Isaac saved, Abraham butchered (by Wikipedia)

Abraham in Wikipedia (August, 2012)

“Joseph Blenkinsopp writes that a common view among modern scholars is that the Genesis story of Abraham was not transmitted by oral traditions but originated from literary circles of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE… (Joseph Blenkisopp, ‘Judaism, the first phase,’ p.39)” (Wikipedia, sv. “Abraham,” retrieved Aug. 7, 2012).

“Two conclusions about Abraham are now widely held in biblical scholarship: the first is that, except in the triad “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” he is not clearly and unambiguously attested in the Bible earlier than the Babylonian exile; the second is that he became, in the Persian period, a model for those who would return from Babylon to Judah.[20] Beyond this the Abraham story (and those of Isaac and Jacob/Israel) served a theological purpose following the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and the Davidic kingship: despite the loss of these things, Yahweh’s dealings with the ancestors provided a historical foundation on which hope for the future could be built.[11] There is basic agreement that his connection with Haran, Shechem and Bethel is secondary and originated when he became identified as the father of Jacob and ancestor of the northern tribes; his association with Mamre and Hebron, on the other hand (in the south, in the territory of Jerusalem and Judah), suggest that this region was the original home of his religion.[12]” (Wikipedia, sv. “Abraham,” retrieved Aug. 8, 2012).

The author(s) and the typical reader of the second paragraph may not immediately grasp its internal incoherence, incoherent in that it makes a claim for a post-exilic origin for the Abrahamic tradition while in the same breath making a case for its pre-exilic origin. That is, the “widely held” conclusions at the start of the paragraph contradict the “basic agreement” at its end, which “basic agreement” involves pre-exilic stages in the tradition’s evolution. The author(s) have merged conflicting viewpoints into a single paragraph, which viewpoints reflect an evolving modern scholarship in the same way the evolving Abrahamic tradition seems to have merged early southern and later northern shrine legends into a single story.

Sorry to say, much of the recent OT scholarship is rather idiosyncratic and retrogressive, and would be better ignored in an encyclopedia article. In the 19th century some of the most brilliant minds in Europe tackled the problem of Pentateuchal origins, and while much remained unsolved or insoluble, and while subsequent progress certainly has been made both in discovery and analysis, there has been a notable drop in the quality of biblical research in recent decades, or should we say, a proliferation of publication of decidedly inferior scholarly quality. Good books and bad books appear; what is a novice to do? Here is where a work like the Encyclopedia Britannica has a distinct advantage over Wikipedia: professional peer review is always in play. The volunteers at Wikipedia sometimes get it right, as with their dismissal of I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, or the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship.

But often enough they are the professors of junk science, as with the superbird myth (the peregrine falcon’s supposed 240mph stoop) and with Abraham. Granted, the Graff-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis has come under considerable scrutiny in recent decades, but it is hardly in shambles, and no claim of a purely post-exilic Abraham can stand while the Documentary Hypothesis stands–the legend of Abraham is an intrinsic part of the documents, and the documents are supposed to have spanned five centuries, the majority of them pre-exilic.

In the first place we should remark that the Qumran discoveries in the middle of the 20th century doubled the age of the oldest known (written) Abrahamic text in the original (Hebrew) language, but that was hardly taken as an argument to extend the tradition’s age from the Medieval to the Common Era. But to spoof Blenkinsopp’s reasoning we might well claim that the “unambiguous evidence” had in fact been extended by a millennium. Just as we are confident that the scribal tradition of Abraham was much older than the surviving manuscripts, so we may be confident that the oral tradition was much older than the earliest manuscripts. Let us examine a few of the arguments that can be made for a pre-exilic Abrahamic tradition, for an ante-textual, oral Abrahamic tradition, and for “unambiguous” evidence regarding the antiquity of the Abrahamic tradition.

A Case for a Pre-exilic Abraham

1. yalad is used (rather than holid) in the J Abraham genealogies (Gen 22:23, 25:2); yalad (masc.) in the sense of ‘beget’ is clearly pre-exilic (see Jer 30:6[H], where yalad [masc.] = ‘give birth’ [impossibly]; cf. 16:3 where holid = ‘beget’). That is, yalad in the sense of ‘beget’ was replaced by holid before the exile. This is “unambiguous evidence.” Accordingly Abraham’s pedigree at Gen 11:26 is attributed to P and is post-exilic, as is the promise of Ishmael at 17:20, while the genealogy of 22:20-24 is J, c.10th century BC.

2. Beer-Sheba: Isaac names the well at 26:33(J), Abraham at 21:31(E). The different explanations (seva’ [‘abundance’ –following on 26:22: Rehoboth = “Room Enough”; Seva’ = “More than Enough,” “Surplus”] versus sheva’ [‘oath’]) imply different dialects with variant sin/shin pronunciation (as Jud 12:6). Are we to suppose that a post-exilic author intentionally created the contradiction? Such variant and contradictory traditions must have evolved orally in mutual (sometimes dialectal) isolation, not in a late scribe’s notebook.

3. Numerous place name substitutions (explanations) indicate a long history involving onomastic discontinuity, and imply remote antiquity; e.g., Gen 14:2,3,17, 23:2 (also Jud 1:10,11), etc. Are all these contrived (pseudo-archaic)?

4. A late legitimizing of the altars through their attribution to the patriarchs would run counter to D/P attempts to outlaw the shrines.

5. Gen 14 seems to be motivated by the Jerusalem priesthood’s wish to legitimize itself in the eyes of the Abrahamic tribes after David captured the city. If so, it would date to the time of J and David (10th century BC).

6. Jud 19 > Gen 19 (or vice versa?), apparently through oral transmission (see Addenda).

7. Variant accounts of Hagar’s (Abraham’s concubine) expulsion: 16:6ff(J), 21:10ff(E). Did P invent a redundant and superfluous version of his own fiction?

8. Other Abrahamic traditions have parallels with other patriarchs: wife/sister stories, well names, etc. That is, same story, different characters. The legends are transmitted orally, modified to suit the audience and setting (the sitz im leben). How did there come to be a J and an E Abraham?

9. Whereas Gen 11:28,31 has Abraham’s homeland in “Ur of the Chaldees,” Gen 22:20-24 has Abraham’s brother Nahor as ancestor to the Chaldees and Arameans, so that Abraham’s birthplace is called “Ur of the Chaldees (Chasdim)” before the birth of Chesed, their eponymous ancestor. That is, whether we attribute the anachronistic “Ur of the Chaldees” to P or J, it remains anachronistic even internally within Genesis, not only by modern criteria (which have the Chaldees occupy Ur in the 11th century BC).

10. The post-exilic introduction of an Israelite patriarchal ancestor whose posterity includes most of its pagan neighbors would run counter to D/P doctrine of election. As the genealogical tradition progresses with the appearance of Keturah, Abraham further usurps Shem’s place as the general Semitic ancestor (25:1ff). Why should the father of the peculiar monotheists be also the father of Ishmael and Esau, of the Edomites and Arab tribes? Why invent an eclectic ancestor for the chosen people when Jacob is suitably available? And as with the Captivity, Jacob migrates to Syria and returns to Canaan, while Abraham only migrates out of Syria. Accordingly Jacob would make for a better candidate for post-exilic invention for any determined to do such violence to the text.

11. The morality of J’s Abraham is primitive: J is not embarrassed to have Abraham pimp his wife (Gen 12:11ff) and lie about her status. E allows no such lying or successful pimping (20:1ff; but does have Abraham attempt to offer human sacrifice–see next). Apparently the Abraham legend was old enough or sufficiently widespread to pass through disparate ethical traditions. The priests may dictate the ethos, but the ethos dictates the bards’ motifs. The priests of the exile would not invent an Abraham anything like J’s or E’s.

12. The binding of Isaac (Gen 22 [E]): The Elohistic Abraham is depicted as flourishing in an environment where human sacrifice is countenanced (as at Jud 11:39). Accordingly the narrative must have evolved in a milieu where the practice was not yet taboo. D and P would not have been likely even to toy with the idea of human sacrifice: D because the practice had not been fully eradicated, and P because it presents such an embarrassing, primitive, and contradictory picture of God’s dealing with the “father of the faithful.”

13. The triad, “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” appears in Deuteronomy as well as in the Priestly source. Deuteronomy has long and with good reason been held by most to be the book discovered in the temple (2Ki 22:8) when young Josiah was king (649-609 BC). Attempts to make D post-date P must contend (e.g.) with the fact that Aaronide priests are never mentioned in D or Samuel/Kings while they monopolize P and Chronicles. In D priest and Levite are synonymous. In P Levites are the would be usurpers of the now exclusively Aaronide priesthood (Num 16:10).

14. The Ur > Haran and Haran > Canaan migrations are best explained as variant accounts of a single migration. That is, they indicate divergent oral tradition in antiquity. But assuming otherwise, if Abraham was to serve as a prototype for the exiles, why is he given a way station in Haran (in present day southern Turkey)? Babylon is much closer to the Sumerian Ur than to Haran. If we attribute an Ur > Haran migration to P, why is this migration instigated by the pagan Terah, while the Haran > Canaan trip is commanded by God? In other words, if P had invented Abraham, he would have God command him to move directly from Babel to Canaan. If, as is likely, Ur Chasdim was generically analogous to Haran (that is, an Ur not in Sumer, but situated near Haran), why is Abraham’s home so far north of Babylon? Neither Wooley’s nor Gordon’s Ur suits Blenkinsopp’s Abraham. See addenda.

15. The reason J differs with the rest as to whether the patriarchs were acquainted with the theophoric ‘Yahweh,’ is that all but J considered Moses to have been the first beneficiary of the revelation of the NAME. That is, J is not indoctrinated with that part of the Exodus tradition which has Yahweh newly reveal his name to Moses (Ex 6:3), or with the belief that Moses was the first to distinguish between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals. J’s Noah makes this distinction; P’s does not. Thus at least J’s Abraham is older than the Exodus tradition, and the Exodus tradition is older than the Exile.

16. The Sabbath is never mentioned by name in Genesis or Judges, and is only referred to in Genesis in the P creation. The patriarchs seem oblivious to the institution, as we might expect in an independent pastoral society (but not among caravaneers). Settled Israel is well acquainted with it, but for them it is synonymous with the full moon. The weekly Sabbath was apparently a post-exilic institution, and when the priests transformed the Sabbath into a weekly event, at the same time they invented the institution of a religious seven-day week independent of the lunar month, unless this was borrowed from Babylonia. The raison d’etre for the Sabbath is provided by P (after the exile): God rested on the seventh day. If the patriarchs had been of post-exilic invention they would have no doubt been portrayed as faithful Sabbath keepers, shunning the shrines.

The foregoing is not intended to minimize P’s considerable innovation. Ezra and his contemporaries did publish the Torah, and are responsible for much if not the majority of what would become the law and religion of the Jews. As pertaining to Abraham however, not much more than the advent of circumcision is uniquely attributed by P to the patriarch after the exile, and we cannot be sure this was in fact P’s innovation (its ascription to Abraham, that is, not the rite, which was much older than Abraham).  Abraham’s tradition is clearly pre-exilic, and certainly was well established by the end of the 2nd millennium BC as far as the J evidence goes. By J’s time it had already diverged considerably into independent oral lineages.

As for the question of a historical Abraham, the strongest argument is the metaphysical: when Israel was few in number they lauded an ancestor who was promised a posterity that would be of benefit to humanity, and in retrospect we speak of Abrahamic Religion, espoused by two billion monotheists who trace their belief to the ancient patriarch’s descendents.


#6. Cf. Gen 19:5-8 with Jud 19:22-24:

Gen 19:5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them. 6 And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, 7 And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. 8 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

Jud 19:22 Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him. 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out unto them, and said unto them, Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into mine house, do not this folly. 24 Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing.

The multiple parallels and near equivalence of dialogue are not likely to be due to chance, nor is such invention or confusion on the part of the story tellers easily attributed to post-exilic scribal activity.

     1st stage/version       2nd stage/version

1. A family member dies     11:28 Haran         11:32 Terah
2. Intended destination       11:31 Canaan       12:5 Canaan
3. Starting point                   11:31 Ur                Haran
4. End point                          11:31 Haran         12:5 Canaan
5. Initiated by                      11:31 Terah         12:5 Abraham
6. Left behind                       11:31 Nahor         12:4,5 Nahor

Much of the argument depends on the interpretation of the word moledeth –does it mean ‘birth place’ or ‘kindred’?  If ‘birthplace,’ then both Ur and Haran are given as Abraham’s homeland. Contrary to Sagg’s assertions, LXX only translates ‘kindred’ (syngeneias) here at Gen 12:1–nowhere else. Gordon never invokes the single migration hypothesis in support of his northern Ur.  Abraham’s wanderings can be better synchronised with those of the ancient Bene-yaminu (=Benjaminites?) than with the returning Babylonian exiles.  –AGF

About agfosterjr

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