“The world’s scriptures recount God speaking directly to many people, from Adam, Noah and Jesus in the West to a wide range of seers and mystics in the East. Yet the Divine also sends extraordinary spiritual messengers to get our attention and insure that we abide by his plan. Messengers who provide guidance and support from the heavens include figures such as the angel, Gabriel, who plays a key role in both the Gospels and the Quran. The Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, together with the Christian New Testament amount to an extensive documentation by God’s contractual agreements with the people of Israel and later with the followers of Jesus. According to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s intriguing theory, Adam and Eve were not actually punished for eating from the tree of knowledge but simply entered the world of human self-consciousness that separates us from the animals, who don’t have to make the kinds of moral and ethical decisions that are integral to thinking people’s lives. Adam, Eve, and Noah are clearly metaphorical figures who represent reinterpretations of the creation and flood myths of ancient Mesopotamia, which the ancient Hebrews would have assimilated in their culture along with a respect for law and order. But Abram, later called Abraham, must to some extent have been based on a flesh and blood character, the founder of Hebrew race and religion. The wisdom of men such as Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha shines through all mythic overlays and religious dogmas. The truths that they embodied in their lives transcend cultures and personal beliefs. You needn’t be an orthodox Christian to believe that you should love your neighbour as yourself, for instance. Nor do you have to be a Buddhist to acknowledge that the craving, hatred, and ignorance that derive from seeing ourselves as essentially separate from all other beings are the major source of suffering in our lives. Regardless of the master’s traditions, their teaching speak to us because they lived actual physical lives. They also confronted universal challenges on their paths to self-awareness and to comprehension of the power they carried inside them. Each of them had to awaken to the full measure of his Contract—they were not born enlightened. Their teachings are blueprints for what are spirits need to do to make the transition from seeing life in physical terms to understanding the purpose and meaning of life on a symbolic level. None of these figures truly saw his contract early on. Their life paths were not obvious but required that they develop the trust and stamina to surrender unconditionally to the will of Heaven. As a rule, that doesn’t happen to a child, or an adolescent or even a young adult. Nor does it happen all at once. We develop faith and other abilities in stages, and our progress becomes more obvious in midlife. These ancient spiritual leaders—as men—came face-to-face with God and truth. In their humanness these prophets, as well as numerous other saintly men and women, felt confusion and fear as they learned the meaning of their tasks. Guidance was often given to them when they needed it, but they still doubted themselves and felt abandoned, even despairing, as they sought to fulfill their mission, which some of them learned quite late in life. Each struggled with his ego and each was tested, some several times, to determine whether he could finally connect with the divinity within him. The ego or former self is no longer dominant but becomes a servant-companion, a vehicle through which the soul communicates message from the Divine. When you become conscious of your contract, as opposed to living it in an unconscious way, you go through a painful process of severance. You have broken away from the general mind-set, and the group to perceive your individuation—like anything new or different from the status quo—as a fundamental threat to its own unity.
The story of Abraham is one of the most renowned of all sacred scriptures, recounting the beginning of the nation of Israel and the Jewish people, destined to become one of the most mystical and enduring cultures on earth. The founding of Israel emerged out of a vision in which God called Yahweh communicated to an ordinary mortal named Abram that he was to found a nation and father a people. Yahweh gave a specific command that was to represent the bond between Abraham, his descendants and God.
Yahweh said to Abram, “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name so famous that it will be used as a blessing.”
• I will bless those who bless you;
• I will curse those who slight you.
• All the tribes of the earth
• Shall bless themselves by you.
So Abram went as Yahweh told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy five years old when he left Haran. Abram took his wife, Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had amassed and the people they had acquired in Haran. They set off for the land of Canaan, and arrived there.
Abram passed through the land as far as Shechem’s holy place, the Oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Yahweh appeared to Abram and said, “It is to your descendants that I will give this land.”
So Abram built there an altar for Yahweh who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the mountainous district east of bethel, where he pitched his tent, with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. There he built an altar to Yahweh and invoked the name of Yahweh. Then Abram made his way stage by stage to the Negeb.
We sometimes overlook how out of character with the life of Abram was the Lord’s command. According to the scripture, prior to the divine encounter Abram was not occupied with founding nations. We can fairly surmise that he was a man in a leadership role, because his preparation for the journey included gathering together “all the possessions (his family) had amassed and the people they had acquired in Haran.” But it would be a stretch to say that an individual of Abram’s modest leadership stature would have felt he was cut out for creating a nation or fathering a vast tribe.
No sooner had Abram settled in Canaan than he was forced to move his people to Egypt to escape a famine. He feared the Egyptians and devised a plan in which he essentially offered his attractive wife to Pharaoh in exchange for his safety. He told Sarai to identify herself as his sister so that Egyptians would treat him well and spare his life out of regard for her, or for the right to court her and probably, although it’s never overtly stated, bed her. Once Pharaoh took Sarai into his palace, Abram was rewarded with “flocks, oxen, donkeys, men and women slaves, she-donkeys and camels.” Yahweh inflicted severe plagues on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife (although Abram was not punished). Pharaoh summoned Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was your wife? Now, here is your wife. Take her and go!” To make sure, Pharaoh had his men escort Abram back to the frontier with his wife and possessions.
The story of Abram’s sojourn in Egypt gives us our first insight into the character of the man who received the greatest task in the history of Israel, and what we see isn’t attractive. He was a self-concerned coward who lied and pimped his wife to save himself and amass wealth. Having agreed to complete a profound undertaking for Yahweh, Abram proved his lack of faith right off by assuming that Yahweh would fail to protect him in the midst of danger, even though they had a contract that required that Abram live to fulfill it. There is no mention that Abram invoked the grace of Yahweh. Further, in accepting the gifts from Pharaoh, he clearly had no problem receiving wealth under false pretenses, nor any conflict with owning the slaves that Pharaoh also gave him. In fact later, as Abram, he again gave away Sarai, who had been renamed Sarah by God, to another king explaining, “There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me for my wife” (Gen.20:11). Yet God in this case appeared in the king’s dream to tell him that Abraham was actually a prophet and to restore his Sarah to him and to live peacefully with him. Let’s review Abram’s story symbolically rather than literally. To begin, the flaws in Abram’s character indicate that he was not a perfect spiritual being or a man of unlimited faith and vision. From the onset of trouble, he turned to acts of deceit as a means of survival, in spite of the fact that he had had a profound encounter with the Divine. The man who held the contract to found the nation of Israel struggled with his own nature, which included moral weakness, fear, and even greed. Yet it is crucial to recognize that these were characteristics of his ego, not his soul. Underneath Abram’s personality was a soul that had been awakened by divine intervention, a soul with visionary strength and the potential for spiritual stamina.
The key to understanding God’s choice of Abraham as a vehicle of divine will is to acknowledge that Abraham’s soul was able to rise to what the occasion demanded of him, just as we are asked to do in our own lives. What you may think of as your ordinary attributes are not a fair indication of what spiritually extraordinary attributes lie within you. The obvious is never the whole truth. Often the truth needs to be packed in great illusion to protect it from the carrier of that truth as well as from those who will eventually find their lives changing because of it. Abraham was an ordinary man with the same flaws as other human beings, yet he carried within him a most extraordinary contract, the consciousness of which would result in the birth of Israel and the rise of one of the earth’s great spiritual traditions. Abraham’s story tells us that our own flaws serve only to conceal the valuable nature of our potential contribution to humanity. For all our egotism and narcissism, we still tend to focus more on our faults than on our capacities and promise. And yet we all hold within us the potential for greatness and the potential to be of great service to others.
In fact, Abraham’s is the story of the birth of two great nations, in which lies another lesson of a sacred contract. Abram’s wife, Sarai could not have children, a fact that grieved them both, so Sarai told Abram to lie with her slave girl, Hagar. He agreed, and in time Hagar conceived, immediately changing her social status within the household. Notwithstanding her own role in creating this situation, Sarai was infuriated and told Abram that the shift of attention to Hagar was an insult to her. To appease his wife, Abram told Sarai that she could do as she pleased with Hagar, allowing Sarai to treat her so badly that she ran away.
As a slave, Hagar no doubt had little to say in the matter of bearing a child by Abram—she was more than likely forced into submission.. She was then forced further to endure cruel treatment from a jealous wife because of a pregnancy that she had not desired. Eventually she ran away, only to encounter an angelic messenger sent by Yahweh, who told her to return to Sarai in spite of her mistreatment.
By forgiving people who mistreat you, you do not absolve them of a personal responsibility or condone their actions. In Hagar’s case, her endurance of what was perhaps a necessary evil or obstacle led to her ultimate liberation. For the angel also told her that her son was to be called Ishmael, which in Hebrew means “God hears,” indicating that Yahweh had heard her cries of distress. When Hagar returned to Abram and Sarai, she was granted divine protection, and God promised both Hagar and Abram that their son would also found a nation. After the birth of his and Sarai’s son, Isaac, Abram did send Hagar away and again God protected her and Ishmael in the desert. According to Muslim tradition, Hagar left the Israelites and travelled down the Arabian Peninsula, to the Becca valley with her son Ishmael, who established a line of succession stretching to Prophet Muhammad. Today the world’s Muslims recognize Abraham as the father of their people and Hagar as their matriarch. Their story shows that we need to endure necessary evils in the service of our contract.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old Yahweh appeared to him and said, “I am El Shaddai (Hebrew “the Almighty”). Bear yourself blameless in my presence and I will make a covenant between myself and you and increase your numbers greatly.” Abram bowed to the ground and God said this to him, “Here now is my covenant with you: you shall become the father of a multitude of nations. You shall no longer be called Abram (Heb. “exalted father”); your name shall be Abraham (“father of a multitude”), for I will make father of a multitude of nations. I will make you most fruitful. I will make you into nations and your issue will be kings. I will establish my covenant between myself and you and your descendants after you, generation after generation, a covenant in perpetuity, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you the land you are living in, the whole land of Canaan, to own in perpetuity, and I will be your God.”
God said to Abraham, “You on your part shall maintain my covenant, yourself and your descendants after you, descendants after you, generation after generation. Now this is my covenant which you are to maintain between myself and you, and your descendants after you: all your males must be circumcised.” (GEN 17:-11)
The Covenant became the open declaration of the external and spiritual manifestation of Abraham’s contract with the Divine. It is actually the second time God used the word covenant with Abraham, but this time he required a sign of loyalty from Abraham and the men in his household. His promise to make him the father of a great people (Gen. 15:7-21). The orders he now gave Abraham, however, introduced into his tribe the belief that a divine force watches over us while expecting that we complete tasks it requires of us. The experiences and relationships that fill the calendar of our lives are there by design, all in support of the sacred contract established between us and God prior to our births. The covenant represents an image of an ‘honourable’ divine force that keeps His side of the bargain as long as Abraham and his kin keep theirs. The story of Abraham represents our first detailed glance of Divine-to-human intimacy in action, making that quality of union an active desire within the unconscious of every human being. Moreover the concept of ethical responsibility to others before God, which Israel introduced to the world, was itself an invaluable contribution to the development of human spirit uality that was implicitly sealed with the same covenant.
The final event in the life of Abraham that holds great significance is the birth of his son Isaac, when Abraham was a hundred years old. In the biblical account, when the boy was still quite young, God is said to have ‘tempted’ Abraham and told him, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Abraham agreed to the Lord’s directive without question. Early the next morning he got up, saddled his donkey, cut enough wood for the burnt offering, and with his son set out for the place God had told him about. When he got there,
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son, Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not with-held from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up, and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horn. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. (GEN. 22:6-14)
So even though we may reach the point at which we feel that we are finally doing what we are supposed to be doing, our faith will never stop being tested, because gaining insight into our covenant does not mean that we have perfected faith. Finally, we will be asked again and again to release the parts of our lives that mean the most to us. Yet at the end of the ‘ordeal,’ we will find that we have not given up anything but have instead been given much more in return.”