Sunday, December 11, 2005

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

Berakhot 10b
R. Yohanan said in the name of R. Yose b. Zimra: If a man makes his petition depend on his own merit, heaven makes it depend on the merit of others; and if he makes it depend on the merit of others, heaven makes it depend on his own merit. Moses made his petition depend on the merit of others, as it says, Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel your servants! (Ex. 32:13), and God made it depend on his own merit, as it says, Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses his chosen stood in the breech before him to turn back his wrath from destroying them. (Ps. 106:23) Hezekiah made his petition depend on his own merit, as it is written, Remember now, O Lord, I beseech you, how I have walked before you (Is. 38:3), and God made it depend on the merit of others, as it says, For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for my servant David's sake. (Is. 37:35)

By the end of Genesis 25, we have been introduced to three very important people in the traditions of Judaism. These three are often mentioned together. The triad of names--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—appears at least 25 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, 18 of these in the written Torah, 3 in prayers (Deut. 9:27, I Kings 18:36, I Chron. 29:18).

When I first began learning the daily prayer (Amidah), the phrase chasdei avot translated "the kindnesses of the fathers" was one that I did not understand and frankly found troubling. Following Ezekiel’s view of individual responsibility, I questioned how I would benefit from the merit of another person. “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the iniquity of the father and the father will not bear the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous will be on him and the wickedness of the wicked will be on him.” (Ezek. 18:20) That seems clear-cut enough.

However, after a study of the places where the triad of names is repeated, and others that refer specifically to Abraham, my opinion has changed:

1. Simply the number of times that the triad is repeated suggests the importance of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the identity of the God who calls himself by their names—“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6)—and claims for himself the singular devotion of Israel (cf. Exod. 34:14).

2. The God of Israel is the God of the covenant. "He remembers his covenant forever...which he made with Abraham, and his oath to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant." (Psalm 105: 8-10) Several other instances of the triad occur in declarations of God's concern for Israel because of the covenant. The fathers are bearers of the covenant promises to Israel, and when God "remembers" the covenant, he shows favor and concern to Israel. "The people of Israel sighed because of the bondage and they cried out; and their cry rose up to God because of the bondage. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the people of Israel, and God regarded them." (Exod. 2: 23b-25a; cf. 6:5) Likewise, "The Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned to them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...." (II Kings 13:23a)

3. Deut. 29: 9-12 considers as a unity (a) the covenant which God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with (b) the covenant God commanded Moses to make with Israel at Sinai/Horeb and later at Moab (cf. Deut. 29:1). To be more accurate, the latter is presented as a continuation of the former. "You are standing here today….in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your confirm you today as his people, that he may be your God as he spoke to you and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." Why is this important? Because the very existence of Israel as a covenant people and the Torah as the book of the covenant began, not at Sinai, but with these three, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To them was the blessing of God to be a chosen people first pronounced. Through them the promise of a special land was first made. In their lifetimes were the first laws of the covenant given and obeyed (e.g., circumcision), while others were foreshadowed (e.g., tithe). As God declares in Gen. 26:5, "Abraham heard my voice and kept my requirements, my commandments, my statutes and my laws."

4. The righteousness and faithfulness of the fathers, as well as God's favor shown to them, is often implied and sometimes clearly stated in these scriptures. I Chron. 29: 17-19 speaks of the integrity and devotion of the people Israel and their leaders, apparently in relation to that of the fathers before them. Compare Neh. 9:7-8, which refers specifically to Abraham's call by God: "You are the Lord God, who chose Abram.... You found his heart faithful before you and made the covenant with him...." Even more striking are the scriptures which invoke the character of the fathers in contrast to the people Israel. "Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Overlook the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin." (Deut. 9:27) The book of Micah, after praising God for his forgiveness of sins, ends with: “You will give truth to Jacob and kindness to Abraham that you swore to our fathers from days of old.” (Micah 7:20) The people Israel are thus identified with their patriarchs as God shows mercy to them.

A combination of these outlooks is found in the daily prayer. Prior to reading the Akeidah (Gen. 22), we say: “Remember on our behalf, O Lord our God, the love of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, the covenant and the kindness and the oath that you swore to Abraham our father on Mount Moriah, and the Akeidah when he bound Isaac his son on the altar…”

Then, at the conclusion of this reading, we say: "Not upon our righteousness do we bring our appeals before you, but upon your abundant mercy. What are we? What is our life? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our might? What can we say before You, O Lord our God and God of our fathers?....BUT we are your people, children of your covenant, the children of Abraham your beloved to whom you swore on Mount Moriah; the seed of Isaac, his only son bound on the altar; the community of Jacob, your firstborn son [cf. Exod. 4:22] who, because of the love with which you loved him and the joy with which you rejoiced in him, you called his name Israel and Jeshuran...."

Even more direct is the repetition of the Amidah during the Afternoon service on Yom Kippur: “May his [Abraham’s] righteousness be accounted to us (cf. Gen. 15:6); forgive us in the righteousness of the father.” And later: “You will yet remember for us the love of Abraham our lord, and his son, who was bound…, and the merit of Jacob…”

This perspective became a point of contention between Judaism and early Christianity, as reflected in two New Testament passages (Matt. 3:8-9, John 8:39). It also provided Paul with the basis for his own version: Paul claimed Abraham as “the father of all those who believe.” (Romans 4:11; cf. Galatians 3:7) But in Paul’s argument the faith of Abraham was only a ruse to cover for the real issue dividing Judaism and Christianity, which was and is the person of Jesus Christ.

But how does this perspective square with the plain message of Ezekiel? Tentatively, I would offer two possible answers:

1. It doesn’t. Ezekiel presents one side of God’s justice, while other scriptures and traditions point in another direction, to a more merciful perspective. Ezekiel presents measure-for-measure justice, which is the rule, but does not leave room for mercy, which is available at God’s discretion.

2. The scriptures and traditions which invoke the merit of the patriarchs do not presume upon God’s mercy; they merely (a) petition God in prayer, or (b) explain God’s mercy in this manner. So Ezekiel is correct, but not definitive, concerning God’s ways.


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