Little did I realize what an interesting barrel of monkeys I’d be opening with my earlier post about Abraham… I have read the comments eagerly and responded to what I could, but I’ve decided to relook at the entire story of this wandering Aramean in greater detail. But before I go any farther, I want to make a few things clear.
- I’m not using any of the myriad (and I do mean myriad) sources of extra-Biblical literature to formulate my ideas about Abraham. There’s just too much, and anyway, it is extra-Biblical, and therefore just as much an interpretation as any ideas I myself put forth. By extra-Biblical literature, I’m referring to mostly rabbinical sources, Jewish legends, the Quran, and some other material that I’ve come across that amounts to little more than pious fairy tales.
- I do utilize some other sources when it comes to historical information. Obviously, if a footnote references cultural ideas prevalent at the time, I’m going to trust it. I’m speaking here mostly of the idea that Hagar’s child by Abraham would indeed be recognized as his heir, and that having a child by a maidservant to ensure lineage was in fact a common idea.
- I don’t speak Hebrew (more’s the pity), so there could indeed be nuances in the text that I’m missing. I’ve tried to counter this by looking at numerous translations, including those done by Jewish authors.
- All my Biblical references, unless otherwise noted, come from the New American Bible, with revised New Testament and Psalms (hereafter, NAB), which is a Catholic version. There are going to be readers here who are unfamiliar with this translation, but not only is it a good one, it’s the one I’ve been using for over thirty-five years, so I’m not likely to change now. This also applies for whenever I use verses from the Bible, in any of my blog entries, unless I note otherwise. (As a side note, the NAB is just now being re-released with a revised Old Testament, but as of this writing, I haven’t seen it, though I’m eager to see the revisions.)
- Both Abraham and Sarah had their names changed at one point by none other than God. Their previous names, to avoid any confusion, were Abram and Sarai. When I reference them, I use Abraham/Sarah, but where I quote from the Bible, I use whatever the Bible says.
- A really super book is: Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, by Bruce Feiler. He combines good scholarship with geeky details and an adventuresome side that makes for not only accurate information, but entertaining reading.
Onward and upward.
There have been various opinions broached as to the barrenness of Abraham verses Sarah, but Gen. 11:30 states: “Sarai was barren; she had no child.” So that clears that up, although it is noteworthy that Sarah is the first woman in the Bible to be recorded as barren. This must’ve been truly odd and very discouraging.
I mentioned that Abraham was the friend of God, but what intrigues me about the Abraham/God friendship is that when God issues the call recorded at the beginning of Genesis 12, there is no prior record of Him having spoken to Abraham before! And Abraham just goes right along with this! That is some faith!
God: You’ll be leaving here. I’ll tell you how to get to where you’re going, because there won’t be GPS for thousands of years yet. Besides, you’re a man, you’ll never ask directions.
Abraham: Uh, okay… Whatever you say.
No matter what you think about Abraham’s later actions, he’s definitely got a lot of faith at this point of the story. He’s just heard the voice of God, a god he doesn’t know, and just goes right along with it. Wow, that must’ve been one powerful voice. No magical not-burning bush, no dove winging down, just a disembodied voice. And this guy’s seventy-five years old, too. He’s probably seen his share of nonsense. He seems down to earth. So it’s all the more surprising that he just picks up and goes. Leaves everything behind: home, relations, culture. Like I said, that must’ve been one powerful voice.
He wanders around for a while, but then things get interesting. We see Abraham heading, retinue in tow, to Egypt to escape a famine. There, he convinces Sarah to tell Pharaoh that Abraham is her brother, not her husband, in order to protect him. What a conniver!
Abraham: Listen, Sarah, you’re still hott (with two T’s) and if you tell Pharaoh that you’re my wife, he’ll just knock me off so he can have you for himself. Why don’t you just tell him that you’re my sister.
Sarah: Uh, okay… Whatever you say.
This man is clearly pretty comfortable with doing whatever it takes to make life easier. Though, in fact, God must not really have liked the idea, because “the LORD struck Pharaoh and his household with severe plagues because of Abram’s wife Sarai.” (Gen. 12:17) After that, apparently, Pharaoh wasn’t too happy either.
Then Pharaoh summoned Abram and said to him: “How could you do this to me! Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife?” (Gen. 18-19a)
Hmmm, are we to infer that Pharaoh was dallying with Sarah? I kind of get the impression that they weren’t just looking at blueprints for the pyramids. And Abraham thought that would be okay? Or, was it that the Pharaoh wanted to dally, but was prevented from doing so by a “severe plague”? I’m guessing that severe plague is a code word here for erectile dysfunction! Not only was GPS not invented yet, neither was Viagra!
From here the story changes direction a bit, as Abram deals with various issues. So we’ll skip ahead to Chapter 15, where we find that God is now speaking to Abram in visions, rather than disembodied voices. I’m not sure that’s an improvement. Abraham seems to have become more confident, since he’s now complaining that he doesn’t understand how God’s promises of great reward can be fulfilled if there’s no heir. This only makes sense, since the promises are being made to a very elderly man. God even “took him outside” to show him the stars and how his descendants would equal them. But the text says “Abram put his faith in the LORD; who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6)
What I don’t understand here is that this is the point where Abraham asks for a sign. Not earlier, when there would’ve been more of a reason. And God starts His whole spooky barbeque routine. That is really creepy and weird. It’s a good thing Abraham did have faith in God at that point, because otherwise I think he would’ve hit the road back to where he came from.
Now at this point, we’re back to where I started on the previous Abraham post. We are dealing with a man who has faith in God, but also doesn’t hesitate to do what he needs to do to get things done. So it doesn’t strike me as too odd that when Sarah, who has NOT heard from God at this point, wants to take matters into her own hands (or put them into Abraham’s pants, if you will), Abraham doesn’t really put up a fight.
Sarah: Since God has decided not to give me any children, why don’t you just have sex with my young, nubile, exotic Egyptian slave girl? Then, we can raise her baby as if it’s our own! Go ahead, you have my permission!
Abraham: Uh, okay… Whatever you say.
I wonder, just wonder, whether Abraham, at this point, was just grabbing at straws (or available, nubile girls). Here is a man with nothing around him. No home, no family. Yes, he had flocks and herds galore, and their accompanying shepherds and other retainers. But, as it’s been said before, it’s lonely at the top. He may have been surrounded by people, but as the head of an enormous band of people, there probably weren’t very many who he had as friends. Probably just his steward, Eliezer, who Abraham has designated as his heir, given the fact that he and Sarah have no offspring of their own. Could he just have been lonely? He’d clearly gotten used to oddball suggestions from disembodied voices telling him what to do. So here’s his real life wife making what seems to be a perfectly normal request. I think he probably jumped at the chance to have a family of his own. Children who would be close to him and Sarah. How could God object? Why even ask?
Okay, I feel a lot more compassion for Abraham. But I am not saying that I agree with his behavior. I think what he did was wrong. I think Sarah acts rashly. She may have been the first woman to ask the hypothetical “Do these pants make me look fat?” question here. BAD IDEA! And Abraham blows it. BAD IDEA! Who’s to blame? Both of them. But I have to fault Abraham more, having the voice of God ringing in his ears. Was he really that desperate? Was he just getting back at Sarah for dallying with the Pharaoh? What’s with the whole fascination with Egyptians?
Yay! Whole new can of worms going here! And who says Bible study isn’t fun or interesting?