Our third session was rather different, in form if not in substance. We pretended to be children for a while (which was easier for some than for others) and watched and listened to a Godly Play. This continues the major story of Genesis from chapters 12 to 24.
Put very briefly this is the story of the great patriarch of the Semitic religions, Abraham and the relationship that God began with him. Abram and his wife Sarai left a polytheistic settlement called Ur to see if the one God he believed in could be found anywhere else. On his journey he listened to God in the silence at the edge of the desert. At each major point along the journey, Abram found that God was still there and so he built an altar to revere Him. Abraham gradually made his way into the land of Canaan and settled a small tribe there.
One day God clearly revealed Himself to Abram, and told him that he will a child. Abram laughed at this vision because he was an old man, and Sarai was clearly to old to have any children. But God revealed Himself again and made a promise to Abram, that he was to be the father of a great nation, more numerous than the grains of sand in the desert and than stars in the sky. God said that he will protect this family and grant them this fertile land if they agree to serve God above all else. As symbolic of this covenant God gives new names, and they are henceforth to be known as Sarah, and Abraham- which means father of a great multitude.
Sometime later Abraham and Sarah gave hospitality to three travelers, and these again told them that they would have a child- at this Sarah laughed. But sure enough, many months later, and at a great age, Sarah did miraculously give birth to child, who they called Isaac, which means ‘laughter’. In time Isaac grew up to be a man and Sarah died and was buried. Abraham knew that he too would soon die, and that the last thing he should put right before he found rest was to find a wife for his son. So Abraham sent messengers back on the treacherous journey across the desert to the nearest towns in search of a suitable woman.
Unexpectedly for the messengers, a woman named Rebecca approached them when she hears that they have been asking around. Such was her faith in (what she hears of) Abraham’s God that she is prepared to make the long journey through the desert like Abraham before her to meet Isaac. And sure enough they fell in love and were married. In time Abraham died and was buried, and Isaac and Rebecca had a son named Jacob through whom the great family promised to Abraham continued to grow.
Things people liked:
- The joy at having a child when it is unexpected/not thought possible.
- That Isaac is named after their laughter.
- The sense of intimacy between God and Abraham when he went out to the edge of the desert.
- That Rebecca is a strong woman, not a weak one coerced into arranged marriage.
- That Abraham’s scepticism about God’s power/promises makes him easily identifiable with, despite the vast differences in time and culture.
- The foreshadowing of later biblical themes and events such as exile, the Annunciation, the Epiphany and the Church as the family of God.
Thoughts on the spirituality of the text:
- Divine revelation can occur through prophesy– God talking to a person.
- Omnipresence– God isn’t limited to one place, he is everywhere, he is the God of everyone. But perhaps especially present among a family?
- The thought of being part of a large, chosen people gives us hope.
- Importance of pilgrimage, or of journeys more generally. The need to take risks and discover new things to develop as a person. Personal development is emphasised here by the life story of Abraham and the new life that continues after him. Yet this is laying down of roots is held in a paradoxical tension with the need to always keep moving on.
- Abraham and Sarah weren’t punished for being sceptical of God’s power/promises, so perhaps this condones a a degree of scepticism for us today.
- As in the second account of the Creation, names are emphasised as a very important.
As the verion of the narrative was adapted for children we didn’t discuss two of the most famous (and controversial) parts within it: the institution of circumcision and God’s (eventually retracted) request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. These are two very difficult stories, but very simply, circumcision (which was medically beneficial for males of this culture) became the initatory sacrament of the Jewish religion which symbolises the continuation Abrahamic covenant between God and the Hebrews. Given that child sacrifice was so common at this time and in this part of the world many have interpreted the binding of Isaac as a story which strongly emphasises trust in what the true God is not capable of, rather than what he is capable of.
We also noted some elements later in the bible that were foreshadowed in this story:
> Exile (in Egypt, in the wilderness and then the Holy Family in Egypt).
> The Annunciation (the promise made by God to Mary).
> The Epiphany (the visit of the three wise men to the Holy Family).
> The Church as a large family.
> In the story of the binding of Isaac what Abraham ends up sacrificing is a lamb that was a free gift from God, just as the sacrifice made for us as Christians -Jesus- is a free gift from God.