Abraham and Sarah

We saw that Genesis 1-11 is a carefully arranged collection, where a story is normally followed by a genealogy. The story of Abraham and Sarah is just as carefully arranged, but differently.

Here genealogical passages about Abraham's family (in 11:26-32 and 25:1-18) frame a collection of stories. One can see why: Abraham and the barren Sarah are promised a son.

Only when this promise is fulfilled can the genealogy of the great family of Shem resume. The story of Abraham and Sarah can therefore be taken to run from 11:26 to 25:1-18 after which occurs the genealogy of Abraham's son, Isaac.

We also saw how post-flood stories recall elements in pre-flood stories. A similar phenomenon occurs here. Two scenes portray Abraham passing his wife off as his sister to foreigners (12; 20), there are two rescues of Lot (14; 19), two accounts of covenant making (15; 17) and two expulsions of the maid Hagar mother of Ishmael (16; 21:8-21).

It looks like resourceful Israelites rang the changes on a core of traditions to create the present text. In my judgment they used such material in a creative and inspired way.

Moreover, they shaped the characters of God, Abraham and Sarah to advance a theological purpose.

Scientific analysis cannot demonstrate the ancestors existed: to do so requires other evidence besides the Bible and so far nothing has been found. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect such traditions had roots in some reality.

God's challenge to Abraham

A text that drives the story is 12:1-3. Here, God commands Abraham to leave country, kith and kin, and promises him land, nation and blessing.

All this is not just for Abraham or Israel but 'for all the families of the earth'-God's ultimate purpose.

Genesis 12-13 provides a first glimpse of Abraham on God's mission and it's not very flattering. Threatened by famine, Abraham in 12:10-20 relies on his wits rather than God and trades his wife to Egyptians for personal security. OT stories are nothing if not realistic and honest.

Abraham is not only disloyal but wrong in his assessment of Egyptians-they are not killers as he feared. But, God is loyal and intervenes in v. 17 to rescue Sarah.

A second episode in 13:5-13 tells of Abraham's separation from his nephew Lot. Here he appears generous and trusting.

A final scene in 13:14-17 has God renew the promises as Abraham stands in a still famine stricken land. So far Abraham casts a rather familiar shadow: a mixture of good and bad, called to trust God to bring life where one senses death.

Patriarchs and Covenants

As early interpreters saw, these stories operate at more than one level. Their authors deftly weave into them allusions to a larger horizon. Like Israel later on, Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt because of famine and have to be rescued.

Abraham, like David, acts as a warrior to rescue Lot in chapter 14. He is honoured by Melchizedek of Salem-an allusion to David's capital Jerusalem. A covenant is made with Abraham in chapter 15, as it will later be made with Israel at Sinai.

Chapter 17 can be seen to seal the covenant by having a permanent sign of it in the patriarch's flesh-circumcision. In such ways, the story of the ancestors prefigures the larger story of Israel.

In between the two accounts of covenant making, there is a further portrayal of our patriarch in chapter 16, this time submitting to his wife's demands-a neat reversal of Abraham's earlier treatment of Sarah.

While God is busy about covenant and promises, our matriarch is busy taking God's promise of a son into her own hands. But, God is able to embrace such things within the divine purpose.

Hagar's son Ishmael will also be the ancestor of a multitude. Through stories like this and the ones about Lot, OT theologians sought to include within God's purpose Israel's often fraught relationship with its neighbours.

Sodom and Gomorrah, and the worthiness of Abraham

The promise of a son is first made in 15:4 and reaffirmed in 17:19. It is made for the third and final time in 18:1-15 and bears fruit in the birth of Isaac (from the verb 'to laugh') in 21:1-7. The promise precedes the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where Lot dwells.

A question that arises is whether the three 'men' who visit Abraham have come principally about the promise or are they 'stopping off' on their way to Sodom? If one follows the latter line (either option is possible), the promise of Isaac is subsumed within God's larger purpose to bring blessing to all the earth via Abraham and his descendants (cf. 18:19).

But, this entails eliminating evil from the world, something that Abraham cannot do; hence the destruction of the archetypal evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the rescue of Lot. There are echoes of the flood themes here.

The report of Isaac's birth is sandwiched between two more tales of marital intrigue. In Genesis 20, Abraham again trades Sarah-this time to the Philistines, Israel's traditional enemy. But, she evens the score by getting rid of Hagar and Ishmael in 21:8-21.

Such are the parents of Isaac! By way of contrast, the Philistines are cast as decent God-fearing folk in both 20 and 21:22-34.

The paradoxical story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 reveals Abraham at last as a worthy father and ancestor. The one who is willing to trust God above all else-even the promise of a son and great nation-is worthy to inherit these promises. This is a story that takes us to the brink in our ideas about God.

Perhaps to ease things a little, the narrator signals in verse 1 that it is about a test. But it still leaves one with a disturbing image of God. Chapter 23 relieves the tension by telling a touching tale of Abraham negotiating a burial plot for Sarah, the first 'Israelite' to be interred in the land. Thereafter the narrative shifts its focus to Isaac and his wife Rebekah.

Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney