Abraham’s Revelation

Abraham’s Revelation June 14, 2024

Guercino: Abraham / Wikimedia Commons

We have to look back to pre-history, to Abraham, to see the foundations of modern, Western monotheism. We are given a glimpse of  the historical Abraham through various legendary accounts of his life. While some might question whether or not there was a real man behind those legends, however, as many, if not most, legends seem to develop out of historical events before they are transformed into an exaggerated, legendary account, it should not be difficult for us to assume this was the case of Abraham, even if we would find it difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the “historical Abraham.” But, if we could encounter the historical Abraham, we should not be surprised if it turns out his religious faith did not have all the features we expect from monotheism. Indeed, the legends we have about him suggest he was constantly learning about God, and God’s ways. We should see him as a representation of the initial turn towards monotheism rather than  expecting him to be a representative of a perfect, fully-fledged, monotheism. It is likely, as we find in other parts of Scripture, that he held some sort of “henotheism” which leaned towards monotheism, a belief in one God who was superior to all others, who likewise, in this case, was the creator-God.

We should not expect Abraham to have a perfect, or “pure” understanding of God, though, to be sure, his encounter with God would have given him all kinds of insight, and he might have attained a level beyond which was the norm of his time, a level which he could not and would not be able to properly express to his peers. Indeed, he should be seen as a prophet, one who, like so many others, used symbols and conventions as pointers to help his audience slowly realize what he had come to know about God. That is, as St. Cyril of Alexandria suggested, he would have engaged symbolic and conventional accommodations to meet the needs of his audience, but he would have done so creatively, so that those who explored those symbols and conventions would find themselves encouraged to transcend their understanding and come to a better understanding of God. Indeed, if we believe him to be inspired by God, we can easily belief that inspiration would impart hidden messages connected to those symbols he used, messages which later people could examine and use to also come to a better understanding of God and God’s ways:

Since Abraham was of the Chaldean race, and had only recently come out from the place, the Master of all instructed him by way of accommodation to perform these customs pertaining to the oath, at the same time finely weaving in the mystery of Christ through the animals that were sacrificed.[1]

This, of course, is true, not  only for Abraham, but also his heirs, that is, those who were descended from him, no matter which line of descent they came from. That is, just as Abraham used symbols and conventions as pointers to the transcendent reality of  God, and he did so with the help of God, those who came after him, those who are within the Abrahamic tradition, continued to do so,  including those who wrote Scripture, which is why we must be careful when we read Scripture, and not engage everything in a simple, literal fashion.

It is also important to note, Abraham had more than one son; one, Isaac, led to the establishment of the people of Israel, and thus, the Jews, while another, Ishmael, established a line which remained outside of the covenant of Moses, and so, remained Gentiles. This means, in Abraham, we see Jews and Gentiles already have a kind of unity, one which prefigures the unity humanity is meant to have in Christ:

I mean, the God of all, foreknowing as God both that he would gather together one people from Gentiles and Jews and through faith would provide them with salvation, foreshadowed both in the patriarch Abraham; after showing him in possession of righteousness through faith before circumcision, and after circumcision not living according to the Mosaic Law but abiding by the guidance of faith, he gave him the name of father of the nations so that both Jews and Greeks should fix their eyes on him, not the former on his circumcision and the latter on his uncircumcision, but both imitating his faith.[2]

Abraham did not understand the transcendent truth the same way as we do, nor did he understand it the same way as his descendants, be they Jews or Gentiles (Arabs). He served as the foundation by which a new kind of revelation entered the world, one which helped point the way not only to monotheism, but a special kind of monotheism, related to the kind of character discerned in the traditions of Jews and Arab, one which Christian believe finally came to its conclusion in the revelation of God as a God of love in Jesus Christ.  On one level, then, there are many differences between Abraham’s beliefs and the beliefs of those who came after him, but on another level, Abraham was dealing with the same realities as we deal with, and so, he can be said to believe like us: “Abraham believed the same things that we now believe, although in a different way, because it concerns the same realities.” [3] Just as we can accept Abraham having different beliefs and understandings about God than we do and still be seen as believing in the same God as us, Christians should then be able to recognize Jews, Christians, Muslims, and many others, all believe in and share in the same God, the same reality, even if their understanding or beliefs about God do contain significant differences, sometimes ones which, on one level, contradict each other. And, even as Abraham represents a significant way God  encountered humanity and help lead humanity to a greater understanding of the divine nature,  we can believe that others, even those who have  a much different understanding than those contained in the Abrahamic tradition, have had some sort of encounter with the divine reality and so possesses some level of revelation,  one which we can also learn from:

From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.[4]

While Abraham was not likely a pure monotheist, and certainly, various writers in Scripture suggest they held to some form of henotheism, we still look to them and learn from them because we can see God’s revealing love was at work in and through them. We should, likewise, not be surprised that others, even non-monotheists, or non-henotheists, also had some connection with the divine reality, and if they did, we should be open to listening to them and learning what we can from them. The revelation they possess might not have as direct a connection to the final revelation of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and so their own understandings might not more sifting through for his to learn from it, this does not mean it is insignificant, for what they have received comes with grace, and if we are open to that grace, and the truths it reveals, we will find  our faith, our own lives, will be transformed and made that much better.

[1] St. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on the Pentateuch, Volume 1: Genesis. Trans. Nicholas P. Lunn (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018), 137.

[2] Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul. Volume One. Trans. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), 67[Romans].

[3] Robert of Melun, “Questions on the Divine Page,” in Interpretation of Scripture: Practice. Trans. Franklin T. Harkins. Ed. Frans van Leiere and Franklin T. Harkins (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015), 319.

[4] Nostra Aetate. Vatican translation. ¶2.


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