To most Christians and Jews, or at least those who regularly go to church/temple, or suffered through Sunday School, there are two images of Abraham the patriarch. The first, is the often painted scene (including by many celebrated artists like Caraveggio and Rembrandt) of Abraham
about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at the direction of God. This is straight out of the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis.
The other story which is frequently heard is that of Abraham smashing his father’s idols, making him, reportedly, the first monotheist. This is not in the Bible at all. Although taught to children all over the world, it is actually part of what is known as the Midrash. These are Biblical interpretations, written many centuries after the Bible was first memorialized, although there may have been an oral tradition. That's not a knock, as traditions plays a large roll in all religions.
It’s hard to blame rabbis or modern religious school teachers for adding something to the story which reflect well on Abraham as there are more than a few parts that do not, even by contemporary biblical morality. If you have not read Genesis (or in a while) this may surprise you.
Abraham was born, Abram. His father, Terah, was at least 70 at the time, and would live until he was 205 (whcih is not long by biblical standards). He actually had two brothers, Nahor and Haran, although it is not clear if they were triplets. Haran had a son, Lot, therefore Abraham's nephew, who plays a sizeable role in the story.
Abram married Sarai, who was ten years Abram’s junior. She was, unfortunately, barren. Later rabbinical literature identified Sarai with Haran’s daughter, Iscah. This does not make that much sense as Sarai and Iscah were mentioned in the same verse, and not identified with one another.
When Abram was 75 he took Sarai, Lot and his followers or servants to Canaan, destined to be the promised land of his people. At some point, Abraham moved along to Egypt and that is when things get weird.
Abram was concerned that the Egyptians would take one look at Sarai, who was at least in her 60s, if not older, and kill him so that they could have her. He convinced her to act as if she were his sister (which, he later claims she actually was). Pharaoh’s talent scouts spotted her and she moved into his home to become his wife, and, as her brother, Abram made out just fine. If this sounds shocking, all I can do is promise you, it’s in the Bible.
There is no word in the Bible of either Abram or Sarai being particularly stressed about the situation. God, on the other hand, wasn’t pleased at all, and, in some unknown way, began punishing the Egyptians. Don't confuse this with Moses and the ten plagues which is much better known and happens later. Word must have gotten out why they were being punished, as the Pharaoh brought her back to already richly rewarded Abram. Instead of killing Abram, he just said, “Hey, why didn’t you tell me?” and told them to go and to take all the good stuff Abram had acquired. Maybe it was worth it, as it seemed to change their lives for the better.
It would be easy to just say, well, this was a different era, and perhaps allowing your wife to marry someone so they didn’t kill you, was par for the course, but we can see by God’s and the Pharaoh’s reaction, that is not so. It is hard to understand why Abram wasn’t punished by God for his bad behavior as Moses and David would later be, but apparently he was the favorite.
So, Abram, Sarai and Lot went back to Canaan. There was a falling out between Lot’s and Abram’s herdsmen, which created enough bad blood that they split off from one another. Lot got a good look at Jordan, and went there. We are given a early warning that the men of Sodom, where he was headed, were evil.
Abram is again told that all Canaan will belong to his people and that there will be a lot of them (not the best biblical prediction).
At this point there is a big war and a Lot is captured. Old as he was, Abram morphs into Indiana Jones, and goes to the rescue. He split his 318 men into two groups and was able to rescue Lot. From this, some people have concluded that Abram was a great war leader, starting the Israeli military tradition. It takes an awful lot of conjecture to reach that conclusion. We have no idea how many people the 318 were pitted against, or who had the advantage in weaponry, etc.
Soon afterwards, God tells Abram that he will have a son, and while he's talking, throws in the whole Exodus story. Abram had been intending to leave everything to one of his servants, which was actually one of the nicer things he did, but now has a son to think about.
Apparently God was in no hurry. Sarai, hoping to build a family in a thoroughly modern way, gives her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram, and he gets her pregnant. Not surprisingly, Hagar decides she hates Sarai, probably wanting to get the whole kit and kaboodle. Unlike the episode where Abram pimps his wife, there is no indication that providing your husband with your maidservant is frowned upon. Maybe she was just returning the favor of letting her spend some time with the pharaoh.
Sarai, not pleased with Hagar either, gives Abram an earful, and again not surprisingly, he says to leave him alone and do what she wanted with her servant. Big of him, right?
Sarai gives Hagar a real hard time (some description would have been nice) and Hagar takes off. God’s angel finds her and tells her to go back home and submit to Sarai, and then God would make her descendants multiply.
Leaving aside the class warfare, and the obvious side God takes, this is the first appearance of an angel in the Bible. Our earliest knowledge of the Bible comes from the Greek language, and “angel” in Greek, means means messenger, just as evangelist means “messenger of good news”.
Apparently, a multitude of descendants was worth the beatings or whatever else Sarai would do to her, so Hagar went back. Abram was 86 at the time of her son Ishmael’s birth.
Jump ahead 13 years to when Abram is 99. Given his father’s longevity, this is not real old, but apparently he thinks so. God tells him that Abram shall now be known Abraham and Sarai will now be Sarah. She, now 89, would have a child the next year (apparently he wasn’t just going to say “presto chango” but there would have to be a real pregnancy). God also promises that Ishmael, his first son, will be the father of many nations.
There is some debate about what the change from Abram to Abraham means. Some believe it means “father of many nations” but there are others who disagree. When the “H” was added, the middle part of his name could now be translated as “he who covenants,” and that is consistent with what follows. The precise meanings of ancient words and name can usually only be speculated upon, and you shouldn't put much faith in the above.
God now tells Abraham something else which must have been hard to swallow. He offers a deal that he will favor Abraham’s descendents if all of the males all cut the foreskin off their penises. If we believe that the Bible is an explanation for certain traditions, it still hard to figure whose idea this was at first, or who was the first volunteer, regardless of what health benefits there may be. For obvious reasons, I’m guessing a woman thought of it.
The next year God comes back with a couple of angels at his side. This is the first time in the Bible that God appears with angels in tow. He is certainly not yet omniscient as he has to ask where Sarah is, even though she is within hearing distance.
God again foretells that Sarah would have a child. Sarah overhears and has a good laugh. God hears her laughing and they have a weird conversation where God asks her what she thinks she is laughing about, being that he’s God and nothing is too tough for him. Sarah says, pitifully, “I wasn’t laughing” and he just calls her on it with an “Oh, yes you were” type of statement instead of turning her into a pillar of salt or something else equally horrible.
Their little squabble doesn’t ruin the party and Abraham actually walks God outside when he is leaving (just as we might do at a modern party). He decides not to keep from Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sinfulness. He may have been talking to the angels when he says that – there is so much that is not clear.
Abraham, again showing he’s not a bad guy if you can forgive him pimping his wife, negotiates with God into saving the Sodom and Gomorrah if there are 50 righteous men there. God says okay and Abraham slowly negotiates him right down to 10 righteous men. At first it seems that God is not much of a negotiator until you realize there aren’t going to be any ten righteous men. In fact, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is pretty much the only righteous man you can find in those towns at all.
When the two angels show up at Sodom, Lot intercepts them and tries to offer them hospitality. They decline at first, but finally accept. From what follows, you can’t blame them for being cautious. The next thing you know, all of the men in town, of every age, show up at Lot’s place and demand that he turn the visitors over to them for sex (hence, the term “sodomy”). Lot tries to talk them out of it, but they basically call him a foreigner and threaten him with worse than rape. You have to wonder what they had in mind that is worse than gang rape, but not as bad as death, which they probably would have said directly. I’m guessing making him a eunuch, but since there is no way to tell, fill in with your own punishment.
Now Lot, trying to arbitrate between the two groups, kindly offers the townsmen his own two virgin daughters to gang rape (see how righteous he is). But, apparently, despite the fact that we know there are children who were born in the town, the men aren’t bisexual, they are as purely homosexual as one can be, and turn down the virgins. It is not recorded whether the girls were relieved or insulted, if they knew about it at all.
No worries. The angels smote the townsmen blind, rescue Lot and tell him to get out of town and take his kids (if you were an angel, would you leave Lot’s children with him) and sons-in-laws with him. His son-in-laws laugh at him, so he takes his wife and daughters while God is raining sulfur down on Sodom and Gomorrah. There is modern speculation that God used atomic weapons, but a natural tragedy is probably a better guess as to the source or inspiration for the story. You already know happens to Lot’s wife – she looks back against the angels’ instructions and is turned into a pillar of salt.
Lot hides in a cave with his daughters. Keep in mind, he has already offered his daughters virginity to a mob outside his home. If they knew, they weren’t offended. In fact, dad was looking good to them. With no eligible bachelors around, they get Lot drunk on successive nights, and take turns sleeping with him. Serves him right. Again, we are not led to believe this was thought to be okay, as the Bible tells us that Lot was unaware of what they did. Of course, if he is not an idiot, he figures it out when they start showing.
There is a bit of the national creation myth in it, as two nations known from the Bible spring from these unusual couplings -- the Ammorites and the Moabites.
Back to Abraham. He moves again, and what do you think he does? Same game telling the local king that Sarah is his sister. This time God approaches the king and accuses him of sleeping with a married woman. The king denies sleeping with Sarah and God says something like “Ummm, I knew that. In fact, I kept you from sleeping with her. Now return her before I get really mad”.
The king goes to Abraham and says, basically, are you nuts? Are you trying to get me killed? This is when Abraham reveals that Sarah, aside from being his wife, is also his sister. This makes the argument that she was his niece even more confusing. Abraham explains that he asked Sarah to do this to show her love for him, by saving his life. Some might just call it a little kinky. God, feeling better, unseals the wombs of the king’s women, which, of course, a punishment hard to square with God claining that he knew the king hadn’t slept with Sarai.
Abraham’s letting his wife go off with kings so that he doesn’t get hurt also flies in the face of the argument that he was a great military leader, which was fostered by his rescue of Lot earlier on. The History Channel recently ran a documentary with experts arguing for this interpretation, but it doesn’t look sensible in consideration of all reported events.
Eventually, now back with Abraham, the elderly but apparently still desirable (even while pregnant) Sarah gives birth to Isaac. She says that everyone will laugh with her. Indeed, Isaac’s name means “he laughs”. Sarah’s good mood lasts long enough to tell Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, after she sees Ishmael making fun of Isaac.
God, who really plays favorites, says “Go ahead. Do what she says. Don’t worry (wink, wink). I will make Ishmael the father of a nation too”. So, off goes Hagar again. This time, running out of water, she lays her son under a bush and walks away so she doesn’t see him die.
Another angel, or maybe the same one, pops by and points out to her a well that was obviously in walking distance if she had bothered to look. He also gives her the same Ishmael will be the father of a nation speech.
Ishmael does grow up in the desert and becomes a great archer. His mom finds him a nice Egyptian girl for a wife. It has been argued that he becomes the father of the Arab nation, but, like most things in the Bible, it is debated. Certainly, it is the view taken in Islam, although not in the Koran, but the Hadith (which are traditions much like the Midrash serves in Judaism).
Abraham gets his big moment to sacrifice Isaac at God’s instigation, until God, mercifully steps in. You have heard the biblical version, but not likely this one. Woody Allen satirized it perfectly (which I found at www.hjnc.org/about_us/dvar-eckhaus.html. This book was written decades ago. Is everything on the internet?):
“And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, "I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on." And Isaac trembled and said, "So what did you say? I mean when He brought this whole thing up?"
"What am I going to say?" Abraham said. "I'm standing there at two A.M. I'm in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?"
"Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?" Isaac asked his father.
But Abraham said, "The faithful do not question. Now let's go because I have a heavy day tomorrow."
And Sarah who heard Abraham's plan grew vexed and said, "How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they pay the delivery charge or not."
And Abraham answered, "Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that."
And Sarah said, "And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?" But Abraham told her, "Frankly yes, for to question the Lord's word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it's in."
And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham's hand and said, "How could thou doest such a thing?"
And Abraham said, "But thou said ---"
"Never mind what I said," the Lord spake. "Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?" And Abraham grew ashamed. "Er - not really … no."
"I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it."
And Abraham fell to his knees, "See, I never know when you're kidding."
And the Lord thundered, "No sense of humor. I can't believe it."
"But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?"
And the Lord said, "It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice."
And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.”
(Woody Allen. Without Feathers)
I’ll speed it up here as the good stuff is done with. Sarah dies at 127 years but Abraham lives to 175 and is buried next to his wife in a cave he bought from some Canaanites. Before he goes, Abraham sends a servant to his brother’s people to get a wife for Isaac, now 40, and he returns with Rebekah, Isaac’s cousin, a marital relationship certainly not frowned upon until recent days.
Pretty good stuff. Lots of sex and violence. Yet despite the whole wife sharing thing, which to a modern eye, would seem a disqualifying event to even run for president, Abraham becomes the father figure of the Jews. He also appears in the Koran, where he plays a role as the patriarch, but mostly to foretell Islam. The New Testament does not have any stories about Abraham, although, through his role in Judiasm, he is also deemed the forefather of that religion as well.
You have to give the original Jews credit for not whitewashing the original wicked story, Unless, of course, the stories were even worse than recorded, and we just don't know it.
Obviously, according to the text, Abraham did have a personal relationship with God, although he was preceded in that by Adam and Noah, and for religious people, it is that which counts most.
The Bible makes great reading, but despite being one of the most popular books in the world, is rarely read sequentially by believers. It is actually a pretty good story, if you just blip over the "begats" and poetry. For my money, you get the most bang from your buck from Genesis, and “righteous” forefathers like Abraham and Lot.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .