Origins of the Abraham Narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s return to having a closer look at some of the chapters in the book I  described back in  August this year. (Actually my recent post History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone began as a closer look at Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter titled “What People Want to Believe: Or Fighting Against ‘Cultural Memory'”, but since I’ve discussed the same thoughts of Lemche in many earlier posts I somehow ended up with my own little bottom-line spiel instead.)

In the chapter “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, author Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò [NS] seeks to understand the most plausible context from which those stories originated. I know some readers will be as interested as I am in his approach. I address a few — not all — of the arguments in the chapter. I will cover the stories of Jacob and Esau in the next post.


Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò

NS points out  that in the book of Genesis Abraham is “depicted as a figure disconnected from any historical realities, by being alien and of a nomadic way of life.”

The stories connected with Abraham are set within the mythical illo tempore, in the same way as Greek heroes are described in un-historical realities of the tragedies or Homeric epic for which a coherent historical background does not exist. (NS, p.50)

NS zeroes in on two moments in the Abraham story that he considers the most important:

  • the covenant between God and Abraham promising Abraham multitudes of descendants who become God’s chosen
  • the sacrifice of Isaac (the Akedah)

Begin with that second episode. NS views it as dramatizing the kinds of complex theological questions we elsewhere encounter in books like Job and Ecclesiastes. To what extent is the pious person expected to obey and trust God? Is the reward expected to be in this or the next life? The problems facing Abraham point to sophisticated philosophical (or theological) quandaries of the sort that preoccupy intellectual elites. The story does not come from popular folklore, surely. Rather,

it is a reflection of the Jewish elites of the late Hellenistic period (second-first century BCE), an expression of their intellectual, highly sophisticated interest. (p. 51)

* de Pury, A. 2000. “Abraham: The Priestly Writer’s ‘Ecumenical’ Ancestor.” In Rethinking the Foundations: Historiography in the Ancient World and in the Bible : Essays in Honour of John Van Seters, edited by Steven L. McKenzie, Thomas R. Mer, and Thomas Romer, 163–81. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter.

On the first of those two key moments, NS observes that Abraham is a rather “pure in nature” figure unlike his progeny — Ishmael, Isaac and the sons of Keturah — who are all coloured with distinctive features that clearly associate them with certain historically known peoples: the Ishmaelites, the Jews, the inhabitants of Arabia. NS points readers to an article elsewhere by de Pury showing us that Abraham serves as an “ecumenical figure” serving as a unifying focus for both Jews and certain of their neighbours. Though descendants of Isaac will the “the chosen”, the narrative demonstrates God’s love for all of Abraham’s descendants. (de Pury remarks on the way Abraham must give up both sons — Ishmael exiled into the wilderness and Isaac sacrificed on the altar — only for God to miraculously intervene to save each of them.)

But if the narrator merely wanted to demonstrate that the sons of Isaac were to be the most favoured ones, why did he make the plot so complicated by having Isaac born after Ishmael? If the message for Jews was that they should embrace the descendants of Ishmael, Hagar and Keturah, why the “twisted narrative device”? NS sees two possible reasons:

Firstly, it might have served as inter-propaganda directed to members of the Jewish community, with the statement about Arabs, who shall not be treated as aliens. This may have served certain political needs.

Secondly, the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael tradition might have been addressed to the Arab population with the same friendly information. In this case, we would be dealing with the declaration of friendship, which in the reality of politics might have been understood as an invitation toward the Arab population to join the political unity of the Jews. (53)

The question that follows is, When, historically, would such propaganda needs have appeared?

In the period of the Judahite monarchy (7th-6th century BCE)? Not likely, says NS:

I see no clear reasons why the state of Judah, with its functionaries, state and royal ideology, its formal ways of extending political and fiscal control over inhabitants, and its system of military service, had to call for any improvements in the relations between Judahites and Arabs. The state had enough means by which keep the inhabitants loyal . . .

In the stateless period of the Jews? NS suggests that in the absence of state power to guarantee a political unity of peoples then other means were likely to be found in order to improve and smooth relations with neighbouring populations. At this point NS points to an influential book on the character and history of nationalism, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [link is to full text at archive.org] by Benedict Anderson.

Was the figure of Abraham invented by the narrator?

Not likely, says NS.

The most efficient propaganda is usually constructed on the basis of plausible elements which do not appear coarse or brazen. Furthermore, having traditional, popular and well-known figures involved in the new propagandistic content would strengthen the significance of the message. It would even authenticate the story. (54)

But there is always a but. One cannot ignore the fact that Abraham and his sons “are almost absent from the Hebrew Bible outside Genesis”. That point does not, of course, prove that Abraham was a late invention but it does suggest special interest in the career of Abraham among the literati did blossom relatively very late. That interest continues through to the writings of the New Testament where Abraham continues to be presented as the “ecumenical” figurehead uniting all of God’s people into a single community. Moses and Jacob/Israel could never serve that function because they were clearly part of the Jewish race: only Abraham stood above it.

In the next post I’ll look at NS’s examination of the narrative of Jacob and Esau and the evidence he finds there for a very late composition of their story.

Niesiolowski-Spanò, Łukasz. 2020. “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period.” In Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson, edited by Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò and Emanuel Pfoh, 49–61. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.

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6 thoughts on “Origins of the Abraham Narrative”

  1. I wonder what Karl-Heinz Ohlig and the others at Inârah. Institut zur Erforschung der frühen Islamgeschichte und des Koran in Saarbrücken would have to say about this.

    Ditto for this bit on Abraham and Islam I came across recently elsewhere: Jan van Reeth argues that the Book of Jubilees had great influence on the formation of Islam. In the Book of Jubilees there is the very same concept of revelation as in Islam: God’s words and commandments are eternally written on celestial tablets. An angel reveals their content to a prophet (2, 1; 32, 21 f.). Abraham’s role in the Book of Jubilees corresponds to Abraham’s role in the Quran in more than one way. The interpretation of biblical figures as prophets is also rooted in the Book of Jubilees. Also numerology, the emphasis on angels, and the symbolism of anniversaries found their way into Islam, such as the fact that many important events in the prophet’s biography as presented by Ibn Ishaq happen on the same date.

    Etsuko Katsumata, comparing the Book of Jubilees and the Quran, notices significant differences, especially in Abraham’s role in the quranic narrative, concluding that “the Book of Jubilees contains no passages in which Abraham disparages idols, as in the other texts, using tactics to make it look as if an idol has destroyed other idols (like in the Quran). The Book of Jubilees contains none of this kind of attitude; Abraham simply and directly destroys idols by setting fire to them.” The quranic Abraham-narrative, according to Katsumata, contains passages other than those in the Book of Jubilees in which Abraham is involved in disputes about idolatry. Abraham in the Quran acts as a perserverant prophet with an active and confronting missionary character, especially to his father, who is throughout the narrative hostile towards his son. Abraham tries to convince local people, leader and a king while not leaving his homeland. In the Book of Jubilees Abraham’s role differs significantly; he has a favourable relationship to his father and leaves his home country after secretly burning down a temple.

    Jan M.F. van Reeth (1992). “Le Prophète musulman en tant que Nâsir Allâh et ses antécédents: le “Nazôraios” évangélique et le livre des jubilés”. Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica (OLP). 23: 251–274.

    Katsumata, Etsuko (2012). “Abraham the Iconoclast: Different Interpretations in the Literature of the Second Temple Period, the Texts of Rabbinic Judaism, and the Quran”. Journal of the Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions (JISMOR). 8: 37–58.

    1. Can you clarify how your comment relates to the argument in the post? Thanks. (Or you might prefer to read other post/s here that have cited or addressed Ohlig’s views.)

      1. *”Or you might prefer to read other post/s here that have cited or addressed Ohlig’s views.”

        Outside of the sidebar bit here from Der Spiegel: https://vridar.org/2015/03/26/did-muhammad-exist-a-revisionist-look-at-islams-origins/ where did you touch on him and the wider Inarah group and their thousands of pages of stuff? These are the contents from one of their more recent volumes: https://storage.googleapis.com/wzukusers/user-27418862/documents/58d4fda1e5211PWPUP0B/Inarah%20Bd%208%20.pdf

        *”Can you clarify how your comment relates to the argument in the post?”

        It has no direct relation. This lonely post was bereft of all the comments your other ones nearly always attract. Mine was a thought out loud wondering how those scholars who probe the cobbled together hodge-podge of stuff that is the Koran would have to say about the implications for their work if Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, and the others coalescing around are right.

        In this lengthy article: https://storage.googleapis.com/wzukusers/user-27418862/documents/58d29d10a6de7QHHIDuk/Early%20Islam%2007%20-%20Ohlig%20%20Muhammad%20Jesus%2011%20Sept.pdf when Ohlig writes: “The Christological honorific epithet muḥammad, which, according to later Arabic understanding, means “the one to be praised” or “the praised one” has a history. The combination of letters MḤMT in Persian or Syrian writing was first found a little later than the term “God’s servant” (ʿAbdallāh) on coins in the area of East Iran around the year 40 H (661 CE).” Then maybe “the one to be praised” should really be Plato who inspired the authors of the Pentateuch fiction in 270-280 BC

        Though when Mr. Niesiolowski-Spanò speaks of ‘Judahites and Arabs’ I think again about what Lipinski said about the etymology of Judah lying in an Arabic word of ravine and it emerging as a geographic term of the descriptive variety. And a crappy stretch of stony eroded underwhelming land it surely is.

        1. I’m not sure I fully understand your point but from the little I have read of some of the “Muhammad mythicists/sceptics” the impression I have is that they are following the same sorts of research approaches to their data as “our minimalists” — which to my mind is simply fundamentally normative historical research without the faith presuppositions to guide the way.

          1. The point is there seems to be precious little cross pollination between these different streams of minimalists. So many of them work away in their ruts apparently unaware of the existence of the others and the wider implications of their respective findings.

            Outside the safety of the ivory towers recently Vienna got shot up, some French people literally lost their heads, and 35 died at a book fair massacre in Kabul… because people believe so strongly in all this made up crap… Then again zealots aren’t often known to be critical thinkers as says one of the comments below this: http://archive.is/2IokS

            Anyway scroll down here: https://www.amazon.com/Argonauts-Desert-Structural-Copenhagen-International/dp/0367872161/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=wajdenbaum&s=books&sr=1-1 and read a Miss Laura Knight-Jaczyk’s lengthy 2015 review of ‘Argonauts of the Desert’ coming to it by way of Wesselius, Gmirkin, and Louden. The following are extracted bits from it.

            “I don’t see Wesselius in Gmirkin’s bibliography and that is a bit surprising because it seems to me that their ideas dovetail nicely except that Wesselius proposes an earlier date for the composition. What is clear is that the OT author not only used Herodotus for his structure, he was in dialogue with Berossus and Manetho, ESPECIALLY Manetho and his derogatory ethnography of the Jews. Obviously it was seen that a slam-dunk history needed to be written that out-did every other apologetic history that was being produced during those time and that is probably what inspired the author to use the techniques he did which are so interesting to Wesselius.”

            “Moving on, in 2011, Bruce Louden contributed to the ongoing unveiling of the OT with his contribution: “Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East”. Louden has neither Wesselius nor Gmirkin in his bibliography and that, again, is surprising.”

            “We come now to the present book under consideration which is said to be a “revolutionary new commentary on the Bible and its origins, arguing that most biblical stories and laws were inspired by Greek literature.” Well, as I have demonstrated in the brief review of the main books on the topic that I have read above, it’s not so revolutionary, but it’s the logical follow-up and is well-presented. Also, the author has Gmirkin, Van Seters and Wesselius in his bibliography though he apparently didn’t read or build upon Louden’s work which is a shame because there is a lot of meat there, too.”

            You see what I’m getting at as a world weary apathetic agnostic?

            If on this blog you take requests like a DJ at a wedding reception then I’d say van der Toorn’s recent book on Elephantine looks interesting as does a title I came across today called ‘Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World” by a Tim Whitmarsh.



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