The Patriarchs (On Genesis 12-31)

“ The Trial of Abraham’s Faith ,” by  Gustave Dore  (1866)

The Trial of Abraham’s Faith,” by Gustave Dore (1866)

This week we read Genesis 12-31, the section with stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These three are called the Hebrew “Patriarchs,” because they were the first fathers of the Hebrew people. Unlike other founding fathers, however, these did not set out on their own initiative to make something new. Rather, it was God who called them out, and through obedience to God they participated in God’s new work in the world. Genesis 12 begins with God’s famous command to Abraham (then called Abram) to leave his home.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, sot that you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Now this command was difficult for Abraham on two fronts. Not only was he being called away from his home and family, but he and his wife Sarah had also been infertile for the entirety of their long marriage. It therefore required significant faith for Abraham to believe that God would fulfill his promise. Because Abraham did believe, “God credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

Subsequent chapters follow the drama of how this promise will be fulfilled. First, Abraham has a son by Hagar, Sarah’s maid, and names him Ishmael. But he is told that the Hebrew line will go through Sarah (Muslims trace their lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael). The message that Sarah will bear a son is reiterated in the mysterious visit of the three angels in Genesis 18, which later Christian interpretation takes as an early revelation of the Trinity. After a narrative interlude involving Lot (Abraham’s brother) and the destruction of Sodom, God’s promise is finally fulfilled in Genesis 21, when Sarah has a son, and Abraham names him Isaac.

One of my special interests is the first words of literary characters. I am doing a research project on the concept and hope to turn my research into a book. For example, God has the famous first words, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Other famous first words in Genesis include those of Cain - “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) - and Joseph - “Hear this dream that I have dreamed” (Genesis 37:6). In this light, it is interesting that Abraham’s first words, in Genesis 12:11-13, are not famous at all, but rather involve him instructing his wife to lie. By far the most affecting first words, however, come from the boy Isaac in Genesis 22.

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

Isaac’s words are so moving because he does not know what we readers do, namely, that God has commanded Abraham to sacrifice his Son, “your only son Isaac, whom you love.” We aren’t given a window into Abraham’s thoughts after he receives this command (a topic that Kierkegaard explores in his famous book, “Fear and Trembling”). But that is part of the power of the Genesis text - it leaves us space to imagine Abraham’s feelings, and thereby to feel the sense of injustice. And yet again Abraham shows himself to be obedient to God; he who believed he would have a child now believes he will kill him.

Or does he? Abraham’s response to Isaac is this: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So what is Abraham thinking? That God has provided the son, and that Abraham cannot bring himself to tell his son that he is to be the offering? Or does he believe that God will provide a substitute, as indeed he does, at the last moment?

For Christians, Abraham’s response to Isaac is one of the most evocative of all Biblical verses, precisely because we believe that it points to the future sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Indeed, in Jesus Christ, God sent not only Abraham’s son, but also his own, his only son, whom he loved. There, he sent his son to be sacrificed, and there he went carrying the wood. But at the cross there was no ram to take Jesus’ place. For Jesus was himself our substitute, the lamb of God who died for our sins.

Peter Johnston