‘The Lord appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre and says, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”’ Does a reading like our first lesson this morning have any connexion with the world of the twenty-first century, or our understanding of how God operates? At first sight, it all seems very far off and unreal.
Try to imagine Abraham and his wife, Sarah. What is it like to have a fifteen year-old half-brother when you are five? When you are eleven, what can you remember of the day when he was twenty-one? Young Sarah grows up in Abraham’s shadow, for he is ten years her senior. How do they relate to each other? Is she fond of him, I wonder? Might she even hero-worship him, just a little?
And does he even notice her existence, this half-sister, child of one of his father’s other wives? Yet whether because of the customs of the day, or unlooked-for circumstance, Abraham and Sarah become, not just half-brother and sister; but also, man and wife. Are they in love, when they marry? Would such a concept even occur to them?
The first use of the word ‘love’ in the Bible is the love that binds Abraham and Sarah; so theirs is the first recorded love story. This ancient collection of tales from the Middle Bronze Age, 4200 years ago, is an epic love story, at the very beginning of what we call scripture.
Ur, the city of their birth, on the banks of the River Euphrates, not far from present day Basrah, has a population of a quarter of a million souls, almost the same as Newcastle today. But Abraham and Sarah leave all the wealth and security and sophistication of Ur of the Chaldees. They wander north, following the fertile valley of the river Euphrates, from what we now call Iraq, into Syria, and then south, down into Israel, learning to live as nomads. Abraham, now far from his own people, is recorded on two occasions trying to pass off Sarah as simply his sister, for fear that her beauty might endanger the lives of the rest of his little family. Sarah is beautiful, and Abraham is a lucky, if fearful man. But as many do today, they share one great grief, which clouds their lives. Sarah is childless. A disgrace in those days, and a threat to their very future. At one point she even offers her slave-girl, Hagar, to Abraham as a surrogate bride and potential mother of the children he believes God to have promised him.
For despite their childlessness, Abraham holds on to a hope that he will one day bounce grandchildren on his knee. Stand with him in the desert for a moment, before the rising of the moon. The chill of the night is already beginning to bite, and a great, wide sky, a huge, inky dome above you, is spangled with millions of stars. It is a sky to make you feel insignificant, a mere speck of dust in the light of eternity. Many of the stars you have learned to recognise in your wanderings, but there are innumerable others besides; stretched out as far as the eye can see. As he gazes upward, Abraham perceives God’s promise, ‘Thus shall your descendants be’.
At last, when further hope seems futile, Sarah does have a child; Isaac, the child of promise, the light of their lives, through whom their descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven.
But too swiftly another cloud darkens their horizon. Child sacrifice is the almost unspoken shame that pervades much of the Old Testament. Where the appalling custom comes from, we don’t know; but even Abraham must observe the traditions. Isaac, the joy of his heart, the heir to the Promise, must yet be given over to appease the God whom Abraham has learned now to fear, but not yet to love. You can almost hear the terror in his voice as the boy asks, ‘the fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ We know that he is spared; but do not dream the dreams that haunt young Isaac, in the aftermath of this terrible day. We know too well that children must still dream terrible dreams in the twenty-first century.
How is it that Abraham suddenly perceives that this dreadful sacrifice is not, after all, the will of God? We cannot know how he hears God’s voice. But there may be a clue. Imagine the scene, as Isaac and Abraham take their leave of Sarah, and depart the camp that fateful morning. And is it her eyes he sees, her sobs he hears, as Abraham takes the sacrificial knife in his hand? Could it be the knowledge of her love that helps him to understand that a God who also loves could not demand so cruel a sacrifice? And Abraham is not alone in having to set his belief in God above the expectations and traditions of his people.
For Abraham does believe in God. In the story of Abraham and Sarah, not only love, but also belief is mentioned for the first time. Belief in one God, not many; our God, not any god. And like us, Abraham struggles with all that believing means. If God can love, how could his demands be so cruel? If God is just, then how could he utterly destroy a whole city, even if there were only ten righteous inhabitants? In the part of the story we heard this morning, Abraham argues his way down from fifty good men and true in a strange discussion with God. Having bargained the number down to ten, he decides not to push his luck any further. Abraham the hero, then, interceding with God on behalf of all of us really.
Yet the same Abraham abandons Hagar the slave-girl and Ishmael, her son and his, to perish in the desert. For Ishmael has bullied his young half-brother, Abraham’s heir in his place, and Sarah will have them in the family no longer. But how does that feel, as Ishmael looks back, years later? Belief in God does not guarantee that Abraham will always make the right decisions, then; nor bring up a happy, well-adjusted family, any more than our faith guarantees wisdom and peace for us.
The love story ends, but the promise continues with Sarah’s death, for Abraham purchases the first installment of the Promised Land as a burial place for his wife. Finally, years later, the estranged brothers Isaac and Ishmael come together one last time to bury Abraham in the cave-tomb wherein he laid his beloved Sarah, so many years before. Sometimes it takes a death to bring about a peace.
Though Abraham and Sarah in some ways face such different issues from us, in so many other ways, human relationships have changed very little. And like us, they learn of God’s love as they learn to love each other. One last thing. Do you remember the stars in the heavens, in God’s promise, that I mentioned? That’s us. As well as Muslims and Jews, Christians also are children of Abraham, children of the promise, who believe, as he did, in one God and Father.
© Jon Russell 2019