Who knows what Mesopotamia is? Me! Me too! I do! Wow, y’all all know! Hey, did you know Mesopotamia’s a Greek word: Meso means middle, potamus means river. Mesopotamia means “land between the rivers.” Yes, what? The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers! Yes! You 6th graders are too smart! Tell me smarties, where’s Abraham from? Mesopotamia? Yes, that was a gimme question. One day in Mesopotamia, Abram was standing on a ziggurat having a beer and minding his own business when God spoke to him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Yes, what? Who’s “Abram?” Oh, his name isn’t Abraham yet…God changes it later on. So God tells him to drop everything and take off into the desert, and God’ll let him know when to stop. And off Abram goes! Now that’s faith. If God told me tomorrow to just move to Atlanta I’d probably say, “What? I can’t hear you!” I’d think of reasons not to go. But Abram went with his wife Sarai, and his extended family. Eventually Abram came to the land of Canaan, where God said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” Which is odd, because Abram & Sarai were were old, and had no children. Then Abram “built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.” What’s an altar for? To pray? Good guess, but we can pray without an altar…another guess? To sacrifice? Yes, you need an altar for that. If I’m going to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice of say, a lamb, I suppose I could throw the lamb on the ground, put my foot on his neck and jab it with a sharp stick ’til it was dead. Then I’d set it on fire, say, there you go God, thanks, and walk away. That would be weird. Yes, it’s not dignified. Raising the sacrifice up on the altar shows respect, plus it moves the sacrifice away from Earth and toward…Heaven? Yes, toward God. It’s even closer to God if you put the altar on a mountain….or a ziggurat. There are two main things we offer sacrifices for: to atone, to make up for sin, and to give thanks. My guess is Abram offered a thanksgiving sacrifice because God let him stop walking.
Once Abram arrived in Canaan, you’d think he could settle down, but noo, people were already living there. Imagine I’m a Canaanite, I’m minding my own business in Canaan. Abram comes walking in from the desert, finishes the last of his beer, and says, “Hello, God gave me this land.” I’d say, “Oh yeah? God didn’t bring me the news, and this is my land. Get off it.” So Abram had to fight a lot of other tribes to get the land, and even today, the Jews are still fighting for that same land.
After one particular battle, Abram was victorious. Who might he thank for that? God? Yes, and how would he thank God? By sacrificing? Yes, what kind of sacrifice? A thanksgiving sacrifice? Yes. Genesis says, “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth.” Who has heard of Mechizedek before? Me! Where from? I forgot. OK, anyone else? No? Well, if you’ve ever been to Mass you’ve heard his name, but if you weren’t listening you wouldn’t remember. Pay attention at Mass. Mechizedek’s a priest, what’s a priest’s job? To pray? Yeah…he does that, but he does something more particular…at altars…oh, he sacrifices! Yes, so instead of Abram sacrificing…Melchizedek does? Yes…but he doesn’t kill a lamb, what’s he offer? Listen again: “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was…” Oh, bread and wine! Yes. And what do we bring up at the Offertory at Mass? Bread and wine! Yes, the same. And then “Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” Abram is giving money, camels, goat cheese, whatever to Mechizedek in thanks, the same way we do at the Offertory at Mass, although we skip the goat cheese nowadays. Melchizedek shows up again near the end of the Bible and in the Mass, so remember him.
Tell me, what do we call the deal God made with Noah? A covenant. Yes. Now that Abram is in Canaan, God makes a covenant with him, too: “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly…you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…I will make you exceedingly fruitful; kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant…And I will give to you, and to your descendants…all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession…”
First off, how many kids does Abram have? None! Right; so being a “father of a multitude of nations” seems impossible. But God says Abram will “be fruitful and multiply,” just like who? Adam & Eve! Yes, and? Noah! Yes. And God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which is what language…Hebrew! Yes, it means “father of multitudes;” how convenient is that? And God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, which means “princess.” So they both got an upgrade in the name department. As the year progresses we’ll learn about other people in the Bible whose names are changed; a name-change usually means more authority and higher status.
Well, name-changing is fine as far as it goes, but Abraham and Sarah are still old and childless. But one day they were visited by 3 strangers, who were invited to stay for lunch. Now how many strangers are there? Three. Yes, but here is how they talk: “The LORD said, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” When the 3 of them speak, it’s the LORD speaking. They don’t speak as individuals. If it’s God speaking, why are there 3 persons? Umm..because it’s the Trinity? Yes, Christians believe that the Trinity visited Abraham. Look at this picture, it’s called “The Hospitality of Abraham”:
Back to lunch: when Sarah heard she would have a baby, she laughed, because she and Abraham were so old. But God said, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” So what do you think happened in the spring? She had a baby! Yes she did. And they named their son Isaac, which is Chinese for…Chinese? It’s Hebrew! Y’all are too smart, yes it’s Hebrew for ‘laughter;’ why’d they name him Laughter? Because they were so happy to have a baby! Yes. When my kids were born I laughed too, it was so wonderful. Isaac was their firstborn and only child. We might call him their only-begotten son. Where’ve you heard “only-begotten son” before …at Mass? Yes, and it refers to…Jesus? Yes.
So Isaac grew up, and they were a happy family. Now y’all remember, Abraham had to fight lots of nearby tribes to get his piece of Canaan. Those other people didn’t worship God. They worshiped false gods like Moloch and Ba’al. Abraham’s neighbors were so afraid of their gods that they sacrificed their firstborn children to them. Can you imagine how awful that would be? But God didn’t ask that of Abraham when Isaac was born. But then years later when Isaac was older, God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” I can’t imagine killing and burning one of my children, I don’t even like to think about what Abraham went through. Who can tell the story? He put Isaac on the altar but an angel grabbed his arm so he couldn’t kill him! Yes. So God doesn’t make Abraham give Isaac back to God. But that doesn’t mean that Abraham doesn’t have to sacrifice something. C’mon, y’all tell me. Abraham saw a lamb to sacrifice. Yes, a ram, a grown-up lamb, whose horns were caught in some brambles so Abraham could grab it. God accepted the ram instead of Isaac. What’s more valuable, the ram or Isaac? Isaac! Yes, God loves Abraham so much that he accepts the ram as a substitute for Isaac. And God continues to do this with his people; they won’t have to kill their kids, but can substitute something less precious in the place of their children, or in place of themselves.
Eventually Isaacs’ parents died. Isaac married Rebecca, and she became pregnant with twins. As the first baby was coming out, they saw he had more hair than most babies, so they named him Esau, which is Hebrew for ‘hairy.’ Ewww, gross, a hairy baby! C’mon, he wasn’t hairy like a gorilla, some people just have more hair. Well, as Esau came out, they saw another little hand grabbing onto his ankle…that baby was named Jacob, which means “heel-holder.” Yes, what? Umm, how does that work? What exactly? You know…babies? Oh you mean how does sex work? Yeah. Ask your parents, this a religion class, not a plumbing class.
So: who was the firstborn? Esau. But they were twins! But Esau came out first! Yes, right. And if you grab someone’s heel what happens? You trip them! Yes. Jacob’s going to trip up his brother, let’s see how.
The firstborn usually inherits from the father all the goodies: tents, camels, goat cheese, iPads, along with the father’s authority. When the father gets too old to run things, he blesses the firstborn son by laying his hands on him; that’s how the son gets all the stuff and becomes the new boss of the family. But Esau wasn’t too sharp, and Jacob tricked him by swapping some bean stew for Esau’s inheritance when Esau was hungry. Esau lived for the moment; he didn’t like to plan ahead. But since Isaac still had to lay hands on Jacob instead of Esau, Jacob and his mom, Rebekah, also had to trick old Isaac, who couldn’t see very well. They disguised Jacob to be like Esau, and confused Isaac laid hands on Jacob, and blessed him, but Isaac thought he was blessing Esau. So although in spirit he blessed Esau, with his hands Isaac blessed Jacob.
Some blessings are like Isaac’s: so special that they make a permanent difference. They’re like a spiritual tattoo, they don’t ever come off. You can usually tell a blessing is permanent when someone with authority puts his hands on the person being blessed. In the next year or so, who will lay hands on you? The Bishop. Yes. That’ll be like Isaac’s blessing, but better.
The story continues at Prince of Egypt.