“And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6; KJV)
“The apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. (Luke 17:5; KJV)
At the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples, who were to be his apostles after his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, asked him to increase their faith. Even though he was soon to leave them, it was still early days in the development of their faith in him; they were still uncomprehending in large measure. The disciples needed further instruction, but even more than this they needed to believe what Jesus promised them would take place.
“Increase our faith!” is a plaintive cry we could all make at various points in our lives. Where do we find reliable models to inspire in us greater faith? The eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews sets before us a list of faithful forebears, from Abel, Enoch, and Noah all the way to Moses. But the pivotal figure is Abraham, the first Patriarch. God led Abram (as he was first known) through many stages of promise and obedient response, to build a Covenant relationship with him.
First, he called him to leave his home and his people in the area of Ur* and travel to the land of Canaan.
Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him… (Genesis 12:1-4a; KJV)
In this first great command to Abram, the Lord makes him three promises, that he will make him a great nation, give him a great name, and bless all the families of the earth through him. In an essay on “The Abrahamic Covenant” (Ignatius Study Bible: The Book of Genesis, p. 35), Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch describe how God elevated each of these promises to the status of a Covenant during the course of the account in Genesis, and then how each of these Covenant promises were later fulfilled in salvation history. But all of this will depend on Abram’s decision, in faith and trust, to depart “as the Lord had spoken unto him.”
He did not go alone. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and Lot’s family, and others in the household. They traveled by stages and when they arrived in Canaan, the Lord told him that this was the land promised to his descendants. Abram built an altar to the Lord at Shechem and another at Bethel (and later one at Hebron). Eventually, Abram and Lot separated to divide up pasture land. Lot settled in the plain near Sodom (a choice which proved to have tragic consequences). They are caught up in a war among the kings of the region. At the conclusion of fighting, Melchizedek, king of Salem and “priest of God Most High,” blessed Abram, using bread and wine. Abram was faithful to the Lord’s word in refusing to accept any goods from the king of Sodom.
“After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision” (Gen 15:1), to clarify and ratify the first part of the covenant with him. Since Abram continued childless, he asked the Lord about this, telling the Lord that he had designated Eliezer from his household as his heir. The word of the Lord corrected and reassured Abram that the great nation of his descendants would begin with his own son and heir, however humanly impossible this might sound because of Abram’s and Sarai’s advanced age. This conversation between Abram and the Lord touches the heart. Ever since Abram left Ur at the Lord’s instruction, their relationship had been built up by many acts of reverence and intimate trust on Abram’s part. It is very characteristic that God allows and desires his people to speak honestly with him of their hopes and fears, their confusions and even their sins. He probes our hearts for sincerity and he found it abundantly in his first chosen patriarch.
The Lord brought Abram outside and asked him to count the stars if he could. The dark skies of those days must have revealed a great multitude of stars to the naked eye, many times more than we can see from our brightly lit cities and towns today. The Lord told him his descendants would be as many as those stars. When Abram believed that what the Lord promised would indeed come to pass, the Lord “counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). The Lord repeated his promise that the land of Canaan would belong to him and to these descendants, and Abram once again asked the Lord a question: “Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” In answer, the Lord told him how to ratify the covenant between them by offering several animals cut in two (except for birds, which were not cut in two) and laid on the altar (Gen 15:9-11).**
Years later, when Abraham was 99 years old, this covenant was renewed and further strengthened by the sign of circumcision (see Gen 17):
And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. (Genesis 17:7-12)
That same day, as soon as the Lord was finished speaking to him, Abraham did what the Lord had said, circumcising himself, his thirteen-year-old son Ishmael, and all those in his household (Genesis 17:22-27). For this obedience, Abraham was visited again by the Lord, with two angel companions, at the Oaks of Mamre (Gen 18). Rembrandt painted Abraham Serving the Three Angels (1646), in such a way that it shows the awe and very human curiosity this sort of divine visitation would inspire.
The Lord had changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah.*** Both of them had been waiting with hope and yet great uncertainty about when the Lord would fulfill his promise to give them a son. In the intervening years, at Sarah’s suggestion, Abraham had fathered a son Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s maid, but this had resulted in strife and heartbreak for all concerned. The Lord said once again that Abraham and Sarah, despite their advanced age, would have a son of their own who would be called Isaac, and the Lord would also make his covenant with Isaac and his descendants. In spite of their faith in the Lord, Abraham earlier and now Sarah could not help laughing at the seeming human impossibility of their having a child as they both neared 100! (The name Isaac means “he laughed,” yitshaq, in Hebrew; Ignatius Study Bible: Genesis, footnote to 17:17.) But the Lord asked why Sarah laughed and countered their doubt: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (18:14). This will be echoed later when the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive a Son by the Holy Spirit, and in answer to her understandable questions, he replies, “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
After all this, God tried and tested Abraham’s faith most severely when he told Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. The terseness of Genesis is well known, and admired: a story that could have formed the basis of a lengthy Greek tragedy is told with unrivalled depth of emotion in only nineteen verses of chapter 22. It begins:
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt [or tested, RSV] Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. (Gen 22:1-2)
That small phrase, “whom thou lovest,” must stand for the full range of unspoken emotions that fathers everywhere and this particular father would feel for such a precious son. In obedience, Abraham saddled the donkey, took his son and the materials for sacrifice, and started the journey to God’s designated place. While they were walking, Isaac broke the silence, saying:
My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. (Gen 22:7-8)
As Abraham “took the knife to slay his son,” an angel of the Lord called to him, and told him, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (22:12). Abraham looked up and saw “a ram caught in a thicket by his horns” and he took it, killed it, and offered it as the burnt offering.
Then the Lord swore by himself (because there is none higher by which to swear):
because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Gen 18:16-18)
Because of Abraham’s unqualified obedience, the blessing to his seed, multiplied as the stars of the heaven, is extended to all the nations of the earth.
St. Paul and the Covenant by Faith
Paul takes up the example of Abraham’s faith again and again in his Letters. The triad of faith, trust, and obedience are very closely bound in Abraham’s response to the Lord, and these will be the subject and lynchpin of Paul’s observations on the meaning of Abraham’s covenant for the followers of Jesus. Abraham quite literally steps out in faith to follow the promptings of the Lord, which he embraces as a command. He believes what the Lord promises and it is counted to him as righteousness. Paul writes:
“As it is written: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice [cf. “reckoned to him as righteousness” (RSVCE)]. Know ye therefore, that they who are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing, that God justifieth the Gentiles by faith, told unto Abraham before: In thee shall all nations be blessed. Therefore they that are of faith, shall be blessed with faithful Abraham.” (Galatians 3:6-9; DR)
In other words, Paul argues that the Gentiles are brought into Covenant relationship with the Lord through faith, after the manner of our father in faith, Abraham. It is the covenant with Abraham that unites the Gentiles of the nations with the people of Israel through faith in the promises of God. As sharers in the promises, they are sharers in the blessings as well, if they remain faithful. This is Good News indeed, and cause for great rejoicing.
Furthermore, when God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness, His promise to bless his seed was ratified by the sacrifice of the animals cut in two pieces, even before he and his descendants received the further sign of circumcision which set them apart as God’s faithful people. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul sets forth the claim:
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.
And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also. (Romans 4:7-11; KJV)
Abraham had already demonstrated his faith and willingness to follow the commands of the Lord many times, even before he received the seal of circumcision. But the greatest test of his faith came after the Lord had fulfilled the promise of a son to be born to him and his wife Sarah.
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac demonstrates the depth of Abraham’s obedience, to be sure, but it also reveals his unbounded trust in the wisdom and power of God. The Letter to the Hebrews comments on the great significance of this trust.
“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.” (Hebrews 11:17-19)
The RSV translation makes this suggestion clearer: “He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence he did receive him back, and this was a symbol” (11:19). At God’s word to him, Abraham offered up Isaac even though Isaac was the very means by which God would do what he had promised. Was God revoking his promise? Scripture does not record him asking this question even of himself, but the author of Hebrews does suggest that Abraham had learned the lesson at the Oaks of Mamre, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14). When the voice of the Angel of the Lord stayed his hand from completing the sacrifice, truly it was as if he had received his beloved son back from the dead.
In his outstanding new commentary on the book of Romans, Scott Hahn beautifully connects Paul’s understanding of these incidents in Abraham’s faithful walk with God.
He [Paul] contends that the Abrahamic covenant, which included promises of universal fatherhood (Gen 17:4) and worldwide blessings through his elect offspring (Gen 22:16-18), reaches fulfillment as Jews and Gentiles come to faith in Jesus Christ and receive his salvation on equal terms (Rom 1:16; 3:28-30). For believing Jews, the true significance of circumcision as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:10-14) is fulfilled when they exercise the faith of Abraham (Rom 4:12) and observe the Torah from the heart (2:25-29). …
Likewise, in reference to believing Gentiles, Paul insists that their faith is counted as “righteousness,” just as Abraham’s was before he was circumcised (4:3-5, referring to Gen 15:6), and that their imitation of Abraham’s trustful reliance on God makes them his spiritual children, fulfilling the divine pledge that Abraham would become “the father of many nations” (Romans 4:16-17, referring to Gen 17:4). (Scott Hahn, Romans, p. xxv)
Both the “believing Gentiles” of Paul’s day and the Christian believers of today can hope, indeed rightfully claim, to be the “spiritual children” of Abraham if they imitate Abraham’s faith and total reliance on God, even when the road ahead is quite unknown and forbidding. This comes about, Hahn says, because like Abraham, the Lord himself did not spare his Son Jesus but offered him for the salvation of the world, “so that the blessings of the covenant could flow out to all nations” (Hahn, Romans, xxv). He cites Paul in Romans 8:32, which says: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” Likewise, Roy Schoeman writes, “Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was intimately linked to, one could even say reciprocated by, God’s willingness, two thousand years later, to sacrifice His only begotten Son on the very same mountain, just a few hundred yards away, at the spot known as ‘Calvary'” (Roy Schoeman, Salvation Is From the Jews, 19).
Jesus’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection inaugurate a New Covenant, Christians believe, the one which Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 31:31-34) in which the Lord will write his laws upon the hearts of his people (see Hebrews 8:7-13). But the Old Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Moses and with David is not thereby revoked but rather fulfilled and expanded. The New Testament is clear that the gifts of God are not taken back: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29); and the Church has affirmed this clearly both in Vatican II and in the speeches of St. John Paul II. In her commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews, Mary Healy discusses this history and the strong efforts especially in the last half century to remedy wrong and hurtful thinking and underscore the irrevocable bond of faith between Christians and Jews. She writes:
Church teaching makes clear that Hebrews 8:13 cannot be understood to mean that God has revoked his covenant with the Jews. Overcoming centuries of misguided theological views among Christians, Vatican Council II [in Nostra Aetate, 4] taught that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues–such is the witness of the Apostle (cf. Rom 11:28-29).” (see Mary Healy, Hebrews, p. 160)
Healy describes how St John Paul II continued to develop this teaching during his long pontificate, calling the Jewish religion “not extrinsic” but “intrinsic” to Christian faith and describing the Jewish people themselves as “our favored brothers” and “our elder brothers.” He said the Jewish people have a supernatural origin in God and the covenant with them “has never been abrogated by God” who remains faithful to his promise. (For the full discussion, see Mary Healy’s commentary on Hebrews, especially pp. 154-160.)
I have gone into this at some length because to my mind, our being co-heirs to the Abrahamic covenant is a great blessing to be treasured and meditated upon.
Faith and Will
To conclude, I want to return to Jesus’ disciples and their plea to their Master, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). He has been teaching them about resisting temptations to sin and the necessity to forgive our brothers, as often as they ask (for this is how God forgives us). Jesus teaches them that if they had faith even as big as a mustard seed, they could pick up a tree and plant it in the sea (Luke 17:6) or tell a mountain to move from here to there, and it would (Matthew 17:20).
But what is exactly contained in that tiny mustard seed of faith? Is it mere belief in propositions? Is it a feeling of confidence? In her book More of the Holy Spirit, Sr. Ann Shields speaks about faith as both a gift of the Holy Spirit and as a condition of living within God’s will, or rather, lack of faith can become a serious obstacle. She quotes Sr. Ruth Burrows who offers an uncompromising definition of faith:
Faith is not a thing of the mind; it is not an intellectual certainty or a felt conviction of the heart. It is a sustained decision to take God with utter seriousness as the God of my life. It is to live out each hour in a practical, concrete affirmation that God is Father and that he is “in heaven.” It is a decision to shift the centre of our lives from ourselves to him, to forego self-interest and make his interests, his will our sole concern. (from Ruth Burrows, Essence of Prayer; cited by Sr. Ann Shields, More of the Holy Spirit, p. 41, emphasis added there)
Abraham lived out this kind of faith in a most remarkable way, making decision after decision to put God at the center of his life and follow his will, as it was revealed to him, step by step. These further words from Ruth Burrows on faith may also be helpful, as we seek to imitate him, and increase our own faith:
This is what it means to hallow his name as Father in heaven. Often it may seem as if we only act ‘as if’, so unaffected are our hearts, perhaps even mocking us: ‘where is your God!’ It is this acting out ‘as if’ that is true faith. All that matters to faith is that God should have what he wants and we know that what he wants is always our own blessedness. His purposes are worked out, his will is mediated to us, in the humblest form, as humble as our daily bread. (Ruth Burrows, Essence of Prayer, p. 21)
I believe that God had Abraham’s whole heart as well, especially after his faith was lived out in actions over many years. This willingness to take decisive action is the substance of Abraham’s faith, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
Yes, Abraham will have a land. He will have countless children. But these things will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused will power and determination will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation from God to Abraham and his children that they should act. God will help them. The outcome will be what God said it would be. But not without total commitment from Abraham’s family against what will sometimes seem to be insuperable obstacles. …
the covenant is God’s challenge to us, not ours to God. … Abraham realised that God was depending on him. Faith does not mean passivity. It means the courage to act and never be deterred. (Jonathan Sacks, “Land and Children,” Covenant & Conversation: Genesis, pp. 126-127)
To close this discussion of the relationship between faith and will, I offer these words that St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote to her sister Céline (July 18, 1894) regarding some trials she was having:
“frequently God wants only our will; He asks all, and if we were to refuse Him the least thing, He loves us too much to give in to us; however, as soon as our will is conformed to His, as soon as He sees we seek Him alone, then He conducts himself with us as in the past He conducted Himself with Abraham.” (LT 167, Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. II, p. 871)
He asked everything of Abraham, and He will ask much of us too–more and more as He discovers the extent of the gift of ourselves we are willing to give in faith. But in the end, He provides the Lamb, and like Abraham, unexpectedly, we may be visited by Angels.
*The Navarre Bible: The Pentateuch says that Ur was in southern Mesopotamia, along the Euphrates River, and near the Persian Gulf (see p. 85, note to Gen 11:31). It is believed that Abraham left Ur between 1800 and 1600 B.C.
**Because of the manner of cutting and offering the animals, this is known as the “covenant of the pieces” (Genesis 15: 1-21).
*** “Abram…Abraham: The original name, meaning ‘exalted father,’ is expanded to mean ‘father of a multitude’” (quoted from Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: Book of Genesis, p. 39, fn to 17:5). “Sarai…Sarah: Variations of the same name, both meaning ‘princess.’” (Ibid., p. 39, fn to 17:15).
The Navarre Bible: The Pentateuch. Dublin: Four Courts Press/Princeton: Scepter Publishers, 1999.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The Book of Genesis (RSV-CE), with introduction, commentary, and notes by Scott Hahn & Curtis Mitch. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010. (See especially “The Abrahamic Covenant,” p. 35)
Scott Hahn. Romans (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture; Peter Williamson and Mary Healy, Series Eds.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017.
Roy H. Schoeman. Salvation is from the Jews. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003.
Mary Healy. Hebrews (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture; Peter Williamson and Mary Healy, Series Eds.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016
Sr. Ann Shields. More of the Holy Spirit. Word Among Us Press, 2013. (See quote from Ruth Burrows on faith as a “sustained decision,” p. 41)
Ruth Burrows, OCD. Essence of Prayer. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, Paulist Press, 2006.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “Land and Children,” in Covenant & Conversation: Genesis–The Book of Beginnings (pp. 123-127). Maggid Books, Koren Pubs, 2009. (See also Sacks’ other essays concerning Abraham, beginning on p. 65.)
St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Letters, Vol II: 1890-1897 (John Clarke, Trans.). Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1988.