noah to Shem, and now to Abram.
God affirms his promise of offspring and land in a vision. He takes Abram outside and shows him the stars. Why show him the stars which he looked at every night? The reason he took Abram outside of the tent to show him the stars was to announce a change –a change of Abram’s and all of mankind’s understanding. No longer would humans think their lives and fate and all human behavior was determined by natural forces, the stars, astrology, the Zodiac. Instead, at this moment, Divine Providence replaces the chance events of nature. This was confirmed to Abram by the promise of the future change of his name and Sarai’s name. To further confirm this, God announces that while Abram will have no heir, Abraham, the new man, will have a son by Sarah, the new woman.
Now, to the handmaiden’s tale. Abram is now 85 years old. It has been ten years in Canaan. Seventy-five-year-old Sarah takes matters into her own hands. To Hagar her servant she says, “How fortunate you will be to cleave to this holy body.” Hagar agrees, and conceives immediately. Imagine how Sarai felt! Hagar becomes proud and bitter towards Sarai. Sarai in turn humiliates Hagar. It’s not easy to have two wives. But this child was not to be. Hagar had a miscarriage. Then she fled in grief and humiliation, intending to return to her father in Egypt. But Hagar encountered an angel on the desert way, probably the guardian angel of the Arab peoples, as Michael is guardian of the Jewish people. The angel told her to return to Sarai, and…well… Abram, and that she would once again conceive. “Ishmael, who will be a wild ass of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; and he will dwell in the face of his brothers.” Sounds like today’s newspapers. The Koran actually says little about Ishmael, nor does the Hadith, But to this point, of how Ishmael was conceived, his mother, his father, that he was the elder son of Abraham and the elder brother of Isaac, the Jewish and Muslim sources are in general agreement. Later, Ishmael fathers many children who become the Arab tribes. Thus Abraham is great grandfather to the Arabs as well as the Jews.
Back to our story. Hagar again sleeps with Abram and Ishmael is conceived. Abram is fond of the child and loves him. When Ishmael is 13 and Abram is 99, he receives another vision, now in fact changing his name from Abram to Abraham, as promised. Abraham is also instructed to circumcise Ishmael, all the men and himself. In this vision God promises Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations, and God will give to him and his offspring the land of Canaan as an eternal possession, and that He will be a god to them. Abraham circumcises as God asked. While recovering, he sits uncomfortably at his friend Mamre’s oak grove near Hebron. This was a place convenient for Abraham to carry on his continuing missionary work
Abraham sat in discomfort, and saw strangers approaching. Not a vision, but three angels in human shape. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael arrive, Michael to make the baby announcement to Sarah, Gabriel to destroy decadent Sodom and Gomorrah, and Raphael, the angel of healing, sent to heal Abraham and rescue Lot. After Abraham’s hospitality, and Abraham’s famous intercessions with God on Sodom’s behalf, the angels hit Sodom. Lot accepts the warning, and scoots out of town with his two daughters. His wife unfortunately looked back. Angels, by the way, have no necks when they assume human form. This is because they never look back. A salty lesson. The upshot finds Lot and his two daughters hiding in a cave in what is now a pretty barren landscape. God, in his foresight, has placed wine in the cave for Lot, who probably needed a drink by then. His daughters, noting the destruction of all around them and the absence of other people, worry about ever finding a husband. They take matters into their own hands, as it were, get Lot drunk, and both become pregnant by him. Their children are Moab and Ammon, rounding out the rest of the Arab tribes. The significance of these events following the destruction of Sodom, is the creation of the Moabite people. From Moab, came Ruth the Moabite woman, the great grandmother of David the King, and the lineage of Jesus. God uses all occasions and actions to bring about His Will for our good.
Let’s jump ahead to The Binding, the sacrifice of Isaac – or the sacrifice of Ishmael for some Moslems. All sources agree that Abraham took Isaac, Ishmael and Eliezar on this venture. All sources agree that Abraham loved both boys But Moslem sources disagree with each other and are about equally split on whether Isaac or Ishmael was the subject of the sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. Quite a departure from our tradition. Abraham knew that the fruit of his life work, his posterity and God’s promise lay with the son God asked him to sacrifice. The power of this test, the sacrifice, was not in whether or not Abraham obeyed God. That was never a question. The issue was how Abraham would feel about it. Would he be reluctant, timid, fearful, possessive …covetous towards his posterity, life work and future? Or would he willingly plunge ahead? Abraham passes the test, the angel stays his knife hand, and God provides the substitution of a ram caught by its horns in the brush. You can see how those within the Moslem tradition who believe that Ishmael was the son marked for sacrifice, believe that this strengthens the lineage and legitimacy of Ishmael’s descendants, the Arab tribes, among whom Islam rose. But Isaac or Ishmael on Mt. Moriah, Abraham is the blood father and the spiritual father of Judaism, and Christianity, and more than 2,000 years later, Islam.
I mentioned Abraham as also perhaps the father of Hinduism and Buddhism. Some traditions claim that in his travels, Abraham or the disciples of Abrahamism, taught monotheism beyond Persia to as far as northern India. As you know, Brahman is the priestly caste of the Hindu religion. Some find Brahman to be the same root as Abraham. Thus the Hindu religion, while filled with demonology as well as the concept of one principal god, may have roots in monotheism through Abraham. If so, Buddhism, a religion stressing the unity of all, which grew from the ancient Vedic roots of Hinduism is also influenced by Abraham’s monotheism. That pretty much covers the main religions of the world. Thus, we ascribe to Abraham his title, Father of Multitudes.