The Patron: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
We talk a lot about God in the Church – as one might expect – and it occurred to me recently that we rarely talk about God himself. Seeing as how we’re monotheists, we believe that there is only one God. God is in a category all his own, with no one else like him. And most of us talk about God as if we all know whom we’re referring to and what he’s like.
But this obscures the fact that different people describe God in very different ways. How then can they be talking about the same God? Does it matter that they define him differently, so long as they all believe there’s only one? And what about all those other religions, and what they teach? If there’s only one God, and he knows himself better than anyone can describe him, could we all be right? Or at least, equally wrong, and therefore equally right, when we offer our way to God as the “right” way? What does it mean to believe in God? What does God want from us?
I was mulling all this over recently, and I thought, there’s a lot that we don’t say much about. We’re too busy arguing over morals and organizing good works – which are good things, but . . . Who is God? What do we really know about him – and how do we know it?
Well, to answer such a set of questions, we begin with Abraham – or Abram, as he is known at first. In the New Testament, we read, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Both Paul and James talk about this. Paul emphasizes that Abraham trusted in God’s promises, while James emphasizes that Abraham acted upon God’s promises; and both are two sides of the same faith, and it is that kind of faith that makes one “righteous,” that is, right with God. When we profess our belief in the God of Abraham, we follow in Abraham’s footsteps, and we are reckoned as righteous, too; and so, Abraham is called “the Father of the Faithful.”
But what did Abraham know of the God who called him to leave Haran and wander down south into Canaan? And what did he call his god? After all, there were many gods on offer in those days, and to tell one from another required one to call each of them something. And what kind of relationship did Abraham think he had with this god? To answer those questions, even briefly, we have to understand what polytheism – the belief in many gods – felt like to those who practiced it.
There were lots of gods with many different names and attributes back then, with lots of different rituals used in their worship. The knowledge of the one God was obscured by this welter of divinities; Abraham’s god is called El Elyon, “God Most High”, which would seem to imply that he was top of the heap, but in fact, El Elyon was no more than a minor deity among those of the Western Semitic people who lived throughout the Middle East, and from whom Abraham came. And the other peoples round about – the Sumerians and the Egyptians, and all the rest - they had their gods, too. There were sky gods, sun gods, fertility goddesses, gods of the city and of the king, minor gods who watched over special places, and deities of trades and domestic duties.
Some people, especially those who were priests, favored the worship of one particular god more than the others, but that didn’t usually mean anything exclusive. The service of the gods was eclectic and elastic: you worshiped the gods of your city at home, but when you traveled you worshiped the gods of the places you passed through. This was partly considered merely good manners, but also, most polytheists thought that their various gods had what might be called “jurisdictions,” and when you were out of your god’s reach and in some other supernatural power’s bailiwick, it made sense to offer a little worship to keep the local deities (and their followers) on your side.
The complications of believing in so many gods – even if they weren’t your people’s gods – gave rise to two simultaneous but contradictory impulses within polytheism. First, there was a tendency toward the consolidation of identities. You have a sun god, we have a sun god; maybe he’s the same god, but just has two different names? And so, you have this tendency to reduce the number of gods by identifying the gods of this people with the gods of that people according to their functions: the Great Mother is Venus, is Cybele, is Astarte, is Isis, and so on.
But at the same time, you find that even among peoples who have the same names for their gods, their stories differ. The Apollo of this city is a plague god whose symbol is a mouse, while their Apollo is more of a sun god; let’s call one Apollo Smintheus and the other, Apollo Helios. In the end, the identities of the gods recombine and divide again, endlessly. The whole thing defies definition. It’s a good thing that none of the gods of polytheism were particularly demanding, especially as regards what we call “ethics.” Each required proper attention, the correct ritual now and then, but few of them cared much about being good – that was philosophy, not religion.
Now, Abraham’s family were all polytheists. His father, Terah, was an idol-maker, and we later find his great-niece Rachel stealing her father Laban’s household gods when she escapes from him with her husband Jacob. Abraham moved among and made friends with polytheists all throughout Canaan; his favorite place to stay was by the oaks of Mamre, which was a Canaanite religious center. All these people saw in Abraham’s devotion to his god nothing terribly different from what they were doing. But when God Most High – El Elyon – calls him to leave Haran, he approaches him with an offer of what we might call patronage: “you for me, me for you.”
God Most High is offering to be Abraham’s personal patron god in return for his exclusivity and his obedience. From that time on, we never see Abraham worshiping any other god, and he demonstrates his obedience over and over, even daring at one point to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice, through which God showed him that he wasn’t that kind of a god.
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves."
“You for me, me for you.”
It’s an unequal relationship, in which God occupies the position of Patron and Abr occupies the position of Servant, but it is equally binding on both sides. We call this kind of mutual bond a Covenant. And since the God of Abraham is the god we follow, it should be no surprise that the relationship he calls us to have with him is this selfsame covenant. Jesus brings it to us – he reconciles us to God through himself – but it is still the same covenant.
The Jews of his day protested. They said, “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?” To which he replied, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then accused him of vain talk: “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?” To which Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
Jesus offers us a New Covenant, which is but the Old Covenant restated with the promises of God now given to everyone who enters that relationship of exclusivity and obedience. In one way, it’s a lot easier to profess faith in the God that was in Christ than in the God of Abraham; we know more of his story, and he isn’t obscured by all those other fictions and imposters. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to believe, and then act on that belief. God still has many competitors, nor is Jesus the only person claiming to speak for him. But at bottom, the relationship that Jesus offers you and me is the same kind of relationship that Abraham was offered: “you for me, me for you.”
When we talk about “accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord,” we are talking about entering into this relationship with God through Christ. We turn from our own desires and surrender ourselves to him, to be his alone, to obey only him, to be faithful to him – and he promises in return to be faithful to us, to keep his promises. Jesus promises that he will never forget nor forsake his followers, that he will be with them in all of their difficulties, that he will take away their sin, that even death will not separate them from his love, that beyond death he waits for them. And not he alone: he will bring us to Abraham’s bosom, as the Jews called it – to the company of those who believe in our God. Finally, his followers will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
Now, I said that there are all kinds of competitors and compromises that can confuse you and get you off track in your desire to follow Jesus. Indeed, there are all kind of distractions that keep us from acting upon our faith in him, some of them put in our way by the nicest people. There are just all kinds of folk who don’t understand – who think you’re crazy or ignorant or bigoted because you won’t include their values and their idols in your menu of what you worship. They’ll talk about diversity, they’ll talk about being broad-minded, they’ll talk about not being “one of them” – anything to get you to blend your beliefs and practices with the ones they prefer. And they’ll keep putting things in your way, to keep you from following Jesus.
Are they trying to discourage you from following God in Christ? Oh, maybe some of them are. But most of them are just like those old polytheists, for whom religion was pretty elastic – something you do when you’re worried, or there’s a festival – something you do when you’ve got time for it. They just don’t see how anything they want could ever get in the way of what you want, because they don’t see the call of God on your life as something that should make you leave anything behind in order to follow that call. They don’t think anything religious could ever be as important as some of the things they value: work things, school things, hanging out with your friends, whatever.
But we follow someone who has called us to leave the old behind in order to receive the promises that await us. Jesus said, those who set out on a journey and keep looking back are not fit for the kingdom of God; they’ll never get anywhere. How different from Abraham, who left everything to follow God wherever he might lead, in order to receive his promises.
After Abraham’s death, God appeared to Isaac and said, And when Jacob left home to find his way, God appeared to him and gave him the same promises, to see him through and bring him back, and make him a blessing. And from this personal relationship came God’s relationship with the descendants of Abraham, the People of God, and out of their families came Jesus the Christ, who now offers everyone, everywhere the same relationship, the same promises.
He will be your patron: “you for me, me for you.” If you will promise to follow him, and him alone, all the days of your life, he promises to make it worth your while, and more than worth it – for if you will give him your life, he will give you his life, which is Life Eternal.