Why would a young composer want to write an oratorio? Specifically, why would he wish to compose an oratorio about Abraham? The answer to the second question includes the answer to the first.
These questions arise because Abraham: an Oratorio for Worship was premiered by Deo Cantamus in the fall of 2014. The production was well received, and it is now being released as a recording. A second live performance is scheduled at Fourth Baptist Church in Plymouth on October 17. So to return to the questions: Why an oratorio? And why Abraham?
Father Abraham—the phrase carries different meanings for different peoples. Jews see Abraham as their father through his son, Isaac, and grandson, Israel. Arabs also look to Abraham as their father, tracing their descent through his firstborn son, Ishmael. Besides these, Christians call Abraham their father—not because he is their biological ancestor, but because they “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham” (Rom. 4:12).
The Christian perception of Abraham’s paternity is sometimes labeled his “spiritual” fatherhood. Abraham’s spiritual fatherhood consists in his example. The faith of Abraham provides an analogy for the experience of all who believe and are justified. He was the first person of whom it was said that he “believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abraham is therefore “the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16), that is, of all who believe and are justified.
Abraham’s spiritual fatherhood, however, does not diminish the importance of his natural fatherhood. Each of Abraham’s sons (Ishmael and Isaac) became a great nation. Those two nations still exist, each tracing its parentage to Abraham. Biblically, each has a future in the plan of God.
Isaac was the promised child, the son in whom Abraham’s descendents would be called (Gen. 21:12). The descendents of Isaac and his son, Israel, have enjoyed remarkable privileges in the plan of God. To the nation of Israel were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2). To the nation of Israel belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the temple service, the promises, and the patriarchs. From the nation of Israel would come the Messiah (Rom. 9:4-5). Because the gifts and calling of God are without repentance, someday all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:26-32).
The children of Isaac were granted special privileges, but the offspring of Ishmael were not neglected. For Abraham’s sake, God promised lavish blessing to Ishmael (Gen. 17:20). God pledged to make the son of poor, misused Hagar into a great nation—and He has, for He was present with Ishmael as well as with Isaac (Gen. 21:20). Furthermore, God has promised that both Egypt and Iraq (both now populated by the sons of Ishmael) will become peoples of God, standing alongside Israel to enjoy God’s blessing (Isa. 19:19-25).
Today the children of Israel and the sons of Ishmael are enemies. A day is coming when God will reconcile them to each other because He will reconcile both to Himself. This impossibility has become possible only because of the mediation of the One who has reconciled all things through the blood of His cross (Col. 1:20). This One is Jesus the Messiah, who is not only the son of Abraham, but also the Son of God. Furthermore, when Egypt, Iraq, and Israel worship God together, they will add their voices to those of the Church, whose members offer true worship to God’s Son right now. In that future day, all who name Abraham as father will stand together as peoples of God.
This majestic narrative, stretching from Abraham through Jesus and into the Messianic kingdom, ought to stir the heart of everyone who truly loves God. The true and living God is the hero of the story, the One who remains faithful when Abraham does not. God is the One who loves the sons of Israel, who calls them to be His people, who gives them a king, who bears with their sins, who sends them into captivity but then restores them to their land and their blessing. God is the One who sends His Son to be the Messiah and who judges human sins at the cross. God is the One whose promises secure the future of all of Abraham’s children. God is the One who deserves to be praised and magnified.
Few musical forms are capable of bearing the weight of such a prodigious and exalted theme. If a composer wants to draw listeners into this story, he must choose a large musical canvas to paint an intricate and textured picture. He must also choose a form that lends itself specifically to telling a story. The ideal form for this task is the oratorio.
An oratorio is a musical composition, a work of art. It can be enjoyed purely at the artistic level. But it is named for the oratory, a place of prayer. As an oratorio, Abraham goes beyond aesthetic experience to engage the spiritual sensibilities. It moves its hearers toward prayer, and specifically, praise. It is an offering of worship that serves as a vehicle of adoration for those who know and love the hero of the story.