Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Abraham as Archetype

Today, we begin the Bible Cover to Cover. Each Sunday I am preaching on a text from the portion assigned for the month. January is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The sermon today was about Abraham.

The Call of Abraham
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 6th, 2008

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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’*

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak* of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring* I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

Genesis 12:1-9

[14:35] Recall that Abraham said, "My Lord, make this a peaceful land, and protect me and my children from worshiping idols.

[14:36] "My Lord, they have misled so many people. As for those who follow me, they belong with me. As for those who disobey me, You are Forgiver, Most Merciful.

[14:37] "Our Lord, I have settled part of my family in this plantless valley, at Your Sacred House. Our Lord, they are to observe the Contact Prayers (Salat), so let throngs of people converge upon them, and provide for them all kinds of fruits, that they may be appreciative.

[14:38] "Our Lord, You know whatever we conceal and whatever we declare - nothing is hidden from GOD on earth, nor in the heavens.

[14:39] "Praise be to GOD for granting me, despite my old age, Ismail and Isaac. My Lord answers the prayers.

Quran 14:35-39

I have been promoting this quest for several months now. It is a quest to cover the Bible in a year. Each month we will read a portion. For January we will read the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament. These first five books, called the Torah, are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The Hebrew Scriptures are in a different order from the Christian Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures are divided into three sections: The Torah (called the instruction), The Neviim (or the prophets), and the Ketubim (or the writings).

If you think of concentric circles with the innermost circle being the most important you will find the Torah in the center, the prophets as the second circle, and the writings forming the third circle.

In the synagogues, because the Torah is the most important part of the Hebrew canon, it is read through each year. Every Shabbat, a portion is read during worship. The following year they start from the beginning. The prophets are seen as commentary on the Torah. The Writings such as Ruth, Chronicles, the Wisdom literature are used to celebrate festivals and for edification.

We are going to read these texts in the order they that are presented in the Hebrew canon. For our part, it will appear as though we are skipping around. Yet they are the same texts, just in a different order. The order of the Hebrew canon is the order that Jesus, his first disciples, and other authors of what Christians call the New Testament would have read the Hebrew Scriptures.

When you go to the church’s web page, you will find the texts and the order with which they will be read. I will add information to the web page as the year goes along to assist you in your reading.

Each Sunday, with the exception of big Sundays like Easter, I will select a particular text from the larger portion of our reading for that month.

The text I chose for today is the call of Abraham.

Before I get to him, it is important to see how the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) was formed. The Torah didn’t get into the form we have it today until the 5th century BCE. It is a compilation of many traditions edited and woven into a saga. If you look at the first chapters of Genesis you will find two separate creation stories stitched together. The first story tells of the creation in seven days. The second story which is actually older is the garden story. It tells of Adam, Eve, the serpent, the banishment from the garden, and Cain and Abel. In the second, older story, Adam is created, then the animals, and then Eve. In the first, later story, the animals are created, then Adam and Eve together.

The editors saw no problem with those contradictions. You will find this editing and stitching throughout Genesis through Numbers. The Book of Deuteronomy is part of another tradition altogether. Its final form older than the final form of the saga of Genesis through Numbers (about the 7th century BCE), but it is later than the earliest saga. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are part of the tradition Deuteronomy.

It is important to appreciate this editing and stitching so we don’t get too literal-minded and misread this saga of the Hebrew Scriptures as a straightforward history. Scholars are increasingly discovering that the Hebrew Scriptures are far more story than history. While some may feel that this discovery is a loss or even a threat, I find it as a gain. The scriptures are far more interesting to me when I see them as the struggle through story and saga of what it means to be human.

Getting back to Abraham, the first eleven chapters end with the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations. In response to this scattering of nations and of people into different languages, Abraham enters. Abraham is a composite figure. He is bigger than history. He is a model or an archetype. He seems to be a combination between the wise old man and the hero.

One of the best books I have found to help us understand Abraham and the other stories in Genesis is Peter Pitzele’s Our Fathers’ Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis. Pitzele taught English at Harvard and at the writing of this book, he was the Director of Psychodrama Services in upstate New York. He takes people on retreats and allows the participants to identify with the characters in these stories. Through psychodrama, these stories become windows into own personalities.

As you read the Genesis stories in particular, one helpful activity is to journal about them, particularly when they touch an emotion. Become one of the characters. Write a midrash by adding personality to the characters. What would it be like to be Eve in the garden? What is it like to be Abraham? These stories resonate at the deeper levels of our psyches and we can’t know them until we experience them. If you are interested in that, you might be interested in Peter Pitzele’s book, Our Fathers’ Wells.

Abraham is the father of the three monotheistic religions. Christianity praises him for his great faith. In the Qur’an he is called a Muslim—the one who submits to God. He is for us all, Father Abraham. His descendants number the stars in the sky. He wishes among all things for his descendants to live in peace. He is the one whom YHWH seems to torture with promises delayed.

Abraham is a warrior and a schemer. He fights great battles with the local inhabitants. Twice he claims his wife is his sister to save his own skin. When it appears that God is not acting quickly enough with the promised child, he impregnates Sarah’s slave, Hagar, with Sarah’s blessing.

Hagar bears his first-born son, Ishmael. But YHWH tells Abraham that Ishmael is not the child of promise. When Isaac, the child of Sarah, is finally born, Sarah casts out Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham is saddened by this and he comforts Hagar and Ishmael, even though he cannot bring them home. It is through Ishmael that Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham. The Qur’an tells the story differently. They tell it in such a way that Ishmael is the favored son of Abraham and is the one Abraham nearly sacrifices.

Father Abraham. The family man. The patriarchal family man. He has to make peace between the mothers of his children. He fails. He tries to make a home for his selfish brother-in-law, Lot, to make him happy. He fails. Such is life in a family.

Abraham is even bold enough to bargain with God. Lot’s home of Sodom displeases YHWH and YHWH decides to destroy the city. Abraham does his best to dissuade YHWH from this awful action.

Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ 26And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ 27Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ 29Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ 30Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ 31He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ 32Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ 33And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

Yet for all his bargaining, Abraham again fails. Not ten were found righteous in the city in the eyes of YHWH. Yet Abraham proved his agility in bargaining with The Voice. Who else but Abraham could chide YHWH with this:

Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

Who but Abraham could shame YHWH to act with justice?

More than anything, Abraham is haunted by YHWH. Abraham doesn’t begin his life until he is 75. At an age when he should be sipping iced tea and playing with his grandchildren (if he had them), he is told by The Voice:

‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

Abraham goes. And in going he follows the voice that invites him to search for blessing. He leaves all that is familiar, kindred and his home and ventures forth. We could suppose that Abraham might have chosen not to follow the command of The Voice. He might have stayed home and lived out his days. But he doesn’t. He takes a risk. In so doing, his life begins.

It is no easy journey. Following The Voice is dangerous business. He experiences incredible joy and incredible pain. Abraham knows the heights of delight and the depths of sorrow. He would know neither if he hadn’t followed. Abraham is that within each of us that plunges into life headfirst. Abraham would rather risk and reach for the blessing and feel the pain that comes with it than to stay home and feel nothing.

Abraham represents our desire to find meaning and to take the journey.

The Voice that calls Abraham is a haunting, fearsome voice. It is absent when he wants to hear it and present when he doesn’t want to hear it.

Finally, at the age of 100, his son, Isaac is born. Abraham knows the joy of promises fulfilled. The Voice is not finished with Abraham. YHWH announces the most terrifying command in scripture:

‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

Christian mythology repeats this story by suggesting that God commanded Jesus, his only son, whom he loved, to be sacrificed on the cross. Only in the Christian myth, no one rescues Jesus at the last minute.

What do we make of fathers who sacrifice their sons? Peter Pitzele in recounting one of the psychodramas surrounding this story writes about a father who recounts this painful story. His head is down and his hands are slack:

I sent my son to war. You’ve got to go when your country calls. It’s your duty. My son, my son, he had all sorts of ideas of his own—protested, argued. When his notice came, he talked with his mother half the night. I could hear her crying in his room. I was ashamed of him and her. Didn’t they understand?

Late that night he came to me; I knew what I had to say, and I said it straight, “You don’t serve your country, boy, you aren’t any son of mine.” Never forget the look he gave me, but I couldn’t describe it to you. He held my eyes a long time. Then he turned. He put his mother aside that night. She came back to bed dabbing at her eyes, asking me what I said to him. I didn’t tell her. Nothing to do with her. Between me and the boy. Next morning he packed his bags. He went. He never came back.

Somewhere in there we find Abraham. God the Father sends God the Son to the cross. Abraham and Isaac silently journey to Mount Moriah. What are these voices we hear?

Fathers and sons. In their relationships we find the wounds of patriarchy. Sons who bear the weight of living out the dreams of their fathers. Fathers who agonize over the bad choices their sons make. Honor, duty, courage, and tests of faith are all part of the code between fathers and sons. Like Isaac bound on the altar, we are all bound by the sins of our fathers.

The reason that these stories are so powerful is that they tell us so little. We do not know what goes through the minds of Abraham and Isaac. Would Abraham have done it? If there had not been a ram presented at the last minute, would he have slain his son? What kind of deity tests in this way? What kind of person follows that Voice? We have to fill those answers in ourselves.

Before we judge these stories and dismiss them, or worse, explain them with some kind of theological mumbo jumbo, we ought to enter them. They are the stories of our drives, our motivations, our wounds, our unexamined ideals. These are the deep motivations that we don’t admit. They are the ones that, because they are unexamined, can lead to the biggest consequences.

The truest statement I ever heard from George W. Bush was when he jokingly stated: “Saddam tried to kill my daddy.” We are still living out those consequences.

I don’t think Abraham would have done it. This is my story. I think Abraham calls God’s bluff. Remember Abraham shamed God into agreeing to save Sodom if there were ten righteous people in the city. While perhaps God knew that the bet was safe then, that there were not even ten righteous in the city, in this story, Abraham has the upper hand. He knows that YHWH will blink. Abraham pretends to be obedient and YHWH breaks first.

That is the only way I can have any respect for Abraham. Even so, the one who feels the terror in the poker game between the Father and his God is the son. The son, Isaac, learns the game. We are still playing these games, of course. We are still playing out these myths.

Abraham’s story is rich. I do believe that if we are going to understand the violence of patriarchy and its God, and the violence within ourselves, we are going to need to enter these stories. We enter them not to praise them, nor to dismiss them, nor to believe them, but to understand who we are.