We ought to esteem Abraham as one equal to a hundred thousand if we consider his faith, which is set before us as the best model of believing. To be children of God, we must be reckoned as members of his tribe. Now, what could be more absurd than for Abraham to be the father of all believers and yet not to possess even the remotest corner among them? But, he cannot be removed from their number – not even from the very highest rank of honor – without wiping out the whole church.
Now, as for the experiences of his life: when he is first called by God’s command, he is taken away from his country, parents, and friends – considered, by men, the sweetest things in life – as if God deliberately intended to strip him of all life’s delights. As soon as he has reached the land in which he has been bidden to dwell, he is driven from it by famine. Seeking aid, he flees to a place where he has to prostitute his wife to save his life, an act probably more bitter than many deaths. When he has returned to the land of his abode, he is again driven from it by famine. What sort of happiness [is] this – to dwell in a land where you often have to go hungry, even perish from hunger, unless you flee from it? He is reduced to the same straits in the land of Abimelech so that, to save his own head, he has to suffer the loss of his wife. While in uncertainty, he wanders about, hither and thither, for many years, he is compelled, by the continuing quarreling of his servants, to dismiss his nephew, whom he cherished as his own son. Doubtless, he bore this separation as if he had undergone the amputation of a limb.
Shortly thereafter, Abraham hears that his nephew has been taken captive by enemies. Wherever he goes, he finds terribly barbarous neighbors who do not even let him drink water out of the wells that he had dug with great labor. For he would not have recovered the use of them from King Gerar had he not first been denied it. Now, when he has reached a worn-out old age, he finds himself childless – the most unpleasant and bitter feature of age. Finally, beyond all hope, he begets Ishmael, but the birth of this son costs him dear. For he is wearied by Sarah’s reproaches, as if he, by encouraging the handmaid’s arrogance, were himself the cause of domestic strife.
Finally, Isaac is born, but with this condition: Ishmael, the first-born, is to be driven out and forsaken, almost like an enemy. When Isaac alone is left, in whom the weary old age of the good man may repose, he is, shortly after, ordered to sacrifice him. What more frightful thing can the human mind imagine than for a father to become the executioner of his own son? Is Isaac had died of sickness, who would not have thought Abraham the most miserable of old men – given a son in jest – on whose account his grief of childlessness should be doubled? If he had been killed by some stranger, the calamity would have been much increased by the indignity. But for a son to be slaughtered by his own father’s hand surpasses every sort of calamity.
In short, throughout his life, he was so tossed and troubled that, if anyone wished to paint a picture of a calamitous life, he could find no model more appropriate than Abraham’s! Let no man object that he was not completely unhappy, because he finally came safely through so many great tempests. We will not say that he leads a happy life who struggles long and hard through infinite difficulties, but he who calmly enjoys present benefits without feeling misfortune. – John Calvin (1509-1564), from Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), 2.10.11.