§ 2. Abraham; or, Judaism as the family Worship of a Supreme Being
Faith, King, Father, Friend, Descendants, Jewish
We have been so accustomed to regard the Jewish religion as a part of our own, and so to look at it from within, that it is hard to take the historic position, and to look at it from without. But to compare it with other religions, and to see what it really is and is not, this is necessary. It becomes more difficult to assume the attitude of an impartial observer, because of the doctrine of verbal inspiration, so universally taught in the Protestant Church. From childhood we have looked on the Old Testament as inspired throughout, and all on the same level of absolute infallibility. There is no high, no low, no degrees of certitude or probability, where every word is assumed to be the very word of God. But those who still hold to the plenary inspiration of the Old Testament must consent, for our present purpose, to suspend their faith in this doctrine, and provisionally to look at the Old Testament with the same impartial though friendly scrutiny with which we have regarded the sacred books of other nations. Not a little will be gained for the Jewish Scriptures by this position. If they lose the authority which attaches to the Word of God, they will gain the interest which belongs to the utterance of man.
While M. Renan finds the source of Hebrew monotheism in a like tendency in the whole Semitic race,—a supposition which we have seen to be contradicted by the facts,—Max Müller regards the true origin of this tendency to be in Abraham himself, the friend of God, and Father of the Faithful. He calls attention to the fact that both Moses and Christ, and subsequently Mohammed, preached no new God, but the God of Abraham. "Thus," says he, "the faith in the one living God, which seemed to require the admission of a monotheistic instinct grafted in every member of the Semitic family, is traced back to one man." He adds his belief that this faith of Abraham in one supreme God came to him by a special revelation.
And if, by a special revelation, is meant a grand profound insight, an inspired vision of truth, so deep and so living as to make it a reality like that of the outward world, then we see no better explanation of the monotheism of the Hebrews than this conviction transmitted from Abraham through father and son, from generation to generation.
For the most curious fact about this Jewish people is, that every one of them is a child of Abraham. All looked back with the same ancestral pride to their great progenitor, the friend of God. This has never been the case with any other nation, for the Arabs are not a nation. One can hardly imagine a greater spur to patriotism than this union of pride of descent with pride in one's nation and its institutions. The proudest and poorest Jew shared it together. There was one distinction, and that the most honorable, which belonged equally to all.
We have seen that, in all the Semitic nations, behind the numerous divine beings representing the powers of nature, there was dimly visible one Supreme Being, of whom all these were emanations. The tendency to lose sight of this First Great Cause, so common in the race, was reversed in Abraham. His soul rose to the contemplation of the Perfect Being, above all, and the source of all. With passionate love he adored this Most High God, Maker of heaven and earth. Such was his devotion to this Almighty Being, that men, wondering, said, "Abraham is the friend of the Most High God!" He desired to find a home where he could bring up his children in this pure faith, undisturbed and unperverted by the gross and low worship around him. In some "deep dream or solemn vision" it was borne in on his mind that he must go and find such a home.
We are not to suppose, however, that the mind of Abraham rose to a clear conception of the unity of God, as excluding all other divine beings. The idea of local, tribal, family gods was too deeply rooted to be at once relinquished. Abraham, as described in Genesis, is a great Arab chief, a type of patriarchal life, in which all authority is paternal. The religion of such a period is filial, and God is viewed as the protector and friend of the family or tribe. Only the family God of Abraham was the highest of all gods, the Almighty (Gen. xvii. 1), who was also the God of Isaac (Gen. xxviii. 3) and of Jacob (Gen. xxxv. 11).
Stanley expresses his satisfaction that the time has past in which the most fastidious believer can object to hearing Abraham called a Bedouin sheik. The type has remained unchanged through all the centuries, and the picture in the Bible of Abraham in his tent, of his hospitality, his self-respect, his courage, and also of his less noble traits, occasional cunning and falsehood, and cruelty toward Hagar and Ishmael,—these qualities, good and bad, are still those of the desert. Only in Abraham something higher and exceptional was joined with them.
In the Book of Genesis Abraham enters quite abruptly upon the scene. His genealogy is given in Genesis (chap, xi.), he being the ninth in descent from Shem, each generation occupying a little more than thirty years. The birth of Abraham is usually placed somewhere about two thousand years before Christ. His father's name was Terah, whom the Jewish and Mohammedan traditions describe as an idolater and maker of idols. He had two brothers, Nahor and Haran; the latter being the father of Lot, and the other, Nahor, being the grandfather of Rebecca, wife of Isaac. Abraham's father, Terah, lived in Ur of the Chaldees (called in Scripture Casdim). The Chaldees, who subsequently inhabited the region about the Persian Gulf, seemed at first to have lived among the mountains of Armenia, at the source of the Tigris; and this was the region where Abraham was born, a region now occupied by the people called Curds, who are perhaps descendants of the old Chaldees, the inhabitants of Ur. The Curds are Mohammedans and robbers, and quite independent, never paying taxes to the Porte. The Chaldees are frequently mentioned in Scripture and in ancient writers. Xenophon speaks of the Carduchi as inhabitants of the mountains of Armenia, and as making incursions thence to plunder the country, just as the Curds do now. He says they were found there by the younger Cyrus, and by the ten thousand Greeks. The Greeks, in their retreat, were obliged to fight their way through them, and found them very skilful archers. So did the Romans under Crassus and Mark Antony. And so are they described by the Prophet Habakkuk (chap, i. 6-9):—
As they were in the time of Habakkuk, so are they to-day. Shut up on every side in the Persian Empire, their ancestors, the Carduchi, refused obedience to the great king and his satraps, just as the Curds refuse to obey the grand seignior and his pashas. They can raise a hundred and forty thousand armed men. They are capable of any undertaking. Mohammed himself said, "They would yet revolutionize the world."
The ancient Chaldees seem to have been fire-worshippers, like the Persians. They were renowned for the study of the heavens and the worship of the stars, and some remains of Persian dualism still linger among their descendants, who are accused of Devil-worship by their neighbors.
That Abraham was a real person, and that his story is historically reliable, can hardly be doubted by those who have the historic sense. Such pictures, painted in detail with a Pre-Raphaelite minuteness, are not of the nature of legends. Stories which are discreditable to his character, and which place him in a humiliating position towards Pharaoh and Abimelech, would not have appeared in a fictitious narrative. The mythical accounts of Abraham, as found among the Mohammedans and in the Talmud, show, by their contrast, the difference between fable and history.
The events in the life of Abraham are so well known that it is not necessary even to allude to them. We will only refer to one, as showing that others among the tribes in Palestine, besides Abraham, had a faith in God similar to his. This is the account of his meeting with Melchisedek. This mysterious person has been so treated by typologists that all human meaning has gone out of him, and he has become, to most minds, a very vapory character. But this is doing him great injustice.
One mistake often made about him is, to assume that "Melchisedek, King of Salem," gives us the name and residence of the man, whereas both are his official titles. His name we do not know; his office and title had swallowed it up. "King of Justice and King of Peace,"—this is his designation. His office, as we believe, was to be umpire among the chiefs of neighboring tribes. By deciding the questions which arose among them, according to equity, he received his title of "King of Justice." By thus preventing the bloody arbitrament of war, he gained the other name, "King of Peace." All questions, therefore, as to where "Salem" was, fall to the ground. Salem means "peace"; it does not mean the place of his abode.
But in order to settle such intertribal disputes, two things were necessary: first, that the surrounding Bedouin chiefs should agree to take him as their arbiter; and, secondly, that some sacredness should attach to his character, and give authority to his decisions. Like others in those days, he was both king and priest; but he was priest "of the Most High God,"—not of the local gods of the separate tribes, but of the highest God, above all the rest. That he was the acknowledged arbiter of surrounding tribes appears from the fact that Abraham paid to him tithes out of the spoils. It is not likely that Abraham did this if there were no precedent for it; for he regarded the spoils as belonging, not to himself, but to the confederates in whose cause he fought. No doubt it was the custom, as in the case of Delphi, to pay tithes to this supreme arbiter; and in doing so Abraham was simply following the custom. The Jewish traveller, Wolff, states that in Mesopotamia a similar custom prevails at the present time. One sheik is selected from the rest, on account of his superior probity and piety, and becomes their "King of Peace and Righteousness." A similar custom, I am told, prevails among some American tribes. Indeed, where society is organized by clans, subject to local chiefs, some such arrangement seems necessary to prevent perpetual feuds.
This "King of Justice and Peace" gave refreshments to Abraham and his followers after the battle, blessing him in the name of the Most High God. As he came from no one knows where, and has no official status or descent, the fact that Abraham recognized him as a true priest is used in the Book of Psalms and the Epistle to the Hebrews to prove there is a true priesthood beside that of the house of Levi. A priest after the order of Melchisedek is one who becomes so by having in him the true faith, though he has "no father nor mother, beginning of days nor end of life," that is, no genealogical position in an hereditary priesthood.
The God of Abraham was "The Most High." He was the family God of Abraham's tribe and of Abraham's descendants. Those who should worship other gods would be disloyal to their tribe, false to their ancestors, and must be regarded as outlaws. Thus the faith in a Supreme Being was first established in the minds of the descendants of Abraham by family pride, reverence for ancestors, and patriotic feeling. The faith of Abraham, that his God would give to his descendants the land of Palestine, and multiply them till they should be as numerous as the stars or the sand, was that which made him the Father of the Faithful.
The faith of Abraham, as we gather it from Genesis, was in God as a Supreme Being. Though almighty, God was willing to be Abraham's personal protector and friend. He talks with Abraham face to face. He comes to him, and agrees to give to him and to his posterity the land of Canaan, and in this promise Abraham has entire faith. His monotheism was indeed of an imperfect kind. It did not exclude a belief in other gods, though they were regarded as inferior to his own. His family God, though almighty, was not omnipresent. He came down to learn whether the rumors concerning the sinfulness of Sodom were correct or not. He was not quite sure of Abraham's faith, and so he tested it by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac, in whom alone the promise to Abraham's descendants could be fulfilled. But though the monotheism of Abraham was of so imperfect a kind, it had in it the root of the better kind which was to come. It was imperfect, but not false. It was entire faith in the supreme power of Jehovah to do what he would, and in his disposition to be a friend to the patriarch and his posterity. It was, therefore, trust in the divine power, wisdom, and goodness. The difference between the religion of Abraham and that of the polytheistic nations was, that while they descended from the idea of a Supreme Being into that of subordinate ones, he went back to that of the Supreme, and clung to this with his whole soul.
|Written By James Freeman Clarke|
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