In substance, those hearing these stories of the call of the disciples, as they are presented in the synoptics, are hearing a recapitulation of the call of Abraham. If this is the case, an objection might be raised that Abraham was not actually called to leave his father, or at the least, that he did not have to make that difficult decision, as the eleventh chapter of Genesis appears to close by recounting that Abraham’s father died in the land of Haran before Abraham received his call from God. That objection falls flat, as the text does not indicate a chronological progression of events. Understanding that the account is not necessarily a progression takes a step in the direction of reconciling the Genesis account with the account of Abraham provided by Stephen in Acts. There, Stephen says “The God of glory appeared to our forefather Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your country and from your relatives, and come to the land I will show you.’ Then he went out from the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God made him move to this country where you now live” (7:2-4).
If we consider that the Genesis narrative does allow for this account by Stephen, then any supposed difficulties vanish. We dare not say that Stephen somehow got the account of Abraham and his call wrong or that he was mistaken. This is especially important if we consider that Luke, as the author of Acts, clearly presents Stephen as speaking “under the inspiration” if you will, as Luke intends to make the point that it is Jesus Himself that has given Stephen the words he is to speak. Luke knows what he is doing in his writing, and has written “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and governors because of My name. This will be a time for you to serve as witnesses (martyrs). Therefore be resolved ahead of time not to make your defense. For I will give you the words along with the wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (21:12-15).
Obviously, Jesus, if He is speaking through Stephen, which appears to be the conclusion that Luke desires his hearers to reach, is going to get the story of Abraham correct. That said, it is interesting that Stephen omits the portion of the call in which Abraham is directed to leave his father. This is probably a bit of a smoothing out of the Abraham narrative, since it is clear that, though the call came at an earlier point in his life, he did not leave his father until after his father had died. The point is, the call came to Abraham when his father is still alive, not after he is dead, as one might presume if simply reading Genesis and contemplating a straight chronological progression from the end of chapter eleven to the beginning of chapter twelve, which, if read in such a way, makes the call to leave his father make little sense. So yes, Abraham is given a difficult choice. Will he stay with his father or will he leave his father, as God has directed him to do. We know that Abraham chose to stay with his father. In a sense then, and it is okay to point these things out because we do not deify Abraham, we can assert that Abraham failed in this area. Of course, Abraham failed in other areas too, so it’s not as if this is groundbreaking news. Where Abraham failed, in that he did not undertake the journey in response to God’s call until after his father had died, these disciples succeeded in their response to the call, leaving their father when called.
Though there is no reason whatsoever to take a dogmatic stance here, thinking about the call of the disciples in conjunction with the call of Abraham, along with the similarities and differences to be found, gives a new twist to one of Jesus’ most provocative statements, as recorded by both Matthew and Luke. Using Luke’s treatment, we read that “Jesus said to another, ‘Follow Me.’” (9:59a) This, according to our theory, is going to have brought Abraham’s call to the minds of Luke’s audience. What is the response to Jesus’ call? “He replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” (9:59b) Might this rather standard excuse for not taking action be an oblique reference to Abraham? If Abraham didn’t do something that God had commanded him to do until after his father died, surely his descendants should not be expected to do so. To this, Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9:60). Perhaps Jesus is here insisting that His countrymen go beyond the example provided by Abraham? For Luke’s purposes (and Matthew’s), the audience that is hearing his construction of a Jesus narrative, has already seen two disciples respond to His God-to-Abraham-like call by leaving their father, and here, with the addition of another story from Jesus’ life, builds on that premise.
The fact that only two of the disciples are said to have left their father is irrelevant. The simple mention of leaving their father, when called by the one that is worshiped as God by the community that is hearing the story, creates an Abrahamic frame of reference to be applied to the rest of the callings. In this Abrahamic light, we can take a moment to stretch the analogy just a bit further, calling attention to the fact that James and John leave their father together. The call of Abraham, according to Genesis, was to “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household.” We know, however, that Abraham took his nephew Lot with him. So even though these two disciples (James and John), unlike Abraham, made the difficult decision to leave their father (Zebedee), that decision was made a little bit easier, as they did so in conjunction with their brother. The fact that the first four called disciples were business partners, according to Luke, probably made the decision to leave their occupations and to follow Jesus just slightly less tenuous.