Abraham is father to the three major monotheistic faiths, and we have to wonder what Father Abraham thinks when he looks down on the ongoing, intramural squabbling of Jews, Christians and Muslims. What a fractious family we are!
Fortunately for Bangor, Abrahamic questions are being answered, in part, by a marvelous, free class being offered through Bangor’s Beth El Congregation, where on Tuesday evenings a cross-section of the local faithful are alternately goaded and charmed by Rabbi David M. Freidenreich, a young professor from Colby College. Why do faiths so fractured look to Abraham as their common foundation, and could this link ever serve to reconcile our competing visions of God? Hope springs eternal.
Abraham lived about 4,000 years ago — 1,000 years before King David, 2,000 years before Jesus, 2,700 years before Mohammed. Yet Abraham’s bloodline courses strongly through all three faiths, with David and Jesus the descendants of Isaac, the son of Abraham by Sarah; while Mohammed claims his birthright through Abraham and Hagar’s son, Ishmael. (It might be noted that Hebrews and Arabs go back to the same Semite peoples; that is, peoples said to have descended from Noah’s son, Shem.)
Bloodlines to Abraham have been claimed, as well, by some European Christians through the belief that the Celts were descendants of the Lost Tribes. They believe the 10 Hebrew tribes taken by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., thereafter escaped north through the Caucasus Mountains and merged with Indo-Europeans migrating west into Europe. It was that belief in their right to the Abrahamic blessing that fired, in part, Great Britain’s conquest of the world. Buckingham Palace has displayed a tapestry of England’s royal bloodline, tracing Queen Elizabeth II back to King David.
Equally important as bloodlines are the stories told about Abraham’s blessings from God. First, God tells Abraham to leave his home in Ur, a location in present-day Iraq close to the presumed location of Eden, to move the sacred center to present-day Israel. This move included leaving behind the pagan gods and goddesses of his childhood in order to embrace the one God in full faith and covenant.
It is Abraham’s faith that earns him God’s blessing — a promise that his offspring would become as numerous as the stars. It is also Abraham’s faith that raises the hackles of humanists, who sometimes are outraged that the faith of their fathers is based on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.
Genesis tells us that God instructed Abraham to take his son Isaac to an altar of God’s choosing, and sacrifice him out of faithfulness to God. Tradition tells us that altar stone is found on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and was enclosed 1,000 years later in the Holy of Holies, along with the Ark of the Covenant, in Solomon’s Temple. (Some believe it is housed today under the Dome of the Rock.)
At the moment Abraham raises the sacrificial blade to kill his son, an angel restrains his hand, telling him to substitute a nearby ram whose horns were entangled in briars. From this moment of Abraham’s faith, and God’s mercy, pours much of the basis of thousands of years of worship and belief.
Take, for instance, the celebration of the Passover, when the Hebrews in Egypt were warned to sacrifice a lamb, smear the blood on the door lintel, and the angel of death would spare their child. Faith and blood sacrifice worked together in a way typed centuries before in Abraham’s obedience to God.
This tradition was carried on in the building of Solomon’s Temple, above Abraham’s altar, on the Temple Mount. It was understood that sin was forgiven by the shedding of innocent blood, and millions of sheep, doves and other animals were sacrificed on the temple altar, so that blood flowed like a river out of the temple, down into the Kidron Valley.
Christians explain Abraham’s apparent willingness to kill his son thus: God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the father of countless descendants; that would not happen if Isaac died, therefore, even if Abraham struck the fatal blow, God would resurrect Isaac to fulfill his promise. Abraham’s faith was that God does not lie.
For Christians, of course, Abraham’s story is a type for the Easter story, as well.
Jesus’ sacrifice is the mirror image of Isaac’s story, with one exception. God was willing to spare Abraham’s son, while we were not willing to spare God’s son. As Abraham raised the knife, God’s angel restrained his hand. Jesus’ blood, on the other hand, became the final sacrifice, so that no more innocent blood need be shed for the forgiveness of sin.
Jesus, the Lamb of God, became humanity’s scapegoat, bearing all of mankind’s sins on his shoulders. Even his crown of thorns symbolized the ram’s horns snared by the thicket. Because we are what we are, Jesus had to die so that we might be saved. For as much as Abraham loved God, God through Jesus loved us more.
For those who’d like to learn more about Father Abraham, I recommend you join us when we resume at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 13, at Beth El Congregation, 183 French St., Bangor. For those who’d be interested in a modern dress version of the Passion Play, come to the Union Street Brick Church, 126 Union St., Bangor, at 7:30 p.m. April 23 and 24; and at 3 p.m. April 24 and 25. It’s free. For information, call 945-9798.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.