Abraham: History, Myth, And The Incarnation

Abraham: History, Myth, And The Incarnation December 18, 2022

Ted: Abraham and Sarah / flickr

Abraham, following the directions given to him by God, left his homeland, and his extended family, to go out into the world at large:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves  (Gen. 12:1-3 RSV).

Abraham did not know what to expect. He left everything he knew, but he did so with faith in God, believing God would provide what he needed. He probably expected that there would be great challenges he would have to face, for he knew that he would meet people who would not respect him or treat him with the compassion and respect he gave to others. He knew, indeed, he would be going out into the world which did not have such a close connection to God as he had. But, Abraham also knew, because of his relationship with God, he had to do as God asked, and if he did, he would be rewarded greatly, for that was what God promised him. So long as Abraham continued to follow what God told him to do, he knew God would do something great through him. He would serve as the foundation of a new, great nation, and those who welcomed him and his progeny would receive great amounts of blessings, that is, grace, while those who did not, would cut themselves off from that grace, leaving them desolate. This is how we should understand the cursing which is indicated by the passage: it isn’t that God, who loves all and desires all should be saved, gives out curses to hurt people and thwart them from their salvation. Instead, we are shown that God’s permissive will allows people to act contrary to their own good, to be the cause of their own pain and suffering. People end up being “cursed” by their own sins, as for example, we see in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where the inhospitality and brutality of those who inhabited those cities created the conditions which led to their destruction.

Abraham, therefore, was faithful to God. He went out into the world and lived in it, constantly on the move. He found no permanent home in it. He was looking forward to the realization of God’s promise to him, a promise which he knew was to be fulfilled, as  he knew his faith would make sure he would not stifle or hinder it from its fulfillment.

By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:9-10 RSV).

In this way, Abraham, because he was able to mediate blessings, and so grace, into the world,  can be seen as representing a type or figure in history whose life typified elements which were to be taken up and embraced by Christ. For, just as Abraham went into the world in order to bless it and transform it from within, the incarnate God-man, Christ, did the same, though in a way which infinitely transcended what Abraham was able to achieve. Nonetheless, Abraham was important; he had a major role in salvation history, and what Jesus did was continue that work and bring it to its completion, and so, in this respect, Abraham was not superfluous but rather, served as a key figure in world history.

Christ shows us that God is truly connected with creation through the mediation of humanity, and not just any, generic humanity, but humanity which comes from a particular lineage, that of Abraham. Even if we do not know the historical Abraham, and all we have are the greater legends and myths which emerged from the historical figure, we can believe there was an Abraham who served as the basis of those stories, and those stories transcended history because they demonstrate the way grace transfigures and elevates those who embrace it in their lives.

Humanity is meant to serve creation as priests and guardians of nature, with Christ as the high priest. Humans are not meant to take from creation and abuse it, using whatever it finds in the world for its own selfish desires. Rather, they are meant to serve the world, to lift it up even as the Logos served them and lifted them up. The incarnation,  the birth of Christ in the world, shows us God loves the world, and we, united with Christ in our humanity, are to love the world in Christ,  to engage it, to enter in it in such a way, as Christ shows, that we do not let it undermine our own nature and purpose, even as the human nature of God does not undermine or overturn Christ’s divine nature.

Just like what we have with Abraham, so the names of Christ’s ancestors, as recorded in the Gospels (such as Matt. 1:1-25) should be seen both as a representation of the way Christ, in his humanity, is connected to the whole of humanity, as well as showing us how Christ takes people into himself, lifts them up and makes them greater, giving their life eternal meaning. We are not to pretend that the list represents what can be ascertained in and through positive history; rather, it is a mythic record, pointing to us one of the processes God used to prepare the world for the incarnation. The names involved, and the stories connected with the names, are a part of that mythic history. They no longer represent mere facts, but rather, they have gone into the realm of myth, where facts become connected with truth and serve to teach us that truth. But that record shows us that, though mythic, and so containing transcendent elements to it, temporal existence is also important. What happens in time is what is taken up and elevated by Christ. We can believe the people mentioned in Scripture were real people without needing to think what we are told of them in Scripture are mere historical records. What is important is the story told in and through them, the story which is the story of the incarnation, that is, the story of the family line God chose to use for the incarnation, the family line which God uses to infuse meaning into history.

What is found in creation is intended to grow, to become something greater than what it was at its inception, as it finds itself moving through time towards its eschatological, or eternal, destiny; now instead of looking to the past for a golden age, we are to look forward, beyond time, through the eschaton and into eternity, to find our true destination (or home). In doing so, we should find that we are following the example which Abraham set before us. We are, like him, pilgrims. We, like him, are to bless those around us, to share with them the grace which we have received. We are, therefore, not to abandon the world, to look at it as something to avoid, as dualists would suggest; instead, we are to embrace it, knowing it is what we do in it that will serve as the basis by which our eternal character will be established.



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