Results tagged “Abraham” from Reformation21 Blog

Imitatio Sanctorum


"The things related in Scripture are not always proper to be imitated." So notes Calvin midway through his commentary on the story of Isaac and Rebekah's engagement and marriage--a story that, rather unpromisingly to modern ears, begins not with star-cross'd lovers flung forth from the fatal loins of ancient foes, but with the efforts of Abraham's unnamed servant to contract a suitable spouse for his master's son from his master's place of origin. Calvin's permission (or even exhortation) not to imitate all that even Scripture's rosiest characters do comes as a relief in a chapter chalk full of ancient near-eastern practices and customs far removed from contemporary ritual.

Clear biblical mandates, rather than dubious examples, are to be our moral guide: "Whatever the Lord commands in general terms is to be accounted as an inflexible rule of conduct; but to rely on particular examples [of characters in the biblical narrative] is not only dangerous, but even foolish and absurd." And yet. Calvin feels quite happy to encourage imitatio Sanctorum when the biblical Saints of old conform to biblical precepts in their actions. And, rather unnervingly, he ends up, on the basis of that principle, applauding many of the doings in Gen. 24 that we are likely to think most dubious, and discouraging the doings that we are likely to think morally indifferent if not most acceptable. The reformer, as ever, drives a hard moral bargain, and refuses to leave us in our comfort zone when it comes to our personal conduct.

For instance, Calvin raises the alarm when Abraham's servant gifts Rebekah with a golden ring and two golden bracelets in exchange for her kindness to his camels at the well (Gen. 24.22), lest anyone think this demonstrates that "God approves ornaments of this kind, which pertain not so much to neatness as to pomp." For "we know," Calvin admonishes, "how highly displeasing to God is not only pomp and ambition in adorning the body, but all kind of luxury." Abstinence from such extravagance, especially for the fairer sex who might be more prone towards "adorning the body," is the safest path: "Because the cupidity of women is, on this point, insatiable, not only must moderation, but even abstinence, be cultivated as far as possible." But Calvin's words contain a moral warning for persons less interested in jewelry (i.e., me) as well. His swipe against "all kind of luxury" in addition to "pomp and ambition in adorning the body" spells trouble, presumably, for the Bimmers and Benzes in our churches' parking lots just as much as the bling on display inside.

Calvin likewise expresses concern over the method that Abraham's servant employs for choosing a spouse for Isaac (Gen. 24.10-12). He applauds the servant for making the decision a matter of prayer, but objects when the servant demands a peculiar sign from God spotlighting the right woman. The servant obviously "desires to be made fully certain respecting the whole affair of God" concerning the matter at hand. But since God never promises to disclose his sovereign purposes to us, we step out of line when we require or ask him to do so. "Since the servant prescribes to God what answer shall be given, he appears culpably to depart from the suitable modesty of prayer." That God went ahead and provided the requested sign to Abraham's servant speaks merely of God's "extraordinary indulgence," not the propriety of seeking such signs. Calvin seems considerably worried that the servant's sign-seeking, as recorded in the biblical text, might encourage others to indulge in "vain prognostications." The moral: don't seek a sign from God to determine your path forward. Pray for wisdom, observe whatever biblical commands might bear upon your choices in life, and step forward in faith and confidence that God is sovereign even over your freely made decisions. Or, as Augustine somewhat more bluntly put it, "love God and do what you want."

But other actions of the characters in Gen. 24 garner admiration from Calvin. So, for instance, he lauds the same servant whose sign-seeking he criticized when that servant praises God for leading him to Abraham's kin to find a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24.26-27), and again when that servant worships God in response to Laban and Bethuel's favorable response to his proposal for their daughter's marriage to Isaac (Gen. 24.52). The servant's proper example reminds us "always to have the providence of God before our eyes, in order that we may ascribe to him whatever happens prosperously to us."

Calvin's highest words of praise, however, are reserved for Rebekah's parents, who exercise just the right degree of parental involvement in their daughter's prospective marriage. When Laban puts the decision to accompany Abraham's servant back to Abraham's home to his daughter, Calvin notes with obvious approval that "[Laban] did not exercise tyranny over his daughter, so as to thrust her out reluctantly, or to compel her to marry against her will, but left her to her own free choice." This prompts further reflection from Calvin on the proper path for parents in negotiating marriages for their children. As always, Calvin presents his proposal on the matter as a via media between two extremes: "Truly, in this matter, the authority of parents ought to be sacred: but a middle course is to be pursued, so that the parties concerned may make their contract spontaneously, and with mutual consent." Love may not reign supreme in Calvin's perspective, but it has a voice. Or at least children have a voice. 

It's hard to see how any love but that for her parents played much of a role in Rebekah's decision to marry Isaac, since she had never met the chap. Calvin discerns a similar dynamic between Abraham and Isaac reflected in Gen. 24.67, which, in Calvin's view, records Isaac's free decision to make Rebekah his wife, no matter the role that Abraham played in securing the young woman. "Isaac was not compelled by the tyrannical command of his father to marry; but after he had given his mind to [Rebekah] he took her freely, and cordially gave her the assurance of conjugal fidelity."

One final note of praise is reserved for Rebekah when she veils herself, "a token of shame and modesty," upon first meeting Isaac. Calvin expresses complete confidence that this custom prevailed in every honorable age. "So much the more shameful," he complains, "is the licentiousness of our own age, in which the apparel of brides seems to be purposely contrived for the subversion of all modesty."

In sum, Calvin's application of the principle he enunciates in Gen. 24--that "things related in Scripture are not always proper to be imitated" -- may be open to criticism. His advice on marriage contracts and appropriate wedding apparel (veil and all), for instance, seem to reflect the mores and customs of his age more than unambiguous biblical commandments. His condemnation of luxurious living and vain prognostication strike me as somewhat better founded on biblical precept. Regardless, the principle itself that Calvin advances here is sound and well worth repeating--we are, after all, far too prone to seek whatever justification we can for whatever it is we want to do, whether in biblical examples or elsewhere.

On Burials and Bargains

Upon the surface, Genesis 23 seems rather curious in its choice of emphases. In the terse space of a single verse it records Sarah's death and Abraham's mourning (Gen. 23.2). The remaining twenty-odd verses (Gen. 23.3-20) of the chapter summarize Abraham's efforts -- admittedly intriguing but seemingly less significant -- to secure a proper place of sepulture for his deceased wife. "It is remarkable," Calvin comments, "that Moses, who relates the death of Sarah in a single word, uses so many in describing her burial."

Nevertheless, the Reformer, far from judging said account of Abraham's efforts "superfluous," finds in it critical fodder for reflection on two matters: human burial practices and the equally common if less grave (no pun intended) human art of haggling over prices.

To note the latter first, Calvin draws some significance from Abraham's careful and repeated insistence upon paying "full price" (Gen. 23.9) for a burial plot for Sarah. There is, Calvin believes, theological significance in Abraham's refusal to receive said plot as a gift: Abraham knows that this plot constitutes one piece of the land promised to him by God, and he will not receive from the hand of a heathen that which God ultimately intends to deliver to him. But Abraham also, to Calvin's thinking, exemplifies a properly moral approach to financial transactions more generally in his insistence upon paying "full price" for this land. Abraham essentially refuses, on moral grounds, a bargain -- and so Calvin implies (to our great discomfort I'm sure) should we in our own financial affairs.

Calvin assumes that all items should be bought and sold for their actual, inherent worth, utterly regardless of issues like supply, demand, or concern for profit margin. This conviction informs rather harsh words on his part for both retailers and consumers and their intuitive stance towards the other: "Where is there one to be found, who, in buying, and in other business, does not eagerly pursue his own advantage at another's cost? For while the seller sets the price at twice the worth of a thing, that he may extort as much as possible from the buyer, and the buyer, in return, by shuffling, attempts to reduce it to a low price, there is no end of bargaining." Thus "avarice" trumps "equity and justice."

Needless to say, perhaps, such morally loaded thinking about the practice of purchasing spells likely disaster for capitalist economies (no matter the notable efforts of some to enlist Calvin as an early modern champion for the same). It also likely stands to dampen considerably our enthusiasm for whatever bargains we (naively) believe we have bagged at whatever recent sale. On a more positive note, it might provide much-needed moral dimension to our outrage at inflated medical costs or bewilderment at fluctuating petrol prices.

Moving on. Calvin's comments on human burial practices are relatively surprising in light of his notorious insistence some years later that he himself be buried in an unmarked grave. One might anticipate Calvin taking a dour view of all ritual and custom whatsoever connected with burial of the dead. And, to be sure, Calvin does take a jab at both pagans and "papists" for their efforts "to outdo each other in various superstitions" and "ceremonies" attached to burial of their deceased. But the most basic (and ceremonial) act of burial itself -- an act Calvin perceives as "common" to every culture and civilization -- testifies not, in Calvin's judgment, to "foolish curiosity," "the desire of fruitless consolation," or universal "superstition," but rather to "the natural sense with which God has imbued the minds of men; a sense he has never suffered to perish, in order that men might be witnesses to themselves of a future life."

Calvin, in other words, believes that humankind's innate inclination to place their dead six feet (or so) under reflects some deeply imbedded, inherent, universal recognition of an "hour... coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [Christ's] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5. 28-29). Thus, while Calvin warns his readers against overly elaborate burial rituals, he will not let burial per se be stripped of its fundamental religious significance. "It cannot be denied that religion carries along with the care of burial." Burial is, in biblical-theological terms, a type (to which resurrection answers as the antitype). Every concrete act of placing a body in the ground, Calvin judges, witnesses to some future moment when that body will rise from the ground.

But Abraham's peculiar approach to burying his wife contains further religious significance in light of the peculiar promises that God has made to him. Abraham, it must be remembered, has been promised the land he currently traverses as a stranger as a permanent possession for his posterity (cf. Gen. 17.8). Abraham's insistence upon burying his wife in that land, and his concomitant refusal to see her buried indiscriminately among the heathen occupying that land, testifies to Abraham's faith and conviction of her share in that exclusive promise. Calvin discovers particular significance in this regard from the fact that Abraham proved far more concerned to secure a place of burial for Sarah (and ultimately himself) in the Promised Land than he did a place for them to dwell while Sarah was living (see Heb. 11.9).

Calvin writes: "[Abraham] bought a cave, in order that he might possess for himself and his family, a holy and pure sepulcher. He did not desire to have a foot of earth whereon to fix his tent; he only took care about his grave; and he especially wished to have his own domestic tomb in that land, which had been promised him for an inheritance, for the purpose of bearing testimony to posterity, that the promise of God was not extinguished, either by his own death, or by that of his family; but that it then rather began to flourish; and that they who were deprived of the light of the sun, and of the vital air, yet always remained joint-partakers of the promised inheritance. For while they themselves were silent and speechless, the sepulcher cried aloud, that death formed no obstacle to their entering on the possesses of it."

In sum, then, Abraham's care regarding Sarah's burial reflected Abraham's understanding that such provided concrete witness to two realities: first, that Sarah would rise again; and second, that Sarah was an heir of the land in which she was interred.

Of course, if Calvin's reading of Abraham's thinking (or rather, faith) on the matter of Sarah's burial is correct, Gen. 23 assumes much significance for how we approach burial in our own time and place. Much like Abraham and his family in Gen. 23, we are currently subject to death but anticipate resurrection from the same (cf. 1 Cor. 15.12-57) and we are heirs of a rather concrete piece of terrestrial real estate ("Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Matt. 5.5; cf. 2 Peter 3.13). Much like Abraham, then, our own approach to burying loved ones (or, for that matter, planning for our own burials) should reflect our faith in and longing for these two concrete promises of God.

To put the matter another way, we should, if Calvin is correct, approach burial with acute sensitivity to the message burial (or, alternatively, the lack thereof) communicates to others. Burial is fundamentally an act of witness and confession (both to God and others). Elaborate tombstones arguably testify to an over-investment in the riches and honors of this present world. Contempt for burial whatsoever (cremation?) likewise communicates, in its own discrete way, a failure in expectation for the resurrection and eternal possession that God has promised his people. A modest burial sends just the right message: this body, even in death, constitutes (together with the soul) one with whom God is decidedly not finished; one who stands (together with God's people) to possess the very land in which he or she now rests in all its transformed beauty and glory.

Calvin assumes that Abraham's divorce from his nephew Lot (Gen. 13.8-9) caused the eminent patriarch considerable pain. "There is no doubt," the Reformer writes, "that the wound inflicted by that separation was very severe, since he was obliged to send away one who was not less dear to him than his own life."

Such assumptions about Abraham's regard for Lot might surprise present-day students of Scripture. The biblical text, after all, seems to say precious little about the patriarch's sentiments towards his nephew. One could, perhaps, deduce some degree of affection towards Lot from Abraham's later efforts at intercession on behalf of Sodom after Lot had taken up residence there (Gen. 18.22-33). But Calvin's assumptions about Abraham's feelings for his brother's son (Gen. 11.27) seem to stem from other considerations.

There is, firstly for Calvin, the simple fact that Lot is family to Abraham. Calvin, in other words, seems to take it for granted that extended family relationships necessarily entail fondness. That assumption might prove foreign to present day (especially American) persons, simply because, whatever expectations we harbor for affection within the nuclear family, we tend to accept cooler relations with extended family members as fairly common. There may be multiple reasons for that reality; the fact that modern folk are far more mobile than their predecessors, and thus less likely to live in the vicinity of extended family members, surely plays some part. Whatever the case, it's likely that Calvin's expectation of closer extended family relations reflects, more so than modern (American) social norms, ancient near eastern reality.

Calvin's assumptions about Abraham's feelings for Lot seem to stem, secondly, from consideration that Abraham had, thus far in his life, no immediate children of his own. God's promise of progeny for Abraham was yet to be fulfilled. This, coupled with the fact that Lot's father Haran had died when the entire family still lived in Ur, leads Calvin to suppose that Lot was something like an adopted child to Abraham. The patriarch, Calvin asserts, "held [Lot] in the place of an only son."

Thirdly - and, I think, most compellingly - there is the fact, well spotted by Calvin, that Scripture goes out of its way to highlight the fact that God spoke to Abraham in the immediate aftermath of the split between uncle and nephew. "The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, 'Lift up your eyes and look..., for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever'" (Gen. 13.14-15; emphasis mine). Calvin reasons that God addressed Abraham at this precise juncture, and repeated his promise of offspring to him, precisely in order to lift Abraham's spirits from his state of sadness. "When it is said, therefore, that the Lord spoke," Calvin writes, "the circumstance of time requires to be noted; [it is] as if [Moses] ... said that the medicine of God's word was now brought to alleviate [Abraham's] pain."

Calvin is not, of course, claiming that God repeated his promise to Abraham at this precise juncture solely for the sake of providing the patriarch with a pick-me-up. The repetition of the promise also (or rather, ultimately) served to "cherish and confirm Abraham's faith." Calvin is ever keen to make the point that faith rests wholly upon God's promises, and cannot be sustained without regular recourse to them. God's promise of a seed as numerous as the sand (Gen. 13.16), and his promise of the Seed (Gen. 3.15; cf. Gal. 3.16) among Abraham's seed who would ultimately reverse the effects of the fall, was necessary to keep Abraham's expectation and reliance upon God's (saving) provision alive and well.

Nevertheless, Calvin emphasizes more than once his conviction that God's word of promise to Abraham at this particular juncture was both a prop to Abraham's faith and medicine for him in his season of sorrow. "Thus we see how greatly the [divine word] had profited him: not that he had heard anything from the mouth of God to which he had been unaccustomed, but because he had obtained a medicine so seasonable and suitable to his present grief, that he rose with collected energy towards heaven."

Abraham's orientation towards heaven in response to God's promissory medicine requires careful note.  Calvin makes it abundantly clear, with this and more extended statements, that Abraham discovered solace in God's word because he grasped the true nature of God's promise. Abraham realized, in other words, that God was offering him and his (spiritual) descendants, based on the person and work of one particular Descendant, much more than a piece of prime ancient near eastern real estate. And, to be sure, Abraham would appear somewhat ignoble if his sorrow over the loss of one whom he "held... in the place of an only son" could be remedied by reminders of his own pending biological children and increased land holdings. The source, rather, of Abraham's succor was his conviction, based on God's word, that he was ultimately heir to the true Canaan, a land where pain and sorrow have no place (Rev. 21.4) and perfect, permanent relationships -- with God, and with one another -- prevail.

This point is particularly important, since it permits us to recognize that God offers us -- with equal generosity and equal sensitivity to our own seasons of grief -- the very same "medicine" he proffered to Abraham in the patriarch's time of sadness. Indeed, Scripture's record of "the medicine of God's word" of promise which answered Abraham's "pain" ultimately "teaches us that the best remedy for the mitigation and the cure of [our own] sadness is placed in the word of God."

Sadness, of course, can stem from any number of factors. The loss of loved ones, whether through death or the breakdown of relationship, poses particular pain to God's people. Calvin's reflections upon Abraham's grief over the loss of Lot, and God's tender "remedy" to him in the form of his promise, point us towards the best source of solace when we find ourselves suffering similar sorrow. Worldly pleasures might provide temporary distraction from heartache, but God's people have recourse to "medicine" which is particularly "seasonable and suitable to... grief," and they would do well to swallow it whole, as often as they can.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Scripture's account of Terah and Abraham's departure from Ur of the Chaldeans for Canaan (via Haran) presents Calvin with a difficulty. In Genesis 11.31 it appears that Terah takes the initiative in quitting Chaldea for the greener pastures of some other place. In Genesis 12.4 it appears that Abraham, in response to the divine call (Gen. 12.1), takes the initiative to abandon country and kindred in favor of a land yet to be named.

Calvin takes the line that Abraham, not Terah, orchestrated the family's departure from the city of Ur. In support of this position there is, first of all, the fact that God's call to Abraham to "go from your country and your kindred" makes precious little sense if Abraham had already done so in filial submission to his father. Had Abraham already left Chaldea in Terah's train, he might, Calvin wryly observes, have responded to God's command by insisting: "I have left my country, I am far removed from my kindred." The very substance of God's directive to Abraham, in other words, supposes that Abraham was "settled in his [Chaldean] nest, having his affairs underanged, and living quietly and tranquilly among his relatives."

There is, secondly, the evidence of subsequent canonical references to Abraham's call. In Gen. 15.7, God, again in dialogue with Abraham, names himself as the one who brought Abraham "out from Ur of the Chaldeans," not as the one who directed Abraham to Canaan after Terah had already uprooted the family. So also Joshua names Abraham, not Terah, as the one whom God brought forth from an eastern land of (un)happy idolaters (Joshua 24.2-3). Most definitively, perhaps, there is Stephen's testimony in Acts 7.2-4: "The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.' Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans...."

Calvin is also sensitive, thirdly, to the paradigmatic nature of God's call to Abraham. In his view, the divine call which triggers Abraham's departure from idolatrous Ur for an eventual land of Yahweh worshippers serves as a theological model of sorts for that divine call which prompts elect sinners to quit the kingdom of darkness for the kingdom of God's Son. Should Abraham have already left idolatrous Ur when God's call came, one might get the impression that God helps those that have to some degree already helped themselves -- that God, in other words, privileges sinners who have cleaned up their act to some extent (and thus set sail from the shores of the kingdom of darkness, even if they haven't yet determined a destination). 

Calvin puts it this way: "This calling of Abram is a signal instance of the gratuitous mercy of God. Had Abram been beforehand with God by any merit of works? Had Abram come to him, or conciliated his favour? Nay, we must ever recall to mind, (what I have before adduced from the passage in Joshua,) that he was plunged in the filth of idolatry; and now God freely stretches forth his hand to bring back the wanderer." Calvin's understanding of divine election and the outworking of the same in vocation, justification, sanctification, and glorification leaves no room for sinners to prepare themselves for grace.

What, then, are we to make of Genesis 11.31, which seems to suggest that Terah orchestrated the family's departure from idolatrous Ur with the express intent, at least, of reaching Canaan? Based on the evidence cited above, Calvin argues that Terah "was not so much the leader or author of the journey, as the companion of his son." After all, Calvin notes, "the divine command to Abram respecting his departure did not prohibit [Abram] from informing his father that his only reason for leaving him was that he preferred the command of God to all human obligations." When Scripture, then, seemingly "assigns the priority to Terah [in Gen. 11.31], as if Abram had departed under his auspices and direction, rather than by the command of God," it does so with rhetorical respect to that "authority" that Terah naturally had over Abraham. In other words, "this is an honour conferred upon the father's name." "Nor," Calvin adds, "do I doubt that Abraham, when he saw his father willingly obeying [God's call to Abraham], became in return the more obedient to him."

Calvin reserves profuse praise for Terah with regard to his willingness to follow his son from Chaldea to Canaan. "It was," Calvin judges, "difficult for the old man, already broken and failing in health, to tear himself away from his own country.... [But] when he knew that the place, from which his son was commanded to depart, was accursed, it was his wish not to perish there; but he joined himself as an associate with him whom the Lord was about to deliver.... Easy and plausible was the excuse which he might have alleged; namely, that he would remain quietly at home, because he had received no command" (emphasis mine).

We present day believers tend to celebrate Abraham's faith, and make it a model for our own. And rightly so -- Scripture calls us to exercise faith just like that by which Abraham was justified (cf. Rom. 4 & Gal. 3); faith, that is, in the one who leads his people to the eternal Canaan. But if Calvin's take on Terah is right, we would do well to emulate Abraham's father's faith as well. Indeed, Terah's faith was, at least in one regard, more remarkable than his son's: Abraham directly received the divine call; Terah had to trust his son when his son claimed to have received that call.

Of course, in so trusting, Terah became -- ironically -- Abraham's first true son. Scripture, after all, identifies all those who look in faith to God's (ultimate) deliverer/deliverance as "Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. His father Terah was one of them. Not the stuff of Sunday School songs, perhaps, but interesting, and potentially inspiring, nonetheless.

Let each of us, then, dare to be a Terah. Terah left Ur for Canaan clinging to the coattails (or their ancient near eastern equivalent) of his son. He made himself "an associate [of] him whom the Lord was about to deliver," however humbling such a move must have been, since that one was his own child. May we, with like determination (and humility), set a course for the true promised land by clinging to the coattails of Abraham's seed and God's own son, him whom the Lord has already delivered from death. Association with him is our only hope.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.