“Rock-a My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” So says the old song. But what does it MEAN? I have no idea. But the next thirteen chapters of the Torah are all about Abraham and his dysfunctional family, so I needed some kind of cutesy intro. And If you’ve stuck with me this far through magic apples and talking snakes and animal sacrifices and drunk guys, you’re gonna love where we’re goin’ today. Many would argue that the story of Abraham is the real beginning of the Bible’s historical narrative, so buckle up and let’s get back to the BOOK…
Hello, and welcome to Book, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way.
Genesis Chapter 12 begins the story of Abraham, and with it the story of the family that will become the nation of Israel. But this is no simple collection of historical data. This is a story told and retold by a community of people, a story which defines, explains, and marks out their identity. This story asks the fundamental human questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? And as with the strange primeval material we’ve just read, the answers all have to do with FERTILITY and GEOGRAPHY. We are the family of Abraham, and we’re going to the land of Canaan.
Missing these very specific historical themes has caused a great deal of confusion as to how these stories should be read. The traditional Christian “Sunday School” approach has been to read the stories of Abraham, Jacob and others as generic parables about morality and proper living. This approach may be somewhat effective with little kids, but once those kids grow up and read the Bible for themselves they will be shocked by the real content: polygamy, rape, deception, and murder, for a start. God help us if these are our examples. But for the Israelites who owned these stories and told them to their children, this is an honest look at who they are, where they’ve come, and where they’re going.
The rest of the book of Genesis is a series of “ancestral” tales covering four continuous generations: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. However, Abraham and Jacob are the real main characters and Isaac and Joseph are just the kids. Their stories are really about their dads. Both Abraham and Jacob struggle with fertility, establish covenants with God, and have their names changed by the end of their lives. Today we’ll have an overview of the story of Abraham and Isaac, and we’ll cover Jacob and Joseph next time.
Obviously we won’t have time to read all of the many chapters which cover Abraham’s life, but we’ll look at several snippets that give us the big picture. Here’s the introduction to Abraham’s tale:
[12:1] The LORD said to Abram, “Go out from your native land and 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 and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you, and the families of the earth shall be blessed because of you.”
 Abram went out as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.  Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth they had amassed, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in the land of Canaan,  Abram passed through the land as far as Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. The Canaanites were still in the land.
 The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.  From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the LORD by name.
The first thing you may notice here at the start is that Abraham’s name is not Abraham, it’s “Abram.” In Hebrew that name basically means “big daddy.” We’ll see how it got changed a little later.
The story opens immediately with words in God’s mouth making a promise to Abram, a promise which is the foundation for just about everything else that follows in the Bible. Verses 2 and 3 indicate God’s intentions through the Israel project: 1) to make a great nation out of Abram’s family, and 2) to bless everyone on earth through them. (That second part is often overlooked or forgotten, not least by the people in the story.) This promise is made more specific in verse 7, and our two controlling themes are in full view. God will give the LAND to Abram’s OFFSPRING. And when Abram builds an “altar to the Lord” in verse 7, that isn’t just a religious ritual. Stone altars in the ancient world were geographic markers. Abram is marking his territory, right from the start.
We’re talking about Israel, but keep in mind that at this point in history there is no such thing as Israel or an Israelite. Abram identifies himself a little later as a “Hebrew.” Hebrew was not strictly a national or ethnic identity, but more of a socio-economic designation. Hebrews were nomadic types who traveled throughout the Ancient Near East making temporary covenants with the local city states to get the resources and goods they needed. Evidence suggests that “Hebrew” was actually something of a slur, as these travelers were often looked upon with suspicion by the landowners they solicited.
Abram was a particularly wealthy patriarch of a large mobile family group. The genealogy at the end of chapter 11 says he came from “Ur of the Chaldeans.” This is traditionally understood to refer to Babylon, though it is more likely a place just North of Canaan. Either way, the fact that he is moving across the land into Canaan is typical of the Hebrew lifestyle. That God is asking him to settle his family in Canaan is a big surprise, and the central tension for the whole story that follows. We could easily miss this.
And this would be a very short tale if Abram had just settled in the land while he was there, but [SPOILER ALERT] we’ll get to the end of the Torah – hundreds of years later – before this family actually settles in this land.
In fact, the rest of Genesis 12 is a strange little microcosm for the rest of the Torah story. Famine hits the land so Abram takes his wife Sarai down to Egypt (Egypt being a fertile and culturally welcoming alternative to the vulnerability of life in Canaan). They make a mess and overstay their welcome, so God sends plagues to drive them out of Egypt and back to the land. When they return, in chapter 13, Abram must navigate conflict with Canaan’s current inhabitants. That is the basic outline of the next five or six books of the Bible!
The next major event in the Israel story is Abram’s first “covenant with God” in chapter 15. Here’s the text:
[15:1] Some time later the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward shall be very great.”  But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what can you give me, for I will die childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  And Abram said, “Since you have given me no offspring, my steward will be my heir!”  The word of the LORD came to him in reply: “That one shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”  He took him outside and said, “Look to heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He added, “So shall your offspring be.”  And because he believed the LORD, he counted it to him as righteousness.
Already there is a glitch in God’s plan to bless Abram’s offspring: he doesn’t have any. In fact, we’ll learn that Abram and his wife are in their eighties and they still don’t have any kids. God promises to follow through on his pledge, and he makes a COVENANT with Abram to seal the deal. The format of the agreement is strange to us: Abram cuts several animals in half and walks between the bloody halves with a smoking pot of incense. Again, something that seems creepy and religious to us turns out to simply be a common legal transaction in the ancient world. The stroll among the bloody animal parts was a way of saying “this will be my bloody innards if I break this contract.” It’s interesting to note, though, that Abram has no obligations in this particular agreement. The responsibility is all on God’s side to provide offspring, land and blessing.
Next, in chapter 16, Abram’s wife Sarai grows impatient waiting for God to make good on the covenant, and devises her own plan to give Abram an heir. She gives her young Egyptian maidservant Hagar to Abram as a concubine. He agrees and impregnates her. But Sarai, who cooked up this whole scheme in the first place, becomes insane with jealousy and drives the poor woman away. Just like in chapter 4 and the Cain and Abel story, a “sinful” act isolates individuals (Sarai, Abram), oppresses the innocent (Hagar), and provokes retaliation and abuse. And – once again polygamy is seen to be a disaster. The extraordinary thing about the Hagar incident is what God says to the pregnant Egyptian as she flees from Sarai. Genesis 16 verse 10:
 The angel of the LORD said to her, “I will greatly multiply your offspring so that they will be too many to count.”
Lest we think that this God is only interested in blessing and multiplying the “good guys,” he pronounces a blessing upon Hagar and her offspring. God sends her back to the camp and she gives birth to a son called Ishmael (“God hears” in Hebrew). Ishmael, we will discover, is the father of the Arabs. Once again, as in the epilogue to the Noah story, one of Israel’s biggest historical enemies is found in the Bible to be her cousin, and a people under blessing from the SAME God. Just think about the ramifications of this.
The climax of Abram’s story comes in Genesis 17, in which the covenant with God is restated and expanded. Here’s the text:
[17:1] When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in my ways and be blameless.  I will establish my covenant between me and you, and multiply you greatly.”  Abram fell on his face, and God said to him,  “As for me, this is my covenant with you: you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.  You shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
Abram is renamed “Abraham,” which sounds like his old name combined with the Hebrew word for “people” or “nation.” You’ve probably picked up on the fact that names in the Hebrew Bible are typically puns on the person’s life or personality. Names in the ancient world were bound up with a person’s identity and character more explicitly than they are today. And a name change like this one is a big deal. God is altering Abram’s identity, changing the way the world will look at him from now on.
Now, speaking of names, God identifies himself here as “El Shaddai,” which is most curious indeed. Christian Bibles usually translate this as “God Almighty,” but that’s not what it means. This is actually a name borrowed from the Canaanite pantheon. “El” simply means “god,” and “shaddai” has to do with fertility. As curious as it is that this name is used several times by Abraham and his descendents in Genesis, it is interesting to note that every time it is used it is in a context of offspring and fertility. This all may sound scandalous in view of the Bible’s strong monotheistic view of God, but it really shouldn’t be surprising that characters this historically distant from Israel and its religion would still be talking like polytheists.
After the name change, God gives Abraham a visible token of this updated covenant: all the males in his family are to be circumcised. Now, as with animal sacrifice, we should recognize that circumcision is not something that God or the Hebrews are inventing out of thin air. This was already a common practice among many peoples in the Ancient Near East, but here it is specifically employed to give the members of Abraham’s family a tangible, visible marker that says “we belong.” Once again, it’s all about IDENTITY.
As the chapter moves on, Sarai gets her name changed as well, to Sarah, at which point God directly addresses her reservations and promises that she herself will give birth to a son. Both Abraham and Sarah laugh out loud at this news, but God means business. She will bear a son, and his name will be “Isaac” (Hebrew for “he laughs”). This becomes a trope of the Torah ancestor stories, and many Bible stories to follow: God opens a previously closed womb, a child is born who will keep the family line going, and its name is a pun having something to do with the story. It almost becomes silly the way each generation begins this exact same way, but the message is clear: despite human attempts to organize and administer their own lineage, it is God who ultimately directs their lives and fates.
So Isaac is born, and Sarah and Abraham finally have their offspring. The blessing can begin… right? Well, first there’s more family tension. As Isaac grows up, there is hostility between him and Ishmael, and God has to intervene to protect Hagar and her son. They ultimately must leave the company of the Hebrews and journey down toward Egypt.
And then we come to our final passage for today, chapter 22 and the infamous story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. This is the text:
[22:1] Some time later, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”  He said, “Take your son, your favored one Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the hills which I will point out to you.”  Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his servants with him and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering and set out for the place of which God had told him.  On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.
And jumping ahead to verse 9:
 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid out the wood and bound his son Isaac. He laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then Abraham picked up a knife to slaughter his son.  But an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me.”  And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.
This is one of those Bible stories which frustrates and angers modern readers – particularly when read out of context or as a Sunday School lesson about God. Why is God demanding a human sacrifice? Why does he put Abraham through this ordeal after everything it took for Isaac to be born? There are not necessarily easy answers to these objections, but what we can do is briefly look at the context and literary features of the text to get a better handle on it.
The first verse plainly says “God tested Abraham.” The author of this tale doesn’t want us to think for a moment that God would ever demand a real human sacrifice. The practice is viewed as repugnant in all the rest of the Bible. So there must be some lesson God is trying to teach Abraham. The key, I think, is a verb that is repeated throughout this and all of the Abraham passages: the Hebrew verb “ra’ah,” meaning “to see.” Twice in the snippet we read from this chapter, it says that Abraham “lifted up his eyes and saw” something. And the location of the sacrifice is “Moriah,” which looks like it’s derived from “ra’ah.”
Remember back in the song in Genesis 1 when God “saw” that what he created was good? In biblical thinking, God as the unlimited creator is the only one qualified to make determinations of “good” or “bad.” Adam and Eve “saw” that the forbidden fruit was “good,” so they ate it, and cursed man to a life of conflict and compromise as everyone “sees” for him or herself what is “good.” All throughout his adventures, Abraham is “seeing” things for himself. In this chapter, God puts him to the test, and causes him to “see” without making his own judgments. He could have said, “No way, God, are you CRAZY?” But he obeyed, and trusted that God would provide an animal to sacrifice. In the end, God says “now I know that you FEAR me…” The Hebrew verb “to fear” is “yi’rah,” which looks like the 3rd person conjugation of “ra’ah”, “he sees,” and this pun is often exploited in the Bible. You can “fear” (or “trust”) God, or you can “see” for yourself. God teaches Abraham how to do the former.
The rest of Abraham’s story is about the death and burial of Sarah, for whom he buys a plot of land in Canaan which expands his claim on the territory. Eventually he is buried there along with his wife. We also hear of Isaac’s youth and his relationship with his wife Rebekah. When they marry, surprise surprise, she is barren, but God opens her womb and she gives birth to twins: Esau and Jacob…
And that’s the highlight reel from the life of Abraham. We left out a few bits for time, including Abraham’s loser nephew Lot and the colorful townships of Sodom and Gomorrah. Send me an email or a voicemail if you want to talk about those in a future show or supplement.
Israel’s ancestor stories may be culturally peculiar and strange to us, but let’s remember the HISTORY and LITERATURE behind the book. When Israel finally found their way into Canaan, hundreds of years later, the last thing most of them wanted to do was settle down. By the time they came out of the wilderness, the generation that had escaped Egypt had passed on, and the new generation had grown accustomed to wandering, just like their ancestors did. The Abraham stories functioned as a reminder that the earliest Israelites – called Hebrews – had been through all this before: the wandering, the lure of Egypt, the conflict with Canaan’s current inhabitants, it was all the same old story. This is not a collection of morality tales or a religious handbook, it’s a reminder to ancient Israel of who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’ve got to go. It’s an ultimatum: choose to be Israel, or lose the covenant forever.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.