Scripture for reflection: Genesis 15 and Genesis 21, 1-7.
If you have experienced a panic attack you will know the feeling of desperation it can bring. A mild attack can make you feel you are losing control, a major one can make you feel that you are dying.
We don’t associate holy scripture with panic attacks, but one of the reasons the library of the Bible has remained impervious to time is that so much of it is about the realities of human experience no matter in what age one lives.
Abraham is the father figure of three of the world’s great religions, Judaism Islam and Christianity. Yet there is an occasion when we see this magnificent human being consumed by abject fear and doubt.
The occasion comes at the height of Abraham’s eventful life. He has followed what he understands to have been a divine call to emigrate south west into an utterly unknown future. Here in what would one day be called Palestine and Israel, his extended family is now a powerful tribe, unchallenged in the area.
Yet it is precisely at this juncture that Abraham suddenly plummets from the height of confidence to the pit of despair. It happens in the early evening hours. It may have sprung from exhaustion. It could have been worry about some event during the day. He suddenly knows he must be alone. He walks out of the vast encampment, his mind in turmoil. He tries to regain confidence. Yes, he has large tracts of lands and herds. Yes, he has a huge community that trusts him and looks to him for leadership. Yes, he has the love of a magnificent woman, his most faithful Sarah.
But in spite of such thoughts the dark shadow sweeps over him, gripping him with chilling power and forcing him to his knees on the still warm sand. Behind him the evening campfires are being lit. Not wishing to be seen he scrambles to his feet and walks further into the desert. He feels the weight of vast responsibility. So much is at stake. Yet one supremely important thing is missing. He and Sarah have no family.
In that long ago world, no son means no future. He has always had a stubborn sense of destiny about his life. He has always been certain that the God to whom he has sacrificed and prayed had a future for him. There would be a son and heir. Again he listens for the echo of that promise, hearing nothing but the silence of the wadi.
Doubt grips him. Can he really trust this God who promises? What if his sense of destiny is an illusion? Torn between trust and doubt he looks up to where the stars form a glistening carpet of light. He has felt himself destined for so much. Is he a deluded fool to have left everything familiar?
As he doggedly walks on, the peace of the desert calms him. After all, his God has brought him to this point. His people are strong. Morale is high. But again comes the thought of his childless marriage. What proof has he that the future is assured. He is appalled to hear himself sobbing.
The sound of a small animal gives him the idea of making a sacrifice. He knows there are youths on night guard duty. They will assist him without questioning. The small wooden pile is set alight, the animal’s quickly and efficiently slaughtered; the smoke ascends to the night sky. His desperate silent prayer is made. He is appalled to see a terrible omen appear in the shapes of carrion vultures alighting out of the shadows, greedy for the burnt flesh newly offered to an absent God.
He would never be sure what happened at that late evening hour. He must have slept from sheer exhaustion. Dreams had come, nightmares interspersed by what seemed short visits from a Presence that spoke of a future where suffering and sacrifice would have to be paid for the future he and his people hoped for. Afterwards he recalled a flaming torch, perhaps the last flames of the sacrifice beside which he had fallen asleep. And somewhere in his dreaming he heard a promise made once again “to your descendants I give this land…”
In the years ahead there would be other such wrestlings between faith and doubt. Until one day his beloved Sarah would come to him with the news he had thought he would never hear. “Who would have ever said to you” she asked him, “that I would nurse children? Yet I am about to bear you a son…”. And her laughter echoed across the hills and valleys where a people dwelled.