Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 029. Introduction

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 029. Introduction

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1. Of all the characters of early Bible history, there is hardly one that stands out with greater prominence than the patriarch Abraham. And not only is it his history and personality that are important, the historical facts touched upon in the course of his biography are equally so. Facts concerning the ancient East, from Babylonia on the east to Egypt on the west, face the reader as he goes through that attractive narrative, and make him wonder at the state of society, the political situation, and the beliefs of the people which should have made his migrations possible, brought about the monotheistic belief which characterizes his life and that of his descendants, and enabled him and his sons after him to attain such a goodly store of the riches of this world.

2. Standing as the traditional father of the race among the mists of dim antiquity, it was inevitable that the character of Abraham should be idealized. In the stories which they have preserved, each group of Biblical writers has sketched its ideal. In the Judæan prophetic narratives Abraham is the friend of God, the man of perfect faith who in a cruel, selfish, warring age lived at peace with all men. Indifferent concerning the present, his supreme joy was in the Divine promises regarding his descendants. Although a son of Adam he is represented as attaining that intimate and harmonious acquaintance with God which was originally the possession of the first man. In the Ephraimite narrative he is called, and is pictured as, a prophet, in dreams foreseeing the future, intent only upon carrying out the Divine command, even though it cost him his dearest possession, and ever personally directed and protected by God. In the Priestly narrative he is the ideal servant of the law, conforming punctiliously, according to his dim light, to the demands of the ritual. In the independent narrative of Gen_14:1-24 he figures in a very different role. Instead of being afraid to call his wife his own, he is the fearless knight, who with a handful of men puts to flight the allied armies of Elam and Babylonia, and magnanimously restores to the plundered cities all the captured spoil, except something for his Amorite companions and a portion for the priest of the Most High. Later Jewish traditions make him also the conqueror of Damascus; while another group of stories pictures him as the apostle of monotheism, preaching to the idolatrous Babylonians and Egyptians the one true God. Another represents him as being borne in a fiery chariot to heaven, where he abides, receiving the faithful to his bosom. Christians and Moslems further modified and enlarged the portrait. Thus in succeeding ages, prophets, priests, patriots, and theologians all projected their ideals into these concrete portraits of the father of their race. It is comparatively unimportant whether or not there was a man at the beginning of Hebrew history who possessed all the virtues and the spiritual enlightenment attributed to him by later generations. Abraham is more than an historical figure, he is the embodiment of those exalted ideals which made the Israelites what they were.

3. Many rays of interest focus in the story of Abraham. His portrait is drawn with such detail that it lives before us, with the same hopes and fears, golden hours and hours of depression, that are familiar factors in our own lives. Then, also, his life is so constantly referred to in the Old Testament, and in the New, that it would seem as if the right understanding of it is necessary to give us the clue to many a difficult passage, and many a sacred doctrine, in the succeeding pages of the Bible. Nor can it fail to interest us to discover the reason why the wild Bedouin of the desert and the modern Englishman-the conservative East, and the progressive and swift-moving West; the Muhammadan and the Christian-can find in the tent of the first Hebrew a common meeting-ground, and in himself a common origin.

Professor Max Müller, in a well-known Essay on Semitic Monotheism published many years ago, has a remarkable passage on the great place which belongs to Abraham in the history, not of the Jews alone, but of the human race. He says that faith in the one living God, wherever it exists-that is, as a real religious force, not merely as a philosophical speculation-“may be traced back to one man,-to him in whom ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' ” “We see in him,” he continues, “the life-spring of that faith which was to unite all the nations of the earth. We want to know more of that man than we do; but even with the little we know of him he stands before us as a figure second only to one in the whole history of the world.”1 [Note: Chips from a German Workshop, i. 373.]

That is a remarkable estimate; I am not sure that it is an exaggeration. The Lord Jesus Christ stands apart and alone-in a supremacy which removes Him from all comparison with even the greatest of mankind. But there is no other that can be placed by the side of Abraham, if we estimate his greatness by the immense and beneficial effect of his life and character on the condition of mankind.2 [Note: R. W. Dale.]

One simple fact serves to measure the evangelical importance which attaches to the biography of Abraham. In some fourteen or fifteen passages of the New Testament we find his place in the unfolding of revelation distinctly referred to. In several of these passages incidents of his career are carefully discussed, in order to illustrate or confirm cardinal principles of the gospel. Our Lord Himself in His controversy with the Jews, St. Paul in his two leading theological epistles, St. James, and the anonymous writer to the Hebrews, all devote long passages to the exposition of Abraham's position or of the lessons of his life. In fact, the section of the Book of Genesis in which this patriarch's career has been recorded may be called the principal as well as the earliest seed-plot of evangelical teaching; the original field, as it were, in which God sowed those germs of revealed truth which were to ripen through many a changeful century into the harvest of the Christian gospel.1 [Note: J. O. Dykes, Abraham, 12.]