Reflections on Abraham

Abraham and Melchizedek in the Loggia di Raffaello in Vatican City.

What is a father?

Genesis presents Abraham as being the father of many nations.

The whole Bible presents the Israelites as the ‘sons of Abraham’ on multiple occasions.

The New Testament, in particular, presents anybody with appropriate faith in God (whatever that means…but usually faith in Christ) as a child of Abraham.

This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that the father in the Bible is a figure for the accumulated wisdom of the past in a way that is indicative of a divine voice:[1]

See: Proverbs 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1,20; 6:1,3,20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15,19,26; 24:13,21; 27:11; 31:2.

Why does this matter? Abraham’s story in the Bible could be read as a representation of the ideal life of goodness in a post-catastrophic world. Or in question and answer format:

Q: In a world where evil, disaster, and death are a given, what does it mean to seek the good God has for us in the world?

A: Look at Abraham.

The New Testament does not shy away from this answer, despite having Jesus as an example. Jesus, in John 8 points to the works of Abraham. Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 points to the faith of Abraham. Hebrews is largely about Abraham’s patient faith in God. And James 2 points directly at the good works of Abraham as exemplary even for those after the resurrection of Christ.

Below are my reflections on some of the passages that indicate that Genesis means for us to see Abraham as an example of the good life:

Genesis 12:1-3

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. (2) 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. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In the passage above, we see that there is an implied condition. Abraham must go to be made into a great nation. That Genesis presents the promise as fulfilled shows that we’re meant to see Abraham as a man who kept a covenant with God. Incidentally, he also took the offer out of self-interest. I’ve written about this before.

Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, (4) “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Here, God’s covenant is made more explicit. It’s called a covenant and in it Abraham is promised to be a father of nations. But what is the condition, “walk before me and be blameless.” The reader is to understand that Abraham actually did do this. God promises to make Abraham very fruitful here, which hearkens back to Noah and Adam as the first man and the second first man. While I don’t quote it, the covenant above includes circumcision, which appears to be a civilizational curtailing of sexual obsession. “You’ll be fruitful but there is a limit to that.” I suspect that circumcision goes back to Genesis 2:22-24 to indicate that sexuality is a blessing and a limitation. Abraham is to be the father of many but that understanding is that his sexuality and those of his children be limited by the wound and healing power of marriage.

Genesis 24:1

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

And this passage shows that by the end of it all, Abraham had been blessed by God in all things. He kept the covenant as best a man can in the circumstances (fallen nature, a barbaric world, and a pagan worldview). And so the indication is that if a reader/listener to Genesis wants to experience the blessing offered to humanity in Genesis 1:26-31, being like Abraham is a stable method of doing so.

This is the affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, of prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

Footnote

[1] Obviously, fathers can also be wrong which is why the Bible commends listening more than tradition, like Scripture and reason to know the truth.

Adler’s Moral Axiom

As far as I can tell, there are three major problems in ethical thinking today:

  1. Disconnecting ethics from happiness and therefore thinking that personal well-being and pleasure have nothing to do with ethics.
  2. Hedonism: The idea that right and wrong is only a matter of what leads to the highest personal pleasure. In social ethics, this means allowing people to do whatever they think/feel will make them feel the best. We might call this unscientific utilitarianism (because it isn’t based upon actual knowledge of what is good for the individual or collective human organism.
  3. The is/ought problem: That since knowledge is all descriptive, no understanding of what is can lead to a conclusion about what one ought to do.

In my opinion, all three of these problems are solved in one way or another by Mortimer Adler’s one self-evident moral premise: We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

Below are the paragraphs where he introduces the axiom in his book, 10 Philosophical Mistakes:

The two distinctions that we now have before us, distinctions generally neglected in modern thought—the distinction between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods—enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

The criterion of self-evidence, it will be recalled, is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us. The very understanding of the “really good” carries with it the prescriptive note that we “ought to desire” it. We cannot understand “ought” and “really good” as related in any other way.[1]

While Adler’s claim is presented as an axiom, a truth about which one cannot accept the opposite proposition, it can probably only be accepted once it is properly understood. For instance, is it possible for there to be desires that are bad for us? Are there desires that are good for us but desired wrongly? Are there desires that are more important than others? For instance, we desire food, but is there a reason to desire food? We desire to live, but is there a reason we desire to live? We desire pleasure, but is there a reason we desire pleasure? We desire sex but is there a reason for sex? If Adler’s axiom is indeed axiomatic, we have a proposition upon which to build our ethics, have disputes as our understanding of human nature advances, and upon which to build theological ethics for those who accept the availability of supernatural testimony as to the purpose and nature of humanity.

References

[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 90-91