Abraham and Belief

A dog has to run. Everyone says that.

I am in the process of training our eight month old Golden Doodle puppy, Luke. I am hoping that he will eventually want to do Therapy Dog work with me in a year or so, but for now we are working on the basics: come, sit, down, stay. It’s hard for a dog to pay attention to his lessons if he hasn’t had a chance to run around, stretch his legs and muscles, expend some of that puppy energy. Everyone says that dogs, and especially puppies, have to run.

We’ve had a lot of snow here this week. On top of the snow we had, we got several inches Tuesday and another good helping today. There is now too much snow on the ground for Luke to get any exercise. What’s a doggy to do?

I’m a bit behind in getting a post up this week, mostly because I’ve been trying to shovel enough of the snow to make a place for walking and dog running. Today, finally, I think we have a usable path.

I have almost finished reading Genesis. It has been fascinating. I notice so much more now that I am free of the lectionary’s “suggestion” about the significance of a story, and I get to read the parts of the stories which the lectionary omits.

Reading without Genesis without the lectionary, I’ve noticed several things:
•eldest sons often falter (Cain and Esau.)
•the genealogies of J and P differ. (J doesn’t even mention Adam’s 3rd son, Seth, whereas P says that Noah was descended from him.)
•clearly, the land God is promising to Abraham already belongs to
someone! and
•how often there is a story about a woman having trouble conceiving followed by an annunciation. (Sarah, Hagar and the child-bearing contest between Leah, Rachel and Bilhah )(Gen. 29-30)

Then there is the matter of Abraham’s moral character.  In terms of our morals, Abraham was a very mixed bag. On the one hand, he was generous (vis a vis Lot in giving Lot first choice of land in which to settle), courageous (in his successful battle against the “Kings of the East” and just (declining booty from the Kings of the East for himself, he allows it to the men who fought with him.

But he could also be deceitful and callous.  Abraham tried to give his wife to another man, pretending Sarah was only his sister, two times! (Isaac later does the same thing to Rebekah.) And then there is The Trial or “The Almost Sacrifice of Isaac” in which Abraham was ready to kill his son because he heard God tell him to — a horrific passage.

Maybe “The Sacrifice of Isaac” is a story about the tragically compelling nature of auditory hallucinations. And maybe not. Abraham’s conduct with regard to Isaac was not much different from his callous behavior towards his first son, Ishmael. Abraham agreed to cast Ishmael and his mother, Hagar into the wilderness where they would most likely die. Abraham argued courageously on behalf of some imagined “righteous people” who might be living in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) but he had nothing to say when the lives of his own sons were on the line.

Why would God “reckon it to Abraham as  righteousness” ? Gen. 15.6

I looked to see where else in Genesis  “righteousness” appeared. I found 5 occurrences.

Gen. 6:9 – Noah was a righteous man.
Gen. 7:1 – God to Noah: “You alone are righteous before me.”
Gen. 15:6 – God reckons it to Abraham as righteousness (because he believed the Lord’s guarantee of an heir through whom their would be descendants to inherit the promised land),
Gen. 18:19 – Abraham would be expected to be a teacher of “righteousness and justice,” and
Gen. 18:23 et seq. – Abraham asks God about the possibility of “righteous ones” living in Sodom and Gomorrah.

(Interestingly, Enoch – who was said to have “walked with God” at Gen. 5:22 – was not described as “righteous.”)

Abraham is “reckoned righteousness” because he believed the promise that he would have another son – a promise which defied the laws of nature. His belief was not unquestioning. He had his doubts. He asks God: “Why should I believe? Give me a sign.” (Gen. 15:8)

In her book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong discusses the way in which the Christian tradition has mangled religious “belief.” She writes that “belief” did not originally mean “intellectual assent to a somewhat dubious proposition.” That was a meaning which emerged only late in the seventeenth century. (The Case for God, 87.) Orginally, to believe was not to think, but to embark on “a program for action.” To believe was to do. “You had to engage. . . imaginatively, become ritually and ethically involved…, and allow it to effect a profound change in you.” (The Case for God, 321.)

Faith and belief is about doing, not thinking. Puppies need to run. Believers need to do, to act as if, and be open to that doing and acting effect a profound change in them. Abraham did that, even though he had his personal doubts about whether an old man could have a child with his elderly wife. He acted as if God’s promises would be fulfilled. Abraham was reckoned “righteous” not because he obeyed the law (it didn’t exist), and not because he was without doubts about God, but because he acted as if.

Lectionary notes

The Abraham story is at Gen. 12 – 25. How much of it do we hear from year to year?

Year A
The Call of Abram (Gen. 12:1-9) on Lent 2A and Pr 5A
The Sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18) Pr8A
[Isaac’s search for a wife (Rebekah) (Gen. 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67) Pr9A]
The Promise to Sarah, the Birth of Isaac & Expulsion of Hagar (Gen. 18:1-15, 21:1-7) Pr 6A
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Easter Vigil A

Year B
The Promise of a Child by Sarah (Gen. 17:1-6) on Lent 2B
The Sacrifice of Isaac, (Gen. 22:1-18) Easter Vigil B

Year C
The Promise of Land and Heir (Gen. 15:1-18) on Lent 2C and Pr14C
The Promise of a Child by Sarah (Gen. 18:1-10a and 18:1-15) Pr 11C
The Argument about Sodom & Gomorra (Gen. 18:20-33) Pr. 12C
The Sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18) Easter Vigil C.

Assuming that The Sacrifice of Isaac will not be read at the Easter Vigil (because it is optional and it just sets our teeth on edge), the only story which is read EVERY year is the The Promise to Sarah and/or the Promise of a Child by Sarah. No wonder we see faith and belief as the “intellectual (and undoubting) assent to a somewhat dubious proposition!”

How about switching two of the Sarah stories out for an account of Abraham’s generosity to Lot, or his laudable sense of justice in making sure the men who fought with him had their share of bounty, or a second or third hearing of Abraham’s argument with God over preventing collateral damage at Sodom and Gomorrah?