Tuesday, May 31, 2011

God seeks out Abraham

From The Life of Abraham: Abraham and the Angels and The Sacrifice of Isaac c AD 547
Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Abraham and the Angels
c. AD 547
San Vitale, Ravenna

Elonei (oaks of) Mamre was Abraham's dwelling place. Here he built an altar to God (Gen. 13:18).

It lies about 3 km from Hebron

In Christian (but not Jewish ) tradition, it is the place where Abraham was visited by three angels. Others such as St Augustine have postulated that it was in fact the Trinity, or God the Father and two angels.

The visit is described in Genesis 18, the subject of Pope Benedict`s allocution on 18th May 2011 in his series of catechesis on Prayer

It has been a place of pilgrimage since the earliest Christian times. It is a special place of veneration in the Orthodox tradition especially in the Russian Orthodox Church

We do not need to look further than Rublev`s famous icon itself based on an earlier icon The Hospitality of Abraham:

Andrei Rublev
c. 1360 - c 1427
The Icon of the Trinity c. 1410
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Now it is a place of tensions between Christian, Jew and Muslim.

But about 4250 years ago the Patriarch Abraham was there visited by angels, where he was told by God that his wife Sarah would have a son and where he prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared.

It is the first solemn prayer we have upon record in the Bible. Presumably that is why the Pope decided to speak on it in his series on Prayer.

Chapter 18 of Genesis is as follows:

" 1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.

2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

3 He said, If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.

4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.

5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way— now that you have come to your servant. Very well, they answered, do as you say.

6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. Quick, he said, get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.

7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it.

8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

9 Where is your wife Sarah? they asked him. There, in the tent, he said.

10 Then the LORD said, I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son. Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him.

11 Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.

12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?

13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?'

14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, I did not laugh. But he said, Yes, you did laugh.

Abraham Pleads for Sodom

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down towards Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way.

17 Then the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?

18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.

19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.

20 Then the LORD said, The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous

21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.

22 The men turned away and went towards Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

23 Then Abraham approached him and said: Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?

24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?

25 Far be it from you to do such a thing— to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?

26 The LORD said, If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes,

28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?

If I find forty-five there, he said, I will not destroy it.

29 Once again he spoke to him, What if only forty are found there?

He said, For the sake of forty, I will not do it.

30 Then he said, May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?

He answered, I will not do it if I find thirty there.

31 Abraham said, Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?

He said, For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.

32 Then he said, May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?

He answered, For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.

33 When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home."

In his talk the Pope concentrates on verses 20 and following.

But the earlier verses in the Chapter are needed for context.

The incident takes places three months after Abraham had initiated the ritual of circumcision. He did this out of obedience to God

The Three men suddenly appear as out of nowhere.

They have the appearance of men.

Hans Bol (1534–1593
Abraham and the Three Angels 1586
Bodycolour heightened with gold, some retouching in the sky, black ink and gold framing lines
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

(The city in the background which represents Sodom is Delft)

Christian Rohlfs 1849 – 1938
God seeks out Abraham 1921
Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

The hospitality is warm and lavish even although the Patriarch was not aware of their divine nature. The conformity of the Patriarch and later of his nephew Lot to the ancient laws of hospitality contrasts sharply with the breach of the same laws by the inhabitants of Sodom towards the two strangers in the next chapter.

But the penny must have started to drop with Abraham when the strangers asked after his wife. And when the senior informed Abraham that she would have a child. They confirm the promise lately made to Abraham. The promise is then renewed and ratified, that she should have a son

Sarah`s reaction is cynical laughter. Abraham is silent. Then even Sarah realises that these are no ordinary men. They knew what she was thinking.

As the men set off towards Sodom, Abraham accompanies them. He has confidence in them. They have confidence in him. They decide to reveal their true identities and their mission.

As the Pope said:

"It is recounted that the evil of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah had reached the height of depravity so as to require an intervention of God, an act of justice, that would prevent the evil from destroying those cities.

It is here that Abraham comes in, with his prayer of intercession. God had revealed to him what is about to happen and acquaints him with the gravity of the evil and its terrible consequences, because Abraham is his chosen one, chosen to become a great people and to bring the divine blessing to the whole world.

His is a mission of salvation which must counter the sin that has invaded human reality; the Lord wishes to bring humanity back to faith, obedience and justice through Abraham. And now this friend of God seeing the reality and neediness of the world, prays for those who are about to be punished and begs that they be saved."

Then we realise why Sarah had every right to be fearful. These men were to embark on a horrifying mission. Cities and their populations were to be obliterated from the face of the earth - as an act of divine punishment.

But perhaps now we have become immune to the feeling of awe and horror.

The twentieth century and all its horrific wars and the sight of modern wars on television may have put deadened any sensibilities in that regard. Through the medium of television we can see the missiles being luached and their effect on cities. Man has built great machines of destruction. And truly they are great as anyone who has ever stood beside a modern jet fighter or near a modern battleship or aircraft carrier can attest. We are in awe at the power of man. It is as if man has become a god. He can cause the whirlwind.

In the light of this shocking revelation from God, Abraham tries to plead for the city and people of Sodom.

The Pope discussed Abraham`s prayer of intercession addressed in his face to face encounter with Almighty God.

Communion with God is kept up by the Word and by prayer. In the Word God speaks to us. In prayer we speak to Him.

The prayer of the Patriarch is a remakable prayer. He accused God of planning to act unjustly:

"And now this friend of God seeing the reality and neediness of the world, prays for those who are about to be punished and begs that they be saved.

Abraham immediately postulates the problem in all its gravity and says to the Lord: “Will you indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18: 23-25).

Speaking these words with great courage, Abraham confronts God with the need to avoid a perfunctory form of justice: if the city is guilty it is right to condemn its crime and to inflict punishment, but — the great Patriarch affirms — it would be unjust to punish all the inhabitants indiscriminately.

If there are innocent people in the city, they must not be treated as the guilty. God, who is a just judge, cannot act in this way, Abraham says rightly to God."

Indeed the question posed by Abraham is subtle: "What is Justice ?"

It is a question which we in our 21st century Western comfort and our pride in our "progress" might not expect to hear being discussed by a Bronze Age nomad in the desert of the Middle East. Today it is usually only discussed in certain courses for certain students in universities.

The language in the passage under discussion hitherto has been that of a court case. God proposed a collective lex talionis on the city and its inhabitants. Abraham argues that this is not Justice.

But the argument comes from a man filled with deep faith and humility and who addresses God with reverence and respect. The King James version perhaps indicates this better in its translation:

"And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes" (Gen 18:27)

The Pope continued:

" [I]f we read the text more attentively we realize that Abraham's request is even more pressing and more profound because he does not stop at asking for salvation for the innocent.

Abraham asks forgiveness for the whole city and does so by appealing to God’s justice; indeed, he says to the Lord: “Will you then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (v. 24b).

In this way he brings a new idea of justice into play: not the one that is limited to punishing the guilty, as men do, but a different, divine justice that seeks goodness and creates it through forgiveness that transforms the sinner, converts and saves him.

With his prayer, therefore, Abraham does not invoke a merely compensatory form of justice but rather an intervention of salvation which, taking into account the innocent, also frees the wicked from guilt by forgiving them.

Abraham’s thought, which seems almost paradoxical, could be summed up like this: obviously it is not possible to treat the innocent as guilty, this would be unjust; it would be necessary instead to treat the guilty as innocent, putting into practice a “superior” form of justice, offering them a possibility of salvation because, if evildoers accept God’s pardon and confess their sin, letting themselves be saved, they will no longer continue to do wicked deeds, they too will become righteous and will no longer deserve punishment.

It is this request for justice that Abraham expresses in his intercession, a request based on the certainty that the Lord is merciful. Abraham does not ask God for something contrary to his essence, he knocks at the door of God’s heart knowing what he truly desires."

The argument is not simply that it is not just to destroy the innocent along with the guilty. It is also that by destroying the guilty one defeats any opportunity for conversion of the guilty.

The "dust and ashes" Patriarch presses God. He haggles over how many "just men" need to be found before God will issue a reprieve. From fifty the number is gradually whittled down to ten

Divine Mercy is a fundamental element of Divine Justice. Without unlimited mercy, there is no Justice. Justice does not exist.

The Pope continued:

"Sodom, of course, is a large city, 50 upright people seem few, but are not the justice and forgiveness of God perhaps proof of the power of goodness, even if it seems smaller and weaker than evil?

The destruction of Sodom must halt the evil present in the city, but Abraham knows that God has other ways and means to stem the spread of evil.

It is forgiveness that interrupts the spiral of sin and Abraham, in his dialogue with God, appeals for exactly this. And when the Lord agrees to forgive the city if 50 upright people may be found in it, his prayer of intercession begins to reach the abysses of divine mercy.

Abraham — as we remember — gradually decreases the number of innocent people necessary for salvation: if 50 would not be enough, 45 might suffice, and so on down to 10, continuing his entreaty, which became almost bold in its insistence: “suppose 40... 30... 20... are found there” (cf. vv. 29, 30, 31, 32). The smaller the number becomes, the greater God’s mercy is shown to be. He patiently listens to the prayer, he hears it and repeats at each supplication: “I will spare... I will not destroy... I will not do it” (cf. vv. 26,28, 29, 30, 31, 32).

Thus, through Abraham’s intercession, Sodom can be saved if there are even only 10 innocent people in it.

This is the power of prayer. For through intercession, the prayer to God for the salvation of others, the desire for salvation which God nourishes for sinful man is demonstrated and expressed.

Evil, in fact, cannot be accepted, it must be identified and destroyed through punishment: The destruction of Sodom had exactly this function.

Yet the Lord does not want the wicked to die, but rather that they convert and live (cf. Ez 18:23; 33:11); his desire is always to forgive, to save, to give life, to transform evil into good. Well, it is this divine desire itself which becomes in prayer the desire of the human being and is expressed through the words of intercession.

With his entreaty, Abraham is lending his voice and also his heart, to the divine will.

God’s desire is for mercy and love as well as his wish to save; and this desire of God found in Abraham and in his prayer the possibility of being revealed concretely in human history, in order to be present wherever there is a need for grace.

By voicing this prayer, Abraham was giving a voice to what God wanted, which was not to destroy Sodom but to save it, to give life to the converted sinner.

This is what the Lord desires and his dialogue with Abraham is a prolonged and unequivocal demonstration of his merciful love. The need to find enough righteous people in the city decreases and in the end 10 were to be enough to save the entire population."

The question arises: why ten ? Why did Abraham stop at ten ?

The Pope takes up the question of the number of righteous men needed to halt evil and reverse a soulless and sick society and applies it to today:

"The reason why Abraham stops at 10 is not given in the text. Perhaps it is a figure that indicates a minimum community nucleus (still today, 10 people are the necessary quorum for public Jewish prayer). However, this is a small number, a tiny particle of goodness with which to start in order to save the rest from a great evil.

However, not even 10 just people were to be found in Sodom and Gomorrah so the cities were destroyed; a destruction paradoxically deemed necessary by the prayer of Abraham’s intercession itself.

Because that very prayer revealed the saving will of God: the Lord was prepared to forgive, he wanted to forgive but the cities were locked into a totalizing and paralyzing evil, without even a few innocents from whom to start in order to turn evil into good.

This the very path to salvation that Abraham too was asking for: being saved does not mean merely escaping punishment but being delivered from the evil that dwells within us. It is not punishment that must be eliminated but sin, the rejection of God and of love which already bears the punishment in itself.

The Prophet Jeremiah was to say to the rebellious people: “Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God” (Jer 2:19).

It is from this sorrow and bitterness that the Lord wishes to save man, liberating him from sin. Therefore, however, a transformation from within is necessary, some foothold of of goodness, a beginning from which to start out in order to change evil into good, hatred into love, revenge into forgiveness.

For this reason there must be righteous people in the city and Abraham continuously repeats: “suppose there are...”. “There”: it is within the sick reality that there must be that seed of goodness which can heal and restore life.

It is a word that is also addressed to us: so that in our cities the seed of goodness may be found; that we may do our utmost to ensure that there are not only 10 upright people, to make our cities truly live and survive and to save ourselves from the inner bitterness which is the absence of God.

And in the unhealthy situation of Sodom and Gomorrah that seed of goodness was not to be found."

Abraham returned to his place to observe what that event would be. His prayer was heard, but Sodom was not spared, because there were not ten righteous in it.

The Pope then considered how this concept of divine justice was developed through time in the history of the Jewish Covenant as its Covenant with God deepend and matured.

"Yet God’s mercy in the history of his people extends further. If in order to save Sodom 10 righteous people were necessary, the Prophet Jeremiah was to say, on behalf of the Almighty, that only one upright person was necessary to save Jerusalem: “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth; that I may pardon her” (5:1)."

As the Pope pointed out the question of how many righteous men are required before a city is spared did not go away. Does it ever ?

Jeremiah could not find one righteous person and Jerusalem was destroyed.

Then after this God himself interved decisively in the history of mankind: the Incarnation and the Crucifixion:

"It was to be necessary for God himself to become that one righteous person.

And this is the mystery of the Incarnation: to guarantee a just person he himself becomes man. There will always be one righteous person because it is he.

However, God himself must become that just man. The infinite and surprising divine love was to be fully manifest when the Son of God was to become man, the definitive Righteous One, the perfect Innocent who would bring salvation to the whole world by dying on the Cross, forgiving and interceding for those who “know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

Therefore the prayer of each one will find its answer, therefore our every intercession will be fully heard."