Israel Drazin

What we don’t know about the biblical Abraham

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Grossman, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, published Abraham, The Story of a Journey. Maggid Books published it in 2023. The book is brilliant, very thoughtful, and informative. It was initially published in Israel in Hebrew in 2016. Atara Snowbell translated it into English. Her rendition is excellent, enjoyable, and very readable. There is much that can be said about the book. I will share some of what Dr. Grossman offers in short statements that should prompt readers to turn to Dr. Grossman’s book for a wealth of details on the subject. 

  • Many scholars consider Abraham the originator of the revolutionary religious philosophy of ethical monotheism. What is ethical monotheism?
  • Abraham’s worldview is relevant today. So it makes no difference in what period he lived.
  • Professor Nahum Sarna pointed out in Understanding Genesis, The Heritage of Biblical Israel Series. New York, 1966, 81-85, that patriarchal stories do not depict mythical figures. The “stories are well anchored in a historically authentic setting of Mesopotamia and Canaan.”
  • Many scholars set the time of the existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at about 2200-1550 BCE.
  • Why doesn’t scripture reveal why God chose Abraham?
  • God’s first command to Abraham in Genesis 12:1 has three parts: leave your country, your family and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you. Genesis 11:31 states in this former verse that Abraham’s father, Terach, took him, his wife, and Lot and left Ur of the Chaldees to go to Canaan. Terach decided to stop midway and stay in Haran and died there. This earlier account may indicate that God’s call to Abraham came in Haran, but this is not so. Abraham heard the call in Ur, decided to leave, and his dad joined him part of the way.
  • Abraham first ignored two of the three parts of the divine will and only implemented them later in life. He left Ur, but he did not leave his family. He brought his wife and nephew Lot with him. He also did not complete at first going to and settling in Hebron. He left Canaan when there was a famine and went to Hebron when he returned to Canaan a second time. He didn’t abandon his family and even married his son Isaac to a family member, a practice adopted by his grandson Jacob but not by other biblical figures. Why did he do these things?
  • Abraham constructed an altar during three stops in Canaan, in Shechem (12:7), Bethel (12:8), and Hebron (13:18). Why?
  • The Abraham stories are filled with parallel tales. Isaac’s wife, like Abraham, left her family and traveled to Canaan. Dr. Grossman explores many other literary techniques, such as many chiasms (a, b, c, b2, a2), and others, that enhance understanding and enjoyment of the Torah.
  • Why are Abram’s and Sarai’s names changed by adding the Hebrew letter hay and the former names not used again, while Jacob’s name is altered to Israel and the Torah uses both names after the change, and Isaac, his wife, and the wives of Jacob had no name change? What does the addition of the Hebrew letter hay add to the significance of Abram’s and Sarai’s names? Is the tale of Pharaoh giving Joseph a new name which is never repeated a parallel story that should teach us something?
  • There are literary indications that the binding of Isaac is the ending of the Abraham narratives. What follows, such as Abraham sending his servant to select a wife for Isaac, although sometimes mentioning Abraham, focuses on his descendants.
  • After Abraham circumcises himself, he has three visitors. They are sometimes called “people” and sometimes “angels.” Why? What is an “angel”?
  • Should Abraham be considered the head of a family or a nation? When converts join Judaism, are they joining as people today accept citizenship for personal reasons such as seeking freedom or a job? Or are they being adopted into a family?
  • Is it significant that the Torah does not depict Abraham’s birth in Canaan but rather the land of the destiny of the Jewish people?
  • Genesis 14 uncharacteristically depicts Abraham. He leads only 318 men in a battle against the armies of four kingdoms who defeated the armies of five domains. He did so to rescue his nephew Lot kidnaped by the four kingdoms. He is successful and takes much booty and people. He gives ten percent of the loot to a pagan priest and some to several allies who accompanied him. He refuses anything for himself.
  • The chapter raises about a dozen questions. The most significant is why does the Bible tell us this story?
  • Similarly, chapter 22’s near-sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac by divine command raises at least a dozen questions. Why would God test Abraham in this manner, what does the tale tell us about Abraham and Isaac, and why does the Torah include this story?
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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