The Chief End of Man (20)
7These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, a hundred and seventy-five years. 8Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. 9Isaac and Ish’mael his sons buried him in the cave of Mach-pe’lah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, 10the field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife.
11After the death of Abraham God blessed Isaac his son. And Isaac dwelt at Beer-la’hai-roi.
Abraham died. How could a life lived four thousand years ago have such significance? The answer is so simple. God chose to bless all nations through him, and He did. Let the Great Apostle explain:
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. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. (Romans 4:16,17, NIV)
One measure of a man’s greatness is whom his death brings together. Given the stormy relationship between Sarah and Hagar, could Isaac and Ishmael but have had significant issues between them? And yet, they came together, in peace and respect, to bury their father.
We likely underestimate the constant stress, the constant danger that Abraham lived under as an outsider in the land God had called him to sojourn into. Recall the rapidity of the turning on Lot in Sodom when he opposed the rape of his houseguests. Recall the recurring fear for his life as they entered a new king’s territory. For Abraham to follow the LORD God as he did from the initial act of obedience to the sustaining acts of continuance is a feat of faith over fear that must be counted as astounding in its magnitude and as humbling in its depth.
Finally, for myself, to think of Abraham’s essence is to recall the simple but sure dialogue that was repeated throughout:
God said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”
Whenever God called, Abraham answered. Abraham faltered and fell, but he never turned away from his LORD God. It’s said that it is a fearful thing to be in the presence of God. I believe that it was for Abraham, every time.[i] But he also must have, even in those primitive times, perceived more deeply into the true character of this one, true LORD God, finding there the attribute of love that permeated all. This is the God with whom Abraham fell in love. This is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who made Abram father of us all.
[i] It turns out that there’s a theological concept that covers what we’ve been experiencing in our Bible Study: “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” This Latin phrase has been translated as:
- “fearful and fascinating mystery”
- “a mystery before which one both trembles and is fascinated”
- “a mystery that simultaneously repels and attracts.”
There appears to be a strong relationship between this phrase and Rudolf Otto’s concept of religious experience as “numinous.” A brief overview can be found at:
“Otto was one of the most influential thinkers about religion in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience “numinous,” and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is “wholly other”– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious. (Gregory D. Alles [http://www.netrax.net/~galles/]).”
Further help in this area can be found at:
“The mysterium tremendum et fascinans
To further define the content of the numinous, Otto uses the equally famous expression of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery that is both awe-inspiring and fascinating. In many ways, the experience of the “trembling” is the quintessential religious experience, one that touches the believers directly and makes them perceive their identity as creatures without any introduction of rational reasoning.
Otto felt that in the religious experience, the three elements of mystery, awe, and fascination (or attraction) are so intimately related as to form an irreducible synthetic whole. The paradoxical tension between the fear inspired by the otherworldly Sacred and the irresistible attraction it exerts at the same time on the believer was the very essence of religious consciousness. Since human reason is unable to break its code, the numinous also appears as the mystery.
The ethical-rational aspect and universal religion
In spite of this, Otto does not reduce the Holy to the non-rational element any more than he reduces it to the rational and ethical element. Otto sees the gradual emergence of the ethical element in combination with the non-rational element as a sign of a religion’s evolution. That process, according to him, culminates in Christianity, the most universal religion that best exemplifies the notion that God is both numinous and ethical, the angry God and the God of goodness. For Otto, there is something in the human mind that naturally accepts the concept that the Deity is good as soon as it is confronted with it. But the fundamental, raw moment of the Sacred can be found in the pre-religious consciousness of primitive people in the form of a totally non-rational, even irrational sense of awe before the Divine. That paradox does not entirely disappear even as religious consciousness becomes more refined. Even a Paul and a Luther experienced God as a God of judgment unexplained by the human sense of justice, and a God of love and goodness. Modern and contemporary attempts to lift that paradoxical tension by reducing the Holy to the ethical element in fact destroy its very essence.”
When we consider the infinite power of God, and His entry into our lives to ensure that “His will be done,” don’t we experience the simultaneous emotions of wonder, awe and fear? Knowing a Latin phrase for the experience doesn’t change anything. But giving voice to something that’s there but only partially understood can help us to cope and even make spiritual progress.