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Abraham as leader?

Like Abraham, leadership channels blessings and sticks its neck out for others. And it is willing to pay any price, writes Jason Byassee.

Detail of "Abraham and Isaac" by Rembrandt

December 8, 2009

The Bible doesn’t offer many ready-made examples of leadership. The obvious exemplars, like Moses and Jesus, are not easily imitated by us ordinary mortals. Looking elsewhere in Scripture mostly gives examples of what not to do. If you think otherwise, spend a few minutes perusing the book of Judges.

Perhaps an unexpected resource for thinking about leadership may be found in the man three faiths call “father Abraham.” Ellen F. Davis of Duke Divinity School describes Abram’s calling in chapter 12 of Genesis as part of a pattern throughout the book. God takes initiative (say, in creation). God enlists human partnership (Adam and Eve). Humanity interrupts the relationship of harmony with God and creation (the unpleasantness with the apple). God punishes (exile, flaming sword, all that). And God begins a new initiative (Noah, Abraham and ad infinitum to today).

To Davis, Abraham acts as a leader in three moments in the story of Genesis: his blessings, his intercession on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, and his willingness to sacrifice his son.

First, Abraham receives God’s blessings. And how. God dumps blessing on Abram like he dumped rain on the earth in the time of Noah. Five times in Genesis 12:2-3 God reiterates his blessing of the newly minted patriarch. Davis’s translation: “And I will make you into a big nation, and I will bless you and make your name big -- and be a blessing! And I will bless the-ones-blessing-you and the on-reviling you I will curse, and through you all the families of the fertile soil shall experience blessing.”

Earlier, God had pronounced blessings five times in Genesis -- of the sea and sky creatures (1:22), of humans (1:28), of the Sabbath (2:3), of Noah and his family (9:1) and of Shem (9:26). Now these five blessings are called to mind and summed up in the five-fold blessing of Abraham. Before, God sought to work through all of humanity, but now God has narrowed the divine focus to one family, through whom to bless all others. It is like a new creation.

The second of these five blessings of Abraham in 12:2-3, Davis says, is often mistranslated, as in the NRSV’s “so that you may be a blessing.” Davis, though, translates it in the imperative: “be a blessing!” This is a command to bless others -- as leaders are called to do. Abraham is, Davis daringly glosses, “blessing incarnate.” He is the “prism” through which others will have blessing alight upon them. He is to be a “channel” through whom God promises to bless all the others.

Blessing, or by analogy, leadership, is never a property for one person to possess for herself. Like manna, it goes bad if you keep it overnight. It is only given in order to be given away, doled out, in unimaginable excess, like oil running down Aaron’s beard or leftover loaves and fishes at Jesus’ picnic.

Second, Abraham is a leader who, in Davis’s words, “sticks his neck out for his people.” Before God descends to destroy Sodom, he decides to let Abraham in on his plan for punishment. “For I have come to know him,” God says. “Am I to conceal from Abraham what I am about to do?” (18:19, 18:17) God knows Abraham as Adam knew Eve (4:1), or as political allies bound by treaty know one another as trusted friends. (Isaiah 41:8 and 2 Chronicles 20:7) Abraham is the first human to have achieved this sort of intimate friendship with God. What will he do with it?

He will advocate with God on behalf of others. Abraham boldly stands up to God’s plan: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are 50 righteous within the city . . . will you not forgive it for the 50 righteous who are in it?”

The setting is a Middle Eastern market, and “Abraham is a good bargainer,” Davis says. He manages to wrestle God down to the point where God would spare the cities if 10 righteous people can be found in them. It is not Abraham’s fault that 10 such people cannot be found. This sort of advocacy with God, standing in the breach with the divine and challenging a plan to bring destruction, will continue as a hallmark of Israel’s leadership throughout the Bible. Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others will plead not for a pagan city, but for Israel to be spared, by calling God’s own justice into question and pleading for divine mercy.

For Christians this risky advocacy has its culmination on Christ’s cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Leadership sticks its neck out for others. It dares to approach God’s dangerous but merciful throne to ask grace for others. And it holds God’s promises up and demands an answer, like a bargainer in the bazaar.

Third, leadership recognizes that the cost of following this God is, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “not less than everything.” Abraham has his own Calvary experience on Mt. Moriah in Genesis 22. The demand to sacrifice Isaac has prompted eloquent artistic representations from Kierkegaard’s existential angst to Rembrandt’s etchings and paintings. How could it not? Listen to God’s repetition of who he means to be sacrificed of the command in 22:2: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go…”

God’s entire promise to make a great nation of this old reed, as countless as the stars and the sand, is here called into ultimate question. In her book, “Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament,” Davis describes how ancient rabbis imagined a conversation between God and the patriarch that is rather different than the bizarre bargaining for Sodom’s fate, as Abraham tries to offer Ishmael instead of Isaac.

“Take your son.”

“I have two sons.”

“Your only one.”

“This one is the only son of his mother, and this (other) one is the only son of his mother.”

“The one you love.”

“I love them both.”

“Isaac.”

And Abraham goes. Isaac portentously asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (22:7) Artists have rightly portrayed Isaac holding the instruments that will do him and his father such harm as they walk up the mountain together. “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” (22:8) and so God does -- but not before Abraham threw his arm back to send the dagger into the boy’s throat.

What lesson in leadership could this be? Child sacrifice is nowhere commended in Scripture -- indeed this story has been read as a departure from previous or pagan religious ways in Israel. It is also a story about the demands of this difficult, irascible God. Will Abraham cling to God’s promise of blessing and neglect God’s command to kill? Or will he cling to God alone? And for Christians the story is a foreshadowing of one unimaginable sacrifice, of a Son by a Father, which gives life to us all.

For Davis there is more. This is a glimpse of a vulnerable God. We have no record of Abraham’s response to the angel’s intervention, but by contrast, she says, God’s relief erupts from the page: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (22:12)

God had reason to be wary. Human beings had let him down before and would again, countless times. Abraham did not. And only now could God know that he would not. Biblically informed leadership serves not a distant god, not one who demands human sacrifice, not one who may or may not fire a lightning bolt if he can be roused from his siesta. But a God who cares passionately and intimately about humanity to the point of entering human history himself, first in the election of Israel and then in the incarnation of Jesus. Leadership in this image will reflect divine vulnerability, lowliness, even readiness to die.

After Davis presented these thoughts on leadership to an audience at Duke, a student challenged her: “You say Abraham stuck his neck out for people, but it seems to me he only stuck other people’s necks out: Sarah’s, Hagar’s and Ishmael’s and now Isaac’s.”

Davis clarified: the story of intercession for Sodom is one of sticking his neck out. The story of the binding of Isaac is more a story of unflinching obedience to unimaginable divine command. “I can’t tidy up Abraham for you,” she said.

But Abraham can provide some beginning thoughts on biblical leadership. It is a channel of blessings for others. It sticks its neck out for others. And it is willing to pay any price.