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Yeshua in Context » Abraham, Afterlife, Background to Gospels, General, Kingdom Future, Kingdom Present, Teaching of Yeshua » The Symbolic Use of Abraham

The Symbolic Use of Abraham

I asked my congregation a test question. I said, “What does Abraham represent in the gospels?” The answer I got was, “Faith.” It’s not a bad answer considering that this was before we had read a few Abraham texts in the gospels.

Yet, before we would jump to Paul’s explanation of Abraham (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:7), it is good to consider a step earlier than the realization that Abraham represents faith. It is eye-opening to re-read some of the Abraham texts in the gospels with an eye for first century Jewish ideas about election, covenant, and afterlife. Let’s begin with three texts:

Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3:8-10; cf. Luke 3:8-10).

When Yeshua heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Yeshua said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” (Matt 8:10-13).

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ (Luke 16:22-26).

In all three of these texts, Abraham represents Israel’s election as the Chosen People and the idea, current in Yeshua’s time, that being born a child of Abraham put a person in a privileged position with God.

Modern scholars, following E.P. Sanders, have called this belief covenantal nomism. Nomism refers to the Greek word for Law (nomos) and it is the idea that every Israelite, already being in covenant with God and privileged with inclusion in the afterlife already, would keep at least enough Torah (nomos) to remain Jewish. Sanders rightly dismissed the idea that first century Jews were like the Pelagians that Augustine fought or the medieval churchmen that Luther fought. They were not by the merit of their deeds thinking they gained position with God.

Yeshua’s problem (and John the Baptist’s problem) with the idea of Abrahamic privilege is much the same as Yeshua’s problem with what Temple and Torah had become. Yeshua did not reject Temple, Torah, or the Abrahamic promise. In every case, he rejected the false sense of privilege and entitlement that people felt as “the Chosen.”

John said to his audience at the Jordan that their rightness with God depended on repentance and living according to justice as in the Torah and prophets. Yeshua said that “sons of the kingdom” would be excluded from Abraham’s table in the messianic age while many gentiles from “east and west” would be included, because of faith. In the Lazarus and the Rich Man parable, both are Israelites and standard thinking would be that both would be at Abraham’s bosom (a reference to reclining at a table next to Abraham). Yet Yeshua says the rich man will be excluded because he ignored day after day the beggar at his gates, proving his hard heart was not for God.

Nearly every use of “Abraham” in the gospels, including John, is a reference to this notion of carnal election, privilege by birth, and is a vehicle for Yeshua to say, “Election in Abraham is not an invitation to the banquet to come, but a calling to be like Abraham in making this world like the one to come.”

See also a treatment of more Abraham texts in “Abraham in the Gospels.”

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Filed under: Abraham, Afterlife, Background to Gospels, General, Kingdom Future, Kingdom Present, Teaching of Yeshua

2 Responses to "The Symbolic Use of Abraham"

  1. Don says:

    In agreement of what you have stated, the advantage of being a physical descendant of Abraham is that the ordinances and principals of God were handed down to his progeny to be a nation of priest, to turn mankind back to God. If you do not keep the covenant and its principals, it is of no use to you. It is the same for everyone, attending services and hearing about the cause is not enough. Uttering the correct words is not enough. We must all ‘Do the Faith’, then, the covenant is fulfilled. If we help someone in need, we have some evidence that we are living in the faith. We all know this, but it is good to see it in different angles and in different context to get our attention. A clear picture is painted by James, chapter 2, verse 20-24 NIV:
    20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[e] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

  2. Don Young says:

    I would like to know more about Abraham. Thousands of years after his life, people from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds still want to be associated with Abraham. His experience with Isaac is central for Jews, Israelis and Christians. As far as I know Arabs, associate with him through Ishmael. He must have been an amazing person.

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