Wibble Wednesday: Daddy Don’t Live in that Ur of the Chaldeans No More (Genesis 12:1–17:21)

Woo, I’ve managed to get through three weeks without slacking! This week’s section is פָּרָשַׁת לך לך (“Go, go!” portion), which takes us out of Sumerian myths and into Judaic mythohistory. There are a lot of ideas I’d like to explore here and it’s been a busy week, so I might give myself an extra week to mull them over, but I thought I’d at least try to get something out yet today.

The quick snarky summary: God might’ve forgotten that people don’t live as long as they used to, so he waits until his chosen agent is positively geriatric before giving him marching orders. He hobbles around, acquires wealth, and rescues his nephew from scrapes, but in other respects doesn’t much resemble Scrooge McDuck. God repeatedly promises greatness, but other than keeping his wife from getting raped doesn’t actually deliver, to the extent that Abraham figures he’s going to need a backup plan in case Sarah never actually has any kids.

As I hinted at above, this section arguably marks a shift in the intent and style of the narrative. The stories we’ve seen so far have been basically universally-themed mythos, which resonate well with pretty much any theistic tradition, and several of which appear to have been cribbed directly from various other Mesopotamian myths. Here we’re getting for the first time into stories which we could maybe believe are actually about real people and real geopolitical situations, and we’re getting into what might broadly be called “mythohistory”, where the people, places, and situations are more familiar to the reader’s context.

One popular question is: when did all of this go down, or when was it written, if we don’t believe it’s historical? There are a great many works addressing this question, and I’m reading Van Seter’s excellent analysis of the Abraham story, so it’s not hyperbole to say one could get a whole book out of this question. The short answer is that the details are maddeningly vague: social customs of the Near East were surprisingly static, so some of the more attention-grabbing cultural specificities (language in contracts, rights of wives and concubines, rules of kinship) could plausibly describe any context from Hammurabian Babylon to Imperial Assyria, which is a good millennium-and-a-half there. Some of the details actually lean towards an early-Assyrian authorship, which also doesn’t help, since the details were almost certainly extensively revised by the Deuteronomic reformers. So: ancient Babylonian story modernized in the 6th century BCE, or whole-cloth invention of the later editors? There’s no extraordinary evidence either way, as far as I can tell, and maybe it doesn’t matter.

Muddling this issue, a lot of what you probably think you know about Abraham isn’t in the Bible at all. If you were brought up Jewish, like me, you probably at some point got a story about young Abraham determining not to worship the sun or moon, because they set, and determining that there was a Creator on his own, or of him smashing up the idols in his father’s shop. Surprise! Neither of those stories actually appears in Genesis: they’re both midrashim. The Midrash is a collection of stories the sages compiled either to fill gaps in the text, to explain the inexplicable parts of the text, or to riff on an unusual word usage or connection between bits of text the sages wanted connected to each other. It’s basically fanfic of the Torah, only with less Moses/Baalam slash and with the advantage of having been written by the religiously designated interpreters whose word became law.

One reason the Midrash has so many stories about young Abram is to fill one of the aforementioned gaps in the text. God appeared to Abraham at the venerable age of seventy-five. While Abraham did in fact live a good long while after that, this is bound to have struck anyone reading the story as a bit odd, since ordinarily people tend to have done something n their youth. So the obvious question — to which there isn’t a very good answer — is what God was waiting for, or why he chose this particular geezer. Sure, he was descended from good son Shem, but so were a lot of other people. We’re not even explicitly told, as we are of Noah, that God even particularly liked him. But Abram was chosen, and ours is not to reason why, but just to note what actually occurred as a result of this choosing, which is wandering, prosperity, and occasional tensions with the natives.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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