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A short story by Montague Rhodes James


Title:     Abraham
Author: Montague Rhodes James [More Titles by James]

Abraham was the son of Terah, and Terah was a maker of idols which he sold to the people round about him. Now this is the story of how Abraham came to believe in the true God; and in the ancient book the story is put into the mouth of Abraham himself, and he tells it in this way:

I was troubled in my mind because I desired to know who was in truth the strongest of all the Gods. And one day when I was attending to the gods of my father Terah, gods of wood and stone, gold and silver, iron and brass, I went into the temple where they stood, and found that one of them, the god named Marumath, who was carved out of stone, had fallen over and was lying at the feet of the god Zucheus. When I saw that, I was alarmed, and thought that I should never be able to put him back in his place by myself, because he was so heavy; so I went and told my father, and he came, and the two of us could hardly manage to move him; but as we were doing so, the head of the god broke off in my hands. At that my father said, "Abraham", and I said, "Here am I, bring me the chisels out of the house." And when I had done so, he fashioned another Marumath out of stone, without a head, and fixed the head that had come off the first Marumath upon it; and the rest of the old Marumath he broke in pieces.

After that he made five more gods, and bade me take them and sell them in the streets of the city; and I saddled the ass, and put them upon it, and went to the river to sell them; and there I found merchants coming from Fandana in Syria with camels, on their way to Egypt to bring papyrus from the Nile. And as I was talking with them one of their camels belched, and the donkey took fright and ran off, and the gods fell off its back, and three of them were broken, and only two remained whole. But when the Syrians saw what had happened, they said, "Why did you not tell us that you had gods to sell? We might have bought them before the donkey took fright, and they would not have been destroyed; at least we will take the gods that remain, and pay you the price of them all." And they did so; and the broken gods I cast into the river Gur, and they sank and were seen no more.

But as I returned home, I was bewildered and divided in my mind. I said to myself, "What an evil trade is this that my father practises! Is not he in truth the god of his own gods which he makes with his chisels and lathes and his skill? Ought they not rather to worship him than he them? Surely it is all deceit. Look at Marumath, who fell and could not get up again, and these five other gods which could not punish the donkey for running away with them, nor keep themselves from being broken and thrown into the river."

And as I was thinking of all these things, I arrived at my father's house. Then I gave the ass his hay and water, and went in and gave the price of the gods to my father Terah, and he was pleased and said, "Blessed be thou of my gods: my labour has not been in vain." But I said, "It is rather thou, father, that givest blessing to the gods, for thou art their god; their own blessing is vain and their help is naught: if they cannot help themselves, how should they help thee or bless me?" But he was very angry with me for speaking lightly of his gods.

Then I went out of the house, and after a while my father called me and said, "Gather up the chips of the fig-wood wherewith I was making gods before you came in, and see about preparing dinner."

And as I was doing so, I found a little god lying among the straw and the rubbish, and on his forehead was written: "The god Barisat." So I kept him, and did not tell my father; and when I had kindled the fire to cook the dinner, and was going out to fetch the food, I set Barisat down in front of the fire and said to him, "Barisat, take care that the fire does not go out before I come back; and if it does, blow upon it and revive it." Then I went out and did my errand, and when I returned I found Barisat fallen over backwards, and his feet were in the fire and were badly burnt; and I laughed to myself and said, "You are in truth a good fireman and cook, Barisat." Just then the fire caught upon his body and burnt him all up.

When the time was come, I brought food to my father and he ate, and I gave him wine and milk and he drank, and rejoiced and praised his god Marumath; and I said, "Father, you should not praise Marumath, but rather Barisat, for he has done more for you: he has thrown himself into the fire to cook your dinner." "And where is he now?" said my father. "He has been burnt to ashes," I said, "in the heat of the fire, and nothing but dust is left of him." And my father said, "Great is the strength of Barisat! I will make another one to-day, and he shall prepare my food for me to-morrow." Now when I heard my father say these words, I laughed in myself, and yet I was troubled and angry in my soul. And at last I answered and said, "Whichever of these things you honour as a god, it is folly. The god Zucheus, who is the god of my brother Nahor, is more honourable than your god Marumath, for he is adorned with gold finely wrought, and when he is old he will be fashioned over again; but if Marumath is broken or injured he will not be renewed, for he is only of stone. And again the god Joauv, who stands next to Zucheus, is more honourable than Barisat, for he is covered with silver; but as for Barisat, you made him yourself with your axe, and, look, he is fallen upon the earth, and the fashion of his likeness is destroyed, and he is burnt to ashes, and you say, 'To-day I will make another, and he shall prepare my food to-morrow.'

"But I say to you, my father, the fire is mightier than all your gods of gold and silver and stone and wood, for it can devour them all. Yet I call not the fire god, for it is weaker than the water which can subdue it. Yet again I call not the water god, for the earth swallows it up. Neither call I the earth god, for it is subject to men that till it, and to the sun that gives light to it. Neither call I the sun god, for it is overcome by the darkness of night. But I say that there is one true God who hath made all these things; who hath made the heavens blue, and the sun golden, and the moon and stars white and shining, and hath raised up the earth from among the waters, and breathed into thee the breath of life, and hath sought me out in the trouble of my soul; and would that He might reveal Himself unto us!"

And as I was speaking these words to my father in the court of his house, there came from heaven the voice of a Mighty One speaking out of a cloud of fire, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And I said, "Behold, here am I!" And He said, "In the thought of thy heart thou seekest after the God of Gods and the Maker of all things: I am He. Depart from thy father Terah and go out of his house, lest thou be consumed in his wickedness." And I went out; and it came to pass, as I came to the door of the house, that there fell a noise of a great thundering, and the fire fell and burnt up my father Terah and his house and all that was therein.

This is the story of the beginning of the life of Abraham; and that which is told about the end of his life is as follows:

Abraham had lived out the measure of his days. He was now a hundred and seventy-five years old, and all the days of his life he had lived in kindness and meekness and uprightness: and especially was he hospitable and courteous to strangers. He dwelt by the cross-roads near the oak of Mamre, and entertained all the wayfarers who came that way, rich and poor, lame and sound, friends or strangers. But at last to him, as to all other men, there came the bitter cup of death, which none can put away. So when the time was come, the Most High called to him the archangel Michael and said to him, "Michael, prince of the host, go down to Abraham and speak to him concerning his death, that he may set his house in order: for his possessions are great. Announce to him therefore that he is to depart speedily out of the earthly life, and come to his Lord in peace and happiness."

Michael therefore went forth from the presence of the Lord and went down to Abraham at the oak of Mamre, and found him in the fields hard by, watching his husbandmen ploughing with their oxen. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw Michael coming towards him in the dress and fashion of a soldier--for he was the captain of the Lord's host--very beautiful to look upon. And Abraham rose and went to meet him, as was his custom with all strangers; and when they had saluted one another, Abraham asked Michael whence he came; and Michael answered, "I come from the Great City, and my errand is to fetch a certain friend of the Great King, whom He is inviting to come to Him." Then said Abraham, "My lord, come with me to my house." And when Michael consented, Abraham called one of his men and bade him fetch two quiet horses that he and the stranger might ride home on them. But Michael refused, for he knew that no earthly horse could bear him; so he said, "Nay, but rather let us go on foot to your house."

And as they went up from the fields, they came to a cypress-tree growing by the wayside; and as they passed by it there came from it a human voice, which said, "Holy is the Lord who calleth to Himself them that love Him." Now this happened by the commandment of God, to be a sign to Abraham, and he marvelled; but when he looked at his companion and saw that he seemed to take no notice of it, he said nothing, thinking that only he had heard the voice. Soon after they came to the house, and Isaac and Sarah came to greet them, and they sat down in the courtyard of the house. But Isaac said to his mother Sarah, "Mother, I am sure that the man who is sitting with my father is not of the race of men that live on the earth." Just then Abraham called to Isaac, "Isaac, my son, draw water from the well, and bring it to me in a basin, that we may wash the stranger's feet, for he has come a long journey." So Isaac ran and fetched the water to his father; and Abraham said to him secretly, "My child, something says to me that this will be the last time that I shall wash the feet of any stranger coming to this house." And Isaac was greatly distressed and said, "What mean you, father, by these words?" Abraham said nothing, but stooped down and began to wash the feet of Michael; and Isaac wept. Abraham too shed tears, and Michael seeing it, was moved with pity, and wept also; and his tears fell into the basin of water and became precious pearls. When Abraham saw that, he marvelled; but he gathered up the pearls secretly and said nothing.

After that he told Isaac to go and prepare the banqueting-room, spread two couches, light the lamps, burn sweet odours, and fetch fragrant herbs and flowers from the garden. "For," said he, "this man who is come to us is worthy of all the honour we can do him." So Isaac went to make ready the room, and Sarah also set about preparing a feast. Then, while they were all busying themselves with preparation, the sun began to set, and the hour came at which all the angels appear before God and worship Him; and Michael also flew up into the heavens in the twinkling of an eye, and stood before the Lord. And when all the angels had done their worship and gone forth again, Michael remained and said to the Lord, "Lord, I cannot speak to Abraham about his death; for I have never seen his like upon the earth, kind, courteous, hospitable, fearing God, and keeping himself pure from all evil. I cannot grieve his heart by telling him that he is to die." And the Lord said, "Go down again to my friend Abraham, and whatsoever he would have thee do, do it; and I will put the thought of his death into the mind of his son Isaac in a dream. Then Isaac shall tell the dream, and thou shalt interpret it, and so Abraham shall be certified of his death."

So Michael returned to Abraham's house, and sat at meat with him, and Isaac waited on them; and after supper, Abraham offered up prayer as he was wont, and the archangel prayed with him, and they went to their beds. Isaac also asked his father if he might sleep with them, for he desired exceedingly to be near the wonderful stranger and to hear his words; but Abraham said, "Nay, my son, lest we be burdensome to the stranger." Therefore Isaac bowed down and received his father's blessing, and went to his own chamber.

And about the third hour of the night Isaac dreamed a dream, and it frightened him, so that he leapt out of bed and ran hastily to the room where Abraham and Michael were sleeping, and beat upon the door and said, "Father, open to me quickly! let me kiss you once again before they take you away from me." Then Abraham opened the door, and Isaac ran in and hung upon his neck, weeping loudly. And Sarah was awakened by the noise of the weeping, and came quickly to them; and she also wept and said, "What is the matter? Has our brother who is come to us brought you evil tidings of Lot, your nephew?" But Michael said, "No, lady, it is not so; but, as I think, your son Isaac has dreamed a dream which has troubled him, so he came to us weeping, and we were moved at the sight of his tears, and wept with him."

Now Sarah, when she heard the sound of the voice of Michael, became sure in her own mind that it was an angel of God who was speaking. She beckoned therefore to Abraham to come to her at the door of the house, and took him aside and said to him, "Do you know who this man is?" and he said, "No." "Do you remember," said she, "the three men who came to us once at the oak of Mamre; and how you killed a calf and prepared a feast for them; and how when the calf was eaten, it suddenly became whole again and sprang up and ran and suckled its mother? I am sure that this is one of those three men." Abraham answered, "Sarah, you have hit the truth; praised be God for His wonders. Now I tell you that last night when I was washing the feet of this man, I said to myself, 'Surely these are the feet that I washed long ago under the oak-tree?' And furthermore, he shed tears, and they fell into the water and became these pearls." And he drew the pearls out of his bosom and showed them to her, and she bowed her head and praised God and said, "Be sure, Abraham, that he is come to reveal some matter to us, whether for evil or for good."

Then Abraham left Sarah and went in and said to Isaac, "Come here, my child, and tell me what you saw, and what caused you to come to us in such haste?" And Isaac said, "It was this, father. I saw in a dream this night the sun and the moon upon my head, and the rays of the sun were all about me and enlightened me, and I rejoiced in them; then I saw the heavens opening, and a shining man, brighter than seven suns, came down; and he approached me and took the sun from off my head and carried it up into heaven; and again after a little while, as I was sorrowing over it, he came and took the moon from me. Then I was greatly distressed, and I besought him, saying, 'Nay, my lord, do not take all my glory from me; have pity upon me; if thou must needs take the sun, yet leave me the moon.' But he said, 'Suffer them to be taken up to the King above, for He desires them to be with Him.' So he took them away, saying, 'They are removed from toil unto rest, and from darkness unto light.' But their glory he left upon me. Then I awoke." And Isaac ceased speaking.

Then Michael said, "Hear me, righteous Abraham. The sun which Isaac saw is you, his father; the moon likewise is Sarah, his mother; and the shining one who came down out of heaven and took them away is myself. And now be it known to you that the time is come for you to leave this earthly life and go to God." But Abraham said, "Why, here is a marvel indeed! And are you the one appointed to take my soul from me?" He answered, "I am Michael, the captain of the host of God, and I am sent to speak to you concerning your death." Then said Abraham, "I know that you are an angel of God, and that you are sent to take away my soul. But I shall not follow you!"

When Michael heard that word he vanished away from them and went up to the heavens and stood before the Lord, and told Him what Abraham had said; and the Lord answered, "Return to Abraham My friend and speak yet again to him, Thus saith the Lord: 'I brought thee out of thy father's house into the land of promise: I have blessed thee and increased thee more than the sands of the seashore and more than the stars of heaven. Why dost thou resist My decree? Knowest thou not that Adam and Eve died, and all their offspring; none of the forefathers escaped death; they are all of them gone unto the place of spirits, all of them have been gathered by the sickle of death. And I have not suffered the angel of death to approach thee: I have not permitted any evil disease to come upon thee, but instead I have sent mine own prince Michael to speak peaceably unto thee, that thou mayest set thine house in order and bless thy son Isaac and depart in peace; and now thou sayest, "I will in nowise follow him." Knowest thou not that if I send Death unto thee, thou must needs come whether thou wilt or no?'" So Michael returned to Abraham, and found him weeping, and told him all these words; and Abraham besought him, saying, "Speak yet once again to my Lord and say to Him, 'Thus saith Abraham Thy servant: Lord, Thou hast been gracious to me all my life long, and now, behold, I do not resist Thy word, for I know that I am a mortal man; but this one thing I ask of Thee, that while I am yet in my body Thou wouldst suffer me to see Thy world and all the creatures that Thou hast made. Then shall I depart out of this life without any trouble of mind.'" And Michael returned and spake all these words before the Lord, and the Lord said, "Take a cloud of light and angels that have power over the chariots, and bear Abraham in the chariot of the cherubim into the air of heaven and let him see all the world before he dies."

And it was done; and Michael showed Abraham all the regions of the world. He saw men ploughing and carting, keeping flocks, dancing, sporting, and playing the harp, wrestling, going to law, weeping, dying, and being carried out to burial: even all the things that are done in the earth, both good and evil. And in one place they saw men with swords in their hands, and Abraham asked Michael, "Who are these?" And Michael said, "These are thieves who are going out to steal and to kill and to destroy." Then Abraham said, "O that God would hear me and send evil beasts out of the forest to devour them!" And in that moment wild beasts rushed out upon them and tore them to pieces. Then in another place he saw men and women feasting and drinking before their idols, and he said, "O that the earth might open and swallow them up!" And immediately it happened as he had said. And in yet another place he saw me breaking through the wall of a house to enter it and rob it; and he prayed again, and fire fell from heaven and burnt them up. Then there came a voice which said, "Michael, prince of My host, turn the chariot and bring Abraham back, lest, if he sees any more of the sinners upon earth, he destroy the whole race of men. For he is a righteous man, and has no compassion upon sinners. But I created the world, and I would not have any perish. Bring Abraham therefore to the entering in of the gate of heaven, that he may see the judgment and the recompensing of men, and may have pity upon the souls whom he has blotted out."

Michael therefore turned the chariot and brought Abraham across the great river of Ocean to the entering in of the gate of heaven, and showed him the judgments. And Abraham saw the narrow gate of life and the broad gate of destruction, and between the gates he saw our father Adam sitting upon a throne, and clad in a glorious robe of many colours; and he saw how Adam lamented when the souls went in through the broad gate, and how he rejoiced when they attained to the narrow gate, and how his weeping exceeded his rejoicing. Moreover, Michael showed him how the souls of men are examined concerning their works and how their acts are re-corded and weighed. But when he saw how hard it is to enter in at the strait gate, it repented him that he had prayed for the punishment of the sinners, and he said to Michael, "O prince of the host, let us entreat the Lord that He would have mercy upon the souls of the men whom I cursed in my anger; for now I know that I sinned before God when I prayed against them." Then they both prayed earnestly to God; and after a long time there came a voice saying, "Abraham, I have heard thy prayer, and I have given back life to the men whom thou didst destroy."

Moreover, the voice bade Michael take Abraham back to his house. And when he was come thither, he went up to the great chamber, and sat upon the couch; and Sarah and Isaac came and fell on his neck, and all his servants gathered about him, rejoicing at his return. And Michael said, "Hearken, Abraham: here is Sarah your wife and Isaac your son, and here are all your manservants and maidservants about you. Now therefore set in order your house and bless them, and make ready to depart with me, for your hour is come." Abraham answered, "Did the Lord command you to say this, or do you say it of yourself?" Michael said, "The Lord commanded me, and I give the message to you." Yet for all that Abraham answered, "I will not follow you." So Michael went forth and stood before the Most High again and told him the words of Abraham; and he said besides, "I cannot lay hands upon him, for there is not his like upon the earth, no, not even the righteous Job. Tell me therefore, Lord, what I must do."

And God said, "Call Death, and bid him come hither." Michael went and found Death, and said to him, "Come, for the Lord of all things, the Immortal King, calleth for thee." And Death trembled and feared exceedingly when he heard that; but he followed Michael and came and stood before the Lord, quivering and shaking with fear, awaiting the commands of his Master. And God said to him, "Hide thy hideous appearance, cover up thy corruption, put away from thee all thy terror, and put on a glorious and beautiful aspect, and go down to Abraham My friend and take him and bring him to Me: only see that thou make him not afraid, but bring him peaceably, for he is My friend." So Death went forth from the presence of God, and made himself like an angel of light, beautiful to look upon, and departed to seek Abraham. Now Abraham had come down from his chamber and was sitting under the trees of Mamre, leaning his head upon his hand, expecting the return of Michael the archangel. And suddenly he was aware of a sweet perfume, and of a light shining near him; and he turned round and saw Death coming towards him in a form of great glory and beauty, and rose to meet him, supposing him to be an angel of God. And they greeted one another, and Abraham said, "Whence come you to me, and who are you?" Death answered, "Abraham, I tell you the truth: I am the bitter cup of death." Abraham said, "Rather you are the beauty of the world; a fairer than you I have never seen, and how say you, 'I am the bitter cup of death'?" He answered, "I have told you the truth; the name by which God named me is that which I have spoken." Abraham said, "And why have you come to this place?" Death answered, "I am come to take your soul, O righteous one." Abraham said, "I hear what you say, but I shall not come with you." But Death was silent and answered him not a word.

Then Abraham rose up and went towards his house: and Death followed him. And he went up into his chamber: and Death went with him; and he laid himself on his bed: and Death came and sat by his feet. And Abraham said, "Go, depart from me: I wish to rest here on my couch." Death answered, "I shall not depart till I have taken thy soul from thy body." Abraham said, "I adjure thee by the living God: art thou in very truth Death?" He said, "I am." Then said Abraham, "Comest thou to all men in such a beautiful shape as this?" He said, "Nay, my lord Abraham; it is thy righteousness and thy good deeds which make as it were a crown of glory upon my head; it is only to such as thou art that I come thus peaceably, but to sinners I show myself much otherwise." "Show me then," said Abraham, "in what form thou comest to them: let me see all thy fierceness and bitterness." "No," said Death, "for thou couldst not bear to look upon it." "Verily, I am able to bear it," he said, "for the strength of the God of heaven is with me."

Then Death let fall from him all his beauty, and Abraham saw him as he was. And where there had been a shining angel, he saw a cloud of darkness, and in it the shapes of horrible wild beasts and all unclean creatures; and he saw the heads of fiery dragons, and flames of consuming fire darting out; and he seemed to see a dreadful precipice before him, and then a rushing river, and flashes of lightning, and crackling of thunder, and thereafter a tempestuous raging sea; and again weapons brandished, and venomous basilisks and serpents, and bowls of poison; and there came a horrible odour, so that all the servants of Abraham that were in the chamber fainted and died, and Abraham himself swooned and his senses left him.

When he came to himself, Death had hidden his terrible aspect and put on his beautiful form again. And Abraham saw his servants lying dead, and said to Death, "How is it that thou hast slain these?" And Death said, "They died at the sight of my countenance, and in truth it is a marvel that thou also didst not die with them." "Yea," said Abraham, "now I know how it was that I came by this faintness of spirit that is upon me; but I pray thee, Death, inasmuch as these have been cut off before their time, let us entreat God that he would raise them up again." So Abraham and Death prayed together; and the spirit of life returned into the servants that had been killed, and they rose up again. After that Abraham conversed with Death.

Then Sarah and Isaac came in and talked with Abraham as he lay on his bed. And Abraham said to Death, "I beseech thee, depart from me for a little, for since I looked upon thee weakness is come upon me, and my breath labours and my heart is troubled." Then said Death, "Kiss my right hand and thy strength will return to thee, and thou wilt be filled with joy." So Abraham kissed the hand of Death, and the soul of Abraham clave to the hand of Death and left his body; and straightway Michael was there and a multitude of angels with him, and they accompanied the holy soul of Abraham and brought it into the heavens into the presence of the Most High, there to abide everlastingly in gladness and brightness in the place from which all sorrow and sighing are fled away.

[The end]
Montague Rhodes James's short story: Abraham