Abraham is one of the greatest Old Testament figures. His willingness to obey God and to venture out into a new land — to a place far away from family and friends and all that was familiar — has been inspiring to many throughout the ages.
The story of Abraham is detailed in Genesis. Abraham was called by God to move away from home. His call was accompanied by a promise that he would become the father of a great many nations. But his story, like the story of so many holy people, is marked by sadness.
Abraham was visited by the enigmatic “Melchizedek.” Little is known about him, except that he was a priest and king. Abraham, upon meetinghim, offered him a tithe — 10 percent of all he had. Melchizedek brought out bread and wine. Many Christians see striking parallels between Melchizedek and Christ.
Abraham did exactly what God has asked him, and then discovered that his wife was unable to bear children. It almost seemed as if Abraham had kept his side of the bargain, but that God had forgotten what he had promised to do. Out of desperation, Abraham had a child with one of their servants, Hagar. Although Abraham's wife, Sara, was initially supportive of this plan, she eventually began to envy Hagar and her child, and the two were sent out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.
As with modern-day couples who struggle with infertility, adopt, and then, to their surprise, become pregnant with biological offspring, there is a surprising twist in the story of Abraham and Sara.
An Orthodox hymn for Abraham: “Thou didst justify the Forefathers by faith, when of old through them Thou didst betroth Thyself to the Church of the nations. The saints rejoice in the glorious fruit of their seed, even in her who bore thee seedlessly. By their prayers, O Christ our God, save our souls.”
When Sara was ninety years old, three beings — often interpreted asangels — came to visit and told Sara that she was to bear a child. Becauseshe was so old and had been barren for so long, she was incredulous and laughed in their faces. For this, she was renamed “Sarah,” meaning “the one who laughs at God.”
Figure 4-1: Abraham
Sarah did ultimately bear a biological child and the child's name was Isaac. Abraham loved this child fiercely, but when the child was still young, God called Abraham to sacrifice this child for him. These passages are troubling and difficult to understand. one can't help but wonder why God would fulfill his promise only to ultimately take the child away. Abraham was deeply grieved by God's request, but he chose to obey.
He rose early one morning and took his son to a mountain for sacrifice. As they traveled to the mountain it became clear that Isaac had no idea what his father was planning. At one point, Isaac even said, “I see you have the wood for the fire and the knife, but where is that which you plan to sacrifice?” Abraham responded with these brave words, “The Lord himself will provide a sacrifice.”
And this is exactly what happens. Just before Abraham took Isaac's life, the Lord intervened and told Abraham to stop. He informed him that there was a ram caught in the thicket nearby and that Abraham was to use the ram for the sacrifice instead of his son. Abraham then gratefully sacrificed the ram.
For centuries, Christians have seen this story of a father being asked to sacrifice his only son for God as a “type” or image of what was to come with God and his son, Jesus. The heartbreaking portrayal of the father being asked to do the impossible has often been seen as an image of the heartbreaking decision God made for the sake of humanity. The perfect innocence of Isaac in this account only compounds the sadness.
Although Isaac ultimately survived and did become the father of many nations, Abraham did not get to see the fulfillment of all that God has promised. Instead, he continued to wander in a foreign land for many more years. When Sarah finally died she was 127 years old. One can sense how weary Abraham must have been from all those years of traveling, when he said to the local people, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me property among you for a burying place that I may bury my dead out of sight.” (Genesis 23:4)
Within the religion of Islam, it is believed that Abraham's first son, Ish-mael, was nearly sacrificed instead of Isaac. According to Islamic belief, Ishmael, who survived just as Isaac did in the Old Testament account, goes on to become the father of the Arab nations.
Abraham ultimately dies an old man, after many good days. During his life, however, he only saw the seeds of the promises that had been planted in him. He was never able to see them grow to fruition. As it says in Hebrews 11 (about Abraham and many of the other forefathers): “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” (Hebrews 11:13–14)
The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac expresses well the lives of the saints, who are willing to take fearful, sometimes even crazy, risks for God. It also expresses the way in which the saints might sometimes appear to be foreigners on the earth, quite unlike everyone else, for they live by promises and always look toward a home that is beyond the edge of the world. Abraham is commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox Church on October 9 and on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers.