This week's reading offers a new sort of narrative. Behind us are the laconic, overtly symbolic, context-free tales of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Now, with the stories of Abraham, we get for the first time a kind of biographical sketch, a whole series of episodes spanning many chapters and forming a coherent portrait of a life.
No single figure in the Bible may be more important to understand than the icon of monotheism, patriarch of the Jews, father of the West. Yet Abraham's words, compared with those of Moses, David, or Jeremiah, are precious few; all we really have are the stories of his life. In those stories, however, we find the core examples, of both actions and ideas, that will shape the living character of the worlds that Abraham spawned—before there were laws and prophetic teachings. Abraham is Israel in its rawest form.
To summarize this week's episodes: God tells Abraham to "go forth," out of the urban centers of Ur and Haran that were his home, toward the barren hills of Canaan. There he is to found "a great nation," and to become "a father of many nations." He has scarcely enough time to build an altar to the Lord before famine drives him south to Egypt, where he tells his wife to "say, I pray you, that you are my sister"; for her beauty will surely attract the attention of the king, and if the latter knows Abraham is her husband, he will likely murder him to take her. God then scolds Pharaoh for unwittingly preparing to seize a man's wife, and the embittered king sends Abraham off with riches.
Back in Canaan, Abraham's shepherds feud with those of his nephew Lot, who has been in tow since Babylonia. Fresh from the Pharaonic lesson of banishing annoyances, Abraham sends Lot off to live in the fertile plains of Sodom and Gomorrah. But marauding kings go to war against those cities, and Lot is taken captive. In response, Abraham assembles an army of his servants and pursues the rogues all the way to Damascus, defeating them and freeing Lot. When the grateful king of Sodom offers to share the spoils, Abraham refuses: "lest you should say, ‘I have made Abraham rich.'"
Convinced that his hapless nephew has little to contribute to the divine legacy, Abraham worries about an heir. God assures him that all will be well, but his wife Sarah is barren, and together the couple decide that Abraham will impregnate her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar. When the inevitable jealousy emerges between the two women, Sarah, the lady of the house, banishes her maiden; yet an angel appears to Hagar and tells her to return home. She is pregnant, and soon gives birth to Abraham's first-born son, Ishmael.
Finally, God appears to Abraham again, assuring him that although Ishmael will indeed sire a great nation, the true legacy of the Lord will pass to an as-yet-unborn heir, child of Sarah, who will be called Isaac—yitzhak, "he will laugh"—for, though both Abraham and Sarah chuckle at the prospect of the aging couple's parenthood, their child, or perhaps God, will laugh last. To symbolize the covenant, or perhaps to mitigate the laughter, God instructs Abraham to circumcise his entire household.
We could dwell at length on each of these stories, but if we want to understand who the patriarch of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity really is, we need to look at them as a coherent whole.
Abraham is no angel. Anyone searching for a saintly, selfless figure holding the keys to otherworldly paradise had better look elsewhere. In his quest to build a better humanity, Abraham in these terse narratives confronts every gritty aspect of human nastiness: from his drought-driven need to re-enter civilization in Egypt and to survive under a repugnant regime in which a wife's rape is taken for granted and the only question is whether he will escape alive, to the petty conflicts between his shepherds and Lot's, to his failure to protect his ne phew and the need to go to war to save him, to his wife's barrenness and his need for an heir, to the implacable jealousies that come from trying to force the issue through Hagar. In every story, Abraham's own survival is every bit as crucial as the survival of his kin, his fortune, and his legacy. In every story, he comes out on top, not only through faith, but through cunning, brute force, and an unflagging dedication to his dream.
Understanding the Bible's approach to life means looking not just at its laws, psalms, proverbs, and prophetic expressions, but also—maybe even first—at its stories. In the Abraham narratives we find a founding father dedicated to realizing God's promise for mankind not through devotion but through risky action in a world rarely prepared for it. As a work that consistently refuses to look for salvation outside the human world, or to accept sinless archetypes, the Bible offers up this man as the father of humanity: the source of disillusioned, or unillusioned, hope.
This is the only way it can be, the only answer to the failures of God's and man's prior experiments. The Garden of Eden is unsustainable by half-animal humans who know too much about good and evil; the murderousness of Cain cannot be tolerated if humans are to hope for higher things; God Himself must abandon the dream of total sinless glory when even Noah, the greatest man on earth, fails to come through for Him after the flood; and men must abandon their own version of the same dream when their Tower comes tumbling down.
By teaching the dreamers among us to focus on the world as it really is, Abraham allows the most jaded to dream again. Guarded optimism, hope without illusion—what greater gift can we ask from an ancient hero?
David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, published in September by Scribner.
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