Abraham : Religious Faith – Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets

Abraham : Religious Faith
Joseph : Israel in Egypt
Moses : Jewish Jurisprudence
Samuel : Israel Under Judges
David : Israelitish Conquests
Solomon : Glory of The Monarchy
Elijah : Division of The Kingdom
Isaiah : National Degeneracy
Jeremiah : Fall of Jerusalem
Judas Maccabaeus : Restoration of The Jewish Commonwealth
Saint Paul : The Spread of Christianity

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets
John Lord

Topics Covered
Abraham the spiritual father of nations
General forgetfulness of God when Abraham arose
Civilization in his age
Ancestors of Abram
His settlement in Haran
His moral courage
The call of Abram
His migrations
The Canaanites
Abram in Egypt
Separation between Abram and Lot
Abram covenants with God
The mission of the Hebrews
The faith of Abram
Its peculiarities
Trials of faith
God’s covenant with Abram
The sacrifice of Isaac
Paternal rights among Oriental nations
Universality of sacrifice
Had Abram a right to sacrifice Isaac?
Supreme test of his faith
His obedience to God
His righteousness
Supremacy of religious faith
Abraham’s defects
The most favored of mortals
The boons he bestowed

Abraham : Religious Faith

From a religious point of view, Abraham appears to us, after the lapse of nearly four thousand years, as the most august character in history. He may not have had the genius and learning of Moses, nor his executive ability; but as a religious thinker, inspired to restore faith in the world and the worship of the One God, it would be difficult to find a man more favored or more successful. He is the spiritual father equally of Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans, in their warfare with idolatry. In this sense, he is the spiritual progenitor of all those nations, tribes, and peoples who now acknowledge, or who may hereafter acknowledge, a personal God, supreme and eternal in the universe which He created. Abraham is the religious father of all those who associate with this personal and supreme Deity a providential oversight of this world,–a being whom all are required to worship, and alone to worship, as the only true God whose right it is to reign, and who does reign, and will reign forever and ever over everything that exists, animate or inanimate, visible or invisible, known or unknown, in the mighty universe of whose glory and grandeur we have such overwhelming yet indefinite conceptions.

When Abraham appeared, whether four thousand or five thousand years ago, for chronologists differ in their calculations, it would seem that the nations then existing had forgotten or ignored this great cardinal and fundamental truth, and were more or less given to idolatry, worshipping the heavenly bodies, or the forces of Nature, or animals, or heroes, or graven images, or their own ancestors. There were but few and feeble remains of the primitive revelation,–that is, the faith cherished by the patriarchs before the flood, and which it would be natural to suppose Noah himself had taught to his children.

There was even then, however, a remarkable material civilization, especially in Egypt, Palestine, and Babylon; for some of the pyramids had been built, the use of the metals, of weights and measures, and of textile fabrics was known. There were also cities and fortresses, cornfields and vineyards, agricultural implements and weapons of war, commerce and arts, musical instruments, golden vessels, ornaments for the person, purple dyes, spices, hand-made pottery, stone-engravings, sundials, and glass-work, and even the use of letters, or something similar, possibly transmitted from the antediluvian civilization. Even the art of printing was almost discovered, as we may infer from the stamping of letters on tiles. With all this material progress, however, there had been a steady decline in spiritual religion as well as in morals,–from which fact we infer that men if left to themselves, whatever truth they may receive from ancestors, will, without supernatural influences, constantly decline in those virtues on which the strength of man is built, and without which the proudest triumphs of the intellect avail nothing. The grandest civilization, in its material aspects, may coexist with the utmost debasement of morals,–as seen among the Greeks and Romans, and in the wicked capitals of modern Europe. “There is no God!” or “Let there be no God!” has been the cry in all ages of the world, whenever and wherever an impious pride or a low morality has defied or silenced conscience. Tell me, ye rationalists and agnostics! with your pagan sympathies, what mean ye by laws of development, and by the necessary progress of the human race, except in the triumphs of that kind of knowledge which is entirely disconnected with virtue, and which has proved powerless to prevent the decline and fall of nations? Why did not art, science, philosophy, and literature save the most lauded nations of the ancient world? Why so rapid a degeneracy among people favored not only with a primitive revelation, but by splendid triumphs of reason and knowledge? Why did gross superstition so speedily obscure the intellect, and infamous vices so soon undermine the moral health, if man can elevate himself by his unaided strength? Why did error seemingly prove as vital as truth in all the varied forms of civilization in the ancient world? Why did even tradition fail to keep alive the knowledge of God, at least among the people?

Now, among pagans and idolaters Abram (as he was originally called) lived until he was seventy-five. His father, Terah, was a descendant of Shem, of the eleventh generation, and the original seat of his tribe was among the mountains of Southern Armenia, north of Assyria. From thence Terah migrated to the plains of Mesopotamia, probably with the desire to share the rich pastures of the lowlands, and settled in Ur of the Chaldeans. Ur was one of the most ancient of the Chaldean cities and one of the most splendid, where arts and sciences were cultivated, where astronomers watched the heavens, poets composed hymns, and scribes stamped on clay tablets books which, according to Geikie, have in part come down to our own times. It was in this pagan city that Abram was born, and lived until the “call.” His father was a worshipper of the tutelary gods of his tribe, of which he was the head; but his idolatry was not so degrading as that of the Chaldeans, who belonged to a different race from his own, being the descendants of Ham, among whom the arts and sciences had made considerable progress,–as was natural, since what we call civilization arose, it is generally supposed, in the powerful monarchies founded by Assyrian and Egyptian warriors, although it is claimed that both China and India were also great empires at this period. With the growth of cities and the power of kings idolatry increased, and the knowledge of the true God declined. From such influences it was necessary that Abram should be removed if he was to found a nation with a monotheistic belief. So, in obedience to a call from God, he left the city of his birthplace, and went toward the land of Canaan and settled in Haran, where he remained until the death of his father, who it seems had accompanied him in his wanderings, but was probably too infirm to continue the fatiguing journey. Abram, now the head of his tribe and doubtless a powerful chieftain, received another call, and with it the promise that he should be the founder of a great nation, and that in him all the families of the earth should be blessed.

What was that call, coupled with such a magnificent and cheering promise? It was the voice of God commanding Abram to leave country and kindred and go to a country utterly unknown to him, not even indicated to him, but which in due time should be revealed to him. He is not called to repudiate idolatry, but by divine command to go to an unknown country. He must have been already a believer in the One Supreme God, or he would not have felt the command to be imperative. Unless his belief had been monotheistic, we must attribute to him a marvellous genius and striking originality of mind, together with an independence of character still more remarkable; for it requires not only original genius to soar beyond popular superstitions, but also great force of will and lofty intrepidity to break away from them,–as when Buddha renounced Brahmanism, or Socrates ridiculed the Sophists of Attica. Nothing requires more moral courage than the renunciation of a popular and generally received religious belief. It was a hard struggle for Luther to give up the ideas of the Middle Ages in reference to self-expiation. It is exceedingly rare for any one to be emancipated from the tyranny of prevailing dogmas.

So, if Abram was not divinely instructed in a way that implies supernatural illumination, he must have been the most remarkable sage of all antiquity to found a religion never abrogated by succeeding revelations, which has lasted from his time to ours, and is to-day embraced by so large a part of the human race, including Christians, Mohammedans, and Jews. Abram must have been more gifted than the whole school of Ionian philosophers united, from Thales downward, since after three hundred years of speculation and lofty inquiries they only arrived at the truth that the being who controls the universe must be intelligent. Even Socrates, Plato, and Cicero–the most gifted men of classical antiquity–had very indefinite notions of the unity and personality of God, while Abram distinctly recognized this great truth even amid universal idolatry and a degrading polytheism.

Yet the Bible recognizes in Abram moral rather than intellectual greatness. He was distinguished for his faith, and a faith so exalted and pure that it was accounted unto him for righteousness. His faith in God was so profound that it was followed by unhesitating obedience to God’s commands. He was ready to go wherever he was sent, instantly, without conditions or remonstrance.

In obedience to the divine voice then, Abram, after the death of his father Terah, passed through the land of Canaan unto Sichem, or Shechem, afterward a city of Samaria. He then went still farther south, and pitched his tent on a mountain having Bethel on the west and Hai on the east, and there he built an altar unto the Lord. After this it would appear that he proceeded still farther to the south, probably near the northern part of Idumaea.

Wherever Abram journeyed he found the Canaanites–descendants of Ham–petty tribes or nations, governed by kings no more powerful than himself. They are supposed in their invasions to have conquered the aboriginal inhabitants, whose remote origin is veiled in impenetrable obscurity, but who retained some principles of the primitive religion. It is even possible that Melchizedek, the unconquered King of Salem, who blessed Abram, belonged to those original people who were of Semitic origin. Nevertheless the Canaanites, or Hametic tribes, were at this time the dominant inhabitants.

Of these tribes or nations the Sidonians, or Phoenicians, were the most powerful. Next to them, according to Ewald, “were three nations living toward the South,–the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites; then two in the most northerly country conquered by Israel,–the Girgashites and the Hivites; then four in Phoenicia; and lastly, the most northern of all, the well known kingdom of Hamath on the Orontes.” The Jebusites occupied the country around Jerusalem; the Amorites also dwelt in the mountainous regions, and were warlike and savage, like the ancient Highlanders of Scotland. They entrenched themselves in strong castles. The Hittites, or children of Heth, were on the contrary peaceful, having no fortified cities, but dwelling in the valleys, and living in well-ordered communities. The Hivites dwelt in the middle of the country, and were also peaceful, having reached a considerable civilization, and being in the possession of the most flourishing inland cities. The Philistines entered the land at a period subsequent to the other Canaanites, probably after Abram, coming it is supposed from Crete.

It would appear that Abram was not molested by these various petty Canaanitish nations, that he was hospitably received by them, that he had pleasant relations with them, and even entered into their battles as an ally or protector. Nor did Abram seek to conquer territory. Powerful as he was, he was still a pilgrim and a wanderer, journeying with his servants and flocks wherever the Lord called him; and hence he excited no jealousy and provoked no hostilities. He had not long been settled quietly with his flocks and herds before a famine arose in the land, and he was forced to seek subsistence in Egypt, then governed by the shepherd kings called Hyksos, who had driven the proud native monarch reigning at Memphis to the southern part of the kingdom, in the vicinity of Thebes. Abram was well received at the court of the Pharaohs, until he was detected in a falsehood in regard to his wife, whom he passed as his sister. He was then sent away with all that he had, together with his nephew Lot.

Returning to the land of Canaan, Abram came to the place where he had before pitched his tent, between Bethel and Hai, unto the altar which he had some time before erected, and called upon the name of the Lord. But the land was not rich enough to support the flocks and herds of both Abram and Lot, and there arose a strife between their respective herdsmen; so the patriarch and his nephew separated, Lot choosing for his residence the fertile plain of the Jordan, and Abram remaining in the land of Canaan. It was while sojourning at Bethel that the Lord appeared again unto Abram, and promised to him the whole land as a future possession of his posterity. After that he removed his tent to the plain of Mamre, near or in Hebron, and again erected an altar to his God.

Here Abram remained in true patriarchal dignity without further migrations, abounding in wealth and power, and able to rescue his nephew Lot from the hands of Chedorlaomer the King of Elam, and from the other Oriental monarchs who joined his forces, pursuing them even to Damascus. For this signal act of heroism Abram was blessed by Melchizedek, in the name of their common lord the most high God. Who was this Prince of Salem? Was he an earthly potentate ruling an unconquered city of the aboriginal inhabitants; or was he a mysterious personage, without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning nor end of days, nor end of life, but made like unto the Son of God, an incarnation of the Deity, to repeat the blessing which the patriarch had already received?

The history of Abram until his supreme trial seems principally to have been repeated covenants with God, and the promises held out of the future greatness of his descendants. The greatness of the Israelitish nation, however, was not to be in political ascendancy, nor in great attainments in the arts and sciences, nor in cities and fortresses and chariots and horses, nor in that outward splendor which would attract the gaze of the world, and thus provoke conquests and political combinations and grand alliances and colonial settlements, by which the capital on Zion’s hill would become another Rome, or Tyre, or Carthage, or Athens, or Alexandria,–but quite another kind of greatness. It was to be moral and spiritual rather than material or intellectual, the centre of a new religious life, from which theistic doctrines were to go forth and spread for the healing of the nations,–all to culminate, when the proper time should come, in the mission of Jesus Christ, and in his teachings as narrated and propagated by his disciples.

This was the grand destiny of the Hebrew race; and for the fulfilment of this end they were located in a favored country, separated from other nations by mountains, deserts, and seas, and yet capable by cultivation of sustaining a great population, while they were governed by a polity tending to keep them a distinct, isolated, and peculiar people. To the descendants of Ham and Japhet were given cities, political power, material civilization; but in the tents of Shem religion was to dwell. “From first to last,” says Geikie, “the intellect of the Hebrew dwelt supremely on the matters of his faith. The triumphs of the pencil or the chisel he left with contemptuous indifference to Egypt, or Assyria, or Greece. Nor had the Jew any such interest in religious philosophy as has marked other people. The Aryan nations, both East and West, might throw themselves with ardor into those high questions of metaphysics, but he contented himself with the utterances of revelation. The world may have inherited no advances in political science from the Hebrew, no great epic, no school of architecture, no high lessons in philosophy, no wide extension of human thought or knowledge in any secular direction; but he has given it his religion. To other races we owe the splendid inheritance of modern civilization and secular culture, but the religious education of mankind has been the gift of the Jew alone.”

For this end Abram was called to the land of Canaan. From this point of view alone we see the blessing and the promise which were given to him. In this light chiefly he became a great benefactor. He gave a religion to the world; at least he established its fundamental principle,–the worship of the only true God. “If we were asked,” says Max Müller, “how it was that Abraham possessed not only the primitive conception of the Divinity, as he has revealed himself to all mankind, but passed, through the denial of all other gods, to the knowledge of the One God, we are content to answer that it was by a special divine revelation.” [1]

If the greatness of the Jewish race was spiritual rather than temporal, so the real greatness of Abraham was in his faith. Faith is a sentiment or a principle not easily defined. But be it intuition, or induction, or deduction,–supported by reason, or without reason,–whatever it is, we know what it means.

The faith of Abraham, which Saint Paul so urgently commends, the same in substance as his own faith in Jesus Christ, stands out in history as so bright and perfect that it is represented as the foundation of religion itself, without which it is impossible to please God, and with which one is assured of divine favor, with its attendant blessings. If I were to analyze it, I should say that it is a perfect trust in God, allied with obedience to his commands.

With this sentiment as the supreme rule of life, Abraham is always prepared to go wherever the way is indicated. He has no doubts, no questionings, no scepticism. He simply adores the Lord Almighty, as the object of his supreme worship, and is ready to obey His commands, whether he can comprehend the reason of them or not. He needs no arguments to confirm his trust or stimulate his obedience. And this is faith,–an ultimate principle that no reasonings can shake or strengthen. This faith, so sublime and elevated, needs no confirmation, and is not made more intelligent by any definitions. If the Cogito, ergo sum, is an elemental and ultimate principle of philosophy, so the faith of Abraham is the fundamental basis of all religion, which is weakened rather than strengthened by attempts to define it. All definitions of an ultimate principle are vain, since everybody understands what is meant by it.

No truly immortal man, no great benefactor, can go through life without trials and temptations, either to test his faith or to establish his integrity. Even Jesus Christ himself was subjected for forty days to the snares of the Devil. Abram was no exception to this moral discipline. He had two great trials to pass through before he could earn the title of “father of the faithful,”–first, in reference to the promise that he should have legitimate children; and secondly, in reference to the sacrifice of Isaac.

As to the first, it seemed impossible that Abram should have issue through his wife Sarah, she being ninety years of age, and he ninety-nine or one hundred. The very idea of so strange a thing caused Sarah to laugh incredulously, and it is recorded in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis that Abram also fell on his face and laughed, saying in his heart, “Shall a son be born unto him that is one hundred years old?” Evidently he at first received the promise with some incredulity. He could leave Ur of the Chaldees by divine command,–this was an act of obedience; but he did not fully believe in what seemed to be against natural law, which would be a sort of faith without evidence, blind, against reason. He requires some sign from God. “Whereby,” said he, “shall I know that I shall inherit it,”–that is Canaan,–“and that my seed shall be in number as the stars of heaven?” Then followed the renewal of the covenant; and, according to the frequent custom of the times, when covenants were made between individual men, Abram took a new name: “And God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name be any more Abram [Father of Elevation] but thy name shall be Abraham [Father of a Multitude], for a father of many nations have I made thee.” We observe that the covenant was repeatedly renewed; in connection with which was the rite of circumcision, which Abraham and his posterity, and even his servants, were required scrupulously to observe, and which it would appear he unreluctantly did observe as an important condition of the covenant. Why this rite was so imperatively commanded we do not know, neither can we understand why it was so indissolubly connected with the covenant between God and Abraham. We only know that it was piously kept, not only by Abraham himself, but by his descendants from generation to generation, and became one of the distinctive marks and peculiarities of the Jewish nation,–the sign of the promise that in Abraham all the families of the earth should be blessed,–a promise fulfilled even in the patriarchal monotheism of Arabia, the distant tribes of which, under Mohammed, accepted the One Supreme God.

A still more serious test of the faith of Abraham was the sacrifice of Isaac, on whose life all his hopes naturally rested. We are told that God “tempted,” or tested, the obedient faith of Abraham, by suggesting to him that it was his duty to sacrifice that only son as a burnt-offering, to prove how utterly he trusted the Lord’s promise; for if Isaac were cut off, where was another legitimate heir to be found? Abraham was then one hundred and twenty years old, and his wife was one hundred and ten. Moreover, on principles of reason why should such a sacrifice be demanded? It was not only apparently against reason, but against nature, against every sacred instinct, against humanity, even an act of cruelty,–yea, more, a crime, since it was homicide, without any seeming necessity. Besides, everybody has a right to his own life, unless he has forfeited it by crime against society. Isaac was a gentle, harmless, interesting youth of twenty, and what right, by any human standard, had Abraham to take his life? It is true that by patriarchal customs and laws Isaac belonged to Abraham as much as if he were a slave or an animal. He had the Oriental right to do with his son as he pleased. The head of a family had not only absolute control over wife and children, but the power of life and death. And this absolute power was not exercised alone by Semitic races, but also by the Aryan in their original settlements, in Greece and Italy, as well as in Northern India. All the early institutions of society recognized this paternal right. Hence the moral sense of Abraham was not apparently shocked at the command of God, since his son was his absolute property. Even Isaac made no resistance, since he knew that Abraham had a right to his life.

Moreover, we should remember that sacrifices to all objects of worship formed the basis of all the religious rites of the ancient world, in all periods of its history. Human sacrifices were offered in India at the very period when Abraham was a wanderer in Palestine; and though human nature ultimately revolted from this cruelty, the sacrifice of substitute-animals continued from generation to generation as oblations to the gods, and is still continued by Brahminical priests. In China, in Egypt, in Assyria, in Greece, no religious rites were perfected without sacrifices. Even in the Mosaic ritual, sacrifices by the priests formed no inconsiderable part of worship. Not until the time of Isaiah was it said that God took no delight in burnt offerings,–that the real sacrifices which He requires are a broken and a contrite heart. Nor were the Jews finally emancipated from sacrificial rites until Christ himself made his own body an offering for the sins of the world, and in God’s providence the Romans destroyed their temple and scattered their nation. In antiquity there was no objective worship of the Deity without sacrificial rites, and when these were omitted or despised there was atheism,–as in the case of Buddha, who taught morals rather than religion. Perhaps the oldest and most prevalent religious idea of antiquity was the necessity of propitiatory sacrifice,–generally of animals, though in remotest ages the offering of the fruits of the earth.[2]

The inquiry might here arise, whether in our times anything would justify a man in committing a homicide on an innocent person. Would he not be called a fanatic? If so, we may infer that morality–the proper conduct of men as regards one another in social relations–is better understood among us than it was among the patriarchs four thousand years ago; and hence, that as nations advance in civilization they have a more enlightened sense of duty, and practically a higher morality. Men in patriarchal times may have committed what we regard as crimes, while their ordinary lives were more virtuous than ours. And if so, should we not be lenient to immoralities and crimes committed in darker ages, if the ordinary current of men’s lives was lofty and religious? On this principle we should be slow to denounce Christian people who formerly held slaves without remorse, when this sin did not shock the age in which they lived, and was not discrepant with prevailing ideas as to right and wrong. It is clear that in patriarchal times men had, according to universally accepted ideas, the power of life and death over their families, which it would be absurd and wicked to claim in our day, with our increased light as to moral distinctions. Hence, on the command of God to slay his son, Abraham had no scruples on the ground of morality; that is, he did not feel that it was wrong to take his son’s life if God commanded him to do so, any more than it would be wrong, if required, to slay a slave or an animal, since both were alike his property. Had he entertained more enlightened views as to the sacredness of life, he might have felt differently. With his views, God’s command did not clash with his conscience.

Still, the sacrifice of Isaac was a terrible shock to Abraham’s paternal affection. The anguish of his soul was none the less, whether he had the right of life and death or not. He was required to part with the dearest thing he had on earth, in whom was bound up his earthly happiness. What had he to live for, but Isaac? He doubtless loved this child of his old age with exceeding tenderness, devotion, and intensity; and what was perhaps still more weighty, in that day of polygamous households, than mere paternal affection, with Isaac were identified all the hopes and promises which had been held out to Abraham by God himself of becoming the father of a mighty and favored race. His affection as a father was strained to its utmost tension, but yet more was his faith in being the progenitor of offspring that should inherit the land of Canaan. Nevertheless, at God’s command he was willing to make the sacrifice, “accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead.” Was there ever such a supreme act of obedience in the history of our race? Has there ever been from his time to ours such a transcendent manifestation of faith? By reason Abraham saw the foundation of his hopes utterly swept away; and yet his faith towers above reason, and he feels that the divine promises in some way will be fulfilled. Did any man of genius ever conceive such an illustration of blended piety and obedience? Has dramatic poetry ever created such a display of conflicting emotions? Is it possible for a human being to transcend so mighty a sacrifice, and all by the power of faith? Let those philosophers and theologians who aspire to define faith, and vainly try to reconcile it with reason, learn modesty and wisdom from the lesson of Abraham, who is its great exponent, and be content with the definition of Paul, himself, that it is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen;” that reason was in Abraham’s case subordinate to a loftier and grander principle,–even a firm conviction, which nothing could shake, of the accomplishment of an end against all probabilities and mortal calculations, resting solely on a divine promise.

Another remarkable thing about that memorable sacrifice is, that Abraham does not expostulate or hesitate, but calmly and resolutely prepares for the slaughter of the innocent and unresisting victim, suppressing all the while his feelings as a father in obedience and love to the Sovereign of heaven and earth, whose will is his supreme law.

“And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son,” who was compelled as it were to bear his own cross. And he took the fire in his hand and a knife, and Isaac said, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” yet suffered himself to be bound by his father on the altar. And Abraham then stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son. At this supreme moment of his trial, he heard the angel of the Lord calling upon him out of heaven and saying, “Abraham! Abraham! lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me…. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold behind him was a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering instead of his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand upon the seashore, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed my voice.”

There are no more recorded promises to Abraham, no more trials of his faith. His righteousness was established, and he was justified before God. His subsequent life was that of peace, prosperity, and exaltation. He lives to the end in transcendent repose with his family and vast possessions. His only remaining solicitude is for a suitable wife for Isaac, concerning whom there is nothing remarkable in gifts or fortunes, but who maintains the faith of his father, and lives like him in patriarchal dignity and opulence.

The great interest we feel in Abraham is as “the father of the faithful,” as a model of that exalted sentiment which is best defined and interpreted by his own trials and experiences; and hence I shall not dwell on the well known incidents of his life outside the varied calls and promises by which he became the most favored man in human annals. It was his faith which made him immortal, and with which his name is forever associated. It is his religious faith looming up, after four thousand years, for our admiration and veneration which is the true subject of our meditation. This, I think, is distinct from our ordinary conception of faith, such as a belief in the operation of natural laws, in the return of the seasons, in the rewards of virtue, in the assurance of prosperity with due regard to the conditions of success. Faith in a friend, in a nation’s future, in the triumphs of a good cause, in our own energies and resources is, I grant, necessarily connected with reason, with wide observation and experience, with induction, with laws of nature and of mind. But religious faith is supreme trust in an unseen God and supreme obedience to his commands, without any other exercise of reason than the intuitive conviction that what he orders is right because he orders it, whether we can fathom his wisdom or not. “Canst thou by searching find out Him?”

Abraham and Hagar After the painting by Adrian van der Werff

Yet notwithstanding the exalted faith of Abraham, by which all religious faith is tested, an eternal pattern and example for our reverence and imitation, the grand old man deceived both Pharaoh and Abimelech, and if he did not tell positive lies, he uttered only half truths, for Sarah was a half sister; and thus he put expediency and policy above moral rectitude,–to be palliated indeed in his case by the desire to preserve his wife from pollution. Yet this is the only blot on his otherwise reproachless character, marked by so many noble traits that he may be regarded as almost perfect. His righteousness was as memorable as his faith, living in the fear of God. How noble was his disinterestedness in giving to Lot the choice of lands for his family and his flocks and his cattle! How brave was he in rescuing his kinsman from the hands of conquering kings! How lofty in refusing any remuneration for his services! How fervent were his intercessions with the Almighty for the preservation of the cities of the plain! How hospitable his mode of life, as when he entertained angels unawares! How kind he was to Hagar when she had incurred the jealousy of Sarah! How serene and dignified and generous he was, the model of courtesy and kindness!

With Abraham we associate the supremest happiness which an old man can attain unto and enjoy. He was prosperous, rich, powerful, and favored in every way; but the chief source of his happiness was the superb consciousness that he was to be the progenitor of a mighty and numerous progeny, through whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed. How far his faith was connected with temporal prosperity we cannot tell. Prosperity seems to have been the blessing of the Old Testament, as adversity was the blessing of the New. But he was certain of this,–that his descendants would possess ultimately the land of Canaan, and would be as numerous as the stars of heaven. He was certain that in some mysterious way there would come from his race something that would be a blessing to mankind. Was it revealed to his exultant soul what this blessing should be? Did this old patriarch cast a prophetic eye beyond the ages, and see that the promise made to him was spiritual rather than material, pertaining to the final triumph of truth and righteousness?–that the unity of God, which he taught to Isaac and perhaps to Ishmael, was to be upheld by his race alone among prevailing idolatries, until the Saviour should come to reveal a new dispensation and finally draw all men unto him? Did Abraham fully realize what a magnificent nation the Israelites should become,–not merely the rulers of western Asia under David and Solomon, but that even after their final dispersion they should furnish ministers to kings, scholars to universities, and dictators to legislative halls,–an unconquerable race, powerful even after the vicissitudes and humiliations of four thousand years? Did he realize fully that from his descendants should arise the religious teachers of mankind,–not only the prophets and sages of the Old Testament, but the apostles and martyrs of the New,–planting in every land the seeds of the everlasting gospel, which should finally uproot all Brahminical self-expiations, all Buddhistic reveries, all the speculations of Greek philosophers, all the countless forms of idolatry, polytheism, pantheism, and pharisaism on this earth, until every knee should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father?

Yet such were the boons granted to Abraham, as the reward of faith and obedience to the One true God,–the vital principle without which religion dies into superstition, with which his descendants were inspired not only to nationality and civil coherence, but to the highest and noblest teachings the world has received from any people, and by which his name is forever linked with the spiritual progress and happiness of mankind.

[1] Chips from a German Workshop, vol. i. p. 372.
[2] Dr. Trumbull has made a learned and ingenious argument in his “Blood Covenant” to show that sacrifices were not to propitiate the deity, but to bring about a closer Spiritual union between the soul and God; that the blood covenant was a covenant of friendship and love among all primitive peoples.

Joseph : Israel in Egypt

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets