2020-10-02

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.

Abraham

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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Neil Godfrey

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