What’s so great about Abraham? How does his name and example inspire or motivate a person living now? What does the concept of God’s friendship with Abraham mean for Jews? For Christians?
When God calls out one person among the mass of humanity as his friend, it is personal and scandalous. When God chooses a favorite, Abraham, and from Abraham he chooses a people, Israel, it offends our general sense of fairness. If God’s love can be specific, if he can pick and choose, we can be hurt, insulted.
We want sainthood to be based on merit. We treasure thoughts of selection based on accomplishment or virtue. We resist the idea of chosenness as a category stemming merely from birth into the right tribe or nation.
Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod calls it “carnal election” (The Body of Faith: God in the People of Israel, Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1996):
The foundation of Judaism is the family identity of the Jewish people as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. . . . Seen through the eyes of man, a divine election of a group defined by some ideological criterion would seem far more plausible. It would have been far more plausible had God elected all those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked, or if our sensibilities are more contemplative than active, all those who grasped the Absolute or achieved Nirvana. These are accomplishments of individuals and reflect unusual endowment or effort or both. But being born into a particular family is hardly an achievement for which anyone deserves either credit or blame unless perhaps in those cases where individuals overcome specific handicaps associated with particular environments, and even there the credit is earned by the achievement in spite of the handicap rather than by the family membership itself.
Abraham, My Friend
In Isaiah 41:8-9, God calls Abraham “my friend.” The expression is echoed in 2 Chronicles 20:7. God tells the survivors of the exile, after the destruction of Jerusalem, to look to Abraham as a model for finding their way back to God. “He was only one person,” God says, “when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Isa 51:2).
Micah contemplates terrible things happening to the Jewish people, but notes there is a limit on God’s willingness to destroy and that limit is due to God’s friendship with Abraham (Micah 7:20).
The Psalmist, likely sometime after Jerusalem has been rebuilt and many exiles have returned, sings: “He remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant” (105:42).
Abraham, the Patriarch
In Jewish legend, there have been times when the sages wanted to find a way to make Abraham worthy of the honors bestowed on him. There are legends about Abraham working in his father’s idol shop and discovering monotheism through philosophical speculation. This is a reworking of Abraham. Instead of being the fortunate recipient of God’s friendship, he is the deserving achiever of religious genius.
A similar story in Bereshith Rabbah, at the beginning of Lech Lecha, also envisions Abraham as a sort of philosopher of religion. Abraham sees the world like a house that is on fire. He thinks to himself that surely someone cares about this burning building, this world that is so beset with tragedy and disaster. Abraham formed the question, “Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?” (Soncino Midrash Rabbah, Vol. 1, Genesis, XXXIX.1). God saw Abraham’s thought and spoke to him from the beyond, “I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe.”
In this second story, Abraham discovered God and merited the voice from heaven by virtue of his achievement.
But the Abraham of the Genesis narratives is not a religious philosopher and is not entirely a heroic character. We can ask ourselves, “Why did God choose him and not someone else?”
The story is that God simply spoke to Abraham out of the blue. We want to turn it into something Abraham deserved. Every fiber of our being strains to see in Abraham some measure of deserving his chosenness.
We might say, “He had great faith to believe God’s voice when he heard it.” No, think about it, if you or anyone you know heard a divine voice, chances are you would believe it too.
We might say, “God asked something difficult of Abraham, requiring great faith: that he would leave his family and strike out for a new land. But close readers of Genesis know better. Because in the previous chapter, we see that Abraham’s family had originally been heading to Canaan: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there” (Gen 11:31).
What God asked of Abraham, that he should separate from his family and go to Canaan, was not a quest for the holy grail or even a difficult command. Abraham’s family originally had planned to go there but stopped short.
But wait, wasn’t it difficult to separate from family? Nomadic groups split and separated as part of the course of life. Terah’s clan obviously had grown large. Abraham, even after he split off and took only his share of the flocks and herds, was a vastly wealthy man. If nomadic groups were too large, they faced danger from the kings of surrounding peoples who viewed them as a threat or as easy prey.
Separating from Terah was a cultural expectation, not a religious act of faith. Abraham’s journey to the land that would one day be Israel was a continuation of his family’s pre-existing plan. God’s demand of Abraham was a small thing.
As you keep reading the Abraham narratives, there is a simple pattern. My teacher, John Walton, called it a pattern of Covenant Threat. God’s promise was massive, but events keep coming up that threaten to undermine the promise.
Will Abraham lose Sarah? If he does, how can he and Sarah have the child God promised? Will Abraham give Lot the promised land out of foolish generosity? Will foreign kings who kidnapped Lot be the death of Abraham before he receives the promise? Will quarrels over water rights in the desert kill Abraham? Will famine in Canaan ruin the dream of a promised land?
The pattern in the Abraham stories is threat and resolution, again and again. Sometimes Abraham himself is the cause of the threat — lying about Sarah, contemplating giving away the promised land, etc. Always the resolver of the crisis is God.
Abraham is loveable. But so are most people.
Abraham is not particularly a hero. He is everyman. The message is not that Abraham’s merit is admirable. The message is that if God loves Abraham specifically and bestows great favor to him, then God can love us specifically and that favor can be spread to us. No matter who we are.
Abraham and the Particular Love of God
God’s love for the world is Abraham-centered, Israel-centered, says Michael Wyschogrod (pg. 57). Divine love is anchored on earth through a specific person and nation and reaches from there to every other person.
Wyschogrod is careful to point out, God was not constrained to do it this way. The idea of a friend of God and a Chosen People is not some philosophical necessity. God can do whatever he likes. Abraham is God’s free choice (pg. 58).
We judge the meaning of God’s love through praise. Praise is the way of understanding God that accepts his free choice and sees the good in it. Praise cannot understand, but simply appreciates (pgs. 59-60).
Classically we think of love’s two main categories, eros and agape. Eros is sensual love, and it can be jealous, and it is particular. Agape is good will to all, the sort of unconditional love a parent has for a child. But Wyschogrod argues that neither our love nor God’s can really be separated like this. It is like separating the body from the soul (pgs. 60-61):
It is simply not true that love as charity applies equally to all and makes no distinctions as to persons. . . . Love that is in the realm of the I-Thou is directed toward the other who is encountered in his being and on whom we do not impose our preconceptions. Undifferentiated love, love that is dispensed equally to all must be love that does not meet the individual in his individuality but sees him as a member of a species, whether that species be the working class, the poor, those created in the image of God, or what not. . . . Divine love is concrete.
Real love is not general. It has favorites. Real divine love has Abraham. It has Israel.
Do we really want God as an impersonal lover? Or can we accept that his friend was Abraham? If we are Jewish, can we accept that our birth or peoplehood is not a virtue, but it makes us chosen nonetheless? If we are not Jewish, can we accept that God befriended Abraham, covenanted with his descendants, and that our attachment to God runs through Messiah and through him to the people of Abraham and through them to God?
What’s so great about Abraham? The answer is simple: God’s concrete love that is actionable, personal, and secure. Abraham was God’s friend. And God’s benevolent promises have come to all of us in and through Abraham.