Sins of the father: Wrestling with Abraham's parenting skills

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Article Scripture and Theology
The suspect actions of Abraham should give us pause about what makes him one of the heroes of the Bible.

By anonimus ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most of us grew up mentally supplying a retroactive halo to the protagonists in the Bible. Churches have been named for the "proto-saints," as holy ones of the Old Testament are called. Michelangelo comfortably added prophets' likenesses to the Sistine ceiling as if their sanctity was beyond reproach. I'm not suggesting reproach is a better response to those who embraced God's offer to participate in salvation history. It's a tough gig, as anyone who dares to say "yes" when God comes calling can vouch.

That halo, however, can blind us to the reality of the limitations and sometimes blood-curdling choices of these women and men. When we christen everything biblical heroes say and do as holy simply because they appear in our most holy book, we open ourselves to some really dangerous theology. Religious abuse often comes from taking a few legitimate words from scripture and using them to perverse ends. Forgiving the inhabitants of scripture everything because of the territory they're standing on invites such abuse.

Is it really OK for people in the Bible to do things we would arrest our fellow citizens for doing? Does their doing it in the name of God make it any more decent? When we find ourselves willing to consecrate all biblical activity as divinely inspired and approved, we open chasms in our idea of God.

Abraham might be viewed as a dangerous dad. If we've never imagined that Bible heroes might also be mortal sinners, this idea will be profoundly uncomfortable.

Yet those physically or emotionally abused by their parents know the peril that results when love and violence emanate from the same essential source. It's not psychologically safe or healthy to entertain that sometimes God wants parents to behave this way.

It can never be honorable that Lot was willing to barter his daughters' bodies for the sake of the peace as he did in Sodom (Gen. 11:8). It can't be right that Jacob openly preferred Joseph to his brothers and inflamed sibling rivalry to deadly levels (Gen. 37:3). We can never accept that Jephthah, a judge of morality, killed his daughter as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God (Judg. 11:34-40). And we must be fundamentally unnerved at the thought that God might ask Abraham to desert his son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar (Gen. 8:12). Or to take his other beloved son, Isaac, and slay him in cold blood to prove his loyalty (Gen. 22:2). Or that Abraham would be willing to do so without protest.

If we convince ourselves that such actions must be a form of piety that God alone understands and we must accept, then what other terrors will we condone in the name of God and religion?

The rabbis are never so forbearing of biblical personalities as we Christians are. Jewish scholars deal with citizens of the Bible on their own terms and by their own merits, leaving God out of the equation. After all, we can't hide behind God anymore than we can claim "the devil made us do it."

With this perspective in mind, we tread on highly significant ground in following the actions and motivations of Abraham, father of nations. In the 21st century, it's fair to call Abraham the most important figure in biblical studies. Abraham stands at the crossroads of the three great religions of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Abraham is the only religious figure with enough stature to provide common ground for the interfaith dialogue upon which the hope of peace and understanding across much of the world is pinned.

Abraham, whether he appreciated it or not, really did father three spiritual nations that now must learn to live together. Otherwise we will tear the world apart, persisting with the stubborn attitude that brought so many biblical families to ruin: namely, that our heavenly Father must love one more than the others, that only one is acceptable and deserves to survive.

With so much at stake, it seems relevant to ask: What does it mean for interfaith dialogue that Abraham, the man who holds all the cards, is nonetheless a dangerous dad?

New choices and directions are always viable, even in the story of this great ancestor. In the birth of Isaac, a kinder season seems to visit the new first family of faith. Everyone is reborn: Sarai and Abram become Sarah ("princess") and Abraham ("father of nations") at last. Isaac means "laughter," and it looks like there might finally be some room for joy in their story.

Yet the happiness is short-lived. Sarah's jealousy for her son's future ironically banishes the laughter forever, as Isaac's older brother is shunned and abandoned. Soon enough, the mountain of Moriah casts its shadow over this family with its dark demands, as Abraham feels compelled to satisfy God with the ultimate loyalty oath.

Have the covenant of fire and blood been forgotten? How about the personally wounding marks of circumcision? Why does the God of originally easy promises morph into a pitiless and demanding deity, like the gods Abram left behind in Ur?

If the change in God seems inexplicable, the difference in Abraham is equally mystifying. This is the man who once questioned God fearlessly, asking for proof of divine intentions when they seemed cloudy. This is the uncle who rescued Lot time and again, even though this nephew of his was not apparently worth a further investment of resources. This same Abraham vigorously debated the Lord God over vile Sodom, arguing that when divine justice demanded the lives of the innocent along with the guilty, then it was hardly justice and beneath God to extract it.

But now Abraham does not raise a single question when God asks for the unutterable: the life of his son. Abraham does not speak a word in defense of innocence or talk of justice. Abraham's silence on this matter is as eerie and incomprehensible as the request. With love, but without protest, Isaac's father takes a terrible journey, intending his son's destruction with every step.

I've never met a parent who would do this, not even for God. Abrahams willingness to sacrifice Isaac is the most brutally discordant story in the Bible, next only to the Crucifixion in its ruthless logic. Rabbis suggest that after abandoning Ishmael, Abraham could not hold his other son close to his heart.

Paternity, the central motivation of Abraham's life, had been exposed as an unworthy goal. Trust in sons was pointless. There was only God. There would be nothing but God. Natural love must end where obethence to God begins. And yet, incredibly, the darkness is lifted. Isaac survives.

Of all the dark mysteries surrounding Abraham, that all his children survive their father's worst intentions is the greatest. Late in life, with his last wife, Keturah, Abraham will have six more sons, all of whom he'll banish to make room for Isaac. The father of nations lived up to his name. God kept the promise.

In fact, God keeps both promises: for land as well as heirs. Abraham remained the lifelong "wandering Aramaean" that Moses later calls him--a perpetual resident alien on the land his flocks graze. Yet at the story's end Abraham forces his neighbors to sell him a single patch of ground--to bury Sarah.

Ishmael and Isaac will finally reunite when they bury their father at this same spot, the only land he ever owned, his grave. Abraham made it to Canaan, which is more than his father did before him. But it's always up to the children to heal what the last generation broke.

This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 3, pages 44-46).