In my last post, we examined part of Abraham’s story from a typical perspective of taking it as history and looking for applicable lessons. There remains at least one level of deeper interpretation called typology. Typology asks how the shape of a story echoes that of Pascha and salvation, and how the characters are like Christ.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless those who bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you; and in you all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed.’ Then Abram departed as the Lord said to him…” (Genesis 12:1-4a OSB).
Although Abraham’s story had already begun when the Lord called his father Haran to go to Canaan, this is the major shift in Abraham’s life. He changes from Abram the son of Haran to Abraham, the father of the people of God.
In the Old Testament, God often identifies himself to his people as “the God of Abraham.” It’s not a name per se, but it is an identification. He is the God who dealt with the patriarch Abraham in such a way. If we are members of Abraham’s people, then the God of Abraham is our God.
As a type of the Christian
Abraham is mentioned by name in the New Testament 78 times. Several of those mentions are quotations of and meditations on Genesis 15:6, which says, “And Abram believed God, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” What he believed was that he would have a son of his own body to inherit the land of Canaan.
If we believe that God has promised us good things—Christ, a kingdom, a new life, holiness, membership in God’s people—then we must act. We must seek entry via holy baptism.
Abraham’s call, then, is like every Christian’s call. At baptism, we leave behind our “earthly” (I do not mean physical but rather non-heavenly) home and begin the journey to the Kingdom of Heaven. In becoming part of God’s covenant people, we gain at least the potential of fathering spiritual children.
The prodigal son of Jesus’ parable illustrates the call. When we come to our senses, we leave the way of life we have adopted and return to our homeland, to our compassionate Father, whose heir we are despite having already squandered the good things he gave us.
There are costs to obeying the call. Abram was given time to bury his father, time to put to rest his old identity and become the father of God’s people. We are not promised that things will go so smoothly. When one of Jesus’ disciples asked him for time to bury his father, Jesus replied, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). This was a disciple who needed to sever ties with his old life completely.
The promise of the covenant was made to only one people: the children of Abraham, through Isaac. Christ, the only worthy heir of the promise, ministered almost exclusively to those people in his earthly ministry. After his resurrection, however, the way of salvation was opened to all the peoples of the earth. This fulfills the final element of the promise to Abraham: “In you all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed.” The apostle Paul’s meditation in the fourth chapter of Romans is instructive: St. Paul asks what the criteria for being considered a member of God’s people are, and concludes that the criterion is faith in the God of Abraham. No longer is circumcision the sign of the covenant. Rather, baptism is. In the ninth chapter of Romans, St. Paul makes the point that the covenant is given to the children of the promise, not merely the physical children of Abraham. The promise of a share in the Kingdom of Heaven is given to all the nations. Abraham is a type of each and every Christian because he inherited the promised land through his trust in the God who promised it.
As a type of Christ
Abraham is commanded to leave his country and his father’s family and go to a new land. The divine Logos also leaves his country–here signifying heaven–and becomes incarnate as a man to save the human race. Moreover, he becomes the father of the faithful.
I find one of the choruses from Handel’s Messiah extremely moving. As Jesus is being crucified, the singer chants, “He trusted in God, that he would deliver him, if he delights in him.” The choir lingers over those words: “if he delights in him.” Surely God delighted in his Son, his Christ, the archetype of beauty. Yet God did not deliver him from the cross.
The disciples were dismayed at the cross because the God who had thundered from the heavens “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” did not deliver his beloved from a shameful death. They didn’t realize deliverance would come by way of the resurrection and the defeat of death itself. In the bloody interim, Christ remained faithful, trusting in God to deliver him.
What God promises, he does. Abraham’s trust in God to give him a son prefigures Jesus’ trust in God. Abraham becomes the father of God’s people. In the same way, Christ becomes the father of a new race of people: those born again in holy baptism, those made anew according to the original pattern.
Abraham’s story is an echo of Christ’s story and derives its meaning from Christ. Christ is the way to understand the Scriptures. I conclude with the words of St. Augustine:
“For what was done at the time of the exodus [or in Abraham’s time] was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now. And this I say without prejudice to any other interpretation that may be as good, or better.” (St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, book 2, chapter 40)