Father Abraham Had Many Sons
by Chris Donato
With our daily studies just beginning to introduce that pagan family from Ur of the Chaldeans, we are also introduced to the one whom the God of creation called to start fixing the evil mess Adam and his children made. Through Abraham and his children and grand-children, God eventually sent His Son to fulfill finally and faithfully the vocation to which His ancestors were called. And Abraham was the one who left everything behind, walking by faith, even when he didn’t know where he was going (Heb. 11:8). For this, he was revered by the people of Israel as a model of true piety. Such was their reverence that the anonymous Jewish priest who wrote Jubilees thought, “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life” (23:10). Indeed, Abraham was thought to have not even sinned against God (see The Prayer of Manasseh). He was their father, one in whom they could be proud.
This may bring to mind that elementary school Bible song:
“Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had father Abraham,
I am one of them and so are you,
So let’s all praise the Lord!”
We’d then scream something about our right arms and left arms, and by the end of the song we all looked like we were marching in place (with the added, though inexplicable, nodding of the head). It must have been quite a scene to behold — a sanctuary full of pre-pubescent adolescents awkwardly lurching about.
Well, the song serves it purpose — to expend energy. But what about it? Just who are the sons of Abraham? Can we modern, western children really be Abraham’s sons?
One portion in particular of Saint Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome gives us the answer. In chapters 3:27–4:25, the apostle begins to unpack one central theme he discussed in 3:21–26, namely, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (v. 22). The obedience of Jesus is everywhere drawn out in this portion of the letter as the sole ground of God’s free justification, with faith its sole means.
After he contests the importance of the Mosaic law as a means to justify oneself, the apostle Paul appeals to the story of Abraham to bolster his claim that righteousness is credited only by faith. The reasons he does so should interest us. As we just saw above, Abraham was widely revered throughout Israelite history. It is probable that Paul wanted to show the largely Gentile Roman churches that those he had had arguments with (certain Jews and Jewish Christians) were not understanding Abraham rightly according to the Scriptures. Thus he argues, contrary to Jubilees and The Prayer of Manasseh, that Abraham was not so much “perfect in all his deeds with the Lord” but was justified by faith alone: for “to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Because Abraham is an exemplar of faith in God’s promises — not “perfect in all his deeds” — he is truly the father “of all who believe without being circumcised” (v. 11; see also Gal. 3:7, 29). By the way, those “who believe without being circumcised” are those modern, western children, giddily stomping and swinging their arms to the tune of “Father Abraham Had Many Sons.”
It is no surprise that Abraham held such a prominent position in Israelite history; after all, the Old Testament gives him that place. He is the father of the chosen nation and the one in whom the promise of God was sent forth, and we mustn’t miss the fact that God’s plan all along was to include Gentiles in His promise — the promise of adoption and reconciliation (Gal. 3:8). Now we can see one reason why Abraham is given so much space in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans: if his Gospel is “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1), the very same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then the apostle needed to show how his Gospel stood in continuity with the Word of God given to the prophets, while at the same time showing, for the Gentile Christians’ sake in Rome, that there is a certain amount of discontinuity, especially with respect to the Mosaic law. In short, they didn’t need to be circumcised, because righteousness is credited by faith alone in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, which draws “all people” to Him (John 12:32).
In this way, we Christians today, who are so far removed from the world in which Abraham lived, can call him our father. We didn’t deserve this, of course, but God obligated Himself to do it on the day He walked the gauntlet of animal carcasses while Abraham was sleeping (Gen. 15). Moreover, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches that our ability to call Abraham father is proof that God has kept the promise He made way back in Genesis 15. This promise is grasped by faith alone and rests on grace alone, and it is “guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] offspring — not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). So Abraham, the father of the faithful, kept on believing God, and any person, if he or she believes like him, will also be reckoned righteous (see Rom. 4:11, 23–24).
Finally, all of this depends on the character of the life-giving God of creation who made such promises. And we can be sure, as Saint Paul was, that this God will keep them, because He is the only one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17). ■