Abraham, Aboriginals and Andrei Rublev
13 June 2007

I've been doing some bible study recently on the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is partly prompted by my interest in the common ground between Judaism, Christianity and Islam and was sparked through reading The Tent of Abraham, a wonderful book which takes these stories as a basis for exploring relationships between the 'people of the book' and written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Sister Joan Chittister OSB, and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti, a Muslim Sufi scholar.

Reading these stories in one of the driest continents (Australia) I am struck by their similarities with some of the Aboriginal dreaming stories – not so much in the specifics, but in the sense that these are tales which link the ancestors with specific water holes (usually translated as 'wells'). I also suspect that the concept of land-ownership in the culture of Abraham has more in common with Indigenous culture than with modern Western culture. Despite the land being 'promised' to Abraham's descendants (who include the Arabs, through the line of Ishmael) these biblical patriarchs remain 'sojourners' in the land, always having to find ways to accommodate the people who are already there - sometimes through negotiation, sometimes through deception, sometimes through force and sometimes simply by packing the tents and moving on.

One of my favourite stories is in Genesis chapter 18 where Abraham has an encounter with God. It is not clear from the text whether he first encounters God in the oak trees (trees can have that effect, you know), or in the appearance of three strangers to whom he offers hospitality. I like to think that it is both – a mystical experience of seeing God in the trees and then a realization that God is in the three strangers – and in the act of hospitality.

Andrei Rublev (c1360 to 1430), the famous Russian icon painter, put hospitality at the centre of his icon depicting this story, with the three strangers now appearing as three angels (messengers) who show what I can only describe as a fluid motion of love between them and around the offerings of food and drink on the table. Christians would also recognize this as the bread and wine of the Eucharist – symbolizing both hospitality and self-sacrifice – which is at the heart of a depiction of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is often said that a picture speaks more than a thousand words. Here is one case where that is definitely true. I believe you can learn more about the Trinity through gazing at this icon than through reading scores of books on the subject.

Another thing I have learned through reading these stories is that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all deeply flawed people. In many ways they resemble what is nowadays referred to as a 'dysfunctional' family, marred by jealousy, power-struggles and sibling-rivalry. And yet somehow God works through them. Reassuring isn't it!


Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live in the promised land, but all they really own there is a grave - the Cave of Machpelah.

And as Christians we may claim all sorts of things for ourselves, but all we really possess is a grave, the life-giving Cross.
Steve Hayes, 20 June 2007

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