The appearance of Abraham in the Catechism introduces a wide range of topics related to the Bible itself, for the initial appearance of Abram in Genesis 11:27 marks the end of what scholars generally call the “prehistory” of mankind, that rich array of mythic, anthropologic, and philosophical narrative. Early Genesis sets the table, so to speak, for what we moderns would call narrative history. The story of Abram-become-Abraham is one of the critical turning points in the Hebrew Scripture, serving a variety of purposes related to Israel’s identity and legitimacy.
Genesis 11:27 marks the beginning of what we modern westerners might call narrative history. I was tempted to write “hard history” but this would not take into account the variances in the ways that different ages and cultures record history. Actually, the focus on precise times and dates became a staple of recorded history only in the nineteenth century with the German master Leopold von Ranke. The Greek historians before Christ, such as Thucydides and Herodotus, wrote full accounts of lengthy speeches of kings and generals, something that would be obviously impossible without modern recording devices. What these early chroniclers attempted to do was capture the meaning, spirit, or intent of the speaker, and this tradition of the historical method has endured pretty much until the electronic age. Both testaments of the Bible were written in this style except for books with specific style—the philosophy of Job, the satire of Jonah, the psalms, etc.
But succumbing to our contemporary desire to know the precise data, when did “hard Biblical history” begin? I just asked Cortana (the poor man’s Siri) “when was Abraham born?” She crisply replied—in a nanosecond—1813 BC. Actually, she is not too far off, just a bit too confident. The truth is, we don’t know precisely when the primitive Israelite tribe came to self-understanding as a unified people chosen by a single divinity in a world of polytheists. But 1800 BC has been the benchmark or shorthand for biblical scholars, give or take a century or two. As one might expect, it is easier to date more recent events in Israel’s history—where there is reasonably good sourcing and documentation—and work backwards employing information from the text and secular sources. The dating of Moses and the Exodus, for example, has some measure of accuracy because the Egyptians kept records of their pharaohs.
The Catechism, of course, situates para. 59 in its “stages of revelation” segment, so the ultimate question is: what was communicated or revealed by God in 1813 BC, or thereabouts? Here is where the early Genesis chapters are helpful in penetrating this new revelation. In treating of Genesis over the past several weeks, I have come to a better understanding of two themes. The first is God’s tendency to deal with individuals—Adam, Cain, Noah. The second is man’s tendency to scatter. There are three scatterings: the first occurs with Adam’s descendants; the second with the descendants of Noah after the flood; and the third with the confusion of tongues after the debacle at the Tower of Babel.
Para. 59 introduces a reversal of these tendencies. God will now reveal his truth to a people, a chosen people, rather than through individuals. Abraham, and subsequently Isaac and Jacob, will be the fathers of a people who will receive God’s Word again and again, most notably in a covenant of saving Law. Future revelation will take the form of prophets calling his people back to the pure desert experience of the original covenant. It is worth noting that Jesus himself declared that he had coming to bring the Law and the Prophets to their completion, not their displacement or destruction.
The Law which will come to the descendants of Abraham, who are described as numerous as the sands on the seashore, will gather the scattered and provide identity. The Ten Commandments, a solemn summary and introduction to the entire Law, is social in nature, a reversal from the solitary nature of man prior to Genesis 11:27. Commandments four through ten are instructions for survival, forbidding the killing of free Israelite males, the disruption of fertility, and the thefts and dishonesties that undermine a family, a tribe, and even a great nation.
Para. 59 is footnoted by Genesis 12:1 (note 16), and the specificity of nationhood is not as clear as it will become to future generations. Abraham is described in the early going as the “father of many nations.” The continuity of the Genesis text, though, indicates that Israel would be God’s nation. This is one reason why Abraham hesitated to kill his son Isaac, believing that the killing of his only true son would mark the end of his blood line and thus the future of God’s newly called nation. [It may help to recall that prior to Isaac’s birth, Abraham had fathered another son, Ishmael, who was expelled, along with his servant-mother. God has mercy on both mother and son, innocent victims in this errant surrogate parent arrangement, and promises to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. In this sense, Abraham is father to at least two nations.]
Did God’s new revelation intend for Israel to conquer the earth? The answer is no; the very last line of para. 59 states that through Abraham and his blood line all the nations of the earth would find blessings. On the Feast of the Epiphany each year (January 6 or thereabouts) St. Matthew’s account of the wise men coming to adore the young Jesus is paired with Isaiah 60: 1-6, an apocalyptic or future oriented account of all the world’s nations streaming to Zion in the final times to find the light of God streaming from the nation of Israel. In other words, Israel’s holiness in worship and observance of the Law—manifesting the presence of God—would draw people of good will from all the corners of the earth.
The act of God’s Revelation outlined in para. 59 has been inherited by Christians, to the degree that Vatican II’s teaching on the Church describes the Catholic union as the light to all the nations in the New Dispensation. The universal holiness of the Church is its primary reason for being, to draw all to the life of God in Christ.