As a diocese, we have been working through the exodus story all year. It is Abraham who prefigures that story and sets the stage for it. Centuries before his descendants begin their sojourn in Egypt, Abraham is called to leave his ancestral home in what is now Iraq or southwestern Turkey and make his way to Canaan; the area we know today as Israel and the West Bank (Genesis 12:1). God’s command to Abraham is emphatic: “Get up and go!” From the very beginning, the starting point of our relationship with God is a push to move out into a new place.
Not surprisingly, the rabbinical tradition has commented considerably and deeply on this command and its consequence. One midrash (commentary) likens Abraham’s call and response to a man who saw a building on fire, and asked who was in charge. The owner of the building looked out and answered, “I am in charge.” According to the midrash, the building on fire is the world, consumed by mercilessness and wrongdoing, and the owner of the building is God, who will not let the world go up in flame. The midrash proceeds to liken Abraham to the young bride in Psalm 45:11, who is being called from her birth family to a new family and a new set of relationships. (Midrash Rabbah, 39:1-3)
The point here is Abraham’s understanding of his call. On the one hand, Abraham is struck by the hurt he sees all around him, and by the power of God to put the fire of cruelty out. On the other, he is willing to give himself over to God, as to a spouse, in order to be part of that effort. For the rabbis, Abraham epitomizes the heart and soul of Israel’s vocation — a calling to be a witness to the care and mercy of the one, true God, and to be united to God in a relationship as intimate and personal as marriage.
Islam and Christianity, the two other religious traditions that revere Abraham as their spiritual ancestor, also claim this twofold calling. The so-called Abrahamic faiths are distinct in many ways, but they are bound together by the conviction that there is but one truth at the center of everything, and that truth is love. For all three communities, Abraham is the first person to pioneer and model the spiritual exodus we are invited into to this day. For Christians, of course, this exodus finds its culmination in Jesus, whom the author of Hebrews calls “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” Hebrews 12:2). But as Paul reminds us repeatedly, the faith exemplified by Jesus is the faith revealed in Abraham, who put his whole trust in God.
For both Abraham and Jesus, that trust is tested to the uttermost. When God commands Abraham to offer his beloved child Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham clings to the hope that God will provide a way out — as in fact he does. When Jesus, on the night before he dies, begs to be spared yet yields to the Father’s will, he demonstrates a trust that finds its reward in resurrection. We can thank God that we don’t have to equal Abraham, still less Jesus. What was an experience of excruciating challenge for them becomes the assurance of God’s kindliness to us. God does not lead us into suffering, but seeks to protect us from it, despite our frailty and our sin.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal is the Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.