Thursday, March 12, 2009

Personal Aside: The Lesson of Abraham from Yellowed 1947 Class Notes in Bible History at Old Saint John’s.


In addition to four years of Philosophy and Theology we had four years of Church history at the old Saint John’s where I matriculated in 1950. The lecturer is Fr. Gerald McMahon OSB (one of the very few Irishmen at this Germanic Benedictine monastery). It’s Lent…March 30, 1947.

As all Benedictines did, Fr. Gerald leads a colloquy based on questions he expects the class to answer having read (as its assignment) the story of Abraham beginning in Genesis II…but also a commentary by the then acknowledged great Catholic biblical scholar Msgr. Ronald Knox, himself a convert from Anglicanism. Note: Fr. Gerald, as other professors have, enjoys making sport with a grey-haired old ex-GI (when I say old—he was about 45), Bede Hall. It may seem like he’s picking on Hall but it’s just good fun. Here we go:

Fr. Gerald: Give me some details about Abram, Mr. Roeser. Incidentally when did he live? When? Correct: most place him toward the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age which would be roughly from 1900 to 1800 BC. What was his father’s name? You say what? Yes, Terah. Where did Terah live and bring up his children? Right: Ur near the mouth of the Euphrates in what is now Iraq. Not bad, Mr. Roeser: you read your lesson.

Mr. Dooley—Terry Dooley. It’s nice to have a fellow Irishmen. Mr. Terry Dooley. What sort of a fellow was Abram’s dad, Terah? Yes: an idol worshiper who was named after the moon deity at Ur. Then Terah and his wife delivered three sons…one of whom was named Abram.

What does “Abram” mean? You say—what? Correct. It means “God is exalted.” We skip now to where Abram is 86 years old. What memorable thing happens to this 86 year old man, Mr. Dooley?

Childlessness a Terrible Plight in the Near East.

Right you are, Mr. Dooley. Abram has a son but not with his wife Sari. But before you make a wrong judgment, let me tell you why: as today’s people would be dumbfounded to find out, Abram’s wife, Sari, allowed him to consort with a slave woman. Why? Barrenness was regarded as a terrible plight in the Near East in the early and middle Bronze periods and his wife Sari allowed him to have sexual relations with their slave Hagar—and to them a son was born…his name, Gerald Tooley? [Laughter]. No, his name was not Gerald Tooley…I now call on Gerald Tooley our colleague. Mr. Tooley what was the child born of Abram and the slave girl named?

Correct! Ishmael. Correct, Mr. Tooley you were as right with your answer as was Mr. Dooley. You see, we Irish will make it yet in this most Germanic abbey in the United States, located in the most Germanic…and Catholic…county in the United States—Stearns.

Abram was told by God to go to Canaan which is in Palestine. The family packed up but got as far as Haran, Mesopotamia where Terah died. Then Abram was told by God again to go Canaan, God saying “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.” God promised to make Abram the founder of a new nation in that new land.

Now as you know…or should know…there is talk of a movement afoot to relocate the Jews once again in the land of Canaan to be called Israel: you have probably heard about this in your lecture by Mr. Benvenisti [professor of World Affairs and Ancient History].

So entering Canaan, Abram built an altar…where, Mr.Edward Jordan? Correct: in Shechem and yet another altar in…help us again Mr. Jordan—where? Correct: Bethel. There Abram spoke to the Canaanites and told them of the true God, different from the idols they were worshiping. But a famine hit the land of Canaan and Abram again moved…this time to Egypt.

Abram the Wimp. His Wife a Real Looker.

In Egypt you find the human imperfection of Abram, do you not, Mr. Charles Weishar? And what was that human imperfection? You say—what? Wrong, Mr. Weishar. Read your Genesis and your commentary again. The human imperfection was cowardice…cowardice and lack of faith in God despite the fact that Abram knew God and had visions of Him. Sari was very attractive. In the idiom of Mr. Bede Hall, he would say she was a “looker” would you not, Mr. Hall? [Laughter].

So what did Abram say to his wife, Mr. Hall? He said—what? Yes! He said in effect to Sari—“because you are a `looker’…the Pharaoh will kill me (Abram) in order to get rid of me so he could move you into his harem. So I ask you to go along with me when I say you are my sister, so that my life will be spared.” Nice guy, eh? Meaning they could do with Sari what they wished…put her in the Pharaoh’s harem where she would service him and others who like her looks… just so Abram could live.

Abram was thinking only of himself. What do you think of a man who to save himself would willingly consign his wife to a harem, Mr. Hall? [Hall responds that Abram seems like a worthless, gutless jerk.] Indeed, he did seem so, Mr. Hall but God often uses worthless, gutless jerks for good purposes. He might even have a role for you! [Laughter]. You know I joke, Mr. Hall. [Extended laughter]. You are not worthless, Mr. Hall. Nor are you gutless. [Someone asks: “what about being a jerk?”]. We will see how he behaves for the remainder of this class before we answer that, eh, Mr. Hall? [Extended laughter].

Predictably, the Pharaoh “made a play for Sari” as Mr. Hall would say [laughter] and took her into his house. But the Lord afflicted the Pharaoh and his household with a plague because of what he either did or presumably wanted to do to Sari, so the Pharaoh, discovering she was in fact Abram’s wife, tossed her and Abram out of Egypt.

In fact, Sari was Abram’s half sister but his use of half the truth to conceal the other half was clearly a lie. It was Abram’s moment of weakness before high authority—and it was clearly the intervention of God that kept Sari from being inducted into the royal harem —because God had plans for Abram and Sari: plans that while they were childless and at great old age, they would have a son who would be a forerunner of a great people. And so Abram returned to the land of Canaan and renewed his relationship with God.

Skipping a good deal (but don’t you skip it because the material I omit now may very well be in your examination), skipping a bit, God makes the covenant with Abram ensuring him an heir, a nation and land…and to re-establish that promise is what fills Jews with enthusiasm as they try to reestablish their homeland in Palestine. God ordains that the covenant be sealed with the rite of circumcision. This rite is far older than the Hebrew people. It is seen as an expression of faith that God’s promises would be realized. Why, Mr. Bede Hall, was circumcision used in this way…why not the excising of another part of the body? [Laughter].

Circumcision a Joke? With a Flint Knife?

Ah, Mr. Bede Hall believes it’s funny to think of a man having to cut a small portion of his sex organ as a sign of covenant to God! [Laughter]. But there is deep significance to this, Mr. Hall! A knife is applied to the reproductive organ because it is a sign of the propagation of the race. And to make you wince, Mr. Hall, let me tell you that long before that, circumcision was practiced customarily by the infant’s father using…get this, Mr. Hall…a flint knife…I see you wince, Mr. Hall [laughter]…a flint knife at which time the name is conferred on the baby. Ah, I have had too much sport with Mr. Hall today: sorry, Mr. Hall.

So what happened at the time of circumcision to Abram, Mr. Andrew Cathcart? Yes…God changed the name of Abram to Abraham and the name of Sari to Sarah. Even then, with all he has seen of God…moving to another country at 75…siring a child with a slave girl at 86…now at 99 being told he will be a father again, this time with Sarah who is 90, Abraham cannot believe God. He says in laughter: “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? Shall Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?”

Mr. Joseph Mantalbano, what’s the difference between the response of Abraham that he would become a father at 100 and the response of the Blessed Mother that she would become a mother although she knew not man in the biblical sense? You say her response was “Be it done unto me according to Thy word.” Excellent, Mr. Mantalbano.

Hagar and Ishmael Banned.

We move on, gentlemen, beyond the birth of Isaac, which birth ratified the Lord’s prediction. As we have seen, Abraham with Sarah’s approval had earlier…14 years earlier… impregnated the slave girl, Hagar who delivered their child, Ishmael. You would imagine the two women—Sarah who was barren and Hagar who had delivered Abraham’s child,now a teen-ager—would not get along, would you not? That was written in the stars despite the fact that in those times a child born of a surrogate was regarded as a legitimate heir—except that if a child of the progenitor’s wife were to be born, the child of the wife would become the legal heir. Now Sarah delivers Isaac and there are two women with two babies in the same house. Not good. Hagar had every right to expect that Ishmael would be the heir. Now with Sarah at the age of 90 producing a baby, it’s…let us say…a grave disappointment to Hagar.

And then, to make matters worse, the teen-ager Ishmael laughed at the weaning of Isaac. Here the role of the woman is dominant. Sarah, in line with the Lord’s renaming of them both… decided that Hagar and her son would be expelled—even though such expulsion was against the established law. Essentially by doing this, Sarah seconds God’s plan to have Abraham’s true descendent come through their son Isaac. See, gentlemen, once again how the role of woman, this time Sarah, is of vital importance to civilization.

Thus we see how the role of woman is underscored or, as St. Paul writes, the child of Hagar was a covenant of Mount Sinai according to the flesh. The child of Sarah represents the new covenant of Christ which Paul summarizes by writing to the people of Galatia, “So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” But God has mercy on Hagar. What does he do, Mr. John Oberst?

He does what? Correct—He certifies that Ishmael becomes the progenitor of the Arab people…just as Isaac becomes the progenitor of the Jewish people.

We turn now to something that has been gravely misunderstood as long as Judeo-Christianity has endured…the order God gives Abraham to sacrifice, in order words kill…cut to pieces as one would an animal sacrificed to God…his son Isaac—the same son whom God had foretold would begin the lineage of the Jewish people. Why God did this and why Abraham agreed to kill his own son, we will go into next time.

1 comment:

  1. John Thomas Mc GeeanMarch 12, 2009 at 5:40 PM

    Your stories about St. John's and your memories of it are most delightful. It was quite a school when you went there in the mid to late 1940s.
    Thanks for sharing the History