Written by Vladimir Moss



     The earliest period of man’s history saw three terrible moral falls with global consequences: that of Adam and Eve, that of Cain and his descendants, and that of Nimrod and the tower-builders. Each crime was followed by a fitting and catastrophic punishment: the death of Adam and all his descendants in the manner that is familiar to all of us, the drowning of Cain and all his descendants in the universal Flood, and the scattering of the tower-builders around the world. And yet a tiny but holy remnant was preserved in each case: that of Seth and his descendants, that of Noah and his descendants, and that of Abraham and his descendants…

     The deification of the ruler of the City of Man in the person of Nimrod, and the building of the tower of Babel at his command, was, of course, a direct challenge to the truly Divine Ruler of the City of God. ”However," writes Archpriest Lev Lebedev, "not all of humanity agreed to take part in the building of the tower. Our Russian Tale of Burning Years (The Chronicle of Nestor), relying on the chronicle of George Armatoll, says that righteous Heber (‘from him came the Hebrews’) refused to take part in the undertaking. And the Armenian and some other chronicles add that certain Japhethites also refused, because of which a war took place between them and Nimrod."[1]

     But the most famous exile from Babylon's antitheist civilization was Heber's grandson Abraham. God commanded him to depart and to to an unknown country, and he went to live “in tents, while he looked forward to a city founded, designed and built by God” (Hebrews 11.10). For the worshippers of God, who wish to be at peace with heaven, cannot co-exist in peace with the worshippers of man, who seek to “quarrel with heaven” and with heaven’s citizens. They must build their own polity that is not founded on the worship of man, but of God.

     Abraham’s story, recounted in chapters 12 to 22 of Genesis, is that of a man who obeys no man, but only God; his faith did not come from men, because even his father “served other gods” (Joshua 24.2); we read of no priest or king to whom he deferred. The only exception is Melchizedek, the mysterious king-priest of Shalem, who blessed him on his return from the slaughter of the Babylonian kings. However, Melchizedek was the exception that proved the rule; for he was more like God than man, being both the first and the last man in the history of the People of God lawfully to combine the roles of king and priest[2]. Indeed, he was the first recorded true king and “priest of the Most High God”, who was called “Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14.18). This shows, according to St. Paul (Hebrews 7.3), that he was the type, not of any merely human king, but of Christ God, the Supreme King and Chief High Priest.[3] Like Christ in His Divine generation, he was “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days not end of life, but made like the Son of God, remaining a priest continually” (Hebrews 7.3). Again like Christ at the Last Supper, Melchizedek offers Abraham bread and wine, which is why Christ is called “a priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 7.17). So Abraham is blessed by Christ Himself, the true King of Peace, in the person of Melchizedek, the “king of peace”…

     Abraham’s life represents a model of the Christian life of faith demonstrated by works performed for God’s sake. Purified and strengthened through a series of trials, in each of which he is called to obey God by performing a work of faith, in Abraham we see “faith working together with his works, and by works faith being made perfect” (James 2.22). These works of faith include: exile from his native land (Chaldea), separation from his relatives (Lot), struggle against the enemies of the faith (the four kings headed by the king of Babylon), struggle against his fallen desires (Pharaoh, Hagar) and, finally, the complete sacrifice of the heart to God (the sacrifice of Isaac). The supreme demonstration of Abraham’s faith was his belief that “God was able to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (Hebrews 11.19), which was a type of the Resurrection of Christ.

     To strengthen him on this path, Abraham is given bread and wine, a figure of the Body and Blood of Christ, by Melchizedek. [4] In fact he also receives the other sacraments in a figure. For he is ordered to carry out – not only on himself, but also on his whole family, and even his servants - circumcision, a type both of the Church’s Baptism by water and the Spirit, whereby all previous sins are washed away, and of the circumcision of the heart, whereby the desire to sin again in the future is cut off.

     Abraham’s faith was not simply belief in God, but also in Christ God; for he believed in God’s promise that from his seed would come the Seed, the Messiah and Saviour of the world, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3.16), in Whom all the nations of the world would be blessed. This meant, as St. Theophan the Recluse explains, that “the blessing given to him for his faith would be spread to all peoples, but not because of Abraham himself or all of his descendants, but because of One of his descendants – his Seed, Who is Christ; through Him all the tribes of the earth would receive the blessing.”[5] That Abraham truly had a vision of the Christ that was to come was confirmed by the Lord Himself, Who said: “Abraham rejoiced to see My day: He saw it, and was glad” (John 8.56).

     Abraham is not only a model of the man of faith and the physical ancestor of Christ: he is spiritually the father of all the faithful Christians, being a type of the Apostles, who are “in labour again until Christ is formed” in every Christian (Galatians 4.19).


     God made certain promises to Abraham and his descendants, known as the Abrahamic Covenant, which prefigure the whole future history of the relationship between the City of God and the City of Man. They are so important that they are proclaimed in at least eight different versions, or “drafts” (Genesis 12.1-3, 12.7, 12.13,14-17, 14.18-20, 15.1-19, 16.10-12, 17.1-22, 22.17-18), not to speak of their repetition to his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Each successive draft makes the Covenant a little more precise and far-reaching, in response to Abraham’s gradual increase in spiritual stature 

     The promises relate to the two peoples who descend from the two sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac is the true heir of Abraham, the freeborn son of Sarah, who inherits the promises and blessings given to Abraham in full measure, being also a man of faith of whom it is also said that in his Seed, Christ, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 26.3-4). Ishmael is the son of a slave, Hagar, and does not inherit those blessings, although he does receive the promise that his heirs will be strong and numerous.

     Now according to the popular conception, Isaac is the ancestor of the Jews, and Ishmael – of the Arab peoples. Certainly, the description of Ishmael’s race as “wild” and warlike that is given by the Angel of the Lord to Hagar in the desert (Genesis 16.10-12) appears to correspond closely, as St. Philaret of Moscow points out, to the character and life-style of the Arabs until Mohammed and beyond, who were constantly fighting and lived “in the presence of their brethren” – that is, near, or to the east of, the descendants of Abraham from his other concubine, Hetturah – the Ammonites, Moabites and Idumeans.[6] Moreover, a similar interpretation of the typology appears to stand true for the next generation, to Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau, who are said to correspond to the Jews (Jacob), on the one hand, and the Idumeans (Esau), on the other. For this interpretation fits very well with the Lord’s words to Isaac’s wife Rebecca, that “two nations are in thy womb…, and the one people shall be stronger than the other people, and the elder [Esau] shall serve the younger [Jacob]” (Genesis 25.23); for the Jews, from Jacob to David to the Hasmonean kings, almost always showed themselves to be stronger than the Idumeans and often held them in bondage. It was only towards the Coming of Christ that an Idumean, Herod the Great, reversed the relationship by killing the Hasmoneans and becoming the first non-Jewish king of Israel – the event which, according to the prophecy of Jacob, would usher in the reign of the Messiah (Genesis 49.10).

     In fact, however, the racial interpretation of the two peoples of the Covenant has only limited validity before the Coming of Christ, and none at all after. For, according to the inspired interpretation of the Apostle Paul, the two peoples – or two covenants, as he calls them - represent, not racial, but spiritual categories: “Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar – for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Galatians 4.22-26). In other words, Isaac stands for the Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, while Ishmael stands for the Jews who reject Christ. For the Christians, - and this includes the Jews before Christ who believed in His Coming, - become through faith in Christ the freeborn heirs of the promises made to Abraham and Isaac, whereas the Jews, by remaining slaves to the Law of Moses and refusing to believe in Christ, show themselves to be the children of the bondwoman, and therefore cannot inherit the promises together with the Christians. Moreover, it can be said of the Jews, as of the men of Ishmael’s race, that ever since they rejected Christ they have become “wild”, with their hands against all, and the hands of all against them, always striving for “freedom” but remaining voluntarily in slavery to the Law (and to their own kahal).[7] It may therefore be that the age-old phenomenon of mutual enmity between the Jews and the Gentiles, of anti-semitism and anti-Gentilism, is prophesied in these verses.

     That Isaac is the ancestor of Christ and the Christians is indicated also by his choice of wife, Rebecca, who signifies the Bride of Christ, or the Church. Rebecca is freeborn, being of the family of Abraham, and is an even closer image of the Church than Sarah; for she is Isaac's only wife as the Church is Christ's only Bride. Moreover, the Holy Fathers see in the story of the wooing of Rebecca a parable of Christ's wooing of the Church, in which Eleazar, signifying the Holy Spirit, conveyed Isaac's proposal to her at the well, which signifies Baptism, and gave her gifts of precious jewels, signifying the gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed at Chrismation.[8]

     Ishmael, on the other hand, receives a wife from outside the holy family – from Egypt. And she is chosen for him, not by a trusted member of the family, but by his rejected mother, the slave-woman Hagar.

     The relationship between Isaac and Ishmael is almost exactly mirrored in the relationship between Isaac’s two sons, Jacob and Esau. Thus St. Philaret comments on the verse: “The Lord hath chosen Jacob unto Himself, Israel for His own possession” (Psalm 134.4), as follows: “This election refers in the first place to the person of Jacob, and then to his descendants, and finally and most of all to his spirit of faith: for ‘not all [coming from Israel] are of Israel’ (Romans 9.6). The two latter elections, that is, the election of the race of Israel, and the election of the spiritual Israel, are included in the first, that is, in the personal election of Jacob: the one prophetically, and the other figuratively.

     “The reality of this prefigurement in Holy Scripture is revealed from the fact that the Apostle Paul, while reasoning about the rejection of the carnal, and the election of the spiritual Israel, produces in explanation the example of Jacob and Esau (Romans 9), and also from the fact that the same Apostle, in warning the believing Jews against the works of the flesh, threatens them with the rejection of Esau (Hebrews 12.16, 17).

     “And so Jacob is an image, in the first place, of the spiritual Israel, or the Christian Church in general, and consequently Esau, on the contrary, is an image of the carnal Israel.

     “Esau and Jacob are twins, of whom the smaller overcomes the larger: in the same day the spiritual Israel was born together with the carnal, but, growing up in secret, is finally revealed and acquires ascendancy over him.

     “Isaac destines his blessing first of all to Esau, but then gives it to Jacob: in the same way the carnal Israel is given the promises from the Heavenly Father, but they are fulfilled in the spiritual [Israel].

     “While Esau looks for a hunting catch in order to merit his father’s blessing, Jacob, on the instructions of his mother, to whom God has revealed his destinies, puts on the garments of the first-born and seizes it before him. While the carnal Israel supposes that by the external works of the law it will acquire the earthly blessing of God, the spiritual Israel, with Grace leading it, having put on the garments of the merits and righteousness of the First-Born of all creation, ‘is blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ’ (Ephesians 1.3).

     “The sword of battle and continuing slavery is given to the rejected Esau as his inheritance. And for the carnal Israel, from the time of its rejection, there remained only the sword of rebellion, inner enslavement and external humiliation.

     “The rejected Esau seeks the death of Jacob; but he withdraws and is saved. The rejected old Israel rises up to destroy the new; but God hides it in the secret of His habitation, and then exalts it in strength and glory…”[9]      

      As for the wives of Jacob, they also, like Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau, signify the spiritual Israel of the Church and the carnal Israel of the non-believing Jews. Thus Leah, whom Jacob married first, signifies with her weak eyes and fertile womb the weak faith of the carnal Israel and its abundant offspring. (It is precisely blindness that “shall befall Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in” (Romans 11.25)).

     But Rachel, whom he married later but loved first and most strongly, signifies the New Testament Church, which the Lord loved first but married later. For the Church of the Gentiles, that of Enoch and Noah and Abraham before his circumcision, existed before that of Moses and David and the Old Testament Prophets. Moreover, Rachel brought forth her children in pain because the New Testament Church brought forth her first children in the blood of martyrdom, and is destined to inherit spiritual blessedness only through suffering – “we must through many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22).

     Christ recognized that the unbelieving Jews were the children of Abraham, saying: “I know that you are Abraham’s seed” (John 8.37). And yet only a few moments later He denied them this honour, saying: “If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill Me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God. This did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father… Ye are of your father, the devil” (John 8.39-41, 44). Ultimately, therefore, only Christians belong to the chosen people. As St. Justin the Martyr writes: “The seed is divided after Jacob and comes down through Judah and Phares and Jesse to David. Now this is surely a sign that some of you Jews are surely the children of Abraham, and that you will share in the inheritance of Christ; but… a greater part of your people… drink of bitter and godless doctrine while you spurn the word of God.”[10]

[1] Lebedev, “The Universal Babylon”, Pravoslavnaia Zhizn’, 53, N 5 (640), May, 2003, p. 16.

[2] Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, Zapiski rukovodstvuiuschaia k osnovatel’nomu razumeniu Knigi Byti (Notes Leading to a Fundamental Understanding of the Book of Genesis), Moscow, 1817, p. 78. Exceptions may be found in the history of the tiny kingdom of Montenegro in the Ottoman period.

[3] Melchisedek’s combining the roles of king and priest may also signify the Divine origin of both offices. See Protopriest Valentine Asmus, “O monarkhii i nashem k nej otnoshenii” (“On Monarchy and our Relationship to It”), Radonezh, N 2 (46), January, 1997, p. 4.

[4] However, Mar Jacob considered it to be no figure of the Eucharist but the Eucharist itself: "None, before the Cross, entered this order of spiritual ministration, except this man alone. Beholding the just Abraham worthy of communion with him, he separated part of his oblation and took it out to him to mingle him therewith. He bore forward bread and wine, but Body and Blood went forth, to make the Father of the nations a partaker of the Lord's Mysteries." ("A Homily on Melchizedek", translated in The True Vine, Summer, 1989, no. 2, p. 44)

[5] St. Theophan, Tolkovanie na Poslanie k Galatam (Interpretation of the Epistle to the Galatians),3.16.

[6] St. Philaret, Zapiski rukovodstvuiuschia  k osnovatel’nomu razumeniu Knigi Bytia (Notes leading to a Basic Understanding of the Book of Genesis), Moscow, 1867, part 2, p. 98.

[7] St. Philaret, Zapiski, p. 100.

[8] St. Ambrose of Milan, On Isaac, or the Soul.

[9] St. Philaret, Zapiski, part 3, pp. 27-28.

[10] St. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 34.

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