There is a tradition in my family that the theme for the Peretz graduation paper be about the figure in the Bible that bears our names. Seven years ago my sister Eve wrote about the biblical Eve, and four years ago my brother Jake wrote about the biblical Jacob. For the last couple of months, I’ve been researching the biblical Abraham. Abraham is an extremely complex figure and plays an important role in not only Judaism, but also in Christianity and Islam.
Nimrod was king at the time of Abraham’s birth. Soothsayers had told Nimrod a child would be born to challenge his power. Fearing the prediction, Nimrod gave the order to kill all male babies. Pregnant Emtalai, Abraham’s mother, escaped to the desert and gave birth to Abraham, who is actually named Abram not Abraham, in a cave in order to save him. But she had no way to care for him in the desert and so was forced to abandon him there believing he would die. However, under God’s care, Abraham survived.
Abraham is born into a world that doesn’t believe in a singular, all-powerful God. People of his day believe in idols. His own father, Terah, who is seventy at the time of Abraham’s birth, is an idol worshipper. And though there are conflicting stories regarding Abraham that differ from one religion to another, everyone agrees on one thing: Abraham believed in one God. Abraham is the first monotheist. Early in his life, Abraham secretly smashes the idols of King Nimrod. When Nimrod returns to see the mess, Abraham denies breaking the idols and says the largest of the idols broke the rest. In another story, Abraham’s father, Terah, sends him to sell one of Terah’s idols. An old lady approaches him interested in making a purchase, explaining to Abraham that thieves stole her own idol so she needs another. To which Abraham replies if her old idol had any power at all, it would have prevented the theft from occurring.
Though Abraham is rooted in a polytheistic society — a world where gods have form and physicality — he is prepared to put his trust in an a-physical, indiscernible, improvable god. Abraham is a visionary! (41) Essentially, in a world where this is unheard of, Abraham identifies with an invisible god, one not tied to a particular place but a god who is completely and totally portable. You can have him with you always because essentially you carry him in your mind. This becomes important for a man and for a people who will become uprooted from their homeland.
God speaks to Abraham. In fact, God not only speaks to Abraham, he makes a contract with him... a covenant. The words of God seem simple and direct, but for thousands of years, people have tried to decipher their meaning. The Bible says, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you."
And so God makes certain promises to Abraham, BUT Abraham must do something for God. He must leave his home, leave what is familiar and trust God to take him to a new land. This is no minor request. At this point, Abraham is aging, his wife is barren, and he doesn’t even know where he is supposed to go! God’s expectation is that Abraham will have faith in him though there is no physical manifestation of God — no burning bush, no dead frogs, no tablets... The voice of God doesn’t even introduce itself. (40)
But there is tremendous incentive for Abraham to do what God asks of him. God is essentially promising Abraham four things: First Abraham will give birth to a great nation — this is powerful since Abraham has no children and this is a promise of progeny at a time well past when Abraham could reasonably hope for children. God also says Abraham will be blessed, his name will be great, and his name will be a blessing to others. God also promises to bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him. This promise elevates Abraham into becoming more than a man, but a man who is a blessing to others — a god-like man — AND for the first time introduces the notion of a hierarchy among humans. Some humans will now be blessed (those who bless Abraham) and some humans will now be cursed (those who curse Abraham).
Abraham goes forth and does as God commands him. He does this without hesitation and without proof from God other than his own faith. Abraham doesn’t believe in God; Abraham believes GOD. He doesn’t ask for proof, but has immediate and total devotion to God without any sign. (44)
Abraham’s obedience to God forms a critical component for Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Abraham is 75 when God offers him the covenant. And Abraham follows God’s directive. He leaves Haran, the land of his father, and travels to Canaan, the land God has promised, but eleven years later, Abraham is still childless. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is becoming increasing convinced that she will die childless. And so Sarah offers her handmaid, Hagar, to Abraham assuming if Hagar becomes pregnant, the child will become Sarah’s to raise. Though Sarah’s act seems selfless, it is also faithless. She no longer seems convinced that God will keep his word, and so she has taken matters into her own hands. When Hagar does become pregnant, Sarah becomes jealous and treats Hagar harshly. Hagar flees to the desert and God comes to her and tells her she will have a son and name him Ishmael. And it is Hagar’s son, Ishmael, whose descendants will become the nation of Islam.
When Abraham is ninety-nine and Ishmael is thirteen, God makes another demand on Abraham. God commands that Abraham circumcise the foreskin of his penis and that every male child through the generations be circumcised eight days after birth. Abraham immediately complies and circumcises himself and Ishmael and every male member of his household including his slaves! It is at this point that Abraham’s name is changed from Abram to Abraham meaning “father of many nations.” And with the institutionalizing of this ritual, God becomes an integral and deliberate part of every act of creation.
Shortly after the circumcisions, the lord appears to Abraham in the form of three men. Abraham slaughters a calf and has Sarah prepare a meal for the guests. As they are about to leave, God confides in Abraham that he is planning to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because the inhabitants are so sinful. Upon hearing this Abraham does something amazing... he challenges God's decision, saying innocent people will die along with the guilty. Then Abraham starts NEGOTIATING with God. Will you not destroy the city if I can find 50 innocent people? How about 40? What if I can find 30? In the end, Abraham negotiates God down to TEN. If Abraham can find ten innocent people God won’t destroy the cities. Now it turns out that Abraham can’t find ten innocent people and the cities are destroyed, but what chutzpah on the part of Abraham to challenge God in this way, and what talent to out-negotiate the almighty! In this act, Abraham becomes a protector of life on earth. If God forsakes them, humans can now turn to Abraham.
Shortly after this, Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac is born. Eight days after his birth, Abraham circumcises Isaac as God has commanded. Sarah is elated with the birth of her own child, but becomes increasingly angry that Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael, is present. She demands that Abraham “Cast out that slave woman and her son for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Abraham is distressed but God comes to him and tells him to do as Sarah wishes. God confirms that it is Isaac that will inherit the land, but also tells Abraham that he will make a great nation of Ishmael as well, because Ishmael is also Abraham’s seed. And so, Isaac receives his inheritance through the malice of his mother, and Ishmael goes into exile with God’s most exalted blessing and Abraham’s deepest remorse. (73) And it is Ishmael who for Muslims becomes the favored son.
Probably the most controversial of all aspects of Abraham’s story is the sacrifice of his son Isaac. In what appears to be an extraordinary test of Abraham’s love for God, God commands Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice. Though many artists have painted this scene depicting Isaac as a child, in fact biblical scholars suggest Isaac must have been in his 30’s, in fact as old as 37, when this event takes place. It is Isaac who carries the wood for the alter since Abraham is so old, and it is Isaac who tells his father to bind him tightly so Isaac will be unable to defend himself. There is no resistance on the part of Abraham or Isaac to this bizarre request by God. Abraham, who was willing to negotiate for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, whom he didn’t even know, seems willing to kill his own son without even trying to negotiate or plead for his life. An angel is sent by God to intervene and stop Abraham from actually killing Isaac, but not before it is clear that it is Abraham’s intention to comply with God’s directive.
In the Muslim world, it is widely believed that it was Ishmael who was to have been sacrificed to God, not Isaac. The concept of being willing to sacrifice one’s child seems critical to all three monotheistic religions. The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac for the Jews, or to sacrifice Ishmael for the Muslims, and God’s willingness to sacrifice Jesus for the Christians seems to be a common thread in all three religions. All three of these religions come to try to OWN exclusive rights to Abraham and devise their own interpretation on the story of Abraham.
Sarah dies at age 127, soon after the binding of Isaac. Abraham lives on to the ripe old age of 175. After his death, his two estranged sons, Ishmael and Isaac, come to together to bury and mourn him. In death he does what he could not do in life; reconcile the relationship between his two sons.
Though Isaac and Ishmael reconcile in the Bible, relations between Muslims and Jews today are very strained. It is so odd that, given our common heritage, the world today is so divided between the Muslim and Jewish world.