Can a Gentile say...?
It is not uncommon to hear Gentile believers in Messianic Jewish Synagogues praying the ancient prayer, the Amidah.
"Blessed are You, LORD our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, the great, mighty and awesome God , God supreme, Who extends loving-kindness and is Master of all, Who remembers the gracious deeds of our forefathers, and Who has brought a Redeemer with love to their children's children for His Name's sake. King, Helper, Savior Shield, Blessed are You, Shield of Abraham."
Is that appropriate? Is it appropriate for Gentiles to pray to God as the "God of our Fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" Is it appropriate for Gentiles to regard Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as "our fathers?"
In the Middle Ages there was a dispute among the Jewish communities about proselytes. Some felt that such a prayer should be reserved only for the legitimate heirs of the Patriarchs, and that it was somehow not right for Gentile converts to Judaism to say those words.
The Rambam (Maimonides) wrote on this topic. He said: "Anyone who becomes a convert throughout the generations and anyone who unifies the Name of the Holy One as it is written in the Torah is a disciple of our father Abraham, and all of them are members of his household…. hence you may say: 'Our God and God of our fathers,' for Abraham, peace be upon him, is your father... Because you have come beneath the wings of the Divine Presence and attached yourself to God, there is no difference between us and you. You certainly may recite the blessings, 'Who has chosen us, who has given us, who has caused us to inherit, and who has separated us.' For the Creator has already chosen you and has separated you from the nations and has given you the Torah."
Maimonides' words were meant to assure converts to Judaism that they had every right to say those words, "God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob." One thousand years before Maimonides, Paul of Tarsus addressed the same question: Is it right for a Gentile believer to refer to the Patriarchs as "our fathers?"
In the famous fourth chapter of Romans, Paul declares that it is. He tells us:
"(Abraham is) the father of all who believe but are not circumcised… Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring--not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all." Romans 4:11, 16
According to Paul, Abraham is the Father of us all. So we can say Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father. By the same reasoning, because the same promise was passed to Isaac, we can say Yitzchak Avinu, and because it was also passed to Jacob we can say Yaakov Avinu, our Father Israel.
So non-Jews are able to pray, God of Our Fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. They have a real connection to these men. They are the spiritual fathers of all of us, and the fathers of our faith.
The Rabbi and the Monkey
In ancient cultures, and in most cultures throughout history and around the world, fatherhood carried a little more weight and meaning than it currently does in our own. In the Ancient Near East, paying respect to one's father, even the institution of fatherhood was a very big deal.
In our own culture we find models of fatherhood in our television sit-coms. Fathers are the laughable, dismissible dolts like Bill Cosby or Homer Simpson. In the late 60's it became a mark of distinction to treat one's father disrespectfully, to call him, "my old man" instead of saying, "my father." Not so in the biblical culture.
In the biblical culture, paternity was everything, because your identity was determined by your father's identity. To treat your father with disrespect meant to dishonor yourself, because, after all, that is your father your talking about. Your father!
A Rabbi once told me a joke which illustrates the disparity between the Biblical view of fatherhood and the modern secular view of fatherhood. The Biblical view is one of respect for parents, the modern view is too often one of disdain.
Two men were flying on the same plane. One was a famous humanist, a naturalist. The other a famous rabbi. Both of them were flying with their sons. The humanist's son was very disrespectful toward his father whereas the rabbi's son was kind and attentive, waiting on his father and anticipating his father's every need and request. As his son derided him, at last the humanist could tolerate it no longer and he asked the rabbi, "What's the difference between us that your son treats you with such respect and mine treats me with such disrespect." The rabbi explained, "I am one generation older than my son. That means that I am one generation closer to Adam, the first man, the original creation made in the image of God. So my son respects me because I am closer to the original model of the image of God than he is. But you don't believe the Torah, you believe that people have evolved from monkeys, therefore, to your son, you are one generation closer to a monkey than he is, so why should he respect you?"
The point is that Fatherhood is a weighty thing. It matters who your father is.
This is why the genealogies are so important in the Scriptures. They establish a line of paternity, fatherhood. That also explains why it was so radical for Paul to make this argument. For him to demonstrate that we Gentile believers can call Abraham, Isaac and Jacob our Fathers was a radical supposition. To be able to say Abraham my father is more than just a quaint way to talk about Abraham, it means I am identifying myself with this man. I am declaring myself to be a son of Abraham, of the family of Abraham, a follower of Abraham. My sense of self is rooted in Abraham. It's a big deal to say Abraham my Father. Abraham our Father, Isaac our Father, Jacob our Father.
The Chariot of God
The fathers were not perfect men. Abraham twice calling Sarah his sister, his marriage to Hagar. Isaac's folly with Esau. Jacob's cunning and trickery. The consistent story of the Scripture is not one of exceptional men, but an exceptional God. So Biblical literature always points out to us the humanness of its characters.
We follow their lives as they stumble through the walk of faith. We hear their voices: "I'll just bring my nephew Lot along... She's not my wife, She's my sister… Eliezer of Damascus will be my heir…. Let Ishmael be my heir…."
The Torah tells us their stories so honestly that we are convinced and we feel we know these men personally. In fact, there may be something of an invasion of privacy here. One wonders how Abraham feels year after year when the Torah portion about his ill-fated marriage to Hagar roles around, or how does Jacob feel year after year when the whole world again and again reads the story of how he bamboozled his brother out of his blessing. A little embarrassing, isn't it?
Even the greatest men of faith were human, and stumbled around, and made major mistakes. But we must not forget the unique spiritual greatness of the Fathers.
In the Talmud, the three fathers are called the Merkevah of God, that is, the chariot of God. Just as a chariot carries its driver in which ever direction the driver wants to go, so too, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob carried the Shekinah, the Dwelling Presence on earth, and fulfilled the will and purposes of God.
God said to Abraham Go and Abraham went. He said sacrifice for me and he sacrificed. He said to Isaac stay and Isaac stayed. He said to Jacob go back and Jacob went back. Wherever God told them to go they went, whatever he told them to do they did.
God told Abraham come into the land I will show you and I will bless you and make you great and give it to your seed. No sooner did Abraham arrive than there was a famine in the land. Did Abraham complain? No.
God told Abraham to sacrifice his son. Not only did Abraham consent, but Isaac, too, consented to be sacrificed. Why? Because God willed it.
Jacob in faith, with only his staff in his hand, leaves the land of promise because God tells him, "I will be with you and bring you back here."
They were the chariot of God, carrying his Presence on earth, wherever he might direct them.
The Greatness of the Fathers
Consider the greatness of the Fathers. When's the last time God appeared to you? Yet he appeared to the Fathers again and again. They were prophets, great prophets. He spoke to them. They heard his voice. How great are our fathers!
Each of them was named directly by God. To Abram he said, "You will be Abraham." Regarding Isaac he said, "He will be called Isaac." And regarding Jacob he said, "Your name will be Israel."
Named by God. This is our legacy. This is our spiritual heritage. How great are our fathers! They are the Merkevah! The chariot of God!
So precious are our fathers, that God himself named himself after them. He is called the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. He is never called the God of Joseph. He is never called the God of Moses. He is never called the God of Joshua. To the Davidic kings he is the "God of your father David," but that is a title specific to that covenant with the house of David and the line of David. To us he is never called the God of David. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of Our Fathers. How beloved are our fathers!
When Israel sinned by making the Golden Calf, God was angry enough with them to destroy them, but Moses stayed God's hand by invoking the memory of the LORD's covenant with the Fathers. Moses prayed, "Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel." And for the devotion God feels for the Fathers, he turned away his wrath from their children.
In the book of Romans when Paul is explaining to the largely gentile Roman church how it is that the Jewish people remain God's chosen people even though they have not received the Gospel, he says: "As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the fathers, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable." Romans 11:28, 29
They are loved on account of the fathers. How great are your fathers, O Israel!
Our Spiritual Potential
And for the sake of devotion to the fathers, devotion to the promises he made to the fathers, he brings us a redeemer, the seed of Abraham, the Messiah, the ultimate Son of the ultimate Father.
Children possess within them the potential of their parents. It is buried somewhere in the genetic transmission process, with all of its possible outcomes. Genetically, we are not new individuals. We are reconfigurations of our fathers and mothers. That's just the way human genetics work. Physically, you are your father and mother, genetically scrambled and reconfigured.
Spiritually the process works much the same. Our spiritual potential is in our spiritual fathers. Look to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob our spiritual forefathers. In them is our spiritual potential, the potential of our faith.
Being the First
There is a story told about some of the Jews, disciples of the Maggid, who was himself a Disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. One night, when these three disciples were staying awake, I believe to tend the stove, they were discussing Torah, and did not know that the Maggid was listening to their conversation. The one said, "I don't see why Abraham is so great. If God talked to me and told me to do something, do you think I wouldn't do it? If he told me to sacrifice my son, do you think I wouldn't? God talks to you--you listen. And think of all the generations of Jewish parents who have given their sons over to martyrdom rather than deny God. Are they any less great than Abraham." And they passed much of the night musing over this question. When the Maggid retold the conversation he had overheard, he explained, "The actual greatness of Abraham, that makes his willingness to sacrifice his son greater than all others, is that he was the first."
What he meant was that while latter generations might look to the story of the binding of Isaac and use it as a pattern for obedience, to trust God, or use it for inspiration even for the ultimate sacrifice, the greatness of Abraham is that he had no such story to look back upon.
Rather Abraham had to break the path. He had to break the ground so that subsequent generations might follow. And that is the greatness of the Fathers. They blazed the trail of faith. And as Paul puts it, we walk in the footsteps of the faith of our father Abraham.
Once a heavy snow fell overnight in the Eastern European Shtetl of Horodna. Its customary among the Chasidim for the men to get up and study some Torah or other holy writings before the morning prayers, to kind of get the soul warmed up for prayer. So the scholarly men of Horodna got up before dawn, as usual, and trudged to the Synagogue, but as they were trudging through the deep snow, they heard what sounded like someone singing. In that dim pre-dawn light, they were surprised to see a figure dancing in the knee-high snow. Someone was singing and mumbling and actually dancing in the snow. He was bundled up in a warm coat, but his teeth were chattering in the early morning chill.
Intrigued, the men crept closer to try to see who this madman was. As he stomped and danced in the snow, they could hear him saying to himself. "L'shem mitzvah. - this is for the sake of a mitzvah."
How surprised they were to realize that it was none other than their own Reb Nachum. Nachum! What is the matter Reb Nachum.
Reb Nachum was little embarrassed to be discovered. So he explained, "It's almost morning. Soon the school children will be rushing off to learn Torah. They are not very strong. Their families can't afford warm coats. Their shoes are worn and torn. I thought that I, who had a warm fur coat, could blaze the way for them. Make a path through the snow for them."
The Fathers set the course and blazing the trail.
The Talmud says: "Ma'aseh Avot siman labanim. The deeds of the Fathers are portents for the sons."
Portents for the Sons
Abraham went down to Egypt to escape a famine, his wife was abducted by Pharaoh, God smote Pharaoh with plague to deliver Abraham and Sarah, Abraham left with great wealth. It is a story which the children of Abraham, the Israelites will live out again. They will go down into Egypt to escape famine. They will be abducted, enslaved, and God will strike Pharaoh and Egypt with plagues and they will be delivered carrying the wealth of Egypt. But before the Children could walk that path, the Fathers had to break the way.
The story of Isaac's binding on the altar is a story the children of Isaac will live out again, through the Messiah, who like Isaac is an only begotten one of his father born in a miraculous manner from his mother and offered up as a sacrifice as an act of covenant devotion. But before it could happen, the Father's had to break the way. When the Abraham and Isaac broke the way by carrying out that dreadful mitzvah on Mount Moriah, God said to Abraham, "Because you have done this thing, I will bless you and all families of the earth will bless themselves by your seed."
In later years Israel would struggle with the Philistines, but not before their Father Isaac contended with them. In later years the children of Israel would struggle with the Edomites, but not before Jacob had struggled with Esau first. In later years, the Israelites would go into exile into the lands of Mesopotamia, but nor before their father Jacob went there in Exile first, and God would bring the Israelites back to the land, but not before he brought Jacob back first.
And we could go on with these kinds of examples. The deeds of the Fathers are portents for the sons.
The Fathers prepare the way. They blaze the trails that the children will follow. They blaze the trail to the Promised Land.
They blaze the trail in and out of Egypt. They blaze the trail of faith. And we are capable of the things they accomplished because we are their spiritual sons and daughters.
The Road Less Traveled
It is not easy being the first in your family to become a Christian. It is not easy being the first in your church to have a conviction of the Shabbat.
It is not easy being the first to keep Festivals or keep kosher. It is not easy feeling weird and awkward about your own faith.
It wasn't easy for Abraham either to be the only one in his family that wasn't an idolater. It wasn't easy for Abraham to leave everything he knew and strike off for an unknown land. It wasn't easy for him to trust this strange God that now was promising blessings of a universal scope and now was demanding the blood of his son. It wasn't easy being the father of the faith. It wasn't easy being the first. It wasn't easy being Isaac and facing the altar, the famine, the Philistines. It wasn't easy being Jacob and going through exile, estrangement from his own family. It certainly couldn't have been easy having four wives. Nevertheless, they did it for us.
They blazed the trail for us. And that is what we must do for future generations. We may never see the results of our work, but we can be certain that we are not an end in and of ourselves. We aren't the first link in the chain, and we aren't the last link either. If we do our job well, if we simply blaze a trail for future generations to follow, then we will have lived up to spiritual heritage of our spiritual forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We can leave a legacy of godliness for future generations just as they have left a legacy of godliness for us.
Yeshua the Trail Blazer
Yeshua blazed a trail for us. He broke through where we could not go. But now we are invited to follow. He blazed a trail through life, living a life of righteous obedience to perfect Torah of God. Regarding the rest of us it is written, "All have sinned and fallen short."
The Master blazed a trail from death to life. Where for the rest of us death was a final end, he broke through on the other side and blazed the way to life. He is the perfect Merkevah of God. The Chariot of God, carrying the Divine Presence, carrying out the will of God.
"I only do what the father tells me," he said. "I only say what I hear from the father," he said.
We are his disciples, his followers. We must follow this trail he has blazed, as best we can. We must follow him in obedience. We must be that Chariot. We must follow him from death to life. In so doing, we will blaze the way for subsequent generations to follow in this very ancient path: the faith of our fathers.