In these chapters, Augustine continues to follow the story of the City of God through the Genesis account of Abraham. Abraham receives God’s promises, believes God, heads off to Canaan, and settles down to live in the land and produce descendants. He believes God, which God credits to him as righteousness, before his circumcision. God cares for Abraham and makes a covenant with him. Ishmael and Isaac are born in the land and God begins fulfilling His promise of descendants as many as the sand on the shore. The City of God grows in Abraham’s physical and then spiritual descendants.
Through this section of the text, Augustine is mostly just walking us through Genesis, making connections between Genesis and the City of God. Abraham and his family are the City of God, so this is pretty straightforward. I want to comment on the ways that Augustine reads some of Abraham’s less faithful decisions, because I see these readings as less faithful to the text of Scripture.
In Abraham’s journey to Egypt, he lies to Pharaoh and says that Sarah is his sister (implying that she is not his wife). In my reading of this episode, Abraham is acting unfaithfully by traveling to Egypt when God has given him a land, by not trusting God to provide offspring through Sarah and instead giving her over to foreigners, and by lying to save himself when God is perfectly capable of protecting him. Abraham is an ultimately faithful servant of God, but in this episode he unfaithfully believes that he needs to take care of himself without God. Augustine sees Abraham as doing what needs to be done, as faithful even here. This carries over to another episode as well: Abraham fathering Ishmael by Sarah’s servant Hagar. For Augustine, the fact that Abraham does not lust after Hagar but lies with her for the sake of children makes it okay. In both of these cases, Augustine is willing to justify Abraham because Abraham is a faithful servant. I am convinced that the better reading sees Abraham as faithful, but that even faithful men and women have all too human times of unfaithfulness. God does not find perfect servants until Jesus. Our biblical heroes look a lot like you and me.
This is the big concern I have over allegorical readings of Scripture. Allegory is a useful and important (and even necessary and biblical) way of reading God’s Word. The historical reading of a text is not sufficient for hearing the full range of God’s speech to His people in Scripture. But if we move too quickly to allegory then we can risk missing the clear historical meanings of texts, which then also compromises our allegorical readings. If we miss Abraham’s unfaithfulness then we miss out on God’s greater grace when he justifies sinful Abraham; we miss out on the promise of Abraham’s righteousness that is not fulfilled until Jesus’ coming; and, we miss out on knowing that our biblical heroes are not perfect in a way that we are not – God justifies sinners like you and me. Augustine’s readings of Abraham (and of David in the David and Bathsheba story, and of other heroes) would have us miss significant points of the Old Testament. Naming sin in the biblical heroes is not unfaithful, it follows the Bible’s pattern and sets God apart from sinful humanity.
Blessings to you this Holy Saturday.
May our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who alone by His powerful word governs all things, yet has buried the shame of the Cross and iron bonds, who has broken the bars of the bronze doors and has descended into hell, who has shone with the brightness of a new light on those who were sitting in the shadow of death, may He, the sun of justice, rising from the tomb, shine upon our darkness with the marvelous light of his risen Body.