THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM - PART IV – SECTION I
THE CALL OF
I. Chapters 12-25 describe the call and growth of Abraham, from the heir of a devout, but apparently now semi-pagan line to the scion on the new People of God.
A. Like other Old Testament heroes, Abraham (whose original name is Abram, but is changed to Abraham) is not presented as perfect, but rather as one who gradually grows in his trust in God.
- The call starts
with his father's departure from the prosperous but pagan Ur, continues
through Abraham's own journeys and struggles, and dramatically climaxes
with his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. He then hands the reins
off to Isaac.
B. Abraham's growth
in faith is an image of the growth in faith of the people generally.
See Catechism 145-57. Like the Apostles later, he trusts God,
but not completely. At times he uses schemes, such as telling
people that Sarai his wife is really his sister and (at Sarai's recommendation)
having a child Ishmael by her handmaid Hagar. But slowly he trusts
God more and more.
1. The name is
both profound, for he exalts both his earthly father and finally his
God and Father, and also poignant, for at first he has no children.
2. When God reaffirms
the covenant in chapter 17, but before Isaac is born, He changes Abram's
name to Abraham, which means "the father of many nations."
That name reflects the fact that he will not only be the father of the
Chosen People, but of many others gathered together under the blessing
that will come forth from the Chosen People. See Catechism 706.
D. Abram is not particularly
power-hungry, but rather tries to avoid clashes, as indicated by his
willingness to give his nephew Lot the better land and his intercession
even for Sodom and Gomorrah. However, his rescue of Lot indicates
that he could be a military commander if necessary. And he apparently
commands the respect of a sizable clan.
E. Abraham's wife
is Sarai, who is eventually revealed as either his half-sister or possibly
cousin. Her name means princess, and her new name Sarah is the
more exact form of the word. She is also imperfect, often doubting
God and scheming herself. But in the end, she is loyal to Abraham
and would become a model wife.
II. The call of Abraham begins with his father Tarah, who has three sons, and possibly Sarai as his daughter, who leaves his homeland Ur.
A. Unlike his predecessors, Terah is seventy when he first has children, and apparently has only the three listed, possibly plus Sarai.
1. The three sons listed, Abram, Nahor and Haran will all become important because Haran's son Lot will figure into the account, as will his descendants the Moabites and Ammonites later in Israeli history. Abraham's son Isaac will marry Rebekah and his grandson Jacob will marry Leah and Rachel, all of whom are descendants of both of Abram's brothers. Keeping the family together was considered crucial.
20 indicates that Sarai may have been the daughter or Terah, or perhaps
his half-sister, a daughter of Nahor. But, at this introductory
point, her relationship to Terah is ignored.
a. One leading
theory is that the city referred to is the Ur on the lower Euphrates
River that was founded by 2500 at the latest. This city was a
very powerful and wealthy by about 2100, with extensive international
trade and outposts as far as the Mediterranean Sea, as well as its moon
worship and its ziggarats. However, about 2000, the country of Elam,
which was between Ur and the Promised Land, gained control over Ur.
The impending struggle may have been one reason why Terah left.
- The text
does not mention Sarai's parentage, but only that she is childless.
Abraham seems to be all that she has. (Chapter 20 does indicate
that Sarai is related to Abram, from the same father or grandfather.
But that fact is only introduced later as Abram tries to explain his
conduct; it does not seem to be particularly crucial here.)
C. However, Terah
does not complete the journey to the Promised Land. He settles
down in Haran, a city in the northern part of Mesopotamia that also
was known for its moon worship.
III. When Abraham is seventy-five, God calls him to complete that journey to the Promised and receive a great nation and blessing for all nations.
1. This blessing
is the first of five times that God makes promises to Abraham.
See Gen. 13:14-17, 15:1-5, 17:3-21, 22:15-18. In chapter 13, God reiterates
the promise of land to Abram and his descendants, who will be as numerous
as the dust of the earth. In chapters 15 and 17, God will clarifies
that the nation will descend from Abraham's own son by Sarah.
In chapter 22, after the willingness to sacrifice Isaac, God promises
that his descendants will be like the sands of the sea or stars of the
sky and that all nations will find their blessing in him.
2. This blessing is structured in a seven-fold schema: (1) God will make Abraham a great nation; (2) God will bless Abram; (3) God will make Abram's name great; (4) Abram himself will be a blessing; (5) God will bless Abram's allies, those that bless him; (6) God will harm Abram's enemies, those that curse him; and (7) all nations of the earth will find blessing in Abram.
- The last
and greatest blessing indicates that, in every nation, there is something
good that God blesses.
C. As with the Apostles called later by Jesus, the text does not describe what Abram was thinking or why he responded so sincerely. Perhaps the reason is that he is the model for responsiveness to the calling of God, which may be due to a number of motives (e.g., faith, repentance, curiosity, desperation.)
- The fact that
Abram had no children may likewise have made him eager to do something
that would last past his death. Except for those killed young
(e.g., Abel) this is the first instance of childlessness recorded in
Scripture. As with Rebekah and Rachel later, the years of childlessness
emphasize that children are a gift of God.
- In any case,
Lot goes with Abram and Sarai, but Terah does not. Abram and Sarai
may have effectively adopted Lot as their son.
D Abram soon comes to the Promised Land, at this point called Canaan, apparently without much difficulty.
1. There were
already many inhabitants in the northern part of the Promised Land.
However, God promises the land to Abram in another sacred scene at Shechem
in the north of what will be Israel.
2. Possibly because
of the potential for hostilities, Abram journeys further south and settles
for a time in Bethel, which would become the capital of the future Israel
until David moved the capital to Jerusalem. He invokes the Lord
by name and builds another altar there, which would be a future sacred
then gradually travels further south to the Negeb in the south of the
future Israel. He has symbolically claimed the whole of the Promised
IV. However, soon a famine strikes the land and Abram goes down to Egypt, where he creates a very odd situation.
A. The famine must
have seemed puzzling to Abram, for he has just been promised great blessings.
The Egyptian climate was very different from that of the Promised Land,
so it is likely that the famine had not struck Egypt. The famine
later in Genesis does strike Egypt, but because of Joseph's guidance,
the Pharoh is prepared.
B. Abram trusts God, but not wholly. His wife Sarai, now in her sixties, was apparently very young looking for her age. (She would live to be 127.) And so, he instructs Sarai to tell the Egyptian court that she is his sister (or niece.)
1. The idea is that an Egyptian nobleman may, if he wants to marry Sarai, find a way to kill Abram, either secretly or through a legal excuse, so that he can marry Sarai. It is noteworthy that he knows the Egyptians will understand that adultery is unacceptable, although Abram thinks they will engage in a subtle murder.
- From about
2050 to about 1660, when an Hellenistic dynasty took over, the Pharohs'
were in a weakened position with a religious figure called the nomarch
wielding great influence.
2. Here, as happens later, Abram's faith, like that of so many of the faithful, is real but imperfect. He accepts God's plan but thinks he must improve on it.
- It is very
possibly that Sarai was related to Abraham, and so the statement was
not a complete lie. But it was still very deceptive and reflected
that his trust in God was still only partial.
C. Abram's belief that the Egyptians will want Sarai is entirely accurate. The Pharoh himself takes her as one of his wives and is favorable toward Abraham because of it.
the Pharoh wanted her to have some time of preparation in the palace
before taking her as his wife. God used this time to teach Pharoh
(and Abram and Sarai) about the sanctity of marriage. Pharoh and
the entire household are afflicted with plagues, probably boils or some
other physical ailment.
D. However, Abram
has retained the great wealth that Pharoh gave him and thus returns
to the Promised Land with great wealth, which would be primarily in
the form of cattle and precious metals.
E. It becomes clear
in Lot has been with him and also received a fair amount of wealth in
the process. However, the lack of any mention of Lot in Egypt
until the departure indicates that there may have already been strains
in this relationship.
V. When Abram, Sarai, and Lot get back to the sacred area between Bethel and Ai, a dispute breaks out and the families separate.
A. As often happens,
when the danger is gone and there is a fair amount of wealth, disputes
begin arising over who should get what.
B. Abram, using natural
prudence, but perhaps not prayerfulness, decides that it is best to
part ways and offers Lot the choice of which land to take.
1. This land
is near the southwest of what is now called the Dead Sea. The
area right around the Jordan River, which is what Lot first saw, is
still very lush and prosperous. The area closer to the Dead is
desert now, but was apparently much more fresh and prosperous then.
The whole place seems to him as like a second Eden as far as Zoar, south
of the Dead Sea.
VI. In chapter 14, a war breaks out, as could be expected, and Lot is caught up in it, but eventually rescued by Abram.
A. Apparently, some kings from the south and east, including that of Babylon (Shimar) and Edom (a country to the southeast of the Dead Sea who took over Ur) had gained dominance over the region twelve years earlier, just before Terah left Ur.
Verses 5-7 indicate that there was a general rebellion against those
2. As part of
this rebellion, five cities from the area to the south of the Dead Sea
(also called the Salt Sea) rebelled against them. Those cities
were Sodom, Gomorrah, Admar, Zeboiim, and Bela, also called Zoar.
All of them except Bela would later be destroyed by fire and brimstone.
3. Some scholars
have argued that this account too is symbolic. However, there
seems to be too much detail for that. Furthermore, the account
is very realistic. The fact that the area is now desolate can
be traced perhaps to a combination of a weather shift and to devastation,
such as that now in Haiti.
- It becomes
clear later that the king of Sodom himself escaped and fled to an area
near Salem, later to become Jerusalem.
C. Word comes to Abram, who is apparently now at peace with his neighbors. Despite his peaceful, non-confrontational nature, he is willing to wage war to save his foolish nephew.
Hebron, which is more in the mountains and with less desirable land,
was out of the action.
2. Abram musters 318 warriors from his own household, which indicates that his household was probably well over a thousand. Noteworthily, these 318 soldiers were not hired mercenaries, or even servants.
- The size
of Abram's house and their loyalty to him is becoming manifest.
3. It appears
from verse 24 that the people who live with him also join in, thus creating
a sizable army. It would appear from the fact that they did not
capture the kings of the opposing armies that Abraham's army waited
for those four kings, and presumably a fair amount of their army, to
be away. Those kings were presumably not expecting any action
from that area, which they had ignored.
4. The army,
apparently under the command of Abraham, conducts a surprise nighttime
attack and pursues the forces of the conquering kings north past Damascus,
about 160 miles away. Through the victory, he recaptures all of
the people and goods captured.
VII. The post-battle scene introduces the mysterious figure of Melchizedek and hints at Abram's growth in holiness.
A. Abram does not go immediately back to Hebron, but to Salem, whose name means peace. Instinctively, he knows he should visit Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem and offer God a tithe through him. He understands that Melchizedek, whose name means "king of righteousness" is the representative of God, a priest of God Most High.
- Tithing would
become a crucial part of Jewish offerings, with the Levites frequently
receiving tithes to support their ministries. See, e.g., Duet.
12:6-17, 14:22-27, 26:12-15; Lev. 27:30-33; 2 Chron. 31:6 The
tithes would then open the way for more generosity and blessings.
See Sir. 35:8-10; Mal. 3:10.
B. The only other part of the Old Testament that mentions Melchizedek is Psalm 110, which describes the future king as "a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek." The implication is that Melchizedek, which may not been more of a title than a name, represents a primordial priesthood that predates even Abraham.
- The letter
to the Hebrews picks up on this theme and argues that the later Levitical
priesthood was only an image of this primordial priesthood that Jesus
would fulfill as the great king and high priest. See Heb. 7.
- The letter
emphasizes that Melchizedek has no ancestry and no recorded death and
thus is a timeless priest. The later Levitical priesthood was
just an accommodation that would prepare the way for one who would restore
the priesthood and kingship together.
C. Jewish commentators said different things about Melchizedek.
1. Philo of Alexandria,
a Jewish thinker of the first century B.C. who tried combined Greek
philosophy and Jewish theology, thought he was a primordial representative
of human reason.
2. Josephus Flavius,
a Roman Jewish historian, thought he was a model king who had maintained
the worship of the true God in the midst of pagans.
3. Some of the apocryphal
Jewish books around the time of Christ refer to him as Shem, the just
son of Noah. If one takes the years stated in Genesis literally,
would have still been alive when Abraham was called, and in fact for
133 years later. See Gen. 11:11. St. Thomas refers to a
commentary on Hebrews 7 that supports this view. Or it could have
been a descendant in his family who inherited his title.
4. Some of the Qumran
scrolls, which were written by an Essene (or Essene-like) monastic community
who lived near the Dead Sea at the time of Christ, present Melchizedek
as an angel who would return again in the Messianic age to punish iniquities
and restore justice.
1. Neither Melchizedek nor the text gives and explanation for the bread and wine, which would later be taken up by Jesus as the great symbol at the Last Supper and thus for the Mass.
- As manna in the desert, bread would become a symbol of God's providence. Wine is often a symbol of prosperity and joyousness in the presence of God. See Ps. 4:8, 104:14-15, Joel 2:24, Is. 55:1.
- In Christian
thought, the notion of a bread of life and a spiritual drink also reminds
one of the manna and water that sustained the Chosen People in the desert.
See John 6:30-40; 1 Cor. 10:2-3. Bread and wine are also a symbol
of unity, both with each other and with God, for many grains are combined
to make bread, and many grapes to make wine. See 1 Cor. 10:16-17.
- Some commentators
have argued that Melchizedek is simply an advanced Canaanite priest.
However, that would not explain why Abram would make an offering to
him, nor how he understands that radical notion of one God, who loves
1. The king of
Sodom was probably making an offer, hoping that Abraham would be satisfied
with keeping only the goods and not take any slaves. The offer
was presumably the same for Gomorrah.
2. But Abraham realizes that to take the belongings of Sodom would bring part of that wicked town into his home; and, as one consecrated to God, he will not permit that.
not knowing that Sodom will soon be destroyed, he understandably worries
that, at some future time, the residents or king of that town may think
that he is in their debt.
- In addition,
Abraham does not want any implication of some sort of alliance with
Sodom or Gomorrah.
- At one
level, they can accept the offer because the refusal of payment is required
only by Abraham's consecrated status and determination not to rely
on anyone else.
- In addition,
Abraham had apparently agreed that they could keep their share of the
booty. As a result, he probably could not (morally or physically)
prevent them from taking their share.
E. These events begin to show Abraham as both intelligent and naturally powerful, on the one hand, but also increasingly holy and trusting in God on the other.