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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7 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.



          2. It is a striking fact that a name yĕhûdâ until now has not been found among the hundreds of extrabiblical personal names discovered on ostraca and seals. This could speak in favor of Lipínski’s hypothesis that the name is related to Arabic wahda/yahda, “ravine”/“canyon.”

            Reading back over old comments of mine: “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 for ravine and it emerging as a geographic term of the descriptive variety. And a crappy stretch of stony eroded underwhelming land it surely is.” sparked a memory of something.

            ‘Arab’ like ‘Sahara’ is just another word for desert if one drills down on it etymologically speaking. As a descriptive term it is basically meaningless in the scheme of things.

            2 The Designations “Arabs, Saracens, Ismaelites and Hagarenes” before the 7th Century The terms stated here have a long “pre-Islamic” tradition which ought to be presented briefly. For this reason their usage in the literature of the 7th and 8th centuries must be justified if they are equated to the term “Muslims” by the translators. It is also important to find geographical assignations which were linked to the Arabs.

            2.1 Arabs – Arabia The etymological origin of the term Arab (“ʿarab”; e.g. “those from the West” as seen from the Tigris; Syriac: nomad; ‘erbā: Syriac: sheep; ʿārābā – “the low desert tract of the Jordan and the Dead Sea”) should not be discussed further. The word was already used quite early on in the Middle East (e.g. in the inscriptions of Assyrian kings since the 9th century BCE) and in the Old Testament, firstly in Isaiah 13:20: “It will never be inhabited or lived in from generation to generation; nor will the Arab (Hebrew: יִבָרֲ ע – ʿarabī; Greek: ἄραβες) pitch his tent there, nor will shepherds make their flocks lie down there.” ʿArabī here obviously means “inhabitant of the steppe”, from the Hebrew ‘arābāh – “steppe, desert”. The text was probably written in the late 8th century BCE. Later, the word appears again in a series of passages up to the First Book of the Maccabees (5:39). At the end of the 1st or 2nd century BCE, the term “Arabs” always designates the non-Jewish tribes neighboring Israel in the south. Likewise the term “Arabia” can be found in the Old Testament, e.g. in Ez. 27:21: “Arabia (בַרֲ ע – ʿarab; ἀραβία) and all the princes of Kedar, they were your customers for lambs, rams and goats; for these they were your customers.” Here it is said of their inhabitants that they are traders (Ez. 27:21) or steppe inhabitants (Is. 13:20b, Jer. 3:2). Occasionally, they also appear as Israel’s enemy, alongside the Philistines, especially in the Second Book of Chronicles (e.g. 2 Chr. 17:11; 21:16). An exact localization is difficult because ‘arābāh also means “steppe/desert” in general in Hebrew. In one text there is the additional statement that it runs along both banks of the Jordan: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hazeroth and Dizahab.” (Deut. 1:1-2) Furthermore, the designation “Sea of the Arabah” for the Dead Sea (Deut. 4:49; Joshua 3:16), is an indication that what is meant is probably not the biblical Arabia, which begins only towards the south of the Dead Sea. It is conceivable that the term designates the area from the Negev to Sinai, a territory inhabited by Nabateans. This corresponds to the information given in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: that “Mount Sinai” lies in “Arabia” (Gal. 4:25; Gal. 1:17 is vague, however, an area south-east of Damascus is suggested). Ancient authors report different regions as Arabia. In the case of Herodotus (died 430 BCE) it is Negev, Sinai and the territory situated to the east of Egypt, just as with Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE). The latter, however, also knows of an “Arabia of the Nomads” which can be found east of the Dead Sea. In Persian lists, especially since the time of Darius (died 486 BCE) an “Arabāya” has been mentioned which lies between Assyria and Egypt, an area probably ruled later from Ḥaṭra. According to Xenophon (died about 355 BCE), the Persian king Cyrus had troops march through Arabia, from Sardis to Babylon, east along the Euphrates. Pliny also knew about this central Mesopotamian Arabia, east of the Euphrates and south of the Taurus Mountains. In the year 106 CE, the Romans also conquered the regions east of the Province of Judea and south of the Province of Syria, from about Damascus southwards until the northwesterly bank of the Red Sea. This region with both of its cities, Bosra (Buṣrā) in the north and Petra in the south (therefore also Arabia Petraea) was inhabited by Semitic Nabateans who used Nabatean, an Aramaic language with its own script as a written language, albeit with some kind of Arabic, – but not Classical Arabic –, as their spoken language, so the question whether they were genetically and linguistically Arabs is not so clear – at least if later definitions of “Arabs” and “Arabic” are used. At the same time, there was an empire called “Arabiya” which was ruled by the king of Ḥaṭra, a city west of the upper reaches of the Tigris and near Assur (included in the Sassanid Empire in 241 CE), which stretched first of all from the Tigris in the west in the direction of or even up to the Euphrates. The language of this “Arabia” was East Syriac, in the Sassanian period also Middle Persian. According to two homilies written by Isaac of Antioch in 459, “Arabs” conquered Bet Hur, a city situated in North Mesopotamia, around the middle of the 5th century. All of the Arabian regions mentioned up to now in which Arabs also called Ṭayyāyē lived have nothing to do with the Arabian Peninsula geographically, and the “Arabs” mentioned so far were ethnically more likely Arameans speaking variants of Aramaic or at least using Aramaic as their written language of choice. In the Hellenistic period, the regions bordering on this region called “Arabia” in the south seem, occasionally, to be known as “Arabia deserta”, a term probably designating the inner peninsula, and “Southern Arabia” or “Arabia felix”, traditionally designating the Yemen. The equation “southern” and “felix” (Latin “fortunate; happy; lucky”) goes back to the ambiguity in Latin (and also in Syriac and other Semitic languages) of the adjective dextra, which means “right = south (facing the sun at sunrise the south is to the right)”, but also “happy; fortunate (“of the right [i.e., fortunate] hand”)”. The corresponding Semitic term is “yaman/yamīn”, the root of which can be found in the names “Ben-jamin = ‘son of the right/fortunate hand’” and “Yemen”. Tribes from the Arabian Peninsula spread into the Middle East at a very early period: “Arabian dynasties established themselves everywhere on the land of the decaying Seleucid Empire. Arabian kinglets ruled not only in Emesa and Damascus, or the Itureans in parts of Syria, but also in Edessa and in Charax on the mouth of the Euphrates. In Egypt, where Arabs could be found in the desert to the east of the Nile as early as the early Achaemenid period, the district of Arabia, whose history can be followed through the centuries on the basis of papyrus discoveries, came about … .” In the following centuries, these “migrations” continued. The ethnic and linguistic Arabs from the peninsula seem to have adopted the name “Arabs” from these new homes only in the course of these migrations to the north – into the Nabatean regions and into Mesopotamia. There, they continued to use their own language, although they also used the vernacular languages Syro-Aramaic or Greek for official correspondence and for their religious rites, depending on the environment. In the course of their settling down, these originally nomadic tribes – the Palmyrene empire is particularly known from the more recent pre-Islamic period –, then the Ghassanids in West Syria and the Lakhmids with their center Ḥīra at the end of the Euphrates, – but beyond that spread out over the whole of the Middle East, – largely took over the pre-Nicean Syrian Christianity common in the area. The Ghassanids later converted to the Monophysitism of the Jacobites. There were Arab bishops and monks, and Christianity “enriched that (author’s note: Arabic) identity and raised it to a higher level”. Later, when ʿAbd al-Malik and al-Walīd introduced Arabic as their official language, a process of re-discovery of their roots set in for the ethnic Arabs, so that the term Arabia was semantically narrowed to solely designate the Arabian Peninsula. At the beginning of the second half of the 8th century, Medina became the focus of attention, as a sanctuary was now erected there. Around the end of this century, the same happened in Mecca. This new vision was systematically solidified by the ostensibly historiographic literature of the 9th century written in Arabic, which shifted the alleged beginnings of their own – also religious – traditions on the Arabian Peninsula.

            2.2 The Saracens The Saracens are mentioned in many texts from the 2nd century CE on. Trying to clarify the etymology of this name, for which there is a series of hypotheses, Irfan Shahīd comes to the conclusion that this question cannot be clearly resolved. He quotes possible origins: Arabic šarqī = “western”; Arabic sāriq = “robber, looter”; Arabic šrkt (šarikat) = “company, confederation”; an Arabic tribe which Ptolemy called sarakené (Greek) and Stephanus of Byzantium mentions as saraka (6th century CE, Greek); Aramaic serak = barren land, emptiness, desert. Sven Dörper adds further derivations, but agrees with Irfan Shahīd that none of the derivations is conclusive.

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