Last Sunday, we began our fall series examining some of the virtues we as Christians are called to show in our lives. The first one we looked at was the virtue of faithfulness, and as I mentioned in the message, it’s hard to talk about faithfulness from a scriptural perspective without considering the story of Abraham. In so many New Testament books, Abraham is held up as the paragon of faithfulness. But there’s a lot more to Abraham than just that.
Abraham is an incredibly complex character. Paul, in his discussion of faith and justification in Romans 4, uses Abraham as an illustration of the necessity of faith—noting that Abraham was considered righteous because of his faith in God, prior to any sort of law. James also indicates in his second chapter that Abraham believed God and that belief was reckoned to him as righteousness. Because Abraham was thought of as righteous, and the father of the Jewish people, even Jesus discusses The Patriarch. In John 8, Jesus has a long debate with the religious leaders, men who claimed Abraham as their ancestor, but didn’t live in the same sort of faith that Abraham apparently did—“They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.’”
The fact that Jesus affirms the faithfulness and devotion of Abraham in contrast to the faithlessness of the religious leaders indicates that Abraham held a pretty important position in the Jewish imagination—although Jesus also puts the whole “descendent of Abraham” thing into perspective when He reminds the religious leaders that God could make more “children of Abraham” out of rocks. But if we’re going to look at the Biblical record to gain insight about Abraham, we need to look at the whole Biblical record. While the tradition for the New Testament writers was to affirm Abraham’s faith, the account in Genesis offers a much more conflicted picture. First century Jews wouldn’t have wanted to portray Abraham in a negative light, but that meant they had to gloss over some of the story.
At the end of the 12th chapter of Genesis, there’s this account of a famine driving Abraham and Sarah to Egypt. Because Sarah is beautiful, and because Abraham fears for his life, he tells his wife to present herself as his sister. “When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’” We might be tempted to think that Abraham is just being pragmatic, but reading a little further, we see that the Pharaoh does indeed see the beauty of Sarah, and takes her into his household. And it does “go well” with Abraham as a result—he receives all sorts of livestock and servants, fitting for the brother of one of the Pharaoh’s wives.
There have been numerous attempts to sanitize this account, and protect the legacy of Abraham. Using a backward logic built on the idea that rewards go to the righteous and punishment to the wicked, Abraham’s newfound wealth and the Pharaoh’s plagues clean up the story and justify Abraham’s deception. But the reality is that this story isn’t Abraham’s finest moment. The facts of the narrative indicate that Abraham sold his wife to the Pharaoh to save his own skin, and for financial gain to boot. And there’s no glossing over the sexual nature of this arrangement—Sarah didn’t enter the Pharaoh’s household as a cook or a maid. If this story weren’t about The Patriarch Abraham, then the central character would be more of a villain than a hero.
And maybe that’s the point. We’re so used to the binary of hero and villain. Good guys are all good, and bad guys are all bad. In literature, authors have played around with the idea of an “antihero”—a heroic figure with significant problems and flaws—but those characters have been more the exception than the rule. Giving a hero flaws is a way to humanize the hero, and make them more relatable; even Superman has his kryptonite. But even with their flaws, we want the hero to be heroic, and we know that the villain will be true to type—in the end more evil than good. So it’s understandable that the New Testament authors would choose to focus on the more noble, heroic characteristics of Abraham. As a good guy, we don’t really want to think about Abraham’s flaws and problems.
But when we reduce complex individuals to overly simplistic binaries—either good or bad—then we’re missing out on the human quality of these characters. Abraham is not a superhero or a supervillain. Abraham is flawed, conflicted, selfish, noble, generous—both faithful and faithless. He is not one or the other. He resists the binary, either/or way we’d like to see him. The problem with binaries is that they’re too easy to actually exist. They have to be manufactured. If we can see a person as wholly evil, then it’s easy to just hate them. If we can perceive them as wholly good, then it’s no effort to love them. We’re doing this a lot right now in our culture—trying to portray things in binary terms. Everyone in group “A” is good, because they simply belong to that demographic. Everyone in group “B” is evil, for the same reason. Whatever binary conflict you choose—left or right, black or white, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative—one side is the hero, and the other is the villain. And it’s easy to love our side, and hate the other. The problem is that we have to ignore a lot of the complex flaws in our heroes to turn them into heroes, and we have to ignore all the good that lives in the supposed villain to turn them into a villain.
Abraham tells us that it’s just not that easy. Even our most noble heroes have problems. Even The Patriarch sold his wife for personal gain. And we cannot ignore it or pretend it doesn’t matter. When we think of the faithfulness of Abraham, we also have to think of his failures. Abraham is faithful, he does go when God tells him to go. But he also goes too far. His trust in God is contaminated—like ours is. This has always been what God has had to deal with. If God had to wait for a faithfulness that matched His own, it would be a long wait. God chooses to deal with conflicted, flawed, corrupted humans—like Abraham. And if God chooses to love us in all our faithful and faithless ways, in our complexity and our contradictions, then maybe we can love each other that way, too. If we want to love as God loves, we need to resist the easy way of the "either/or" binary and recognize the Abraham in all of us.