19 Oct

“In this early history of the Chosen People we see the will of God, man and the devil striving for the souls of men. In the sins of the patriarchs and their children, in the sins of their neighbours we see the weak wills of men and the malevolent will of the devil who seeks to draw men away from God.”



“God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees. He chose Abraham to be an instrument in the divine plan for the salvation of all men. To Abraham, in return for faith and obedience, God made great promises. He promised that Abraham would become a great nation, with a land of its own, and through him all nations would be blessed.

The blessings which God promises to Abraham seem to be chiefly the good things of this world: many descendants, enough to form a great nation; land enough to enable himself and his descendants to prosper; kings of his blood to rule in this world; and the extension, through his descendants, of these same blessings to the other nations of the world. The nature of these promises, their apparent worldliness, show clearly the wisdom and mercy, we might even say the tenderness of God in His dealings with men.


When God calls Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees it is clear that men have forgotten the one true God. They live in deep and dark ignorance of the existence of the infinite Spirit Who created them to live familiarly with Him. Abraham’s father, Thare, is a polytheist and an idolater. God has to reveal Himself to Abraham.

Ignorant of the very existence of the true God, the men of Abraham’s age were also ignorant of the holiness of God and of the holiness which man, the image of God, is called to practise. Their desires were focussed not so much on the beauties of the spirit as on the pleasures of this world. They thought not of heaven, but of the world. They did not dream of living with God, but rather of riches and possessions and of the children and servants who would bring these things to themselves and their race.


Abraham was no different from the men of his own time and place. It is for this reason that God, when He calls Abraham to reawaken in the world the knowledge of the one true God, stoops to the capacities and the dreams of Abraham. In His wisdom God knows how difficult it would be for Abraham to cast away entirely the worldliness which thousands of years of sinfulness had made the ordinary climate of all human thoughts and desires. In His mercy He calls Abraham with the promise of those blessings which He knows will bring forth the faith and obedience which He desires from him. To those who believe in God and His almighty power it is of course obvious that God could have given Abraham so great a gift of divine grace as to enable him at once to rise to the highest ideals of moral perfection. But God did not do so, and in this He shows us His great tenderness, both for Abraham and for all men. Just as God desired the free faith and obedience of Adam, so also He desires the free faith and obedience of Abraham. He will not overwhelm the soul and will of Abraham with His grace and power. He will entice it slowly from the long sleep of worldliness to the dawn of true religious spirituality. And so He promises Abraham, not the halls of heaven, the hush of a mysterious eternity, but the more modest space of and earthly land and kingdom, the rush and the bustle of an earthly nation.

Abraham was faithful and obedient to God, obedient even to the point of almost sacrificing his son Isaac to God. God rewards his loving faith and obedience. He makes Abraham the forefather of many descendants and He begins the work of blessing the whole world through the seed of Abraham. But while the fulfilment of the first blessing – the multiplication of the descendants of Adam – is a work of expansion, the fulfilment of the second blessing – the blessing of the whole world through Abraham – is a work of contradiction.


As Moses tells us the story of Abraham, Abraham begot children of Sara, his first wife, of Agar, the handmaid of Sara, and of Ceture, the wife he married after the death of Sara. But since the divine blessing passes only to Isaac, the son of Sara, the other children of Abraham appear in the story only for a moment and our attention is concentrated on Isaac.


Isaac marries Rebecca, and has two sons, Jacob and Esau. Esau becomes the father of the Edomites, and Jacob becomes Israel, the father of the Israelites, the Chosen People of God. By his two wives, Lia and Rachel, and by their handmaids, Zelpha and Bala, Jacob became the father of twelve sons: Ruben, Simeon, Levi, Juda, Issacher, Zabulon, Benjamin, Dan, Nephtali, Gad, Aser and Joseph. These, in their turn, became the forefathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.

God fulfilled his promise to Abraham; He gave him many descendants and He made Abraham and his children rich in worldly possessions. Of Abraham, at the time when he sojourned in Egypt, Moses says: ‘He had sheep and oxen, and he-asses, and men-servants and maid-servants, and she-asses and camels’ (Genesis 12:16). Of Isaac we read: ‘And the man was enriched, and he went on prospering and increasing, till he became exceedingly great. And he had possessions of sheep and of herds, and a very great family’ (Genesis 26:13-14). Jacob is wealthy enough to send to his brother Esau a gift of ‘two hundred she-goats, twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams, thirty milk camels with their colts, forty kine, and twenty bulls, twenty she-asses, and ten of their foals’ (Genesis 32:14-15). Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, becomes ruler over the whole of Egypt. This proved fortunate for the descendants of Abraham. When Jacob and his sons and their families were stricken with the same famine which afflicted Egypt and the adjacent countries, they descended into Egypt where they were well received by Joseph and saved from the famine.

God fulfils His promises. Through His descendants and their possessions Abraham is growing into a great nation. Under God’s providence, however, this movement of expansion is accompanied by a movement of contradiction. God has promised not only to bless Abraham and his descendants, but also to bless the whole of mankind through Abraham: ‘In thee (Abraham) shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). But this blessing is not to descend to mankind through all the descendants of Abraham. The channel through which God’s blessing will come to all men is not the whole race of Abraham but only a certain chosen stock, and even within this chosen stock the channel is constantly narrowing. God changes the name of Abram to Abraham to signify that Abraham is to be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). Of the children of Abraham God chooses Isaac to be the bearer of the divine blessing to mankind: ‘…my covenant I will establish with Isaac’ (Genesis 17:21). ‘In Isaac shall thy seed be called’ (Genesis 21:12).


Isaac passes on this divine blessing to his son Jacob (Genesis 27:28-29). God Himself ratifies the choice: ‘I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth: Thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and thy seed all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 28:13-14). This blessing Jacob gives only to Juda of his twelve sons: ‘Juda, thee shall thy brethren praise. Thy hands shall be on the necks of thy enemies: the sons of thy father shall bow down to thee. Juda is a lion’s whelp: to the prey, my son, thou art gone up. Resting thou hast couched as a lion, and as a lioness. Who shall rouse him? The sceptre shall not be taken away from Juda, nor a ruler from his thigh, till he come that is to be sent: and he shall be the expectation of nations. Tying his foal to the vineyard, and his ass, O my son, to the vine. He shall wash his robe in wine, and his garment in the blood of the grape. His eyes are more beautiful than wine: and his teeth whiter than milk’ (Genesis 49:8-12).

The blessing of all men is to come through Abraham, but through a channel which is continually growing smaller. From Abraham it descends to Isaac, from Isaac to Jacob, from Jacob to Juda, and from Juda it will descend to one individual who is the one ‘that is to be sent… the expectation of nations.’ Jacob’s prophecy about Juda seems to imply that finally the salvation of the world will be brought about by a single descendant of Juda. Through one specific descendant of Juda the divine plan for the reconciliation of man with God will take place.


From Abraham to the twelve sons of Jacob and their children, the family of Abraham is growing in numbers and in wealth and power. And hidden in the midst of this growing multitude is the seed of human salvation. The seed of salvation lies cradled in the growing race of Israel.

In the growing race of Israel God is preparing the salvation of the world. But this salvation means the reconciliation of men to God. It means therefore that men who are disobedient to God will become obedient to Him, that men who do not believe in God will come to faith in Him. God said of Abraham: ‘Can I hide from Abraham what I am about to do: Seeing that he shall become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations shall be blessed? For I know that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, and do judgement and justice: that for Abraham’s sake the Lord may bring to effect all the things he hath spoken unto him’ (Genesis 18:17-19). Through Abraham men will keep the way of the Lord and do judgment and justice. But the obedience which God seeks is a free obedience, the obedience of love, and men have for generations, for thousands of generations, been binding their wills over to the devil and sin.


Through Abraham the world of men will be reconciled to God. But the preparation of mankind for this reconciliation will be slow. This is apparent even in the behaviour of Abraham and his immediate posterity. Abraham himself allows the Pharaoh of Egypt to take Sara under the illusion fostered by Abraham, that she is only the sister of Abraham. He is a polygamist, taking Agar to wife while Sara is still alive. Jacob lies to his father Isaac and so steals the divine blessing which Isaac meant to bestow upon Esau. Jacob, too, is a polygamist, taking to wife Lia and her sister Rachel, and their handmaidens, Zelpha and Bala. Dina, the daughter of Jacob, was ravished by Sichem. The sons of Jacob, her brothers, were righteously indignant at this horrible crime, but they wreaked an even more horrible revenge upon the Sichemites. Juda sinned with Thamar, who had been wife to two of his sons and was promised to Sela, his third son. The brothers of Joseph sought to kill him, and finally sold him into captivity to the Madianites.


In the midst of a people as sinful as this, God is preparing the salvation of mankind. In their sins the evil wills of the devil and of men are clearly seen. But we can also see the first faint glimmering of the divine light returning to man. Through Abraham the knowledge of the one true God is returning to the earth. Abraham believes and his faith is reputed to him unto justice. Isaac believes and Jacob and the sons of Jacob. It is not easy to keep this faith alive in the minds and hearts of the people. Jacob has to take measures to destroy idolatry and polytheism among his people: ‘And Jacob having called together all his household, said: Cast away the strange gods that are among you, and be cleansed and change your garments’ (Genesis 35:2).


In this faith Abraham and his descendants are obedient to God. In obedience Abraham leaves Ur and goes to Haran, and then to Egypt, and thence back to Palestine. In obedience to God Abraham circumcises himself and all the males in his household as a sign of the covenant between God and the race of Abraham. In response to God’s command Jacob leaves Mesopotamia, where he had become rich, and returned to Palestine. In fact, so great does the reliance on God of this Chosen People become that Jacob and his sons will not go down into Egypt to escape the ravages of the famine until God assures them that He will protect them and bring them out of Egypt safely in due time. In a world that has forgotten the one true God surely this faith and obedience are already a sign of the mercy of God slowly working out the divine promise of salvation.

Moreover, through this Chosen People the name of the one true God is becoming known to the other peoples of the region. To rescue his nephew Lot from captivity Abraham made war on Amraphel, the king of Senaar, and Arioch, king of Pontus, and Chodorlahomor, king of the Elamites, and Thadal, king of nations. After his victory Melchisedech, the king of Salem, offers a sacrifice of bread and wine to the God of Abraham. When Abimilech, the king of Gerara, unknowingly took Sara, Abraham’s wife, for himself, God appeared to him and commanded him to give Sara back to Abraham. When Jacob, with his wives, children, servants and flocks, seeks to flee from Laban, his father-in-law, God appears to Laban and commands him not to deal harshly with Jacob. In all these instances at least an intimation of the existence of the one true God was given to other peoples through Abraham and his descendants.


But the return of man to God is slow. Both God and man move slowly. Man, at his time, is so far from God that his progress to God is a long road, with many turnings, even some delays or cutbacks. But constantly God is leading man upward from the darkness and ignorance and turmoil of sin and unbridled passions to the purity and holiness which is his birthright as the image of God.

This slowness of the divine plan is strikingly illustrated in the captivity of the children of Abraham in the land of Egypt. A great famine afflicted Egypt and Canaan, the land in which Jacob and his sons and families were dwelling. But in Egypt, Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, had risen to the position of ruler of Egypt under the Pharaoh. Under the divine inspiration he had wisely provided ahead of time for the famine. Egypt was plentifully supplied with food. Under divine guidance Jacob and his sons and their families go down into Egypt. And here they remain several hundred years before God leads them out to seek possession of the land which God has promised them.

The length of their sojourn in Egypt is a proof that God is working slowly to mature them into a nation fit to be the chosen people of God, fit to be the channel through which salvation would come to all the world. First of all, their journey into Egypt is a divine test of their faith. Jacob and his children are reluctant to go into Egypt. But God says to Jacob: ‘Fear not, go down into Egypt, for I will make a great nation of thee there. I will go down with thee thither, and will bring thee back again from thence…’ (Genesis 46:3-4).

Then in Egypt God fulfils his promise to make Israel a great nation. In Egypt through the kindness of Joseph they escape the dangers of the great famine. They are given the land of Gessen for themselves. There ‘the children of Israel increased, and sprung up into multitudes. And growing exceedingly strong they filled the land’ (Exodus 1:7). In the course of time so numerous and strong do they become that the Pharaoh fears them and begins to oppress them ‘lest they multiply’ (Exodus 1:10).

It is legitimate to imagine that their long dwelling in the land of Egypt helped to prepare them for their ultimate conquest and rule of the land promised by God in Palestine. When they went down into Egypt they were semi-nomads, making their livelihood by herding sheep, cattle and goats, and by some agriculture. From the point of view of civilisation and culture they were inferior to the great empires of Babylonia and Egypt which flourished on either side of them. But in Egypt they came into close contact with a flourishing civilisation. From the Egyptians they may well have learned the arts and crafts, from building and sculpture to war and government, which were to help in the making of the Kingdom of God in the Promised Land.


In this early history of the Chosen People we see the will of God, man and the devil striving for the ssouls of men. In the sins of the patriarchs and their children, in the sins of their neighbours we see the weak wills of men and the malevolent will of the devil who seeks to draw men away from God. But, in the revelations of God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob we see God beginning to save man in spite of man’s sinfulness. In the hidden ways in which God is working with mankind, choosing one race to be the channel of salvation, and in fact one of the weaker races of men, in the patience and forbearance which He shows to the weakness of His Chosen People, in the long time He takes to prepare His people for the ultimate deliverance of men from sin and the devil, we see both God’s tenderness with men and the strong and sure way in which He will fulfil His promise to bring men victory over the devil, sin and death.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959


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