In his book about Abraham, Fear and Trembling, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “It is abhorrent to my soul to talk inhumanly about greatness, to let it loom darkly at a distance in an indefinite form, to make out that it is great without making the human character of it evident — wherewith it ceases to be great.”
Kierkegaard is lamenting that preachers of his time portray being a person of faith as not so hard after all. You might undergo such a test as Abraham did, but you will pass the test, and all will be well.
But what about the appalling nature, from a human point of view, of what Abraham was asked to do with his son Isaac? What went through Abraham’s mind during the three-day trek to Mount Moriah?
The Bible doesn’t tell us this, but it does tell us what Abraham did and said, and Stephen Binz’s book Abraham: Father of All Believers helps the reader to wring out all the meaning and truth in Abraham’s story using the ancient tradition of lectio divina or “sacred reading.”
“Lectio is more than ordinary reading,” writes Binz, who studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, has authored more than two dozen books, and is a licensed psychotherapist. “It might be described as listening deeply — what St. Benedict in the sixth century described as hearing ‘with the ears of the heart.’”
That would be the first of five movements in lectio divina. The second, meditatio, is “reflecting on the meaning and message of the text”; oratio is “praying in response to God’s word”; contemplatio is “quietly resting in God”; operatio is “faithful witness in daily life.”
Binz helps the reader employ these movements to explore the major episodes of Abraham’s life and the meaning of that life, as revealed in the New Testament. He deftly weaves together, in each chapter, a Scripture passage, a section on how the passage is viewed in Church tradition, and a series of questions guiding the reader through the movements of lectio divina.
And Binz points out the frailty through which faith, nevertheless, expresses itself. Commenting on the episode in which Abram, because he fears being killed, gives his wife, Sarai, to the Pharaoh, Binz writes:
The Bible consistently shows the heroes of faith as they really are, not as we might wish them to be. This account of Abraham stands in sharp contrast to the trusting faith demonstrated by his response to God’s call. Here the patriarch is shown in all of his human frailty, threatened by famine and physical peril and seeking desperate solutions. When people are put in extreme circumstances, they often face excruciating choices about how to survive.
The Bible, then, is shown to be the ultimately realistic book, realistic in describing both the natural and the supernatural realms.
The emphasis, however, that Binz places in his introduction on how Abraham is the father of all three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and how perhaps some semblance of unity could be found if this was emphasized, is misplaced. This is wishful thinking that often produces the opposite of the intended result. And the meditatio questions were at times too basic and meant to just make sure the reader had read the passage.
But, overall, Abraham: Father of All Believers, is a bracing guide to the essence of Abraham, which is faith — what Kierkegaard called “the highest passion in a man.”
Register correspondent Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.
Father of All Believers
By Stephen J. Binz
Brazos Press, 2011
192 pages, $11.99
To order: BrazosPress.com