Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1 ESV)
To inspire the church, the author of Hebrews calls to mind the heroes of Scripture, people who placed their faith in the Lord God even though they could not see him. God is directing these heroes – people like Noah, Moses Rahab – towards a future that he has planned. But in this remarkable 11th chapter of Hebrews one man, along with his wife, is mentioned more prominently than anyone else. That man is Abraham.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV)
Surprisingly, Abraham is only said to believe something just once in his life (Genesis 15:6). In fact, Hebrews was written almost two millennia after Abraham died, which means that Abraham never heard the name, Jesus. And regardless of what is written in Hebrews 11:10, he was not aware of the New Jerusalem, or even the old Jerusalem for that matter. For all that, the author of Hebrews cites Abraham as the paradigm for the Christian life of faith. Paul goes even further. Writing in Romans, he calls Abram the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11). And he does so by the use of the one verse in which Abraham is said to believe anything, once again Genesis 15:6. According to Paul all who believe in Jesus are Abraham’s true children, an incredible claim on the face of it and a claim hinged on that one verse. The connection between Abraham and Jesus Christ is immediate in the minds of these New Testament authors, as well as others like Luke and James. When Peter and Stephen preach the Gospel in Acts, Abraham is on their tongues. For the writers of the New Testament, Abraham is the paradigm for Christian faith. If life is a spiritual journey, we can learn much from Abraham.
However, before we co-opt Abraham completely, we must remember that long before he was the father of all who believe, he was the father of the Jews. Indeed Abraham has proven to be quite popular, being claimed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It goes without saying that each of these religions views him quite differently. Judaism and Christianity share the belief that the book of Genesis and the Old Testament are sacred scripture. Islam does not. Furthermore, the Jewish understanding of the importance of Abraham is guided by traditions and commentary outside of the Old Testament scriptures. For Christians, the story of Abraham is understood and interpreted by the writings in the New Testament and by the person of Jesus Christ.
The assumption here is that Abraham was a real person and the account of his life in Genesis is accurate history best understood by a close reading of the text and guided by the commentary of the New Testament. If we take the doctrine of inspiration seriously, in Hebrews and Romans, the Holy Spirit is commenting on what He wrote in Genesis. Thus guided by New Testament comment, we will work our way through the Genesis account. We will endeavor to understand what life was like for Abraham as best we are able, by attempting to walk in his sandals, informed by current historical and cultural scholarship. We will image Abraham’s world in our mind’s eye, shedding ill-conceived preconceptions. We will endeavor to live his story, that it may become real to us. Then we will see ourselves in his story. Times have changed, but God has not. What he has done with Abraham, he does with us today. If the author of Hebrews is right, Abraham’s story informs our own. This then is a spiritual biography based on the biblical account in Genesis, with the understanding that even though times have changed and we are not wandering herdsmen like Sarah and Abraham, God has not changed and is still leading us, as a shepherd leads his sheep, on a journey of faith. If God has us on a journey of faith, we profit from learning at the feet of one who walked with God before us. We can learn from listening to Father Abraham. We might even get a glimpse at the map.
More to follow