A Commentary on the Text
Almost all of this is inspired by or taken directly from Bruce Feiler’s book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.
There are a few important things to note about Genesis 18:
(1) God appeared to Abraham, that is Abraham was in God’s very presence somehow in the midst of the three strangers, who are not people, but divine beings of some kind. Some say angels, some, particularly later Christian writers, say that the three were in fact God. In fact, Orthodox Christians portray the three at the table as a representation of the Trinity. From the following chapters, it would appear that God was one of the three (see 19.1). But what is important for us is that it is God, not angels or messengers, who speaks to Abraham.
(2) Laughter is a big part of this story – in fact, the child of Abraham and Sarah, is named “He laughs”. That’s what ‘Isaac’ means in Hebrew. Sarah laughed out loud when she as an old woman was promised a child. Earlier, in 17.17, Abraham, hearing the same promise, actually falls on his face laughing.
(3) Sarah observes from the tent . . . in that time, as it is even today in many Middle Eastern homes, women are not allowed in the company of men not a part of their family, so Sarah is culturally sidelined to the background in this story.
(4) Abram’s name was changed by God to ‘Abraham’. The name Abram means ‘the father is exalted’ or ‘mighty father’ in Hebrew and Abraham means ‘father of many nations’. [Feiler, p. 69].
A Good Father
To understand the importance of Abraham and this story about Abraham for us, perhaps we should begin with the first verse of the first chapter of the book of Matthew, the first Gospel of the New Testament: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham is the father of Ishmael, and thus the father of Islam; Abraham is the father of Isaac, and thus the father of Judaism; Abraham is the father, the ancestor, of Jesus, and thus the father of Christianity.
On this Father’s Day, as Abraham’s children continue to fight with and kill each other around the world, perhaps if we consider Abraham to understand better what a good father is, we might better learn what it is to be a good child of that father.
A good father does not take himself too seriously . . . when God told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child, they were both so old that the reaction for both of them was to laugh . . . indeed, Abraham literally fell on the ground laughing. A good father takes God seriously, but never himself . . . for to be a father is to be willing to be ridiculous in the eyes of the world.
A good father loves expansively . . . in Genesis 12, God promises Abraham that he will be the father of the nations, that Abraham will be blessed in order to be a blessing to the world. This was not a genetic, but rather a spiritual promise . . . the blood of Abraham does not flow in my veins, yet Abraham is my father too, for Abraham’s love is an expansive love, with arms outstretched to embrace the whole world. Consider in our text today that the very next thing to happen after the promise of a child from God is that Abraham and the visiting God travel to Sodom and Gomorrah, which God proposes to destroy, so bad are the reports of their behavior. And they were bad . . . very very bad. Alive with the promise of new life for himself and Sarah, Abraham does not hold back in fear . . . rather Abraham wheedles, cajoles, negotiates with, and even threatens God with the loss of God’s own honor should God do this thing . . . Far be that from you (to kill the righteous with the wicked)! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?
Abraham’s love is not limited to his own family or tribe; it is not even limited to those who deserve that love, for Abraham bargains for the lives of everyone in the two cities . . . and God agrees! The love of a good father for his family changes how he sees the whole world. . . for a good father sees the whole world through the eyes of love.
A good father is thankful and prays for his children. In the Qu’ran, the Muslim holy book, Ibrahim (Abraham) prays to God, “Praise be to Allah, Who has given me in my old age, Ishmael and Isaac. My Lord, make me, and my descendants, steadfast in prayer.”
A good father is not perfect; a good father makes mistakes . . . Abraham tricks powerful men who give him hospitality into thinking that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife . . . twice! Abraham sends Ishmael away into the desert to please Sarah . . . Abraham takes a knife in hand to sacrifice Isaac . . . the same Abraham who argued and pled with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah says not a word in protest about sending away his older son or taking a knife to his younger one. Feiler notes that Jewish thought suggests that Abraham was testing God rather than the other way around. The only problem with this is that Abraham tested God with lives other than his own, with the lives and well being of his sons. Even good fathers make mistakes.
In trying to make sense of all of this, especially about the story of the sacrifice of his son, Jewish believers have understood the story to stand for the place of suffering a believer must endure for their faith; Christian believers emphasize the aspect of faith; and Muslim believers, the importance of Abraham’s obedience.
Suffering, faith, obedience. Which is it? Is it all three? None? Or something else entirely? The fact is that even, and perhaps especially, good fathers will be misunderstood by their children.
A good father was once a son . . .in Christianity and Judaism, Isaac is the one on the altar to be sacrificed; in Islam, it is Ishmael. But interestingly, all three religions “share a legend surrounding the offering. Immediately after the [son] is saved, he lies on the altar, clutching the knife, the emotion of the ordeal flooding from his body. God tells him he will grant him any prayer. ‘O God, I pray that you grant me this,’ the [son] says. ‘When any person in any era meets you at the gates of heaven – whether they believe in your or not –I ask that you allow them to enter Paradise.” (Feiler, p. 109).
Finally, a good father seeks the reconciliation of all his children . . . in Abraham’s case, that was not to be until his death, and then, maybe only for an instant. In Genesis 25.9, we read that Abraham’s sons “Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah . . . east of Mamre . . . with his wife Sarah.”
Feiler says that Abraham “dies at peace. Even better, his death promotes peace. At Abraham’s burial, his two most prominent sons, rivals since before they were born, estranged since childhood, scions of rival nations, come together . . . Abraham achieves in death what he could never achieve in life: a moment of reconciliation between his two sons . . .” (p. 208).
Could it really be that many of the struggles of the three faiths today can be reduced to a family squabble, albeit a squabble of epic proportions? Could it be that we are all really just trying to say, “Daddy loves me best?” Maybe.
And maybe it’s time, from the world’s stage to the privacy of our own homes, to embrace the notion of Muslim Sheikh Abu Sneina, “So was Abraham a Muslim? . . . For me, Abraham submitted himself to Allah. He did everything for God. I don’t know if he’s like me, but I would like to be like him.” (p. 163).
Maybe we should worry more about whether we’re like Abraham and less about whether Abraham is like us.
It’s what a good father would want from and for his children.