Good Old Abraham

Unlike the beginning of the book, containing mostly myth, Genesis 12-50 is mainly folktale and legend. It focuses on four ‘heroes’ from the past – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. From a literary viewpoint, chapters 12-36 contain a series of individual episodes, gathered round each of the first three of these ‘heroes’, and strung together in a quasi-chronological sequence. Chapters 37-50, on the other hand, focusing on Jacob’s son Joseph, are like a short novel.

These individuals may well have existed, but what we have is anecdotal rather than historical, and has no corroboration from any other sources. These tales were passed on by word of mouth for many generations, and continually modified and elaborated, before eventually being written down, by different people, in different times and locations, for different audiences. This explains the repetitions, and different versions of the same events, still surviving in their final version. We can’t say for definite, that an Abraham did beget an Isaac, who begat a Jacob, who begat a Joseph but, as has been said, “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”.

We need to remember that Genesis was brought to completion many centuries after the supposed times of these ancient ‘heroes’, and that these tales were then preserved, edited and so arranged as to meet a pressing, essential, contemporary need. The Israelite people had nearly been wiped out of existence, with most of them dispersed throughout Assyria, or exiled to Babylon. Their capital city of Jerusalem, and its Temple of the God Yahweh, had been razed to the ground. 

When later allowed to do so, near the end of the 6th century BCE, only a remnant of survivors returned, and faced the formidable task of rebuilding their nation and revitalising their religion. For motivation and inspiration, there was a need to gather together ancient stories that could be used to paint a compelling picture of who they were, where they’d come from, who their God was, why they’d been brought so low, and how their fortunes could be revived. They began the “historical” part of this story with Abraham, investing him with a primary and seminal importance, of relevance to their current circumstances.

They themselves has just come from Babylon, and so that is where Abraham was said to have come from (which otherwise would have been a very strange place of origin for the ancestor of Israel). His birthplace, however, was named as “Ur of the Chaldeans”, a designation that belongs to the 6th century BCE, but not to the 21st century in which his story is set. As Joshua 24:2 makes clear, the story as told meant that Abraham had initially “worshipped other gods” – those of Babylon. In the story, however, Yahweh, Israel’s future god, makes himself known to Abraham, who turns away from all other gods, to believe in, and serve, Yahweh alone. 

That, of course, is exactly what the remnant of survivors also had to do – to rededicate themselves to the worship and service of this same Yahweh. Included in Abraham’s story was a promise that his descendants would be Yahweh’s special people, to whom would be given the land of Canaan, and yet he had many problems to overcome in producing a son and heir, and in dealing with a succession of associated family rivalries and breakdowns. Due to a famine, he had to go down into Egypt to find food, and faced further difficulties and dangers there, but God facilitated his “exodus” from Egypt (!) with even more possessions than when he’d entered it. The story’s message is clear – if Yahweh’s people now returned to him, in unswerving faith and obedience, then as it had been with Abraham, willing even to sacrifice that hard won son and promised heir, such was his loyalty and his trust in Yahweh, then so it would be with them also.

And so these age-old folktales have been gathered up, and joined together in a quasi-historical framework, and suitably reshaped and re-interpreted, so as to produce a dramatic, multi-coloured, and inspiring national and religious epic, full of human interest, and religious faith and hope – one which has stood the test of time, and had a profound influence, for better though occasionally worse, on the social, cultural, literary, artistic and religious history of our world. 

How long is it, dear reader, since you last opened up its pages?

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