Muslim Wire

A problematic story of Abraham in the Old Testament

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 27, 2009

Ed Hahnenberg

There is no corroborating evidence from the contemporaneous written record of other cultures to the Bible that the primal patriarch of Judaism, Abraham, existed. The name, yes; the person, no. Yet the Bible and the Koran accept his existence as historical fact. Although the biblical stories about Abram, or Abraham, often contain didactic moral tales about the man and his descendants, both the Torah and the Koran have different takes on “who was to inherit what” of the Promised Land.

The Islamic holiday, Qurbani Id (or Id Al-Adha), is known as the “Sacrifice Festival.” Muslims celebrate this “great feast of sacrifice” on the tenth day of the last month of the Muslim year. According to their doctrinal schema, this day celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael born to Abraham’s barren wife Sarah’s maid Hagar.

If you remember the Old Testament account, you will be somewhat perplexed. Was not Isaac, born miraculously later to Sarah, the one whom God instructed Abraham to offer? The difference is this: Christians accept the testimony of the Bible. Muslims reject the Bible and believe the Koran (or Qur’an) contains the inspired, uncorrupted record.

Although the Koran does not name the child whom Abraham was to sacrifice, Muslims believe it was Ishmael, born of Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar, and they believe that idea is supported by the Koran. So, Muslims believe that Ishmael was to inherit the Promised Land of Israel, not Isaac. Jews, obviously, opt for Isaac. And so the disagreement goes on to this day, with very bloody consequences in the West Bank, Gaza, and, for that matter, in much of the Arab-Jewish world.

According to Jewish belief, Jewish history begins in the first half of the second millennium B.C. According to the traditions of the Jewish people, 4,000 years ago, near the Mesopotamian city of Ur, a nomadic sheepherder named Abraham rebelled against the pantheon of local deities and proclaimed his belief in one, omnipotent, indivisible God. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Bible, this God commanded Abraham to “go forth from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” God promised Abraham the land of Israel and prosperity to his descendants, in return for following his commands. Having made this covenant, Abraham set out with his extended family, or tribe, and settled in the promised land.

Many years later, when famine beset the peoples of Canaan, Abraham’s grandson Jacob brought the tribe, of what were now known as Israelites, to Egypt where work and food were plentiful. After an initial period of prosperity, the Israelites were reduced to slavery, and remained in bondage for four hundred years. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves …

According to several Christian scripture scholars, the historicity of the patriarchs — and, thus, their stories, Abraham’s included — has been debated.

Were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob real persons? Are their stories factual or legendary, embodying a fictionalized history of the Hebrews, symbolizing the way the Hebrews looked back at their nomadic origins from the vantage point of their settled life in Canaan?

Archaeological contributions provide no definite clues for determining whether or not these men ever existed. A Babylonian business contract from the beginning of the second millennium B.C. refers to a certain Abarama (Abraham), son of “Awel-Ishtar,” but there is no possible way to link him with the Abraham of the Bible. Two Abrams, one associated with Egypt and the other with Cyprus, are mentioned in Ugaritic administrative texts. The references demonstrate that the name was known in the periods often associated with the patriarchs. The name of Jacob appears as the name of a Hyksos king (Ya’qob-er) about 1700 B.C. and, in an Egyptian list from the time of Pharaoh Thutmose III (ca. 1480 B.C.), a Palestinian town called Jacob-el (Ya’qob-el) is found, but these inscriptions do not help us very much.

So, what is one who uses the historical-critical method to believe? How far does faith need to enter in, when there is minimal credible history in such stories of Abraham down to Moses — a period of more than half a millennium at the very least?

At a minimum, the stories in the Torah show the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrews. For those following the Judeo-Christian tradition, the stories certainly have moral value and have traditionally been considered divinely inspired and free of moral error.

Yet, if Yahweh, the author of life, commanded the sacrifice of Abraham’s son, would that not contradict the most basic of moral imperatives that life is sacred? Because the story is so often tied to the Christian belief that it prefigured God the Father’s willing that His Son be sacrificed on the cross, Christian writers rarely have questioned the Old Testament story, especially since Yahweh is seen as testing Abraham’s faith.abraham-isaac

The author of Hebrews makes the point clearly:

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol. (NAB, Heb. 11:17-19)

Yet, how much of such intertestamental explanation is historically inerrant? When one looks at the genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, no credible scholar would accept them as having serious historical value. They are constructs, both with different lists of several fictional ancestors, which the evangelists used to tie Jesus to David. Certainly, not inerrant as regards history. The historical-critical scholar understands all of that, and so looks with a critical eye on intertestmental and intratestamental explanations of related biblical texts.

There are important moral truths for the believer in the explanation given in Hebrews.

  • God is the creator and lawgiver.
  • If God asks martyrdom of a human being, that is His right.
  • God can raise from the dead.
  • The story prefigures the death and resurrection of God’s Son.

Once again, the issue that muddles the story is God (or his messenger) asking Abraham to kill his son. Not nice. However, let it be pointed out that God spared Abraham the gruesome act. Problem solved. Blessings ensue. All is well.

If the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son is not historical, there is the opinion that, because the practice of sacrificing children to pagan gods was infecting Israel’s religious practice, this was Genesis’ author’s dramatic way of highlighting the evil practice. The Book of Leviticus, chapters 18 and 20, warn against sacrificing offspring to the pagan god Molech. “You shall not offer any of your offspring to be immolated to Molech, thus profaning the name of your God. I am the LORD.” Leviticus 18:21.

As a Christian theologian, I prefer the latter explanation.

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