Torah reading: Genesis 12-17
Haftorah: Isaiah 40:27 to 41:16
One of the things that I think people find most difficult about Abraham's story (and, in general, the Judeo-Christian tradition) is the implication of "chosenness": the idea that God chooses and, by implication, loves a single person, people, or faith tradition over others. God picks favorites, it seems, and everyone else is just "extras" (like the people in movies who are there for "filler", and nobody much cares if they die as long as the hero gets out alive.)
Obviously, this idea is repugnant, and more so than ever in our modern, pluralistic world with its large variety of peoples and faiths. To try to solve this problem, we tend to flatten out the differences and say that all religions are essentially "the same" or "say the same thing". This provides an important counterbalance to the idea of "special chosenness", pointing out rightly that God loves all people (and faiths) equally. But totally glossing over the differences between faith traditions is also misleading, because it ignores the incredible diversity and creativity God has shown in his interactions with both individuals and groups of people.
One of my favorite Christian writers, C.S. Lewis, touched upon this with the following quote from The Horse and His Boy:
“Child,' said the Lion, 'I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”Follow me beneath the tangly orange lion's mane for some examples from today's reading.
First, Abraham. The son of a wealthy family and a successful businessman in his own right, a skillful negotiator and politician, the head of a flourishing household, Abraham was a success in every way -- except the one way that really mattered. He had no son, nobody to carry on his family name and to inherit all his wealth. When he died, his goods would go to the man who oversaw his estate.
Then suddenly, God called him to leave his city and with it everything he'd known, and go to Canaan, where he would do the impossible: become the father of a great nation, and with it, a new faith tradition rooted in worship of a mysterious new God.
Now, to a modern reader, this might seem a little odd. What does having kids have to do with religion? Isn't it rather besides the point, we might ask? And certainly, if God wanted to begin a new faith, he could have called Abraham to any number of different tasks. He could have given Abraham a prophecy to deliver to the people of Ur, or sent him around the countryside teaching others about the One God or performing miraculous healings. He could have commanded him to build a temple in the middle of Ur and given him a priestly vocation. He could have dictated a book of holy scriptures to him, as to the Prophet Mohammed. He could even have told him to go sit beneath a tree until he found enlightenment, and realized that all things, even children and their own children, must pass away and that non-attachment was the only freedom from suffering in our transitory world.
But he did none of these, for the secret wish of Abraham's heart was not to become a prophet, or a priest, or a teacher, or a healer, or a writer, or a guru. It was simply to become a father.
And God was willing to work with that.
And Sarah. First, like any other young woman, eagerly expecting a child. Wondering why it was taking so long, then starting to worry a little. Then worrying more. Counting menstrual cycles, trying rituals and fertility treatments, praying to the deity of childbirth, listening to countless pieces of advice from friends and family -- all of which, inevitably, fail. Praying, longing, hoping, having that hope shattered over and over and over…and finally, not daring to hope any longer. Feeling the stares of other women, some sympathetic, some vindictive. Trying not to show her tears when her friends mention casually that they're pregnant, again. Overhearing the men's voices to Abraham in the next room: "You know, you really should divorce her and find another wife." Then all at once uprooted from her home, on a mysterious journey commanded by the faceless God who speaks only to her husband. Passed off as Abraham's sister to the Pharaoh of Egypt. The utter humiliation when her slave woman proves more fertile than her.
And yet, God granted Sarah's deepest longing as well. Not simply that her husband would have a child, but that she would bear that child. To become a mother, and at long last discover both the joys and sorrows of childbearing and motherhood. To finally share in the world from which she's been so long outcast, and to have her cynical, bitter laughter at her barren fate turn to joyous laughter ("Isaac") when that child was finally born.
Hagar, too. The despised, outcast slave woman. The lowest of the low, at Sarah's continual beck and call. Bearing the full brunt of Sarah's bitter disappointment with life and her jealousy at Hagar's own fertility. Forced to sleep with her mistress' husband as a surrogate mother: seen as a pair of ovaries and a womb and nothing else. Mistreated and cast out into the desert by her jealous mistress when she did conceive. She, too, had her own dream fulfilled: to finally be equal with Sarah. Not simply to be the surrogate mother of Abraham's and Sarah's great nation, but to be a matriarch in her own right: the mother of a great nation. To Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman, God was the God who sees -- at last one who saw her, not as a pair of hands for work, not as a pair of ovaries for childbearing, but as a human being.
And Ishmael. I imagine that everyone who's ever become an older brother or sister at a young age can sympathize. Family members and friends -- hundreds or even thousands of people in Abraham's case, I'm sure -- all oohing and aahing, not over you, but over this ugly, scrawny invader. After having been the centre of your parents' universe for so many years, suddenly it's like you've ceased to exist. And for Ishmael it must have been far worse, for unless he was very young he must have already grasped what was happening: Isaac was now the favoured son and Ishmael was nobody. A bastard, illegitimate, soon to be cast out into the desert with his slave mother. And yet Ishmael, too, was given his own destiny as a warrior and the father of a nation, and "God was with the boy as he grew up", as much as with his brother Isaac.
Does God love us, and interact with us, "all the same"? No.
But does God play favourites? Does God love only his "chosen" individuals, or nations, or faiths, and ignore and despise millions or even billions of others? No.
We are not identical cogs in a giant wheel, or products on a giant assembly line, each to be unthinkingly filled by God with an identical amount of "love" and then moved on. We are individuals, each with our own past, our own hopes, our own fears, our own strengths, and our own weaknesses. And our own dreams.
God tells us each our own story, and no two stories are the same. But they are all about his love for us.